Dare I Blame the Turkey?

Too many things going on right now! As I was rushing to publish my last post, I found several typos, and felt smug in the knowledge I’d corrected them. Alas. One of my readers was kind enough to let me know I’d missed some (she even corrected them for me over the phone, as I was nowhere near a computer by then. Thanks, Wendy!)

So, apologies for the sloppy text, and if you’d haven’t yet read today’s post and would like to see it in a (hopefully) typo-free state, you can read the corrected version here.

Some Tasty Links for Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for all the smart folks out there writing about writing.

Back in a much earlier life I briefly studied photography, and one of my favorite practitioners was a guy named Duane Michals. If your idea of great photography is precision of structure, perfect lighting and gorgeous darkroom technique, a la Ansel Adams, Michals’s photographs weren’t much to look at. But they were rich in evocative imagery—his work of the time nearly always told a story. (He’s still out there making pictures but I haven’t kept up with his work, so I can’t speak to what he’s doing now.) He often strung together sequences of images, sometimes even adding scrawled words.

Maybe because even then I was a better writer than a photographer, I loved his work. And I still remember an anecdote he told in an interview I read. He used to run into someone regularly—I’m thinking maybe it was a guy who worked at his gym–who was an amateur photographer . The man was always trying to engage him in conversation about equipment and technique. Michals reported he would listen to this guy chat on about f-stops and filters and then finally stop him and say, “I’m sorry, Joe, but I don’t understand what  you’re talking about.”

Telling a good story is not a matter of fancy formatting or elaborate technique. Over the years, trying to make my way through mind-numbing pieces of corporate text, I often find Duane’s voice in my head: “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” Which is why I laughed when I came across this blog. It’s a bit old, already, but well worth the read.

Sometimes I’m asked what “telling a story” really means in the practical world of business communications. Which is why I was pleased to come across a simple, strong example at a business conference a few weeks ago. To illustrate one of her points, a speaker was describing the trajectory of her own business. She needed to explain that a key moment happened when her husband lost his job. But instead of just saying, “then my husband lost his job,” she said something like this:

“My husband worked from home. One day,  we were both at home working when he got a call from his boss, asking him to come into the office: something that had never happened before. It turned out, my husband had lost his job.”

This presenter was wise enough to add just a few simple sentences and instead of an abstract fact, we have the man, the home, the family. The lost job suddenly has context, and with that comes a whole lot more meaning.  Here’s an even older post than the last one, but another thing to be thankful for (at least sometimes)  is that things live on forever on the web:

I was planning to add a few more links-to-chew-on, but a third thing I can be thankful for this season is that I have almost too much work to do, plus some delicious down time with family and friends ahead. So that’s it for now. Have a wonderful holiday!

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How Will It All End?

Beginnings are nerve-wracking. Middles can be tricky. But the highest circle of writing misery, in my book, resides in figuring out how to close. Ever since the days of high school essays, I’ve hated writing conclusions.

In conventional essay writing, the role of the conclusion is to summarize. But if what I’m writing is a page or two long, as it generally is, I’m pretty sure I can count on my readers to retain and synthesize what I’ve just said. Saying it again is simply redundant—and boring. (I had an English teacher who once warned that any paper sporting a last paragraph that began, “Thus we see” would be stamped with an automatic “F.”)

Besides, in non-academic writing, like journalism and blogging (including content for employee newsletters, magazines and blogs), conclusions aren’t necessarily expected to summarize. The role they play is vaguer—just a kind of tidying up, providing a little closure.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a piece you’re working on will flow naturally to just the right ending. You  might have gotten the perfect quote or the ideal anecdote that sums it all up. For example, if you’re writing about a new program your company is introducing, you could end with a quote that takes it into the future:

Gisela Simone, Senior VP of New Business Strategies, summarized what many senior leaders apparently feel about the new Speed Processing Interactive Terminal program, saying, “I have every confidence in SPIT. It’s going to revolutionize our ability to react to negative events.”

Depending on the piece, you also might be able to end by winding back to the beginning. As I wrote way back in March, starting a piece with the human side of a story is a great way to draw readers in. If your employee newsletter article begins like this…

When Hank Dinsmore, Regional Marketing Director, needs background information for a product, he generally calls the LuceBoltz reference librarian, or takes a hike up to the 6th floor library, himself. If the librarian has the information he needs on hand—great—if not, Hank completes an acquisition form to order the reference document and puts aside his project until it arrives.

“It’s time-consuming at best,” says the veteran LuceBoltz employee, “And it’s frustrating, since I know that information is out there.”

But things are about to get a whole lot better for Hank. Thanks to Air Literature, our new online aircraft research database, Hank will be able to locate and download the information he needs within minutes, straight from his desk. So will every other employee at LuceBoltz.

 …your ending is practically written for you:

As for Hank, he’s already making a list of the work he’ll be able to catch up on in his newly freed up time, once Air Literature is up and running.

Another option, if you’re writing in a relatively casual format, is to end with a play on words or other bit of humor. I’ve noticed this is a favorite ploy of NPR reporters—so much so that I can often predict the last sentence of a piece I’m listening to. For example, one reporter summed up a story about the presidential candidates’ break from campaigning during last week’s hurricane in this way:

That’s not say the political campaign is completely on hold. People tuning in to storm coverage are likely to see a flood—of political ads.

Yet another idea, especially if you’re writing on-line, is to end with a question or other invitation to respond:

What are some of your ideas?

How have you dealt with xyz in the past?

How do you use the Cat Cab program?

Because I, myself, have so much trouble ending articles and posts, I try to keep a close eye on how others do it. But what’s fascinating is that I often forget to notice. That’s because in a strong piece of writing, the conclusion doesn’t stand out as something apart from the rest of the story. It’s such a natural progression from the rest of the piece that it just flows to a natural close.

It’s a goal to aspire to. But sometimes, I just give up and let a piece of writing dangle, without

Is your employee newsletter boring? Is your web content stale? Contact me to get your communications doing the job you need them to do. Remember,you can’t connect if you can’t tell your story.