Write-able Resolutions for the New Year

NotepadImageGetting more exercise, keeping track of finances better—January is a great time to start a new leaf.

For the past several years, I have suggested to colleagues and clients that they also use the new year to institute a few, small changes to their writing routines. Small changes, big results. Nothing too onerous, some even fun. Consider one or more of the following this year:

  1. Revise one more time. No matter how many times you usually revise something, go through one additional revision. You will catch all sorts of things that otherwise would slip by.
  1. Ask one more person than you usually do for feedback (which means, of course, if you don’t normally ask anyone at all, ask one person). Another set of eyes will give you a fresh perspective.
  1. Attend one literary reading. Bookstores, the Library of Congress, and universities all schedule regular readings by poets and prose writers. I’m not suggesting weekly or even monthly attendance, unless that is what you enjoy doing. Just try one. It is very inspiring.
  1. Read one book about the craft of writing. Two of my favorites are by William Zinsser (On Writing Well and Inventing the Truth).
  1. Write one piece in a genre you have never tried. A poem, an op-ed, a travel article–something you don’t normally try. Make it short. Don’t spend a lot of time on it unless you get inspired. But stretch yourself a bit.
  1. Read one literary classic. Go back to an author of your choice–Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, or any other author that you have been “meaning to get to.”
  1. Bookmark one new reference website that you will actually use. A few possibilities: The Columbia Gazetteer of the World Online, Chicago Manual of Style Online, or the Mayo Clinic, depending on your needs and interests.
  1. Schedule an artist’s date that does not involve words. Those familiar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way know she suggests a weekly “artist’s date”–a walk in nature, a museum, an interesting shop–to get the creative juices flowing. In this case, help your writing through something visual, musical, or tactile. If weekly sounds too overwhelming, try monthly or quarterly.
  1. Write a letter (not an e-mail) to a friend or family member. You might even consider doing something really daring, like handwriting it.

Do you have another write-able resolution to try? Let me know how it goes!

Content Curation: Make It Work for You

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One of the challenging things in maintaining a blog, distributing a newsletter, or even sending a “how are you doing?” email to a customer is figuring out what to write about. But surprise! You don’t have to create everything from scratch. Instead, rely on content curation. Have you heard the term?
Content curation is “the art of finding and repurposing the best and most relevant content on a specific issue to engage your audience,” according to Alan Rosenblatt, a partner with turner4D in Washington, DC, and expert content curator. He says curation makes sense to “feed the beast” that now includes social media, blogs, websites, email, and other channels. “These channels represent the primary way to interact with audiences,” he said, “and with some of them, you interact with far more people than through any other means.”
He suggests five mission-driven steps when you decide to curate content: Find, Frame, Share, Analyze, Get Results
  • Find an article, website, piece of data, quote, or whatever that would appeal to your target audience
  • Frame it, for example, by writing a little intro or explaining why you are sending the link
  • Share it (see below for some ideas)
  • Analyze by looking at your website traffic, foot traffic into your place of business, or other means
  • Get Results by figuring what worked, what didn’t, what you will do next time, etc.
What should we curate?
Look for content that:
  • Supports your mission
  • Comes from a credible source
  • Is well written, designed, or spoken (for test, graphics, and audio/visual)
  • Is information that your audiences might not otherwise come across.

Example: Your company makes gift baskets. You find an article about what celebrities give to each other over the holidays. Or you are an accountant. You find a nifty checklist with the top deductions tax-payers forget about.

REMINDER: You are curating, not confiscating or plagiarizing! Remember proper attributions!

How do we share it?
Ideally, you use the content in more than one of these channels, depending on your target audiences:
  • Blogs (your own, or as comments on others)
  • Social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
  • Youtube
  • Newsletters
  • Emails
  • Your website
  • Other places your target audiences go to for information.
What do we do with it?
Rosenblatt refers to the importance of the “framing message.” In other words, rather than just post a link, you might:
  • Write a headline and short introductory sentence so people know why you chose to share it
  • Extract the main points for a blog post or newsletter article
  • Compose a tweet, with a link to the article

Depending on the audience and channel, you might come up with a catchy or a more serious phrase. Also, consider a call to action, or what you want the audience to do as a result–share it further, give you a call, etc.

How do we sustain our curation strategy?
  • Set do-able goals. You can’t share everything, nor would your audience welcome it. Maybe 3 curated pieces per week as an initial goal? (or less or more, depending on what you can do on a sustainable basis).
  • Use technology for the tasks that can be automated, such as gathering external content from which to select, scheduling Tweets, and other aids.
If this hasn’t convinced you…

“Content curation is one of the most important strategic questions a campaign must deal with,” Rosenblatt told me. “If interaction is valuable to your organization, then it is your mission to make sure you are doing it well. Content curation is an essential part of that.”

What has worked for you–or not worked? Leave a comment, and let me know.

 

Editorial Calendars for All

You launched a blog, a newsletter, or Twitter account. You had some great topic ideas, and you wrote with great gusto for a week. Then…nothing.

Calendar Work got busy. Sitting down to come up with an idea and writing about it was too daunting. You abandoned it, even though you know it would be a great way to market your business.

But here’s a great way to sustain your effort: An editorial calendar. A what? An editorial calendar is a tool to plan for periodic, relevant, and channel-appropriate communications with your target audiences. You can use one of the many calendar templates available online (including through WordPress, the site of this blog), but you can also create a simple spreadsheet or list. The key is not what it looks like, but how you use it over time.

I use a very simple editorial calendar for my e-newsletter—and have managed to put together an issue every month for more than five years.

Recently, I talked with Dori Kelner, managing partner of Sleight-of-Hand Studios, about how she works with organizations to set up and adhere to an editorial calendar.

Audience and Goals

According to Kelner, basic questions come first:

  • Your target audience(s)
  • Your business objectives
  • Issues that are of interest to them (and not just what you want them to know about you!)
  • Channel(s) to best reach them (blog, Twitter, newsletter, etc.), ideally based on research.

Content can be static (for example, About Us or Contact Us on your website) or dynamic (blogs with new postings, tweets, Facebook posts, and the like). Most content these days should be dynamic. That’s where the calendar comes in.

Creating the Calendar

Using the format that works best for you, develop a calendar of how you will review and update/change the static content (maybe quarterly) and create dynamic content (way more often). Consider:

  • Which channels to regularly use, based on your audiences
  • How often to create (or curate) content
  • Topics
  • Who will do it

Kelner recommends a 4-month planning horizon. Be specific in your dates and assignments. Don’t propose, for example, twice-weekly blog postings. Instead, write out which dates each week, the general topics, and who will write them.

Be realistic, based on available resources. For instance, if you can’t keep up a weekly newsletter, make it biweekly or monthly. Use tools such as Twuffer to schedule tweets that you write in the morning over the course of the day.  

Keeping the Calendar

This is tricky, but it’s why the specificity of a calendar is your friend.

Honor the dates on your calendar as you do other project deadlines. Depending on the size of your business, you may be doing all the content yourself or coordinating the work of others. Either way requires time and attention.

And here’s another important part, Kelner said. Don’t run through the 4 months, then come to a full stop. At the end of the first month, plan for month 5, and so on, so you always have a flow ahead of you, and the task is more manageable.

Tracking

Use analytics to see any changes in traffic to your website. Chances are, if you are true to your calendar, you’ll see spikes in traffic when you post new content and dips when you are AWOL.

p.s. I will be blogging monthly on writing topics that are relevant to small businesses. Yes, I have set up an editorial calendar, but leave a comment here if you have a question or topic you would like me to cover that would benefit you.

 

To Do More Business Online, Be a Little Less ‘Businesslike’

It’s nearly 2014, and you know your business has to be on the internet.

But once you’re online, just how businesslike do you need to be?

Obviously, your company’s online presence has to meet some basic standards of professionalism — make sure all the text on your website has been spell-checked and, if you use social media, avoid embarrassing meltdowns, for starters.

But succeeding on the web requires a business to discard some traditional practices and attitudes from the offline world. Here are a few ways you should alter your approach online to connect more easily with potential clients and customers:

Don’t overdo formal language.

You need a consistent voice for your web presence, determined in large part by the market you serve. But even if you are shooting for a relatively high-end market, don’t be afraid to loosen up occasionally online — especially when using social media.

With apologies to Spinal Tap, it’s sort of like a volume knob. If your overall goal is an “8” in serious, it’s okay to dial down to 6 or 7 at times. Users implicitly understand that the web is a little less formal, and using a contraction or addressing users more directly won’t turn them off.

Don’t be a broadcaster.

Old media was a one-way transaction — businesses used media to send a message to people. The people had no effective way to talk back.

The internet has made just about every new form of communication two-way. Now, with features such as social media, comment threads on articles and live video chats, the web has made it easy for any two parties to have a conversation.

Customers know and expect this. Businesses ignore it at their own peril. It may feel more “businesslike” to send out your message and wait for the customers to start rolling in, but that’s not how things work online. You need to post your content, see how people respond, and respond to their responses.

Be transparent.

Many businesses are afraid to post their prices online — “It might scare customers away,” they say.

Business blogging expert Marcus Sheridan refutes that line of thinking with five convincing points. Perhaps the most persuasive is this: You shouldn’t waste time trying to sell a product to
someone who can’t even afford to buy the product.

Talking about price isn’t the only way transparency can help a business online. If you use your website to tell customers a little more about how your business works, what the people who work there are like, and even what you think of the state of your industry, they will identify with you and even trust you a little more. And that should lead to good results.

Be human.

In a way, this sums up all of the points made above. Technology often seems to be anything but personal. But with the widespread adoption of the internet, technology has had an opposite effect on business. It’s much more personal.

Understanding and adapting to that fact is just good business.

Jon DeNunzio runs Squarely Digital, a digital consulting firm that aims to make the internet a little bit easier and a lot more profitable for your company. Contact him at [email protected].

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4 Lessons on Writing for Your Business’s Website or Blog

For a business looking to try something new or different on its website, it’s never been easier than right now.

Adding streaming video, real-time social media feeds and attractive design effects can be simple. And users have the bandwidth and savvy to handle it when they land on a more complex site. There’s never been a better time to experiment.

That said, the simplest element of every website has not lost its importance as web pages have gotten more sophisticated. That element is the text.

I’d like to think that the words you publish on your business website are the most important part of the site (although I understand that some photographers and designers might beg to differ). There’s no doubt that the words play a big part in the impression you make on potential customers and clients, not to mention the search engine spiders that crawl and classify your site.

With that in mind, here are four lessons about writing I have learned over the years. Keep them in mind them when you’re writing for your site — whether it’s the text on your homepage, the staff  bios on your “About Us” page or posts on your company blog. I think they’ll help you make just the right impression.

1. Write the Way You Talk

This is the foundation of all the writing and editing I have done since high school. I learned it from my mom, who suggested this approach as I worked on a term paper.

This lesson does not mean that all of your writing needs to be conversational — although on the web, less formal often works better than more formal.

What it means is you should read the words you are writing as if they are being spoken, and if they don’t sound like something anyone would ever say, try again. Depending on your audience and your goal, the voice you imagine speaking your words could be casual or formal. But make sure the words match the voice and sound natural.

2. Less Is More

There are very few sentences that cannot be improved by making them shorter. (In fact, the previous sentence is probably better written as “Almost every sentence is better when it’s shorter.” That edit cuts out five words — a 38 percent reduction).

This lesson applies doubly on the web, where attention spans are short and competition for information and entertainment is a click away.

In a way, this lesson conflicts a bit with Lesson 1. When we speak, we often use extraneous words — understandably, since we are turning thoughts and feelings into words on the fly. Perhaps Lesson 1 should be, “Write the Way You Wish You Talked.” That’s only two more words.

 

3. A Second Set of Eyes Always Helps

Reporters and writers have editors. Entrepreneurs who are writing blog posts about their business don’t always have that luxury.

But if you can get someone — anyone — to read what you’ve written for your site, either before you publish or after it’s live, it can save you headaches and embarrassment.

Whether you realize it or not, you will have blind spots about anything you write yourself. Readers notice the errors, typos and faulty logic that you miss — so why not have the first reader report them back to you?

If you’re in a pinch and can’t get a second set of eyes, I suggest you read your copy in a different way. Print it out and take a red pen to it. Load it on to your tablet (if you wrote on a PC or laptop) and read it there. Read it backwards (really, this works — you’ll pick up spelling errors you would have glossed over going forward).

4. Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block

You have limited time to write for your site or blog. If you stare at a blank page for long, you might convince yourself you have “writer’s block” and it will take too long. You’ll move on to other things — hey, you have a business to run — and you may never come back to the writing.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. I know, because every time I faced a newspaper deadline, somehow I found a way to get all the words written in time. If you make yourself write, you will write.

If you’re having trouble getting started, I suggest putting yourself on the clock. Tell yourself, “I have to have six paragraphs written in 30 minutes,” or something like that. It will happen.

You can also avoid the mythical “writer’s block” by collecting ideas. Start a notebook or file on one of your devices where you jot down ideas for good material for your business site. Then when it’s time to write, you have a place to start.

So there they are, four lessons that should help you write for your business site. As good content becomes more and more important on the web, I hope these tips help you make the right impression and explain your business to customers and clients.

I’ve written it before — a website can be beautifully designed, SEO-friendly and quick as Usain Bolt, but if the actual words on the page are sloppy, unprofessional or indecipherable, you’re losing readers (and business).

Jon DeNunzio worked in the Washington Post newsroom for nearly 20 years and now runs Squarely Digital, a consulting firm that aims to make the internet a little bit easier and a lot more profitable for your company. Contact him at [email protected].

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Effective Business Writing: The Seven Keys for Small Business Owners

The Seven Keys to Effective Business Writing from Ray Sidney-Smith on Vimeo.

Eliza Dolin, of Ivy Quill Communications, presents a summary of her recent workshop at Alexandria Small Business Development Center on “The Seven Keys to Effective Business Writing.”

Do I Really Need a Business Plan?

Alexandria SBDC Business Planning GuideMany people ask themselves that very question before starting a business or expanding an existing one and the quick answer is yes. Many entrepreneurs state that they have most of the information in their heads or on notes in outline form – why take the time to write it down in a format? It is well-accepted that if you take the time (a true commitment) to put your ideas in a clearly written form, the chances that your plan will be successful is multiplied many times over.

If you have never been a business operator and owner before, a detailed yet succinct formal business plan is what you need to give you tracks upon which to run. This train, with each of its cars (sections), will be pulled by a strong engine from the departure platform directly to a successful destination.

If you are an existing business owner considering an additional office or another retail store nearby (or completely out of town), a modified business plan will be helpful as you consider the costs and sales ramp-up period involved to reach breakeven.

On the other hand, if you are an experienced entrepreneur and have been through the process a few times, a “mini-plan” may be all that will be necessary for you to move ahead and obtain financing, if that is necessary.

If you foresee that funding the project will involve a lender, investor(s) and/or a landlord, a Business Plan is mandatory. Write for your intended audience but always write the plan for yourself. This plan will be an individual creation different from any other and bear your personal stamp.

Now, let’s talk about exactly what is in a business plan and how it works to help you. It is comprised of five major sections:

  1. Executive Summary;
  2. Business Description;
  3. Marketing;
  4. Operations; and,
  5. Financial.

In addition, there are sub-sections to the marketing and financial areas, cover page, table of contents and an appendix.

Contrary to what you may think, the Plan is not written in the order one may read it. The first section to complete is the Marketing section. This is the “engine” that drives the train and delivers the revenue you need to insure that your business can meet its cash flow requirements. The second section to craft is the Financial section with the project costs and performance projections spanning up to five years supported by written financial assumptions. When these two sections are considered to be in final form, you have completed about 80% of the hard work.

Finally, you are likely interested in how long it will take to finalize a business plan. You can anticipate it taking about 60-90 days if you work on it studiously and consistently. How long will it be? It will be anywhere from 30-40 pages (plus copies of tax returns for lender) dependent upon the audience for your plan. How does it affect the plan if it’s just for yourself? It shapes into a shorter and less wordy document. And, for a bank or other lender? Work on just the facts and prove the ability to service the debt. Lastly, for an investor(s)? Show returns over longer periods, concentrate on the return on investment (ROI) and exit strategy for the investor. You will find the task engaging and rewarding in many ways and glad that you took the time to do it right.

For more details on creating your business plan, visit Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s website or call us to schedule a meeting to discuss your needs.

 

EVENT: Every Word Matters in Business (Tues, 2/7/12)

Ever stare at a blank screen and not be able to write about your business? Do you struggle when you are under a deadline to write that business report or marketing piece? You are not alone! Many business owners know what they want to write, but they just can’t get it right!

Eliza Dolin - Ivy Quill Communications
February's Brown Bag Workshop Speaker, Eliza Dolin - Ivy Quill Communications

Come to our February Brown-Bag Lunch event and hear an upbeat, educational presentation about why good writing matters to all businesses – particularly small ones! These days, clear communication — whether in website copy, emails, memos, or newsletters — is more important than ever in achieving your business success.  Communications consultant Eliza Dolin of Ivy Quill Communications, LLC, will explain the reasons why, identify the causes of and cures for ineffective business writing, and offer tips that will help your business thrive.

Register today!

Join other small businesses at the monthly Brown-Bag lunch series of START, MANAGE, GROW your business sponsored by the Alexandria Small Business Development Center and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership who are committed to helping small business thrive in Alexandria.

Free of charge, and held monthly in our boardroom located at 625 N. Washington Street, Suite 400 from noon until 1PM, business owners are invited to bring their lunch, network and learn nuggets of knowledge from experts.  A Q & A session will follow each presentation and we’ll get you back to your business promptly @ 1PM!