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Irma, blog posts and the never-ending search for more ‘stuff’

[Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at Flickr Creative Commons]

Do you ever get the feeling of déjà vu when you’re watching the news?

Don’t we all. 

This week, hurricane Maria is sweeping through the Caribbean, wreaking havoc in its path. The news coverage is very similar to what we saw just two weeks ago with Irma, complete with reporters battling to stay upright as they’re lashed by rain and buffeted by gales.

The whole format is one that’s been used many times, right down to the weatherman/weatherwoman in the studio explaining how hurricanes come about and where the current one is headed.

Then there are the shots of bumper-to-bumper traffic, live interviews on dodgy Skype connections and first-hand byte-sized accounts on Twitter. And maybe even some library pictures to remind us of the last hurricane – or Katrina, if that can be woven into the mix.

It is new and it is news, but it feels as if we’ve seen it all before, and we know how it’s going to play out. But that doesn’t stop us watching it. Somehow, the novelty value keeps us glued to our screens and clicking in our apps to find out the latest.

It all seems familiar, but it’s repackaged in a slightly different way – which is enough to keep us engaged. 

Out with the old, in with the new

By coincidence, I’ve been doing some repackaging of my own recently.

I’ve been working on a client project that’s taking existing content and giving it a new lease of life. Or in the jargon, repurposing

The source content is mostly blog posts, and mostly, they’ve done a good job: attracting  traffic, encouraging blog-feed signups, and promoting other sections of the website. But they’ve got a limited shelf life – either because the information is out of date, or they simply disappear below the fold and are lost in the digital hinterland. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re no longer useful – far from it.

As I’ve been discovering, much like the remains of last night’s meal and other assorted scraps in your fridge, they can be reworked and combined to make a very tasty offering.

And there are some great reasons to repackage existing material: 

  • New content is hard to find and time-consuming to produce.
  • People may not have seen it the first time around – or if they did, they may not have read it to the end, or been receptive to the messages. 
  • You can break it down so it’s targeted at niche audiences, who see a specific spin that’s relevant to their situation or needs.
  • It helps improve your SEO efforts. 
  • You establish yourself as an authority on a particular subject. Remember that ‘just showing up’ (as Woody Allen famously said) is a big part of success. 
  • You can use one piece of content to promote another, so you keep people engaged for longer.

A sense of (re)purpose

So what should you repurpose? Anything you like. 

Blog posts are a great place to start. Dig around in your back catalogue and see what you can reuse. Take your most shared or read posts and use them as a springboard for a new piece of content.

If posts are out of date, that’s actually good news, as it gives you the perfect excuse to write another one that incorporates all the latest developments. 

So one blog post leads to another. But it can also lead to other formats: e-books, slideshares, infographics and even videos.

And don’t get too hung up on the idea that you’re repeating yourself. Remember that repackaging content means you get several bites of the cherry with the same audience – or even with different audiences.

The marketing funnel is really useful when you’re deciding how to reuse and target content.  From high-level thought pieces (TOFU) to mid-level solution pieces (MOFU) to bottom-level product pitches (BOFU) you have lots of ways to slice and dice existing material and make it appealing again.

Because just like tropical hurricanes, novelty is what keeps people interested.

But don’t take my word for it: just wait until Nate, Ophelia, Philippe and Rina hit, and you’ll see how we never tire of the same story. 

With a slightly different spin each time.

Want to achieve more by doing less? Here's how.

Cutting out the distractions and getting the job done

If you’ve ever felt frazzled by the pace of modern life, it may well be the fault of technology. What was supposed to set us free – work anywhere, any time from any device – seems to have slowly pulled us into a 24×7 routine that never lets up. 

So we check emails in bed, at the gym and over dinner. We reply to IMs and scan Instagram feeds in meetings, in the car and at the hairdresser.

No wonder we feel frazzled. So maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of Cal Newport’s book. 

Newport is astonishingly prolific: within 10 years of graduating, he published four books, got a PhD, regularly peer-reviewed white papers, and became a professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

And in between, he taught classes – his real job.

He’s achieved all of this through deep focus and efficient use of his time. And that means not being constantly distracted by the demands of new technology.

So he’s never had a Facebook or Twitter account, or any other social media presence outside of a blog. He schedules every minute of the day, and has an email curfew in place, so he’s not disturbed in the evening or early morning. He also practices ‘productive meditation’, where he ponders problems on his walk to and from work.

Ditching the distractions

I’ve been reading all about Newport’s radical approach in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

He claims that focus is the new IQ in the knowledge economy. As he puts it: 

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Deep work means cutting out the distractions, because they have a hidden downside. 

It might seem pretty harmless to glance at your email every 10 minutes, but it’s the attention residue after switching tasks that causes problems. And if you can’t immediately react to what you’ve read, it’s worse, as it lingers unresolved in your mind, interfering with your primary task. 

There’s also a hidden cost associated with all this addictive checking: Newport mentions a company that was calculated to be spending over a million dollars on employees processing emails every year. 

He also talks of “busyness as a proxy for productivity”, which is very common in today’s knowledge economy. Since there aren’t any clear indicators for what productivity looks like, people simply do “lots of stuff in a visible manner”.

And let’s be honest: we’ve all been there. You haven’t stopped all day, and yet when you look back at what you’ve actually accomplished, it’s difficult to quantify it. You were just busy.

But busyness doesn’t equal business.

Depth not breadth

So much for the problem – what’s Newport’s solution?

Having made his case for homo sapiens deepensis in Part 1 of the book, he turns to the rules (and yes, there are rules) in Part 2:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Quit social media
  4. Drain the shallows

He breaks down each of these into manageable steps and gives real-world advice based on his personal experience. He says it’s important to decide where you’ll work and for how long, how you’ll work once you start and how you’ll support your work (with food, coffee and exercise).

And one size doesn’t fit all. There are, he says, many different approaches for working deeply, and you should choose the one that’s best suited to you:

  • Monastic – you cut yourself off totally and devote yourself to the task.
  • Bimodal – you divide your time between your deep focus/work and other, shallower activities.
  • Journalistic – you fit deep work into your schedule wherever you can (like a journalist, you write your story up anywhere).

Although I’d like to be monastic, I know deep down I’m more bimodal. What about you? 

Deeper and deeper

Newport’s case is pretty convincing and his approach is practical and no‑nonsense.

Even if the book doesn’t inspire you to radically change how you work, you’ll definitely pick up some tips on how to get more out of your day.

My favourite is one is entitled Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work. It’ll help you avoid the endless email ping-pongs that cause so much of our daily distraction. 

Deep Work is a fascinating read, and at 260 pages doesn’t require that much deep reading. I highly recommend it. In the meantime, if you’re too busy with all those emails and IMs, check out instead Newport’s TEDx talk called Quit social media

Because if you do that, you might just have time to read the book. And a lot more time besides.

What copywriting and novel writing have in common

How to make sure your readers stick with the story

[Image courtesy of Thanakrit Gu at Flickr Creative Commons]

They say that everybody has a novel inside them. Which often prompts the well-worn retort that in most cases, that’s precisely where it should stay. 

On a bright but very breezy recent summer day in a friend’s garden, I trotted out that reliable old line and expected the usual response – a wry smile (they’ve heard it before) or gales of laughter (they haven’t). 

But in this case, I was disappointed.

For my friend put down his elderberry tisane and his face clouded over. Was I suggesting that some people’s stories didn’t deserve to be told? That they were unworthy?

To be honest, he carried on, now gathering speed on the road towards indignation, he found it very dismissive. And superior. And verging on…

But I stopped him in mid-flight and reminded him that it was an old joke, and not mine. And that there was no malicious intent.

And in any case, the novel stays inside not because anybody’s forcing it to stay there, but because people just don’t pull their finger out and get it down on paper. 

The write stuff

“It sounds to me like it’s personal with you,” I said, probing to see what was what was behind the sudden flare-up. “You’re not a frustrated novelist by any chance?”

Now my friend is a microbiologist, so I didn’t think it was likely. But no sooner were the words out of my mouth than he was on his feet and scurrying inside.

Moments later, he emerged waving a book with the cracked spine and dog ears typical of repeated readings. 

Write a Novel and Get it Published, commanded the title of this Teach Yourself book by Nigel Watts. The author has done just that on many occasions and this how-to book is distillation of his experience, together with practical advice about the world of publishing. 

Now I know my limits, and writing a novel is simply beyond me.

Although I (probably) have the skill, I just don’t have the desire, determination or attention span to pull it off. But that didn’t stop me thumbing through my friend’s copy of the book to see what what I could glean. 

Framing your story

One thing in particular caught my attention: the eight-point story arc. It’s the basic framework that you can hang your writing on, and it’s one that you’ll recognise from all the best stories you’ve read.

But what got me interested was that it’s not that different to the framework of the best copywriting – which always tells a story. 

Without ruining the plot, the stages are [with marketing translation in square brackets]: 

  • Stasis, where you set the scene, usually involving a looming crisis – like Hansel and Gretel about to be abandoned by their parents in the wood. [Client is stuck in a problem situation.]
  • Trigger, which launches us into the story. Think wicked stepmother, or handsome prince in search of a bride. [Competition is hotting up, with new players disrupting the established order.]
  • Quest, as the hero/heroine sets out on a journey to solve the trigger question. [How do we adapt and survive in this new world?]
  • Surprise, which takes up the middle part of the story. Usually involves unexpected, though plausible, twists and turns. [Unexpected opportunities or challenges. Causes jeopardy, so the outcome is uncertain.]
  • Critical choice, where the main character has to choose between two paths. [Which product or service? Action or inaction? Stick to present course or alter?]
  • Climax, where the tension is ratcheted up and it could go either way. Everything is still hanging in the balance at this stage. [Still not sure which direction to take. The stakes are raised and it’s getting to crunch time.]
  • Reversal, which could be a positive reversal, where a character’s luck turns and things start looking up. [Here comes the solution to the client’s problem…]
  • Resolution, where a definite outcome is achieved, and the story is at a new stasis – sometimes happy, sometimes not. [Though in the copywriting/marketing case, stories always have a happy ending.]

Stories work because they follow certain conventions. Pick apart any popular novel, and you’ll see this same structure over and over again. 

Simplified for copywriting, it looks like this: 

  • Overview: set the scene, and make a promise.
  • Problem: get specific about the challenges that need to be faced. Don’t overplay this, or it’ll come across too negative. 
  • Solution: the body of the story, where you focus on the positives. Lead with benefits, and follow up with features.
  • Conclusion: wrap up the story, with a recap of the highlights. Include a call to action. 

OK, it doesn’t match the story arc points exactly, because it can’t.

Cinderella has to put on that glass slipper earlier, and we need to play down the misery and humiliation caused by those wicked sisters. Because marketing copy is less about the problem, and more about the solution.  

But it’s always about telling a good story. Much as I hope my elderberry‑drinking scientist friend will be doing in the not-too-distant future.

With a little help from Nige.

How do words get into the dictionary?

Usage and abusage, defriending and impacting…

“It’s a bit of a what?” said my friend to me. 

“Schlep,” I repeated. And repeating myself and explaining the word gave me a chance to say it over and over.

There’s something about schlep I find hugely appealing. It’s the sort of word you can roll around in your mouth and really sink your teeth into.

And because it’s not much used in the UK, it often provokes a quizzical eyebrow. It comes from German via Yiddish, and I picked it up when I lived in South Africa, where it’s in common use.

As a verb with an object, it means to carry something heavy (I schlepped my shopping to the car). Objectless or as a noun, it refers to a difficult journey (It’s a schlep to get to Gatwick – which is what I said to my friend).

The very next day, I had an IM ping-pong with a client about whether impact could be used as a verb – which is what I’d done in some copy.

Now I’m the first to admit that I’m a Grammar Nazi, but sooner or later, you have to accept that a usage has become the norm and you’re better off not fighting it anymore. So I don’t. But my client is keeping up the struggle just a bit longer, so in the end we plumped for affect.

Schlep and impact were very much on my mind as I recently watched a talk by Anne Curzan, who’s professor of English at the University of Michigan.

She’s a language historian who’s been on the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel for over a decade, and host of a radio show called That’s What They Say.

Curzan talks about the people behind dictionaries, and the never‑ending tussle between definition and usage. 

If you’ve ever perused a document, you might be surprised to learn the primary definition of the word. And if you’ve never been hangry or called somebody adorkable, you’ll add two more words to your vocabulary.

And maybe you’ll think twice the next time you use decimate.

What makes a word “real”? is entertaining and enlightening, with some unexpected discoveries. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on TED.com]

15 top tips to help you edit your copy (or anybody else's)

Cutting, summarising and tweaking. And knowing when to stop.

[Image courtesy of Benson Kua at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve always tended to dodge copy-editing jobs, as they can be frustrating.

In case you’re unclear on the difference between copywriting and copy-editing, the latter involves taking somebody else’s writing and giving it the once-over to make sure it’s in the best possible shape.

The trouble is, it’s often like trying to fix a dress that’s been badly cut, sewn or finished. Or taking a decorating or building project that’s been handled by an enthusiastic DIY-er, who just wants you to check that everything’s OK. Except it isn’t – wonky walls, mismatched colours and shaky foundations mean it would be better to start all over. 

Only starting all over isn’t an option. The budget’s been spent (or near enough) so it’s a case of pressing forward and making the best of it. 

It reminds me of the joke about the tourist who asks a local for directions. “Now if I were you,” says the old man learning on the wall, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

But sometimes you have to start from here. So how do you get to your destination?

Here are my top tips for knocking that copy into shape – whether it’s yours or somebody else’s:

  1. Get to the point sooner rather than later. Don’t waste the reader’s time with long, detailed intros. Think about how you react when you’re looking for a quick solution on the web and find a page that gives you three long paragraphs of background info. It may well have the solution further down, but that doesn’t much matter, as you’ve already clicked on the ‘back’ button.
  2. Go shorter. The last thing you want is for your reader to get lost in an interminable sentence, or a paragraph that packs in too much content. So don’t ‘do a Proust’. Instead, cut your sentences down and make sure each paragraph contains one idea. 
  3. Don’t chase the numbers – if you’ve written to a word count, you’re almost certain to have padded out your copy. So check each sentence and make sure it actually adds something to the story. If it doesn’t, be brutal and get rid of it – because quality always trumps quantity.
  4. Decide what the most important point is. Prioritise that and make all other points subservient. And if they’re really not that crucial, cut them out entirely.
  5. Read fast, then slow (aka zoom out before zooming in). It’s best when you’re trying to get a sense of the copy to skim first for an overall impression. Then do a second pass more slowly, to see if your impression is confirmed – and to identify what can be changed.
  6. Eliminate circumlocutions (aka long ways of saying something short). This goes for all copy, but especially copy that you’re trying to cut down and tighten up. So replace in spite of the fact that by though. Do the same with at this point in time (now), in the near future (soon) and time and time again (repeatedly, or often).
  7. Include more headings (and subheadings). They break up the copy and allow you to break your story into manageable chunks. And they give the reader visual stepping stones
  8. Bullet-point content. This is a really easy way to transform copy and make it more readable. Make sure that your bulleted or numbered points have a consistent approach – such as starting with a verb, as this list does. Readers may not even realize what you’re doing, but the consistency creates a rhythm that makes it easy to move from one point to the next. 
  9. Look at the copy as if it were a picture. So you’re not seeing words, but shapes. Is here enough white space? Are the paragraphs balanced? Is there enough variety to make the copy appealing?
  10. Read it backwards. This is an odd approach – and it really works best if you print out your copy – but I’ve used it on many occasions. Start with the last paragraph, and then read the one before it and so on. (If that feels to odd, then read section by section backwards.) It’s a bit like looking at a painting in a mirror, which is a trick artists use to see where they’ve gone wrong.
  11. Make your point and move on. Too often, when we’re speaking and writing, we repeat ourselves to ensure we’ve been understood. You may have heard of the term mansplaining – what men do when they patronise women with over-detailed explanations. Make sure you’re not writersplaining.
  12. Summarise everything. Everybody is time-poor and overwhelmed by inputs these days. Ever heard of ‘bounce time’? It’s how long somebody will spend on your web page before clicking somewhere else. Same goes for printed copy if you waffle. So summarise and make it easy to read.
  13. Act as if you’ve never seen it before – which is easy if it’s somebody else’s copy and you really haven’t. But I mean more than that: look at it as you’ve never seen an example of this type of copy (web page, brochure, blog post, report, white paper, case study) before. Forget your preconceptions and look at it with fresh, innocent eyes.
  14. Read it out loud. I’ve been using this tip (and banging a drum about it) for years, but recently an amateur Thespian friend give me a new spin on it. Be an actor, he said. Adopt a voice that suits the tone of the copy. Now do you like the person you’ve become? Do you like the way your copy speaks to your clients? You’ll be surprised at how effective this technique is.
  15. Print it out – and edit with a highlighter pen. Don’t make a first pass on screen, as you’re bound to miss something. In an age when everything has gone virtual, having a hard copy in one hand and a pen in the other creates a sensory perception that fundamentally changes the way you interact with the words.

And lastly, when you’ve done your best, call it a day and move on. There’s no such thing as perfect copy, and good enough is good enough. 

And there’s always something else that needs your red pen.