The Importance of Fresh Perspective

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I sometimes recall a long-ago Sociology class where our professor had us all sit on the floor. The objective was to help us gain a fresh perspective about the world – to look at things differently, to shed our assumptions about good and bad entities and to replace that categorization with an understanding of the important dynamic created by both forces.

The same is true for writing. All too often, especially when working in a corporate capacity, we get “too close” to the product or service. We assume that others know what we’re discussing. We revert to industry lingo or technical terms that may not resonate with the end user. We rely on acronyms that hold no meaning for the outsider. We overlook unanswered questions that newcomers may have because, based on our own experiences, we have already found those answers.

The need for fresh perspective is an excellent argument for utilizing an external resource – a freelance writer, an editor, or a consultant. “Fresh eyes,” is what I sometimes call it. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is another phrase I use. To me, that’s the ability to say with brutal honesty, “It’s still not clear how to work with your company” or “I know what your product does but I still don’t understand how to use it.”

* TAKE A BREAK.

As an exercise, it’s wise for authors to step back or step away for a few days. Upon returning, we find ourselves more observant and critical. “I see what the character is doing, but what’s his motivation? Why did he choose to take that action at this particular time?” With direct response copy, a clear head can also catch important oversights: “I see what the monthly payments are, but nowhere does it say what the total cost will be. That seems deceptive.”

* LOOK FOR THE SECOND RIGHT ANSWER.

Gaining a fresh perspective can also help us avoid clichés. It’s easy to revert to catch phrases and familiar metaphors while telling a story. “She had a song in her heart.” Really? Let’s be cynical: “How did the song get there? What is it singing?” Perhaps we should explain more authentically: “After a week in the sunshine, her mood shifted from a sense of futility to a gradual joyfulness that caused her to hum as she puttered around the garden, pulling weeds and turning topsoil. The combination of warm earth and trilling birdsong lifted her spirits and opened her mind to new possibilities.”

* TURN THINGS INSIDE OUT AND UPSIDE DOWN.

As writers, we must force ourselves to see things others don’t. For example, we all see cars, trucks, and taxis as vehicles that pass us by on a busy city street, but what if we were in an airplane or skyscraper looking down? That’s an entirely different canvas made possible by a change of perspective. We become observers, empowered by our position. We see an interchange of moveable parts, we notice advertising on the tops of buses, we become aware of colors and patterns, might even be able to anticipate an impending accident or traffic jam. Fresh perspectives provides wisdom and scope.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a wonderful aquarium presentation staged around a kelp tank at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.  As we stood safe and dry on the outside of the enormous 70,000 gallon tank, we could look in and up to see the fish swim by. We watched moray eels emerge from the tangle of plants… observed an immense sea bass rise to the surface and descend for food. Two divers entertained us – one cleaning the tank, one feeding the fish. Just seeing the continual interaction of these graceful sea creatures and the light filtering through the water transported us to a place we didn’t know … a place where peacefulness and fluidity could translate into a descriptive paragraph or plot.

So let’s ask when writing: “What would this incident look like if I were one of the characters? What would I see, feel, taste, hear, or smell?” Alternately, let us imagine ourselves encountering the incident as an observer. “What would make me stop and pay attention?” Sure, there is the obvious — “there’s a sinkhole forming in the road” — but perhaps it’s the small detail that takes us there:  “A mouse scurried across the road only to stop at the edge of the cavern created by cracking concrete.”

In thinking about the kelp tank, I’m reminded that “blue” might be nice in describing something but perhaps teal, the color of peacock feathers, or turquoise, the color of an underwater garden, might be more compelling.

How To Freshen Up Dry Content

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Last week a friend of mine sent me an email with a sample of a corporate history he had written. He is one of the most thoughtful sales and marketing people I know. When I say “thoughtful,” I don’t really mean “considerate,” although he is that, too – but this is someone who thinks through a strategy, considers a variety of tactics, and weighs the potential impact before implementing.

He admitted he had struggled with this assignment, although it read perfectly fine. It was organized, interesting, and full of information. He asked for ways to make it more compelling, and that made me realize many of us face the same quandary. When should we switch from reporting to story-telling, and is there a place for both?

My friend, now a Marketing Director for a niche retailer, included an interesting tidbit on his page. He mentioned several celebrities who had worn their gear. This prompted me to ask, “How might we use this information in a different way?”

Here are a few tricks of the trade:

1. Back into the history. Rather than say “XYZ company was founded in 1895” and roll out the copy in chronological form, use that current color to capture the reader’s attention. Example: “Little did Celebrity know when he selected This Company Jacket to wear on his album cover, he was supporting an American institution.”

2. Show the benefits in use, rather than spelling them out. Instead of saying the product is handsome, durable, and guaranteed, make those points part of the story: “Celebrity probably thought this jacket was ‘cool’ – we do, too – with its brass studs and wide shoulder straps. In fact, we still manufacture that classic style today.” (This is where you’d link to the online store)

3. Use pull quotes. Sometimes even the best writing becomes dense, and in this case, visual relief is most welcome. A key phrase extracted and set apart in bigger, wider-spaced italic type, occasionally with accentuated quotation marks, lets the eye ‘take a break’ and quickly conveys a key point. Scattered throughout an article, pull quotes help guide readers to the most relevant parts if there’s no time for a complete read.

4. Intersperse infographics. Research data tends to be dry because people want the facts and want them fast. To this end, illustrations rock. Yes, there has to be text to explain the findings, but keep it short. Use pictures to tell the rest.  These save space, convey data quickly and can be repurposed. And don’t structure sentences the same way: “33% say this, 60% say that, 95% say the other thing.”  Try: “Nearly a third of respondents say,” “3 out of 5 believe,” “Most participants agree.” Variety adds interest.

5. Bring in another voice. Sure, it’s nice to hear ourselves talk, but other perspectives lend authenticity. Yes, it’s more work – but it’s generally worth it.  How much more intriguing it is to read a first hand account:  “I remember coming into the old store on Maple Street with my Dad and seeing a bright red bicycle on display. My father said I could have it if I helped earn it. I was mowing lawns that summer, so every time I got paid, I set half my earnings aside. My Dad matched it, and that fall, I rode home on a spanking new bike. I can still remember the salesman shaking my hand, congratulating me and telling me to ride safely. I also remember the first time I rode it to school– how proud I was and how my friends gathered around.”

The trick is not to forfeit selling points when telling a story but to infuse facts with feeling. Human emotion is a great driver when it comes to getting response, and done right, it can be incorporated into even the driest content.

Still Marketing Like We Did in 1890

Boy, are we full of ourselves, thinking that new terminology makes today’s Media Marketing  unique. Sure, technology has changed the tools we use, and the speed of delivery has increased, but publishers in 1890 employed similar tactics to grow circulation and sell advertising.

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COVER WRAPS WITH ADS ARE NOT NEW

What prompts this post is that I came across an old copy of  The Youth’s Companion, though it might have been a supplement (aka ‘special section’, “downloadable asset”) because it was chock-full of house ads and self-promotions, including a complex subscription incentive program.

The Youth’s Companion was in circulation between 1827 and 1929, published by a Boston company called Perry Mason. (Wonder if that inspired the TV series by the same name…) This was perhaps the most prominent children’s magazine of its time and survived for more than 100 years before merging with The American Boy in 1929.

A little known fact – at least I didn’t know it – is that it was their circulation manager, Francis Bellamy, who penned the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. Talk about great copywriting!  In an extensive direct mail campaign (probably never referenced as such), they sent leaflets to thousands of schools where the pledge was slowly embraced as the morning opener. Hmmm, sponsored content? In 1942, the pledge was officially adopted by Congress. That would probably be akin to a  high Klout score.

What struck me most in reviewing my 1890 copy is that it upholds the old adage: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

INCENTIVE FOR REFERRALS
INCENTIVE FOR REFERRALS
BUNDLING
BUNDLING
TARGET MARKETING
TARGET MARKETING
SPAM?
SPAM?
EARLY 'ECOM'
EARLY eCOM
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EARLY eBAY
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SAMPLING
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TESTIMONIALS
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ADVERTISING POLICY (NO ALCOHOL BUT BIKES & BULLETS WERE OK)
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BANNER ADS WITH EYE-CATCHING TYPOGRAPHY
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CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENT
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MONETIZATION
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NO PURCHASE NECESSARY

143 and Other Nonverbal Communication

I had never heard of “143” until I saw it written in a good-bye book for a colleague. Upon searching it, I learned that it became nonverbal shorthand in 1894, long before friends ever texted BFF or LOL. As described in this post, the digits represent lighthouse code for “I Love You” or “I Miss You,” with the numerals indicating a sequence of flashes.

That’s made me think how often we convey meaning with no words at all –a stern glance, a wink, a roll of the eyes, a tapping foot. The translation is easy: “don’t you dare,” “yeh, sure,” “you’ve gotta be kidding,” and “is this ever going to end?”

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From the first days of infancy, a child learns to communicate without speaking. A baby quickly discovers that a smile begets a smile, a touch begets a touch. I found it interesting to learn in talking with a new mom that she was using American Sign Language http://www.handspeak.com/ in tandem with voice to communicate with her eight month old baby. It makes perfect sense. Just because the baby can’t articulate doesn’t mean he can’t express his needs.

So it is with writing – we don’t always have to be blunt. As writers, our words are a touch… they can be a gentle caress, an accidental brush, or a suggestion of something more.

Mimes, of course, are masters at nonverbal conversation. “Help, I can’t get out of this box,” is a message that comes across loud and clear… or rather, silently and clear. Dance conveys emotion with nary a word. A symphony raises the spirits and conjures up images of victory just as easily as it instills a sense of fear and chase. Graphics that dissolve slowly or pound and pulsate create very different messages without language.

Those of us who use words could learn from our nonverbal counterparts. Perhaps comics do it best – with that intentional, prolonged pause… what professionals call “timing” in order to maximize the punch line.

How does this apply to writing? We might think of it as restraint.

Some of the most effective writers craft their messages as one would fishing… letting out the line, reeling it in. Letting it out, getting a bite, reeling it in – but not before a little play.

I happen to be reading The Magus by John Fowles.  Not sure how it escaped me all these years, but somehow it landed in my hands and sucked me in like quicksand. I see this technique at work and am enjoying the nonverbal tease. The main character meets a mysterious millionaire and finds himself at the fellow’s estate. There are hints at unusual activities, but nothing is certain. There’s the vague scent of a woman’s perfume and footsteps on gravel, but no immediate reveal. There’s talk of war, philosophy and classics but without hard edges. What a joy for the imagination. All so subtle.

While this technique would fail in online writing where we have to convey information fast, we could use it in a long form fundraising letter or in an image ad. For example, “every day 1 in 4 children” etc… “once a month, 3 out of 5 employees.”   Here we set the stage and then stretch it out:  this is the situation… this is how the situation feels … can’t you just empathize with the victims in the situation?… and then we bring it on home: “And that’s where we come in.”

Sometimes it’s hard to give a nonverbal cue in writing. A nod or a nudge doesn’t translate well in e-mail. But behold the parentheses! Give your recipient an “aside.” For example: “Here are the facts, Joe. (I’ll tell you how I got them, later)”or “Let me tell you what happened today. (You know I’m smiling, right?)”

And then of course, let’s not forget the ellipsis: … (dot, dot, dot)… As writers, we can create time to pause, to ponder, to leave room for thought. So rather than impose our definitive conclusion, we can give readers a gentle hug that says, “go on… you can do it … take a moment and read between the lines.”

Descriptive phrases can fill in where words fall short. A narrator or interpreter can carry the plot when a character is silent. In press releases, authors used to signal the conclusion with a simple number:  -30- (two digits that in old newspaper days meant “end of story.”)

Don’t Bury the Lead… Except…

burying-the-lead-illust-c-wordsonthefly-smA few days ago I was working on a direct response campaign for two offers. We’ll call them Super Deal and Super Deal Plus. My gut instinct was to tout them in the headline, but when I saw the design, I realized an inherent flaw: I knew what these deals meant but nobody else would. These were not household words.

I ended up flipping the emphasis by calling them New Customer Offers (another slight deviation from the actual headers) and then described what they were. I figured if I didn’t grab the prospect at the outset by saying, “this is a deal just for you,” they wouldn’t stay long enough to figure it out.

That’s made me think of the adage, “Don’t Bury the Lead” – or should you?

LEAD WITH IT: Most of us who write for commercial purposes know that words like “New,” “Free,” and “Announcing” are critical components of the header (or at least should be used in a graphic call-out.) It’s important to feature words like these for product launches: “New gizmo. Free trial.” OR “First Remedy for This Affliction.” Those who test copy may learn that combining the key phrase with a price incentive adds power to the punch: “Announcing Blue DooDads: Buy one, get one free.”

But there isn’t a hard, fast rule. The writer has to be intuitive.

MAYBE BURY IT: One good exercise is to imagine several scenarios from the prospect’s point of view: “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time – I’m intrigued – so what’s it all about?” OR “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time — I haven’t a clue what it is so I’m moving on,” OR “I know this company/product and they always have interesting offers, so let me look,” OR, “I don’t know what this item is but it’s 50% off so I that interests me.” OR “I don’t need this thing, but I’m intrigued by the hologram on the front/the goodie inside/the black on black design so I’ll remember this company in the future.”

LEAD WITH IT FOR COPYWRITING: Sometimes a plain vanilla lead is best, especially when the client is all business and you have to get to the point quickly: “XYZ 2.0 now available” OR “Legal Amendment.” But sometimes copywriting is most effective when you tease: “Hands-free driving” OR “Ever hear of Gritzlefritz?” Kind of makes you want to read further.

BURY THE LEAD: Sometimes saving the punch line or potential lead for the end is the way to go. I find this particularly helpful when writing for fundraising. Don’t tell the whole story but create an emotional connection at the outset, roll out the facts, then seal the deal with a tug at the heart strings: “Timmy really isn’t asking for much, is he?” OR “When we finally met Samantha, she held out her hand with a shy smile.” Probably more effective than saying, “Timmy and Samantha want your spare change.” (But then, you could do that. It’s just a different technique.)

LEAD WITH IT FOR NARRATIVE WRITING: Sometimes you can achieve a “wow” moment when you start strong and use the lead to establish the premise. By doing this, you are letting the reader in on a secret, helping them feel smart as the plot unravels. That kind of lead might sound something like, “As Clifton sat alone in the Boardroom, night fell over the city, turning his penthouse view into a laser light show. His pinstripe suit and shock of white hair reflected oddly in the polished table as he ran his fingers absent mindedly over the surface. A slow, halting sigh escaped from below his moustache. How he arrived here is a story that’s hard to believe.”

BURY IT AT THE END: When looking for that perfect close to a novel or editorial piece, your lead can become the clincher. While you could certainly start by saying, “Rachel left Tiny Town, USA, when she was just sixteen,” you could also lead up to that moment, then end with a line like this: “She shut the door behind her and never looked back.” OR “She said good-bye to Fido and walked into the wee hours of the morning, tapping the mailbox as she went by.” When you want an ending open to discussion, create some doubt: “As the car drove away, a small voice could be heard coming from the field. It was hard to tell whether those muffled sounds were cries of sorrow or ironic laughter.” Doesn’t that just leave you wanting a sequel?

As a writer, you usually know when you have nailed it. You get a chill, a shudder, a fist-pumping “yes” moment that tells you there’s nothing else to say.