Emphasizing the Right Word


I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny. Maybe it was because I had just walked 10 city blocks and had 10 more to go that I needed a rest and some comic relief. Maybe it was because I read it wrong… or then again, maybe I had read it right. With the phrasing “Lunch with Wine,” I envisioned the prospective customer rushing in, highly stressed and in need of a drink, with some food tossed in on the side. That would have made wine the primary dish.

That got me thinking about the way we pair words. “Bacon and eggs,” “spaghetti and meatballs,” “peanut butter and jelly” all get equal billing. But with an ever-so-slight shift in the word arrangement, an entirely different meaning can be conveyed.

“Heidi, along with her dog Tofu, stolled down the center of Main Street, oblivious to the possibility of a passing car.” Here Heidi is the main character. “Tofu, a floppy-eared mutt, went bounding down the center of Main Street, with Heidi in close pursuit.” Here the main character is the dog.

“With Tofu on a long leash, Heidi and her dog explored the width of Main Street, she pulling to the right to peer into a candy store, the dog pulling to the left to sniff around the butcher shop.” Here Heidi is leading the action but by creating parallel outcomes, there is some equity in the pairing.

“Before Heidi headed to town, she tied Tofu to the porch, ignoring his doggie whine as she kicked up the dust.” Here Heidi is the primary character, taking the secondary character (her dog) out of the action by “setting him aside.” As a writer, you have multiple choices: let Heidi continue on her way, or create a simultaneously scene.

In the first scenario, the dogless Heidi can embark on her own adventure. “By time she got to the General Store, her braids had come undone. It wasn’t until Mr. Herbert asked if she wanted some lemonade did she realize how parched she was.”

In the second scenario, we intentionally lose sight of Heidi so the author can construct a parallel plot: “Tofu, who had blatantly failed Obedience Class, immediately began tugging at the rope, circling the porch pillar counter-clockwise until the rope relaxed. With a strategically placed paw and a good pair of canines, he pulled once more and created a gap that allowed him to escape.”

While quite apparent in narrative writing, we should remind ourselves of this technique when business writing. Ask: What is the primary selling point or objective, what is the point you intend to “throw away” as not to confuse?

If product is most important — you could say, “Let me tell you about the blue and green widget that will help you complete this task because it has fixtures that can be added as you need them.” Perhaps more direct would be, “Announcing the new widget with auto-fit fixtures to help you solve XYZ task. Blue and green available.” Here, the colors are secondary, and fixtures are an integral part of it.

If colors are critical — you could address the demand for color selection by switching the emphasis:  “Now in fresh blue and green colors for spring, the new add-a-fixture widget can be ordered online or with a quick phone call to 000-000-0000.” With a subtle change in content, the call-to-action replaces the feature benefit.

If the priority is direct response — rather than education — flip the order of things further to create urgency: “Order your new blue-green widget now. Don’t be the last to know the secret of how to solve this problem.” Or on a more positive note: “Be the first to know how to solve this problem by using the new auto-fix widget.” Colors are not important.

This poses an interesting challenge when working with a client team with different agendas. The engineering rep may want to emphasize product because he/she is proud of the technology.  The designer may choose to emphasize color because it was chosen with deep psychological analysis.  The Sales Manager will likely favor the call-to-action because that’s the fastest path to a commission.

While the differences are subtle, a good writer must fight for the phrasing that’s most effective and appropriate for the assignment. All words are not created equal.

How to Set the Stage

story-intro-graphic-sm-c-2013-wordsontheflySometimes the story begins by itself:  a tidal wave, an explosion, a scream. Other times, it isn’t as easy. Likewise for copywriting. Sometimes there’s a strong premise: XYZ company is pleased to announce a new product. ABC company moves.

As writers, it’s our job to set the stage in a way that draws the reader in. It’s easy when the task is centered around something that is first, free, or new. But what if you’re struggling for that hook, that lead?

Here are a few tips when traditional approaches don’t work:

(1) Invite the reader to imagine… Imagine a world without traffic lights… imagine a child who can’t speak… imagine what the next ten years will bring in your industry of choice

(2) Use a person to set the stage. What better example than “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick)  Try your own scenario: “When I was a small child, we had no e-mail. No faxes. No smart phones. But we did something extraordinary – we talked. “ (And now you can transition to talk about anything.) Another variation: “My name is Mary, and I am one of 42 people who sleep at the local shelter … that is, when there’s a bed available.” (Great way to begin a fundraising pitch)

(3) Make a false statement, then refute it, or offer up a disruptive fact: “On December 21st the world will end” … then start the first paragraph with “…or so some believe.” Try another approach: “Never before have more disagreeable people agreed on anything.” Continue with the unexpected: “ We gathered up the most demanding, cantankerous, curmudgeonly consumers we could find, and invited them to test the Fritzelstick. Unlike past popsicle experiences, the Fritzelstick brought tears of joy to their eyes. Some remembered ice cream trucks rolling into their neighborhood. Others recalled county fairs.” You get the drift… use something unlikely, then flip it to make a case.

(4) Observe what is around you and use it as a launch pad. The phrase running over the photo illustration in this post is based on a true experience, yet the experience wasn’t nearly as ominous as the text implies. In fact, it was New Year’s Day in Oranjestad, Aruba…  a time when people line the streets to see fireworks. The air gets smoky in a loud, wonderful way, and the crowds move in unison to usher out the old year and welcome the new. Because this city is in development, streets a few rows back are under construction, and yes, appear very sparse compared to the colorful main drag. In circumventing the crowds, we took a back street to our destination, noticing just two men on a stoop and no one else: no cars, no birds, no dogs – the entire scene made eerie by the smoke drifting overhead. The stores were closed; buildings were deserted. There wasn’t even a note of music which usually punctuated the air.

Finally, the silence was broken by an elderly man using canes with hand-holds to propel his braced legs along the sidewalk. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Slow and painful. The sound seemed to echo in the stillness. I fully expected Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds) or Will Smith (Independence Day) to appear, to fight off aliens. As it turns out, the elderly man went one way, and we, another… but that image left an indelible mark in my brain. Surely there was a story waiting to be written. It was the perfect setting.

(5)  Step out of your comfort zone — your age, your time, your environment. Look at a map. Stare at an old photo. Observe the starry sky. Transport yourself to another dimension, and make it anything you want.  The nice thing about writing is that it provides the ultimate freedom, able to remove physical boundaries and take you places. Once you do that, you can bring your readers along for the ride.

Writing for Presentations


I’ve never thought of myself as a Powerpoint guru – and that “death by Powerpoint” phrase echoes loudly in my ears – but during the past few weeks I’ve been asked twice to help polish up some Powerpoints. One was for a real estate firm; one was for a publisher.

Both contained great information and made a strong case, but there were inconsistencies in the language as well as the design.

Fortunately, I was working with designers who were able to simplify, stylize and unify the visual aspect, but from a communication perspective, there was work to be done.

The rules of Powerpoint are not too different from other forms of presentation:

  • Know your audience
  • Understand the objective
  • Have a clear call to action
  • Offer logical thought progression
  • Open with an intro and close with an ask
  • Brand consistently
  • Include a content copyright
  • Use high quality images
  • Parse your words
  • Bullet the key points
  • Don’t switch pronouns mid-stream

This is not the place for a narrative or a mural. In other words, get to the point, keep it simple, make it visually clean.

With regard to audience, understanding their level of sophistication and familiarity with your product is critical. If you need to educate them from the ground level, you’ll want more material up front. If they already know who you are and just have to be sold, then you can jump right in. Although I usually advocate writing in third person, this is one place where first person works. “Welcome to our presentation. We hope you will join us…”

Next, step away from your desk and consider the topic as if you were stranger. What is this about? What do I need to know? What’s important here? What’s fluff? I’m not convinced. Can you say that again?  A diagram would really help.  I’d believe this number if you sourced it. I can’t read this tiny type so forget it!  Man, this presentation is screaming at me. This is so long, ho-hum, I wonder what’s for dinner… This is so short, they must not have much to say.

It’s very easy when we’re extremely close to a subject or passionate about it, to assume that others are, too. Nothing could be further from true.

As a viewer, it’s incredibly annoying being led down one path only to be sent in another direction by a presenter who digresses.  So map out an outline, and fill it with logical transitions.  Imagine this scenario: “So, this is what I wanted to say, but before I do, let me introduce this other thing, then get back to what I said in the beginning.” Haven’t we all been there? The joy of a presentation tool like Powerpoint is that it lets you move things around, so if you haven’t gone from A to B to C, you can re-order the elements. Good advice: keep it all moving in the same direction.

Presentations are an example where “Less is  More.” Just because a logo looks good on a page, you don’t need three of them, but by the same token, it’s smart to have a consistent repeating footer or template element that will remind viewers who you are.

Infographics can help, but please resist replicating the rainbow. An illustration that is clean, clear, and uncluttered – yes, minimal – usually works best. And while computer programs offer a wide array of interesting fonts, it’s wise not to use all of them on one screen. Ditto with background colors, bursts, and arrows. Use them discreetly… for relevance, not for show.

This is no place for iffy images. Do the legwork! Face it. You can’t enlarge a low res thumbnail or pull something off the web and expect it to hold up at wall-size. Take your own photos, secure source files, or buy a quality stock photo. (I’m a big fan of iStock, but there are numerous suppliers.) Make sure permissions are cleared when you take your own. Use a photo release.

Cut your words ruthlessly.  Sure, this is true: “Our location is the best around because it is easy to find and appeals to a wide range of affluent people in the area.” Better would be: Company Name followed by 3 bullets: * premium location, * high demographics, * travel hub.

Similarly, when talking about benefits, this would not be wrong: “We help sell your goods and services because we work hard and advertise them to groups that are interested in them, and we can reach prospects in many ways.” Better would be: Product Name followed by three bullets: * Target advertising, * Multimedia, * Proven Results.

Fine to recap your points at the end, but wrap it up fast with an easy response mechanism. Don’t unsell your audience. Leave people feeling smart and ready to buy…. or as some colleagues say, “Are you in?”

“Great” Ain’t So Great. Put a Macro Lens on Your Language.

Playing with a macro lens the other day, I was reminded that cabbage isn’t necessarily a dull green ball.  macro-red-cabbage-200-px-c-2012-wordsonthefly1 In fact, it can
be violet
, royal, laced with intricate, sensual patterns in white, a labyrinth of curves and crevasses. It’s certainly more than coleslaw and the makings for “Holiskhes.”

The same is true about words. Take the word “Great,” for instance. I’m so tired of hearing it, and yet I’m as bad as the next guy in using it:   “Great to see you!” “What a great idea!” “Isn’t that great news?” But what has “great” told us? Absolutely nothing, other than to convey a sense of elation.

“Great” is one of the biggest wastes of space when you’re counting words. Why use up a Tweet character or air time on a mundane word when there are so many others that add substance. “Great” is convenient but lazy.

Think about business writing, when you have to convey a message fast. Say you have the prospect’s attention for 5 seconds and you opt for a headline that reads, “Greatest widget around.” Well, woopdedoo! You’ve offered no concrete information. Put that phrase under a macro lens and look at it closer.

Consider: “New, portable widget” or “Blue widget at half price” or “The last widget you’ll ever need because it’s so durable.” Now you’re saying something.
Examine the widget further.

How does it feel?  Taste? Smell? What emotion does it evoke? Confidence? Delight? Nostalgia?

“Rugged widget for the serious outdoorsman,” “Widget just like Grandma used to make,” “Succulent widget with a hint of saffron.” You see, it doesn’t matter what the widget is, but as a writer, you must make it unique. “Great” just doesn’t cut it.


Now think about carrots. Gorgeous color. Refreshing crunch. Healthy, too.  Much like cabbage, when seen through a macro lens, there’s much more than meets the eye. There’s form and structure, rings of growth, a tuft of green at the top, and a root with incomprehensible persistence.

Now look at your widget as you looked at those carrots. “Widgets grown from the warm earth,” “Laser cut widgets for precision,” “Collectible widgets etched with the maker’s mark.”

Align your widget with a purpose to suggest value. “Widgets for the busy professional,” “Widgets to relax the mind and restore the spirit,” “Widgets that can be worn with red party pumps or beach sandals.”

Now mix it up. See what happens when you combine bright purple cabbage, bold orange carrots, and a few sweet dried cranberries for fun.  This is so much better than “great.” Under the lens it is a “canvas of color,” “a burst of unexpected flavor,” “a landscape of texture and taste.” So back to your widget.  Maybe it offers an “effervescent splash of citrus,” “an aura of mystery,” or “a playful combination of polka dots against crisp white cotton.”

So set aside your old widget and give it a word makeover. Look at it with fresh eyes. Turn it upside down, inside out.  Describe it as if your audience has never seen a widget before. Surprisingly, your widget will no longer be just plain “great.”

Writing for Results: Customer Communication

How do you get results? There are two rules of thumb: (1) Determine the action you want (different actions warrant different writing styles) and (2) make it easy for people to do business with you (offer flexible response options boldly included in several places)

Good writing is not a haphazard selection of words. Effective copywriting works like a well-oiled machine:  Clean, precise, durable.


Help your clients clarify their goal.  Ask:
Do you want the reader to pick up the phone and call you? Click a link or go online and order something? Visit your store? Do you want the reader to e-mail you for more information or perhaps, provide information to you? Do you want the reader to do nothing more than think good thoughts about you, maybe change their perception of you? Do you want the reader to spread the word about you and join your social community? Give to your cause or volunteer?

Fine-tuning the desired results will shape the way you write. It’s not enough for a client to say, “I want the flyer/webpage/postcard to drive business.”

They need to drill down– so probe:

  • Are you trying to attract a new client/member?
  • Upsell a current client/member?
  • Woo back a lost client/member?


  • How did you lose this client – to competition, faulty product, or poor customer service?
  • Was this a long time client who may just need a graceful way/a good excuse to return?
  • Was this a short term client who ran into some snags and didn’t have a chance to see your good side?
  • Was this a client with a legitimate gripe?
  • Was this client a complainer you could never satisfy?

Adjust your copy points accordingly so your message is loud and clear:

  • car-horn-with-flag-reflections-sm2 A client lost to competition needs to know about the value, convenience, or price advantages you offer.
  • A client lost to shoddy workmanship should receive an apology, a make-good, and a warranty.
  • A client lost to poor service should receive high-level outreach to better understand the situation and then an invitation to participate on an advisory panel or in a survey.
  • A long-time client might return with a “We miss you” mailer, coupled with a good offer.
  • A short-term client might respond to a timely, “boy, is our face red” letter owning up to the problems – and a request for a second chance.
  • Nothing says lovin’ like a refund – so if your client’s complaint is legit, stand behind your brand.
  • If this client can’t be satisfied regardless of your efforts, steer them to the competition.

Need some phrases? Try these:

  • Dear Customer, Two years have passed since we serviced your furnace, and we miss ensuring premium heating and safety standards for you. Were you aware that last year we started a new environmental program and a “rate holder” option?  We also won a “Best in the Business” award from the local Chamber of Commerce. We’d welcome a chance to tell you about our enhanced service and new fuel purchasing packages. We realize you’re busy, so if you’ll give us a half hour of your time, we’ll give you a $25 gift certificate to (favorite local restaurant) – a happy client who is thoroughly enjoying their A+ Service & Pricing Plan.
  • Dear Customer, We understand you had a problem with our  blue widgets, and boy, are we embarrassed! We received a manufacturer’s recall notice after receiving our latest shipment and immediately removed them from our shelves. However, it appears that you purchased a display sample that had been inadvertently tossed into a clearance bin. That’s why you had a problem. Please accept our check for $31.80 to cover the cost of the widget plus tax, along with a coupon for 10% off your next purchase. We hope this will help reestablish your trust in us.
  • Dear Customer, Thank you for contacting us regarding the stitching on the pillow you purchased from us. We’re sorry the seams have failed to meet your needs. Our records show that we replaced the pillow at no cost six months after purchase in keeping with our return policy. You mentioned in your e-mail that you discovered the torn seams after your children had a pillow fight. In that we sell this pillow as a decorative item, it is not constructed to withstand the rigorous usage of athletic gear. You might try“Outdoor is Us” for heavy-duty camping pillows.