Video Instructions: 5 Golden Rules

Many companies have now turned to video for showing customers how to use their product. Videos are an excellent way to connect with customers. However, they should still follow the five golden rules for good instructions.

  1. Never assume. Start your instructions from the very beginning–that might mean showing the viewer or reader how to plug in the product or where to find the start button. If you are offering a series of videos, building in complexity or detail, make sure you refer to the previous videos for viewers who are not aware they are starting in the middle.
  2. Be consistent. Always refer to buttons, menu items, the names of previous videos (or chapters), operations, processes, and so on using the same exact terms. Your viewer will quickly become confused if the same screen shot is called the “home page,” the “opening screen,” or “screen 1” in different videos or different parts of the same video.
  3. Be thorough. Before your release a video or written procedures, follow the instructions using only the steps in the video or on the page. If you find your hands doing something else, revise. You overlooked a step and you are in danger of losing your audience.
  4. Be exact. It’s easy to tell a customer “click here” or “see this” or “move this way” without ever defining here” or “this.” But your customers may have no idea what you’re referring to no matter how carefully they watch or read. In addition, customers often try to follow directions while actually working on the product. How can video viewers tell what “click here” means unless they are looking directly at the screen?
  5. Go slow. The best instructions are divided into discrete steps that viewers or readers can master at their own speed. Readers have a lot of control over speed; viewers have very little. If video instructions come at viewers too fast, they have to pause and backtrack and pause and backtrack. All that backtracking interferes with their learning and enjoyment.

You may want to provide written procedures that customers can download based on your videos. The written procedures and videos should at least complement each other even if they aren’t exact duplicates. It they contradict each other, you have a major problem.

Would you benefit from help in creating clear scripts and written procedures for your customers? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications today.

A Website Review Leads to Great Content

Let’s call them ABC Company. ABC’s new website looked wonderful–attractive pictures, clear navigation, opportunities to update through blogs, news, and videos. They had written their own content, however, and were a little nervous about launching. They asked me to conduct a website review.

During a website review, I don’t write new content. Instead, I concentrate on the existing content: every link and every word. I look for typos and grammatical mistakes; check for consistency from page to page; consider my first impression as a visitor; make suggestions about strengthening message; and search for lost opportunities to connect with customers. On the surface, every new website looks perfect, so I’m always nervous about starting a website review. Will I actually find a problem?

My job isn’t to nitpick ABC’s website content into oblivion. My job is to make the content as good as the company thinks it is–and to help ABC engage its customers. Once my detailed analysis is complete, the company is free to follow through themselves with rewrites and edits. They are the final judge of what to update and what to leave be.

What did my analysis of ABC’s website turn up?

  • Inconsistencies in the names of navigation buttons (Service, Services, Our Services) and the pages they led to (“page not found”)
  • Misspellings (productivty)
  • Grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies (serial comma or no serial comma?)
  • A blog that stopped being active in June 2016 and a news page where the most recent item promised a new product launch in 2015
  • A major statement about an Important Product on the home page; but no further reference to that product in the entire website except for a minor footnote (is it an Important Product or not?)
  • Statements that hedged on what the company provides (“we are capable of delivering…” rather than “we deliver…”)
  • An announcement of an additional location but no corresponding change in the contact information
  • Photos that did not show what the caption said they showed.

On other occasions for other clients, I’ve found pages dedicated to products or services that were no longer offered; changes in how the customer was addressed or perceived (technically savvy on one page and a complete novice on the next); price schedules that changed from page to page; and other problems.

ABC embraced the website review and its own team is currently revising the website.

If you have a new website or are wondering whether a new website is in your future, please contact me about a website content review.

 

 

Little Words That Change Content in Big Ways

Once upon a very real time in New York City, an environmental official removed the word “not” from a report determining whether a road should be built along a river. The report emphasized this project should not be allowed because it would pollute the water; but the official said, “I’m not going to stop this project because of one little word.” So he deleted “not.”

Little, simple words can have a lot of power. In fact, the word “simple” itself is one of those words. The actions or instructions that you tell your customers are “simple” will baffle at least some of them. Then they have to decide if they are too dumb to follow simple instructions or if your instructions and product are terrible. Guess what choice they make? To check whether your instructions are clear, accurate and complete, follow what you’ve written down to the letter. If you find your hands doing something that is not written down, then you have to add that step to your instructions. And avoid saying anything is “simple.”

Another word with a lot of power is “only.” When you misplace the word “only,” you also change the meaning of your content. Consider “we only designed one product” versus “we designed only one product.” In the first instance, you only designed (you didn’t manufacture or distribute); in the second instance, you designed only one product (instead of many products). The difference in meaning is significant. Be careful where you place your “only.”

I once heard a story about lawmakers who wanted to ban the importation of fruit trees. However, they placed a comma between “fruit” and “trees” and thereby went without fruit for months before they could change the bill. A misplaced comma can drastically change your content. Consider the difference between “we pay attention to details, generating quality” and “we pay attention to details generating quality.” In the first instance, the act of paying attention to ideas generates quality; in the second instance, you’re paying attention to just those details that generate quality–all the other details you ignore. Where you place commas, periods, semicolons, and colons is important.

If you are worrying whether your content is saying exactly what you mean, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We make sure content is clear, accurate, and compelling, down to the smallest detail.

 

Tolerant and Inclusive Writing

Happy Holidays everyone!

I happen to be Jewish, so my holiday is Chanukah. When casual friends wish me a Merry Christmas, I enjoy the spirit in which the wish was given and thank them.

But when companies focus all their marketing copy on Christmas, I wonder why they refuse to recognize those customers who do not celebrate that particular holiday. No one is asking for twenty ads for twenty different religious observances; but a simple “Happy Holidays” reaches out to everyone. The expression is respectful to your beliefs and mine.

Some organizations are created to provide products and services solely for one group of people (one religion, one gender, one difference) and that’s fine. For the rest, being inclusive and tolerant should be an easy choice.

Some of the women in my family have names that are appropriate for either male or female. If someone hearing their name mistakes their gender, that’s a very excusable mistake.

But when an entire company writes marketing copy as if women (or men) do not exist, I wonder why they exclude at least half their potential customers. Several alternatives exist to a universal “he” (or “she”): the marketing copy can address customers directly as “you”; or alternate “he” and “she” in examples; or use the plural (“customers,” “they”).

I happen to be short; in fact most of my family, including some of the men, stopped growing around 5’1″. Our shortness is a minor challenge, and we are very grateful to all those who are 5’6″ and over, who help us load carry-ons into overhead bins and select the spaghetti sauce we want from the top shelf in the market.

But when an entire company refuses to recognize differences among people in their marketing copy–when all their photos show trim, gorgeous, 6-foot models in luxury settings instead of real people having real interactions–then I wonder who exactly are they appealing to?

When you are inclusive and tolerant, your world expands. When you are exclusive and intolerant–even by accident–your world contracts. As a business owner, you want as many customers in the largest world possible. The choice of inclusion and tolerance falls in the category of enlightened self-interest.

If you are struggling with ways to say and show your message in a welcoming, inclusive manner, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Services.

Strong Clear Writing Starts with Short Words

Are you an advocate of brevity in vocabulary selection for optimum communication? That is: do you write with short words?

The main trouble with long words (three or more syllables) is that they are seldom as clear as short words (three or fewer syllables). They also take longer to read. At a time when readers are overwhelmed with content and want to quickly reach the point of a message, long words slow them down. It simply takes longer to read “utilize” instead of “use.” The words mean exactly the same thing. Why not choose the shorter word?

Long words are habit forming. Once a long word worms its way into a sentence, three or four or more long words will follow it whether they are needed or not. In the end, the writer’s brilliant vocabulary becomes more important than the brilliant message customers are really looking for.

Another drawback is that longer words are often misused by the writer or at best represent a poor choice. Take the business owner who wrote that two product lines were “no longer congruent.” He meant that they no longer worked together but he chose an odd, seldom-used word (“congruent”) to deliver that message. His audience had to come to a full stop while they figured out his meaning.

Strong, clear writing starts with one and two syllable words.

Here is a challenge: Chose any marketing piece at your company and try to rewrite it using only one- or two-syllable words. You might not succeed. Some longer words cannot be replaced (for example, enjoyable or liability). But the attempt should show you that the right small words contain the greatest energy, power and passion.

You might also try that challenge with technical content, which becomes a real chore to read when multi-syllable words that are truly needed (like fractionation) are surrounded by multi-syllable words that aren’t at all needed (like utilization). If you are giving directions or explaining a process, you want to be clear. Your choice of words could make the difference between directions that are easy to follow and directions that explode.

As always, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications for clear, direct writing and editing.

10 Biggest Writing Mistakes

As a professional writer and editor, I see many writing mistakes repeated. Here is my list of the top ten.

  1. Not knowing your audience. Writing is a form of communication. You need to know who you are communicating with.
  2. Giving your audience too much credit. You know your product and service better than anyone. You’re the teacher; your customers are the students. Everyone appreciates a teacher who takes the time to explain.
  3. Giving your audience too little credit. Your customers are tired of empty claims. For example, every company in the world has great customer service. Prove you deserve that claim through testimonials, case studies and awards.
  4. Using language poorly. Are you sure that’s what you meant to say? Are you sure you cannot say it clearer, more accurately, more concisely or with more conviction?
  5. Listing features before benefits. Everyone wants to know “can you solve my problem?” All the features in the world will fall flat if the customer’s problem remains a problem. Start with benefits.
  6. Burying your message. You would not read every word of a 50-page computer manual to find the ON switch. Your marketing message is the ON switch for potential buyers. Make your strongest, most important points first.
  7. Not delivering your message. Are you agonizing so long over a brochure that the opportunity is lost? Are you sending tweets to people who don’t use Twitter and writing rack cards for people who never pick them up? Marketing writing can only work for you if you send it out on time and on target.
  8. Ignoring basic grammar and spelling. Okay, I admit it: one of my pet peeves is using “that” instead of “who” to refer to people and using semicolons (;) where commas (,) are correct. But I care about those things because they actually do make a difference in how your message is perceived. When you say “people that” instead of “people who,” you turn people into things.
  9. Being concise before you are clear. People have less patience than before with long messages; but if the message isn’t clear, your customers will give up on it even faster. First be clear, then try for concise.
  10. Using a professional writer who is not a native speaker of your audience’s primary language. A professional writer will help you avoid mistakes 1-9. That writer should be a native speaker of your audience’s primary language to avoid mistakes of culture and nuance in your message.

As founder and sole proprietor of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, I have a long history of helping B2B and B2C companies deliver a clear, concise, accurate and passionate marketing content to their customers. I’m ready to help you.

The Acronym Follies

A client recently wrote me when faced with a slew of acronyms in an article she tried to read. Acronyms, such as B2B or EMEA, are generally created from the first letters of a series of words (business-to-business and Europe, Middle East, Africa). But even B2B has multiple meanings, including “back to base” and “border to border.” Beth complained:

“I just saw a very interesting article that I wanted to read and understand. But they started off with so many acronyms that I could not begin to guess what they were talking about. I even Googled the first acronym. Either the 1st or 3rd definition might have made sense, but how is a beginner to know?… Some people don’t want new readers I guess.”

Beth herself is in the software development industry–which is known for its use of acronyms. But she recognizes the importance of defining acronyms the first time they are used and avoiding them as much as possible. I have another client, in the oil and gas industry, who uses so many acronyms that I keep a four-page list on my computer for checking definitions. Even that is sometimes inadequate because different divisions of the company use the same acronym to stand for different things!

Beth mentioned Googling for definitions. The website acronymfinder.com is helpful in two ways: both to figure out what an acronym means and to reinforce the fact that the same acronym may have dozens of different meanings, some of them quite obscure,  depending on the industry and context.

One of the risks of overusing acronyms is also overusing capital letters. Just because a group of words can form an acronym, the words themselves do not need to be capitalized. The following sentence is correct: “Today, Elbert Industries Inc. (EII) delivered an approved manufacturer’s list (AML) to their certified vendors (CVs).”

Writers who pepper acronyms in every sentence may believe that their only readers will be those who know the acronyms already. But, as Beth suggests, that approach means they expect to never expand their readership and to never encounter a reader who has, even temporarily, forgotten what a particular acronym means.

Your marketing materials, reports, proposals and user documents aren’t a vocabulary test and they aren’t a crossword puzzle either. No one should need a four-page list to keep track of your company’s acronyms.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications helps companies from sole-proprietors to multinationals communicate with their customers in the business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketplace.

 

Happy Halloween! Overcoming Your Marketing Fears

You don’t believe in ghosts anymore but you still understand fear–and how it keeps you frozen in place, even if that place isn’t where you want to be. Here are the top five marketing fears and what you can do to overcome them.

Marketing Fear #1: Missing Out on Even One Potential Customer

This fear leads business owners to pack so much information into their brochure or website that not even the ghost of a customer can slip through. Another response is to create reams and reams of marketing material without any analysis of how it will reach customers. Unfortunately, real customers refuse to mine copy for that one well-buried reason why they should be interested. It’s time for a deep breath and the realization that, no, it isn’t possible to attract all of the people all of the time. However, a focused, clear, accurate, concise message will lure those customers you want the most.

Marketing Fear #2: Not Standing Out

On Halloween, hundreds of little ghosts travel around, yet every parent recognizes his or her own child. There are hundreds of companies that do what you do but your company is still unique. Perhaps that uniqueness comes from your specialized education or knowledge; your perspective on and approach to common customer problems; your willingness to share closely guarded industry “secrets”; or your location, size, inclusiveness, exclusiveness or commitment to Lean, Green or something in-between. I’ve worked with many that offer the “same” products and services, and found a unique message for every one of them.

Marketing Fear #3: Not Sounding Big Enough

Most sole proprietorships and small companies use “we” instead of “I” in marketing copy and that’s fine: the royal “we” is accepted business practice. But many business owners are afraid that their small size means they won’t be taken seriously by potential customers. Instead, they should treat one-on-one service, close geographic proximity or focus on a single aspect of a large industry as assets. Are you a sole proprietor? Let customers refer to you by name in testimonials: “Andy is an expert in choosing window coverings and immediately understood what we needed.” Quickly establish that personal connection that large companies struggle mightily to match.

Marketing Fear #4: Writing/Talking Down to Customers

This fear begins with one of two convictions: either no one can understand what you do or they are so knowledgeable in the field that you have to prove you can communicate on their level. Both fears are easy to overcome if you remember one thing: when it comes to your product or service, you are the teacher and your customers are your students. You must describe your product and service in terms your customers can quickly grasp–analogies are one way to do that–and you must take ownership of the fact that your customers are coming to you because they need your expertise. If they could do what you do, they wouldn’t need you. You’re the teacher. Teach.

Marketing Fear #5: Having Nothing to Say, No Time to Say It and No Budget

This is where hiring a freelance writer (and major fear buster) like TWP Marketing & Technical Communications really pays off. First, I will interview you to draw out the information that your customers want to hear from you. You do have something to say; you merely need help in recognizing it. Next, I will deliver the marketing materials you need most when you need them. You concentrate on your business; I concentrate on your marketing copy. Finally, after your first writing project is complete (say, your first website or brochure or success story), you can wait for the next project until the budget is right–a month later or a year or even two years. I’ll remember you and I’ll still have your old project on hand so that the learning curve for your new project is fast and seamless.

Contact me today and let’s get started on overcoming those marketing fears!

Complicated Writing: What Is It/How to Avoid It

Suppose you enter a store to check out a product you’re interested in, and two salespeople approach you.

One says, “The state-of-the-art functionality of this superior, innovative product is enhanced by the unique proactive multi-tasking bidirectional aspect of the user interface element, our company’s proprietary MTBDUI.”

The other says, “Would you like me to show you the on switch?”

Which salesperson would you buy from?

Yet many websites, blogs and brochures mimic the first sales person when, face-to-face, no one would approach a customer that way. Multi-syllable words (3 syllables or more) in long sentences (over 24 words) are at the heart of complicated writing. Add to that the latest jargon and acronyms with a tendency to drop prepositions and even the most educated readers struggle to understand a company’s message.

Customers are interested in your company, but first they want to know how you will solve their immediate problem. Complicated writing embraces adjectives like “state-of-the-art” and “precisely engineered” without ever giving specifics. It goes on and on about the company’s unique products and features, its outstanding customer services and innovative founders, without ever answering the universal customer question, “What’s in it for me?”

Complicated writing is mired in jargon and acronyms. How could anyone participate in “a proactive customer engagement communication activation process (CECAP)”? But it is definitely possible for customers to understand that you “appreciate their comments”–if that’s what you mean–in direct, everyday language.

Complicated writing leaves a company with nothing to boast about except its vocabulary and its ability to generate jargon and acronyms at a moment’s notice. Clear writing, on the other hand, builds relationships with customers.

For clear writing that is accurate, concise and passionate–for writing that makes even the most complicated content approachable–please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

The Ethics of Hiring a Writer

I’ve occasionally run into business owners who object to hiring a freelance writer on ethical grounds. They find something dishonest in allowing someone else to write for them. They believe they should write their own website, blog posts, case studies, brochures and business letters because otherwise they are misrepresenting themselves.

Ethics are important to me, which is why I will not write anything that I know (or may suspect) to be false, misleading or harmful. How do I justify being a freelance or ghost writer on an ethical basis?

First, writing may not be among the business owner’s strengths. As a result, instead of offering content that clearly states the benefits and achievements of the company, the owner inadvertently slips into false, confusing, misleading or harmful statements through mistakes in word choice, grammar and organization. Everyone loses when bad writing leads to false information.

Second, an outside perspective is often valuable. Business owners may not know what to say to attract customers and differentiate themselves from the competition. Or they may know exactly what to say but not how to say it. Or they may emphasize obscure features of their products while ignoring real benefits their customers need to know about.

Third, a business owner can be a great communicator on many levels and still prefer to let someone else write his or her marketing materials. This is called “delegation” and it is something business owners do when they hire employees and professionals to work for them. No one considers it unethical to have a sales team, help desk, accountant or graphic designer on staff. Business owners could handle everything themselves, down to making their own gasoline from crude oil for the car they drive, but most business owners prefer to concentrate on their core business.

There is nothing about delegating business writing that somehow makes that choice less ethical than delegating any other business function: it can be done well and professionally or badly and amateurishly. I like to write well and professionally.

Professional writers are professionals for a reason. Years of experience and training, plus an instinct for the just right word, make us more efficient and more likely to achieve the business owner’s goals.

I work with a variety of B2B and B2C business owners and nonprofits, in every field from home renovation through clinical trial research and from executive coaching through organic farming. Contact me today and let’s talk.