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9:08 AM
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Actionable Writing

David Ogilvy was an advertising executive who is often credited as the father of the modern advertising industry.

He and his contemporaries, Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett, were the original Mad Men.

In 1982 Ogilvy sent an internal memo simply and appropriately titled How to Write. You can find it in the 1986 "The Unpublished David Ogilvy." It contained ten tips for communicating in business. Here are just five of them:

Write the way you talk. Too many business people think that what your argument lacks in credibility you can make up for in syllables. This is otherwise called baffling them with B.S. If the thought you’re trying to express is good just write it. You’ll be convincing. If not, no amount of verbiage will help you.

Use short words, sentences and paragraphs. Whether I’m writing ad copy or something else, I always test the copy first to make sure that I use simple words over complex ones, split compound sentences and rarely run a paragraph more than two sentences.

Here’s a tip: If you hunt around you can find the Spelling and Grammar tool in Microsoft Word®. Hunt a little more and you can find the “Readability” tool within it that calculates how easy your stuff is to read.

It also calculates the grade level and the percentage of passive sentences.  Passivity is important because passive voice tends to take more words to express the same thought. It lacks the snap, crackle and pop of active voice. 

[For example, this post is written at a 6th grade reading level. Passive voice makes up six percent of the sentences.]

Find the Readability tool and use it.

Avoid jargon. It says to the reader “If you don’t know the secret code you shouldn’t be reading this.”

You want your copy to be as accessible as possible, not the key to the executive washroom.

Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do. The purpose of business writing is to spur your reader on to some action. If I want to read a story, I’ll pick up a novel. Tell me what you want me to do.

Ogilvy’s tenth tip on writing isn’t really a tip on writing at all. It’s advice on workplace relationships: If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

A number of years ago a company called First Data Corporation was a client of ours. The president was a guy named Charlie Fote. Legend has it that back in pre-email days Fote got sick and tired of his people sending long memos to each other through inter-office mail.

Like most companies First Data used pre-printed official memo forms. Fote had the forms sent to the print shop where he ordered that they be cut down from 11 inches long to five and a half inches. Goodbye long, pointless, CYA memos.

Finally, one book I recommend for business leaders on this topic is "The Autobiography of General Ulysses S Grant: Memoirs of the Civil War." Grant's style was more 20thcentury than 19th.  His sentences were short, brief and to the point. This differed from the florid writing style prevalent at the time.

In his autobiography Grant writes that he developed this style over his years as a field officer. In the heat of battle, he didn’t have the luxury of big words and long sentences. He had to be quick and direct. Lives depended on it. 

Above all, as Ogilvy wrote a century later, his words had to inspire action.

This week, let’s all shoot for inspiring action in our readers!

8:42 AM

It's Magic Time!

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Magic Time

I’ve been up in front of audiences for the better part of my career. Whether it is behind a mic, in front of a class, or before an audience, I’m comfortable talking to people.

Notice I didn’t say broadcasting, teaching or presenting. Because all of these skills fundamentally require the not-so-simple ability to talk with people. If you’ve seen the clip of producer-director Michael Bay’srecent meltdown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, you know public speaking isn’t as easy as it looks.

I was fortunate. By some stroke of luck I was assigned to speech class my first semester in college. The instructor, Robert Pearce, had been a professional public speaker, which I thought was the coolest way to make a living.

I was an inarticulate 18-year old kid who sounded like Bobby Bacala in The Sopranos. Mr. Pearce was my Henry Higgins. He taught me how to think and speak extemporaneously. It was my Pygmalion moment.

Extemporaneous speaking is conversational speech that belies the amount of preparation it takes.

Trust me, if can make a living doing that, like he did, anybody can. Here are some of his tips:

Kill the Slide Deck. A slide deck won’t do your work for you. Audio-visual aids are great, but make sure they’re the real deal. Don’t show slides of your last five books. Display your last 5 books on the podium. Much more effective.

Don’t memorize—associate. This is the most important tip. Professor Pearce would never let us read off of a script or even have a handful of notes. All we were allowed was a single four-by-six inch index card for notes. And we could only use one side! The secret was to jot down phrases that you could associate with your key points.

Not relying on a script, a slide deck, or a sheaf of notes achieved two things. First, clicking slides, reading from a script or rifling through a pile of notes is distracting and disrespectful to the audience. Second, the single note card helps avoid a flub like dropped notes or a projector malfunction.

Years ago, I was managing a conference. I invited a gentleman from a global technology firm to do an hour-long presentation on a new product his company had unveiled. He showed up at the conference hotel three minutes before he was scheduled to speak. He had flown in that morning—to the wrong city!

When he discovered his mistake he quickly rented a car and drove hell-bent-for-leather to the right location—some 120 miles away. Hadn’t eaten since the night before. Where most of us would have been drenched in sweat and suffering a panic attack, this guy checked the knot on his tie, took a sip of water and went on to speak for a full hour. No script. No PowerPoint®, no pile of notes.  He brought the house down. All on the strength of one, four-by-six index card.

Trust me, it works!

Don’t sound rehearsed—be rehearsed! Every speaker says the same thing: “I don’t want to sound rehearsed.” As odd as it sounds, the best way to sound rehearsed is not to rehearse. If you don’t rehearse you won’t be comfortable with your material. You’ll fall back on your “script” as a crutch.

Instead, know how much time you have to speak, and then “back-time” your speech into that length. 30 minutes of mic time? Prepare 30 minutes of material.

As you do this you’ll gradually cut your notes down to the bare minimum. Each time you rehearse time yourself. Keep doing that until you can fill your allotted time and not run over.

It’s normal to speak a little more quickly when the adrenalin surges, so you’ll have a little more time than you think. When you have your thoughts, words and the time aligned, then that’s the time to jot down your highlights on your index card.  

One more thing: Rehearse one last time right before you leave for the venue. I rehearse to my image in a mirror. The mirror image substitutes for someone in the audience and helps lower my self-consciousness. It’s a good way to leave your anxieties at home or in the hotel room.

You can’t have it all. You’ll be relying on 24 square inches to sum up everything you know on a topic. Accept the fact that you’re going to forget something. Don’t let it bother you. In normal conversation you always leave out some things you planned to say. Don’t get nervous and don’t go back to your previous point to add it. That will only confuse listeners. Save it till the end if you have time.

Focus. There are different ways to do this. One way is to pick one person and focus on that person as you deliver your speech or presentation. The problem is you could make that person uncomfortable. 

Another tip is to pick the person furthest from the podium and concentrate on that person. The thinking is that focusing on the last row brings everyone else into your field of vision. Nice thought, but if you’re focusing on everybody, you’re not really focusing on anyone.

Instead, focus singly on different people.  This is how you speak to a small group. You speak to one person, then turn and speak to another and so on. It’s how you communicate everyplace from the family dinner table to the boardroom. It’s more conversational. It makes you, as the speaker, look more animated, and it lowers your anxiety level as you start to focus less on the fact there are 200 people in the room and more on your material.

Above all, enjoy. They say the late actor Jack Lemmon had a particular ritual before he began filming every scene. He’d look into a small mirror, smile at his reflection and and utter his mantra, “It’s magic time!” right before he started his scene.

 I’ve always loved the image of this well rehearsed professional comparing himself to a magician—in total control of an attentive audience.

Find your own catch phrase and have fun with it. Remember, not everybody gets to do this for a living. We could be working!

Now go make some magic!

6:00 AM

Brand Awareness

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Go Bold or Go Home

Years ago, as an in-house marketing director I was challenged by my boss to significantly grow our public sector business. The company at the time vended services to state-level human services agencies, our target. Our challenge was that this was a market dominated by much larger competitors.

It was difficult to compete with them on recognition and name awareness.

In addition to battling competitors twice our size, we had an additional problem of name recognition. Commercial relationships ran deep, and a contract in this sector was like the gift that keeps giving. Incumbents rarely lost when they re-competed existing service agreements. Especially when the competition was virtually unknown.

 After some time studying the problem I discovered that while incumbents tended to win back their own work there was one issue that might provide an opening into this market segment. It seemed that the big boys at times could be unresponsive to customer requests. At other times, less than forthcoming with the customers.

The issue for us was how to leverage that behavior to our advantage in order to increase name recognition for the little kid on the block.

Here’s the solution I came up with:

We took a sponsorship with an annual conference that was attended by the agency managers that were our target customer. We sponsored a breakfast for these attendees.

Simple enough.

But our key move would be to hire a professional impersonator. And not just any impersonator. One that specialized in impersonating former President Richard Nixon.

Most of the target audience were long-time government staffers and had vivid recollections of the 37th president—who had had his own troubles with responsiveness and forthcoming issues.

I wrote the script for the actor, whose name I forget.  The script was seeded with typical Nixonian gags, including a hidden tape recorder. 

The morning of the speech I went to the impersonator’s hotel room to bring him down for a last-minute rehearsal. When the door opened I saw Richard Nixon—in full makeup, including the putty ski-jump nose—standing there in his briefs.

I’m probably one of the few people ever to have seen Nixon in his tighty whiteys.

As the breakfast sponsor we were allowed to give a little sales pitch. Rather than drone on in corporate speak, we introduced with great fanfare and flourish the “President,” who made his grand entrance through the banquet hall working the crowd on his way to the podium.

The speech was a rousing success. People not only started recognizing us in the market. They recognized us as young, bold and creative—a company willing to think outside the box for their customers.

Most importantly the company grew as a result of the event. The number of clients we served grew to over a million. Revenues doubled. Within a few years we had sold the company to a leading private equity firm for a healthy multiple.

I thought of that recently when I read a more recent PR case study of tax preparer H&R Block.

The study focused on how H&R Block raised its public profile with the 20 to 34 year-old male consumers that nearly all consumer product companies covet. 

In 2012 Block was a nearly 60-year old company with a solid track record as a tax preparer.  However, Internet-savvy millennials by that time had started gravitating to online tax preparation. The problem for Block was that its reputation at the time was that of  “your father’s tax preparer.” e-commerce was not something that Gen Y consumers associated with H&R Block.

Kansas City-based Block hired St. Louis-based Elasticity to help disabuse Block’s target demographic of its notion of Block as a stodgy, old-fashioned company. In doing so it helped re-brand Block as a company that millennials might like to do business with.

The plan? Elasticity created the Great Mustache Campaign.

In the words of Aaron Perlut, managing partner of Elasticity, the company didn’t just think outside the box. They crushed the box.

The campaign was built around an imaginary legislative proposal to provide a tax cut to anyone who sports a mustache. The tax cut was the tie-in to H&R Block. The “Stache Act” was the play for laughs. It was Block’s Nixonian moment.

The campaign began with a Presidents Day announcement from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. It included national TV appearances and creation of a phony lobbying group, the American Mustache Institute. It culminated with the “Million Mustache March” in Washington.

While the earned media from the campaign was impressive, most impressive was an admission by one of Block’s competitors that the Great ‘Stache Campaign had impacted its business that tax year.

Two campaigns—one big, one small. Same goal. If you want to break out of the clutter of your marketplace and get people to notice you be known for something.

Know what the essence of your company is and don’t be afraid to find news ways to communicate that. Be bold in your thinking and flawless in your execution.

Business, like luck, favors the bold.