Writing is very handy, whether you work in communications or a completely unrelated field. It allows us to express ourselves in so many ways: seeking and giving information; sharing thoughts, emotions and ideas; reaching out with empathy; conveying stories about ourselves and others.
I’m lucky to have practiced almost daily since high school, with quite a bit of work even in grade school.
Even if you consider yourself a novice, it’s never too late to start. What I’ve told students and reporters for years is that every writer has room for improvement. Even National Book Award winners. Even writing coaches.
One important habit to improve our writing skills is to do it every single day. This is both the easiest piece of advice to follow and the most difficult.
It’s easy because we have unlimited opportunities in our daily life to practice. Social media is a prime example: Compose your updates with care. Think about your intended audience and the core message. Whittle it down to as few words as possible.
This applies to tweets and Snapchat captions, as well as blog posts and text messages. Obviously it applies to emails and memos.
Take away any excuses: I keep pads of paper and pens together in my house, my office and my car. I can jot down an idea at a stop light — and often do. Dictate thoughts into your always-in-reach smartphone’s recorder or your voicemail (I do that, too). Keep a private blog with one simple rule: one entry per day, even if it’s a single sentence, a single word.
It’s difficult because writing can be intimidating. A blank page can give grown men and women the sweats, let alone the horrifying notion that someone could read it.
Every writer started somewhere. And many of the top writers struggle with their work — it doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
You must overcome your timidity of scratching out a sentence a day, one that no one but you will ever read. Otherwise, you’ve failed before you’ve even tried.
Another challenge for writers trying to improve their skills is the perceived lack of progress. I hack away at different writing assignments every day, but it’s hard for me to tell if I’m getting any better. I’m stuck in the middle of my own work.
Remember that daily writing will yield gradual progress, but it does take time. And we may not be the best judge of our own work — it always helps to have another set of eyes on it.
Getting started is a must. Keeping at it is essential. Write every day, even a lousy nonsensical phrase that sticks in the throat like so much phlegm.
The world needs more thoughtful writers. They come from those who practice the craft.
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Originality is a challenge in the blogosphere. Do we really have something new to say?
Of course. Follow my lead.
Having worked in newspapers and magazines, I fought that battle every year with the help of creative colleagues. Coming up with a new spin on Easter fashion or spring cleaning or local music festivals would sometimes induce eye rolling and heavy sighing.
We’ve seen news sites and blogs dredge up shallow takes on perennial topics with the dreaded list and slideshow. Pick the 10 most popular items, stick them in a countdown list or a click-generating slideshow and bam, done.
We can do better.
The best approach is brainstorming. Start with colleagues: They might be colleagues, they might be co-workers in other departments, they might be bloggers in the same niche. Ask what’s been done to death, and what avenues have yet to be explored. In the news industry, we held each other accountable continuously for jotting down ideas and talking with people from all walks of life for different insights.
Brainstorming with readers can also yield fresh angles. Social media offers an opportunity to ask for questions, topics and ideas.
Another approach is paying close attention to trends. How people put together their Easter ensembles is different from 10 years ago. We have more and better tools and products available for spring cleaning. Many factors influence a music festival, from how fans discover new bands to competing events to the predicted cost of gasoline.
Being attuned to what’s happening right now can make our posts smarter and more helpful to our audience. It can reassure them that we haven’t fallen out of touch with them or the world.
One last approach is to take risks in shaking things up. I came from an industry that ran screaming from anything resembling a risk, but I took them anyway.
I’m not suggesting change for the sake of change. I am suggesting that we should not shy away from different approaches to evergreen topics simply because we’re moving from our comfort zone. It might upset customers. It might garner ridicule.
Even a complete and utter failure can guide us on what to do next time. Likely, our audience will meet a new take with indifference. That’s how it goes.
I can appreciate when a blogger tries something completely different, even if it flops. Sticking to a formula can grow stale, not only for the audience but also for the creator.
These three approaches can bring new life to our blogs, even when covering well-worn topics. It’s up to us to think through how our posts can pique our interest as well as our readers’ interest.
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Video: “Birmingham Realtors — Are You a Socially Savvy Agent?”
Five years ago, I answered a couple of challenging questions from my pal Tom Horn of the Birmingham Appraisal Blog. And we caught it all on video.
- How can real estate agents benefit from having a blog?
- What are the five things they can do to get started?
All of it still applies in 2017, so if you’re an agent, it’s not too late to show off your expertise and your houses to a booming real estate market. Check out the video, and let me know in the comments if you have questions.
And if you need a real estate appraisal in the Birmingham area, contact Tom today.
Watch more videos featuring my tips and advice.
Most blogs die unheralded deaths. They pop into existence with little fanfare and wink out with as much fuss.
What kills these corporate blogs is usually neglect and apathy. And many deserve to die: Their continued existence tarnishes the brands they’re supposed to promote.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Blogs can have long, productive lives if we work with purpose and tie them to meaningful rewards.
That purpose must be a business goal. The blog could be a part of marketing efforts, or a way to enhance customer service, or a channel to drive sales. Starting with specific outcomes in mind can help determine blogging topics, metrics to monitor and approaches to drive traffic and interaction.
Careful planning is a must, but it’s worthless without tying the blog to rewards and consequences. Many leaders don’t care about results, and so their colleagues blog half-heartedly. If no one cares about the blog, why waste time and effort on it?
The saddest part is that with so such pervasive mediocrity among businesses, it’s that much easier to create and maintain a stand-out blog. Settle for less, or strive for more?
If it is time to kill the blog, check the site metrics before deciding whether to leave the posts online or remove them. Deleting the blog could hurt site traffic; leaving it up could give visitors the impression that the site is abandoned or neglected.
(One option is to take the top-performing posts and integrate that content into existing or new pages.)
Let’s keep our blogs happy and healthy through smart management. If a blog must die, let it be from old age and not commonplace indifference.
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Let me know if you need help with the care
and feeding of your company blog …
I listen to a lot of articles and audiobooks in the car. I don’t usually listen to podcasts.
My listening time dropped when I switched from walking in the neighborhood back to my treadmill (where I’ll watch shows off the DVR). So I haven’t had a pressing need to fill my iPhone with audio content.
Still, I want to know what you’re listening to regularly. Bonus points if it relates to communication.
Leave a comment below with your favorite podcasts (video podcasts are allowed, too), and tell me why you subscribe. Yes, you can promote your own podcast, too.
I love language, but I haven’t studied it formally. I want to understand it better as a writer and a speaker. It’s critical to persuasion and marketing.
Linguist George Lakoff wrote an 8,000-word post-mortem on the 2016 presidential election called “A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed, And What the Majority Can Do.” I’ve read it a couple of times and shared it on social media.
I’m going to re-read it and study it till it sticks in my brain.
One idea he explains is the limits of facts and rational arguments. They don’t always work, since everyone processes information differently. If we’re wired more for logic, those facts might be persuasive. If we’re wired more for values, these arguments are simply incompatible, almost as if speaking a foreign language.
I’m planning on reading Lakoff’s updated version of his 2004 book, [aff. link] “Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” to better understand the psychology behind our language and how to reach more people.
Maybe I can rewire my brain to use language more engagingly and understand how others perceive my words.
- Salon interview with George Lakoff
- “A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed, And What the Majority Can Do”
- Watch George Lakoff on “Tavis Smiley.”
Video: George Lakoff on why facts don’t move all people
New bloggers often struggle with the most basic question: what to blog about. But even corporate blogs face this challenge.
This might strike fear into middle managers everywhere, but it shouldn’t. Plenty of marketing plans move forward with no defined goals and poorly conceived action steps.
A blog and a blogger can find their voice through practice. The most likely outcome is … nothing. The blogger runs out of steam, either from competing demands or lack of ideas or lack of institutional support. Why bother if no one in the organization can be bothered to contribute ideas, posts or promotion to a fledgling endeavor?
A lucky few will find that, after 6 months, the blog slowly comes into focus. It could be pure marketing. It could be recruiting and humanizing the company. It could be customer service, offering not only information and assistance, but a broader look at trends, best practices and one-on-one advice.
A different approach is to examine the marketing plan for the year ahead and determine how a blog can enhance those efforts. It could be to extend the brand and increase consumer awareness of a company’s products and services. It could be to drive traffic to the sales section of the site. It could be to kick-start lead generation with in-depth posts. It could be to build customer loyalty by preaching to the choir.
When we decide on the blog’s role, we can then determine topics and tactics. We want topics that are fresh and those that are done to death. Each post, done properly, enhances our search ranking and brings the right visitors to our site over and over.
The tactics should include regularly scheduled posts (at least once a month and ideally once a week); promotion of posts; networking with bloggers who work on similar topics; analysis of metrics; and fine-tuning content creation. It’s a lot of work, and most companies will either need to bring in more people or drop other less-effective strategies.
Finding the focus can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. It is impossible without actual blogging. But a sharp focus can not only bring more fans and customers along for the ride, but also keep out those who would never spend a dime or provide only drive-by traffic.
And the sooner we start, the sooner we find it.
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After a 2-year debut in Philadelphia, the nation’s largest WordCamp is headed to the South.
WordCamp US will be in Nashville for 2017 and 2018. This year’s event takes place Dec. 1-3, and tickets are $40. The first 2 days have three tracks of sessions all day long, while the third day is contributor day, allowing attendees to work with different teams on WordPress development.
For those interested in WordPress, site design, content and more, this conference is perfect. I’ve heard great things about WordCamp US, and I’m excited it’ll be so close to home through 2018.
December’s event brought 1,300 campers to Philadelphia to see nearly 60 speakers. My two regrets are missing the event and not having Birmingham selected as host.
Fortunately, I can watch all the talks for free at the WordCamp US 2016 section of WordPress.tv.
I’m marking my calendar now. (For those who can’t make the trip to Nashville, a virtual ticket will be available.) Maybe I’ll even be lucky enough to be selected as a speaker.
Hope to see you there in December.
Video: WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg gives the
“State of the Word 2016” keynote at WordCamp US.
Great email management requires more than defensive tactics. It means having a solid offensive strategy.
Getting a permanent handle on email frees us to do productive work, removes the anxiety of facing the Inbox and assures colleagues and partners that we’re handling messages decisively. It works, but it requires us to take a few more aggressive steps.
1. The most important step forward is to set boundaries. This is straight outta “The 4-Hour Workweek” [aff. link].
One boundary should be expectations of timeliness. Email can’t be a dog whistle that anyone in the world can use to summon us at a moment’s notice. I can immediately tell when those expectations are out of alignment when someone responds to my email after a few weeks, but then sends me followup emails within an hour demanding a reply.
If it’s an emergency, call me. If it’s not an emergency, email me. (And trust me, I have a strict definition of what constitutes an emergency.) I’m perfectly fine letting calls go to voicemail 99 percent of the time.
Many questions magically resolve themselves without my intervention. And just about everyone receives a reply from me within 24 hours.
2. Another boundary to set is how many times a day we check email. I’m down to two times a day and should eventually get to once a day.
When email is the to-do list written by others, I prefer to keep that list as short as possible. Otherwise, it threatens to sap away all productivity and focus. We don’t check our snail mailboxes obsessively, and we really shouldn’t snatch our phone up for every notification for texts and social media.
We do this to ourselves.
We must rescue ourselves.
Checking work email in bed at night and first thing in the morning is counterproductive. It’s setting unrealistic expectations and burning us out. It’s allowing the tool to use us than the other way around.
3. Where many people fail is not in cleaning up their Inboxes. It’s not even in setting up auto-filtering rules.
The failure comes from having a working system in place.
What good is clearing 700 messages out of the Inbox if it’s overstuffed a week later?
It’s like having an organization system for clutter in the home. Mail goes here, keys go there, remote goes there. Otherwise, clutter.
Filtering rules can handle most of the incoming email. But we must still whittle down some pile of messages. “Getting Things Done” [aff. link] offers a solution: Reply, do later, archive or delete.
- If a reply can be written in 2 minutes or less, we take care of it on the spot. Then we archive it.
- If it takes more than 2 minutes, we put it in a To-Do folder.
- If we need to refer to it later, we archive it.
- Or delete it.
By putting total focus on the Inbox, we can manage it daily, without re-reading messages or struggling with indecision.
Quite a few posts can guide newbies through applying Getting Things Done to email, including this one that focuses on Gmail users. The Getting Things Done system is terrific, but applying it to email and other areas takes study and practice.
Without any system in place, email becomes a burden again, rather than a simple task to handle with a smile.
4. A big step to consider is email encryption. It’s technology that’s available to all of us at a reasonable cost, allowing only us and the recipient access to the message.
But why do it?
Email privacy is an illusion. Our mail can be read by government agencies, corporate spies, tween hackers, Russian hackers and nosy family members. Many of us have faced similar privacy concerns about our medical records, our financial statements, our phone data, our photos stored on the cloud and other sensitive material.
We lock our doors, try to hide our PINs at the ATM and supermarket checkout terminal and use two-factor authentication for site logins. Maybe we’re not thinking enough about securing our email.
Lifehacker put together a guide to email encryption in 2013 worth studying. For most people, having stronger passwords and better password management will be enough of a defense. But for a few, encryption will be a necessity.
Email offense ensures that we take charge of this communication tool. Our game plan is to free up time wasted on tracking messages and give ourselves ongoing peace of mind.
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Email is my favorite way to communicate, though I realize it’s out of fashion for many people. Some prefer the instant access of group chat apps such as Slack, or simply picking up the phone. And we have plenty of alternatives, including messaging apps (WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger), texting and ye olde Snail Mail (which I send when I want to complain about customer service or product defects — it’s fairly effective).
Using email can be a real pain, as users fight to keep their Inboxes tamed while having time to, you know, work. Not to mention all the security problems: phishing and other scams, hacked services, viruses, misrouted messages.
I’ve seen friends and clients struggle with email. It’s costing them time, customers and sanity — but it doesn’t have to be that way. They can win the email war in a few steps.
Let’s look at some options for email defense. These are tactics I use every day in keeping my Inbox clean and my goals on track.
1. I had to install a spam filter. Because I have public email addresses and multiple domain names, spammers spoof them to send out their junk. So I receive upwards of about 200 spam emails a day. This was driving me up the wall, trying to find a handful of legitimate messages in a sea of Viagra ads and unsafe links.
Apple’s Mail.app for my laptop wasn’t cutting it.
I found SpamSieve, a plugin that has saved my bacon. It filters out spam during my mail checks, and learns with each pass. I can train it for false positives and negatives. It’s only $30 and completely worth it.
2. Many, many years ago, I learned how to set rules for each email app I used. Because so much of my email is recurring, I wanted it to sort itself into neat piles: bills, friends, newsletters, media releases, urgent notices and so on.
It’s still a work in progress. But at least I’m not wasting time looking through all my emails in one endless list.
Filter emails by sender, by recipient email address (handy when I use different addresses for different purposes) and subject. Mark them by label or color, change them to already read, or trigger a sound for important messages.
It takes about an hour to set up filtering rules and testing them. They’ll save hours upon hours with each incoming message.
3. Many users do an annual cleanse by unsubscribing from old newsletters, promotional offers and any email blast that have outlived their usefulness. Doing it once a day for a week can drastically cut down on overall volume all year long.
I finally made myself do it in December, and having that cleaner Inbox made it worthwhile.
For those who need a shortcut, try Unroll.Me, a free service that works on major platforms including Gmail and Outlook.com (but sadly, not my humble Apple Mail). Not only does it offer mass unsubscribing, it also takes the remaining newsletters and puts them into one digest.
No more excuses: Drop the emails (even my newsletter, if need be) no longer needed or read.
4. Passwords remain one of our most vulnerable security areas. We use bad passwords (too common, too short, too simple). We leave them lying around. We leave them unchanged.
This makes little sense, since we rarely input our email passwords while checking them from our computers at home and work and our phones.
Email providers are making it too easy for the hackers: Many set a maximum limit of password characters — it’s crazy to have an eight-character password nowadays guarding our email accounts.
Let’s change our passwords today, using a mix of letters and numbers and punctuation. Try 20 to 30 characters for best security. (And use a password manager to track those new longer passwords: Try KeePassX for Mac desktops and MiniKeePass for iOS devices. MakeUseOf has more on this free solution.)
5. Perhaps the oldest rule of all applies even more in this age of social media and Internet shaming. If we wouldn’t want to see something on the front page of NYTimes.com, we shouldn’t send it in an email.
Email, for the most part, is not secure in its travels from server to server. We like to think of it as a direct transmission from our Outbox to the recipient’s Inbox, but emails travel a circuitous route over many vulnerable access points. While the likelihood that any one person’s single email message could be intercepted en route, the reality is that our systems are vulnerable at all points along the way, beyond our own devices.
Keeping sensitive info out of email may not be a practical solution. We must each weigh the benefits (convenience, compatibility, speed) and the risks of using email in each instance of transmitting that data.
Using these five steps can greatly enhance our email usage by keeping our accounts safe and secure, clean and efficient. Let’s make the most of our email through good maintenance.
Next week: Playing email offense
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