Thursday, April 27, 2006

Scume and Wha-ev - Modern Communication Being Squeezed Into Modern Confusion

I'm going to break a little from sharing information this week. This article's going to be about illuminating what I see as a destructive trend in modern communication.

You've probably heard this snag in conversation before. You might have even heard it in a presentation. It likely left you puzzled, wondering what was said, losing track of what's being said right then while you spend time thinking about what you didn't understand.

I'm talking about what I call "WordMush."

WordMush is when two or more words are spoken so quickly, they smoosh together. Sometimes parts of words are chopped off in the process. For example, take the two Mushed Words in the title. I heard both of those in conversations in the past week.

WordMush Growing in the Wild!
Last Thursday I went for a brief walk downtown, savoring the cool air and clear afternoon sky we'd suddenly been graced with. I walked by a few local shops, with people coming in and out as usual. One portly man came out of the shop on my right, sporting a new white shirt, and immediately turned to his left. We brushed up against one another in passing. He mumbled, "scume" and skittered down the sidewalk.

I stopped. I had to; I didn't understand what he'd said. It took me several seconds to reason out that he'd mushed "Excuse me" together in his hurry.

Was he in a rush? I glanced back. No, he was now walking casually. He was rushed only in language.

The second WordMush I heard earlier Wednesday afternoon. I was in a Starbucks, waiting for two colleagues to arrive for our Power Coffee Meeting. I overheard one of the cashiers talking to a friend about another person she knew. This person had taken to using "Wha-ev," in conversation. The cashier found it, of all things, funny.

WordMush Damages Our Most Valuable Skill
Let me ask you this. What's the #1 most valued skill in modern business? What's written on virtually every job posting, such a common value that it's virtually taken for granted?
Good communication skills.

Tell me, what kind of communication skills are we cultivating in our society when basic conversation is riddled with mushed-up nonsense words like "scume" and "Wha-ev?"

We're in so much of a rush that we're corrupting our own basic language. Cellphone minutes, email timeframes, sales turnarounds, constant pressure to do more in less time. We're shaving nanoseconds off the one thing no one should EVER sacrifice - clarity in how we communicate our wants & needs to others.

What's Happening, And Why It Hurts
Why am I making such a big deal about something as miniscule as a couple of smooshed-together words? It's because of what the progression, if it's left alone, will lead to.

I've seen no reason to think it's slowing down (no pun intended). So what's going to happen as this trend continues? People will talk faster and faster, further breaking down words and ideas in the wake of Getting It Out Faster. Attention spans will become more fractured than ever. Writing will suffer, because people won't be able to slow down those precious seconds needed for a central idea to form.

We like to think faster is better. Faster is more productive. The problem is that faster, when it comes to communicating, turns communication into confusion.

A Breath Is All That's Needed
Do you inadvertently contribute to WordMush? (I'm pretty sure that the problem is largely because people don't know they do it.) If so, or even if you're not sure, try paying attention to your breathing the next time you're talking with someone. If you're racing to get a sentence finished (before the other person can have a chance to butt in) take an extra breath.

Did you know professional speakers build breathing into their speeches? "With all this in mind, let's go over the solution. " They know how valuable a brief pause, an instant of silence, is to their performance. Try it in your conversations. You'll eliminate WordMush, be much easier to understand, and who knows? Your words might even have a greater impact WHILE you're taking a breath.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Links for 4-24-06

I'm still working on this week's article post. But I had so many links flood into my RSS reader today that it seemed a shame to waste them all on just me.

So here's Monday's Blog Tip. Go follow the links!

Geeks and Communication Skills - NOT a Contradiction in Terms
A solid common-sense expression of why IT people are so often misunderstood when they try to communicate. Plus, some tips on what they can do about it. Read the comments too. It's not just me...thank goodness...

Rapleaf - A Feedback System for the Entire Web
Epinions, eat your heart out. TechCrunch gives us a thorough overview of RapLeaf, a fast-coming service that records feedback for individuals. They're even opening up the API, so you can build RapLeaf into your own application for better quality of service.

Given the fury we've seen over social bookmarking at places like Digg and, I'm betting RapLeaf will have a huge effect on Web business. Companies who stiff or ignore their customers, beware. You might not get away with it anymore.

Brain Games - Boost Your IQ!
Brain-teaser apps and mind-stretching games on videogame platforms. Who saw THAT coming? (Not me, I'll admit.) I do like the premise, though. There's a mystique surrounding our long-standing obsession with video games. If we can slip in programs that revv up our brains (instead of letting them sit in Park), so much the better!

Personally, I stick with Sudoku. Portable and fun. Wait, Sudoku's already available for the PC? AGH! I'll never get any work done!

Was Mario a Communist?
I always thought Mario looked a little Lenin-esque. Some light-hearted political fun for your Monday.

Copyblogger - 4 Horsemen of the Internet Apocalypse
As I said in my comment on this post (I commented! Hi Mom!), it's probably the clearest depiction of what's happening on Capitol Hill right now in the Net Neutrality problem. If you don't know what that is (or need a refresher), click the link. Net Neutrality literally affects every single person & business online. The current clash between Big Business/Government and The Public WILL affect the Web for years to come. And it WILL affect you.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Screaming Through Glass - What Content Writers Need Before They Start Writing

Look what I ferreted out! (Hey, I said it would be something ferrety today.)

Cooking up Web Content, at the WebDev Buzz

The article focuses on how to come up with ideas for content. A quick, simple read, it does a good job at giving a quick snapshot of what happens before a web content writer (such as myself) puts fingers to keyboard on his latest project.

However, there's a secondary power in its words: it warns of the problem of Not-Enough-Market-Consideration-itis. The author (whom I'm sad to say is not named, as he/she's a fine writer who deserves credit):

  • Gives a good idea of the many audience considerations content writers must take into account, like expectations and potential secondary markets.

  • Showcases a brainstorming/researching process that is absolutely critical to the success of ANY website project.

  • Identifies media functions that can enhance a site's usability and give more reasons for a dedicated readership to grow, like chat rooms and forums.

Know who the audience is, what they want, and how best to give it to them. Sensible. Reasonable. The only logical beginning to any successful website, right?


I'd say least half of the people I've spoken with in the last year (who did NOT become clients) had no idea about what their audience wanted. I'm too often subjected to speeches or sites that don't consider such crucial bits as target market segments, intended focus, or plans for updates.

At the risk of overdoing the cliche, if I worked with these companies, I'd have to ferret out things about a company's target market that the company should have figured out when it first started.

Before a word of content is written, the writer has to know as much about his audience as he can. Otherwise, it's like trying to talk to someone through a thick glass pane. You might get a few words understood if you shout loud enough, but the person on the other side is going to get madder the more you try and fail to make them understand you.

While the linked article is definitely a handy way to visualize the brainstorming process, the cautionary tale hidden beneath it needs to be told over and over.

Be aware of who your audience is and what they want.

Especially on the Web. There's no excuse for ignoring their needs & wants, thinking your product is so great they'll all see it in a shining light and flock to your shopping cart.

Hmmmm. That sounds a bit rant-y to me. Oh well, a little venting's healthy. Might help some of you out, too. I'll end with a quote from the article.

"This is why writing web content and copy should be carefully and patiently planned and organized. There really is no room for sloppy work."

I couldn't agree more.

P.S. - In the spirit of ferreting things out for yourself, I have added a series of links to my menu on the right. These include blogs of copywriters and marketers whose work I admire...and the only other ferret-y site I've found in business so far. Click. Read. Enjoy!


Monday, April 17, 2006

Announcements 4-17-06 - New Site Content & Revised Update Schedule

I have two announcements to make today. Yes, there IS such a thing as good news on Tax Day.

1. There's new content on the Blue Ferret website! I've updated the Portfolio with some new samples, the Services page has longer & more precise descriptions, there's some new Home content, and two of my best blog posts are now posted as Articles.

2. The more I look, the more I have to blog about. Updating once a week is no longer enough. So starting today, the Blue Ferret Blog will update twice a week (sometimes 3 times, depending) with an early-week Tip and a later-week article. Keep your RSS reader tuned!

That's all for today (look at that, I handled the first tip). Check back later this week for this week's article! (No, I'm not sure what it will be about. But I have decided it'll be ferret-related.)


Thursday, April 13, 2006

2 Prospecting Tips for Creative Pros - Finding Shiny Nuggets, and Doubling Your Searches

You know the old phrase, "Learn by doing?" I'm currently doing so much learning in my doing (though I'm not sure how well it's doing), that my learning by doing is learning new ways of doing!

Say THAT ten times fast.

On second thought, don't. Wouldn't want anyone to lean out of their cubicle to look at you, now would we?

I've been prospecting like crazy for the past few weeks. I like to think my performance has gotten better in the interim. My approach has modified itself several times, as have my research methods. To that end, I'd like to share two little tips I've found that help me zero in on target companies and contact names.

Finding Shiny Nuggets - Using "Careers" Pages to Find Contacts

Now, when prospecting, it's ideal to have the name of your contact. Looks more personal and friendly to send an email straight to "Karen, Marketing Director" instead of "Attn: Marketing Director" at a general inbox. But how do you find the name? How do you even know which title the company uses for the type of contact you need?

Here's one way I've found. On many websites for companies over, say, 10 people, I've found Careers pages. They list available jobs locally, the search engines index the site, the job engines search the index. Simple (and pretty effective) job search SEO.

In those Career listings are gold nuggets - contact names and position titles. You can look for positions similar to your own function (if you're a consultant) and see who supervises that position. That's your contact.

Let's say I'm a copywriter calling to talk with a marketing director (Gee, that sounds familiar...). What's this? The Careers page lists a Marketing Assistant. Not exactly what I'd be doing, but it's close. Someone named Mark Cox is listed as the supervisor for this Assistant position. That's who I'll want to market myself to - not for the Marketing Assistant job, but for my copywriting. Same department, and he's obviously the decision-maker.

Sometimes the supervisor isn't listed on a job ad. That's okay - the About Us page can help. If a site uses one (if they don't, and there IS a careers page, they've got some skewed priorities), they'll list positions like Director of Marketing, Sales Director, VP of Marketing, Communications Manager/VP, etc. One 15-second scrolldown, and you should have a targeted contact name you can ask for.

Double Your Contacts, Double Your Search - Google's Similar Pages Function
I'm in the habit of checking a company's website before I call them (if they don't have a site, that becomes the reason for my call). Sometimes I find a needed contact name that way. Sometimes it tells me I shouldn't call them, because it'd be a waste of time.

Speaking of wasted time, how much do you think you waste plowing through Google, running search after search to find more prospects, slogging through page after page to gather up enough names for a decent list? (It's probably less than an hour, but hey, I need every second!)

In case you do too (right, who doesn't), here's a quick one. Say you want to target PR firms. You type something like "pr firm California" into Google. Quite a long list there. No time to pick out the prospects. What do you do?

Look at the first relevant response you come across. An individual firm's website, for example. On the bottom line, there's a link: "Similar Pages." Click it. It runs another search through the existing query, cutting out most of the excess and delivering a shorter, cleaner list of prospects. 9 times out of 10 when I do this, the new list is almost 100% individual firms that I could prospect to.

Yahoo and MSN don't offer a Similar Pages link on the list itself. Alexa does, but you have to click on the company's Alexa link first. Then you'll find "Related Link," which brings up similar sites. Either way, you'll save a lot of time making the search engine clean up its own list for you, and get prospects all lined up to boot.

Hope these tips help you in your prospecting, fellow creatives! And remember, do learning.
No, wait, that's not right.
Oh, forget it.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I've Joined the ODF Alliance!

I went sniffing around the Web earlier today, looking for trackbacks to my sites. Lo and behold, who was on Page 1...but the Open Document Format Alliance!

ODF Alliance: About Us/Members

A couple weeks ago, I sent an email to the Alliance asking to be listed as a member. I believe in the usability of a simple, universal text format. (Especially after having worked with literally dozens of word processing programs over the past 15 years! Grrr...) It made sense to me to show a little support for an easier, friendlier standard.

I thought there'd be a big process about joining, though. Double opt-in, at least. But no, it looks like the Alliance is as open as their advocations.

Go have a look. It's fascinating stuff. Reading the Member List alone is impressive. The American National Standards Institute. IBM. Novell. (which I use for my writing). Opera. Oracle. Red Hat. Sun.

And to think, I'm right there with them!

You can be too, if you're interested in open formats. Support the ODF Alliance.

I'll have a couple prospecting tips for creative pros in a day or two! Wait and see.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Online Writing..THAT SHOULD NOT BE!

Cue the minor-key pipe organ! Call up those webpages! Put the 'appalled gasp' sound effect on standby!

The Blue Ferret has gone mad...MAD, I tell you! Well, okay, just peeved. I see the same thing all over the Web, every day, and it's bugging me. Dull, unconvincing writing in various formats from companies that should know better. Online writing that falls on its face, that doesn't sound anywhere near effective. Writing that infects the reader with Mental Yawning Syndrome.

Come along with me. Hear me name the strangeness in writing you've seen before, but dared not approach. Observe as I reveal the horror - of Online Writing That Should Not Be!

Type 1 - Leveraging Paradigm Shifts for Redundant Stratagems
Corporate-speak. Go ahead, get the shudder over with. Boring, confusing, stuffed-shirt writing that talks endlessly about seemingly nothing. Does anybody actually read all of that? I used to read technical manuals for fun, but reading corporate-speak is even better than The Scarlet Letter for putting me to sleep. I sometimes wonder if companies that use corporate-speak do so to bore their readers into clicking the Buy Now button.

Type 2 - ME-ME-ME-meeeeeee!
Self-congratulatory writing. Better known as, "We Didn't Think About What Our Customers Need to Hear" writing. Heavily feature-oriented (this is not in and of itself a bad thing, but ONLY when outnumbered by benefits). Sometimes it goes beyond that and gets into what I call, "I'm So Great, We're Perfect" mode. That kind of writing does create a mental picture - unfortunately, it's a mental picture of the company's CEO prancing around on a sidewalk, laughing at the poor customers he's so much better than. Very bad for any company's image.

Type 3 - I'm different, like everyone else
"XYZ Corp. is the best choice for your slimy-monster needs. XYZ Corp. has 18 years of experience delivering slimy monsters to companies like yours." Says the same thing as the next guy. And the next. Does Xerox handle websites now? How do they intend to differentiate themselves - "We're number 3,549 to use this exact paragraph. No one else is number 3,549." ?!?

Type 4 - WALLET! Gimme! Grr, bark, drool
This one grows out of the first three. It's writing that's stiff, but aggressive. These companies don't seem to want to connect with customers. They're only after sales, the ineffable bottom line. You don't like it? You're just a number to them. There are more behind you. Get out of the way. Cold, unfeeling prose that would probably jump out of your monitor and smack you upside the head, if that plugin existed.

Type 5 - More keywords! Higher ranking! Out of my way!
Sites desperate for top SEO rankings. The HTML code on their pages look like badly-formatted dictionaries. The writing on them looks like someone wrote up a list of every possible relevant term, ran it through 8 different language translations, and threw it on their site without bothering to see if it actually made SENSE.

Sites like that are geared strictly toward grabbing traffic through Time-Sensitive SEO, but in a way that's both hopelessly skewed and borderline illegal. Fortunately, we now have a term for this: Black hat SEO.

Begone, evil writing! (Anybody got any holy water?) All of you, trouble us Web customers no more!

Wait, you say YOU may have some Online Writing That Should Not Be growing on your organization? Quick, lance it!

Strategies for Ridding Yourself of Online Writing That Should Not Be
Three tips, before I crawl back into my crypt (er, I mean, go back to work. Sorry, got too far into character there.):

1. Use Bullfighter. I blogged about Bullfighter the other day, and ever since then I've been having a blast subjecting my work to its bull-eyed scrutiny. (The only "bull" it caught in this article was the corporate-speak subhead.) It's free and simple to use. Cut out the bull before you publish!

2. Call an editor or proofreader. Another set of eyes and a new perspective. It works wonders, honest. There will always be things you'll miss - plus, if you've got one of THESE writing types, they can take your writing away and make it better.

3. Call a writer. Like me! I'm a proofreader, an editor, a writer, AND I use Bullfighter! All in one! Back, evil non-effective writing, BACK I say!


Monday, April 03, 2006

Fixed/Updated IM Tipsheet - As You Demanded!

Okay, I got a few emails from my readers saying they felt an introduction would be a good addition to my IM tipsheet. (I love having writers in my audience!) So, naturally, I added one. The link's the same, but I'll repost it so you don't have to scroll down (lazy Web readers that some of you are).

10 Ways To Make Sure People Understand You Over IM - Version 2

That's all for right now! Come back Thursday, for the weekly post. This week's article will be called, "Online Writing That Should Not Be."