How to Write Effective Web Copy
The Internet is bloated. Your users have limited attention spans. And websites everywhere are written with cliché, ambiguity, and scattershot messages.
But words matter! The wrong words—or worse, the forgettable words—can cost your organization countless opportunities. The right words can spark emotion, spur action, and start a lifelong relationship. Which are you going to pick?
By the end of this session, you should be able to:
- Write for how people read online
- Make your copy more readable
- Please Google and its algorithms
- Make your messages “sticky”
This lively, funny, interactive session will send you scurrying back to your keyboard—ready to obsess over every. single. word.
Welcome everybody to ‘How to Write Effective Web Copy’ from Mighty Citizen. Thank you all for attending. I know we have some folks who are just now getting into the room but we do have a lot to cover so I want to make sure that we get started right away. And, of course, we will be sending out both this slide deck and a recording of the webinar later this afternoon. Again, hi everybody. I’d like to start this presentation by telling a story, and the story is about this guy, his name is David Ogilvy, you may know him. He started what eventually became one of the world’s largest ad agencies and he has a really interesting story, and I encourage you to read all about him if you get the chance. He has written a few books himself. But there’s a great story about David Ogilvy that I think really illustrates why we’re taking an hour out of our workday to talk about writing, especially for the web. The story goes like this: It’s the early 60’s and Ogilvy at this point is a really powerful, rich man living in New York City. And it happens to be the very first day of spring in New York, and if you’ve ever been in New York on the first day of spring, it’s kind of a special time because for the previous four or five months most New Yorkers are mostly huddled up inside, so it’s pretty special to be able to go out into the sun for the first time. Ogilvy is walking down the street and he passes a man who is homeless and who is blind. And this man is begging for change on the sidewalk, and Ogilvy notices him but he also notice that nobody else is noticing him, that they’re walking by this guy without paying him any attention. Ogilvy, whose background was in copywriting, he was a really excellent copywriter, is sort of struck with a moment of inspiration. He notices that the guys sign that he is holding up reads something like ‘I’m hungry, please help’, something that you might expect. But Ogilvy is struck with inspiration and so he asks the man if he can borrow his sign and he flips it over to the back and he pulls out his Mont Blanc pen and he writes a new message, and he hands the sign back to the man. The story goes that later that day Ogilvy is walking back down that same street and notices that the man’s cup is filled with dollar bills and that people are stopping and talking to him and offering him help. So of course the question is: What did Ogilvy write that made such a difference? And this is what he wrote: It is spring and I am blind.
Now, I tell this story mostly to illustrate the power of language but I also like to talk about what is so effective about this message. Why did this message make such a tangible, concrete difference? Well there is a lot going on in this message. It is short, easy to read, you don’t have to spend much time deciphering it. It’s rhythmic almost, there’s symmetry, those seven words with the word ‘and’ in the middle. I think the most powerful thing about it is that it’s a moment of really powerful communication, real human connection. Here I am, enjoying this beautiful sunny spring day and in just seven words I am reminded that other folks just aren’t as fortunate as I am and I should keep that in mind. So with that little opening story in place, I want to introduce myself real quick, that’s me kind of, my name is Andrew Buck. I’m a content strategist here at Mighty Citizen. For those of you who may not know, Mighty Citizen is a branding and digital transformation agency for mission driven organizations. I have been here about four years but have been working in marketing and copywriting for almost 20 years believe it or not. And that is my email address, I’ll give it again at the end of the presentation and I want any of you on the call to feel free to send me a message at some point. I would happy to answer question or just talk about online communication, it’s one of my favorite subjects.
By the end of this webinar I’m hoping that you should be able to identify the most common challenges that professional communicators face online: Write for how users actually read online, increase the readability of your web copy, and we’re going to talk at the end about some ways that you can make your online content more sticky, we’ll talk more about what that means when we get there. So with that in mind, let’s just go ahead and jump right in by talking about: What We’re Up Against. I’m assuming that most, if not everyone, on the call today is some sort of professional communicator, in marketing or fundraising or development or something like that. Some of the things I’m going to talk about now might seem really familiar, some might be news. The first thing I always like to remind our clients of is that our users have really limited attention spans. They did a global study back in 2000 to discover that the average human adult had a 12 second attention span. They measured goldfish at about 9 seconds. So, we had the goldfish beat by a whole 3 seconds. But then they did the study again a few years ago and this is what they found: That our attention span had dropped to 8 seconds, you’ll probably see some folks say 7, some folks say 9 but its right there at 8. There’s definitely a measurable drop off. Of course what happened between the years 2000 and 2013 that might account for such a steep decline in our attention span? Well of course, it is the advent of the Internet and of digital technology and of content, smartphones, social media, etc., all of that. We are connected obviously in ways that we weren’t 20 years ago, and that has measurably affected what we can tend our brains to. I like to remind clients of this because it’s really important to keep that in mind when you’re crafting some sort of message for the Internet, that you have precious few moments to capture your user’s attention. There’s also a lot of competition out there, and not just from your direct competitors but from the Internet in general. Every 60 seconds, you can see here, the amount of content that makes its way online, so hundreds of millions of emails are sent, millions of searches are performed on Google, there’s 2.4 million content shares on Facebook, 571 website are created and my favorite is that last one: 217 new people begin using the mobile web, which is really I think just another way of saying 217 12 year olds get their first smartphone. There are plenty of distractions, plenty of ways for users to ignore your content in favor of others content because there’s just so much it. We’re going to talk a little bit about how you can smartly cut through that glut.
Another thing we’re up against is how people read on screens. So the question is: How do they read on screens? Well the unfortunate, or fortunate answer, depending on your point of view, is that they don’t read per say, they skim, they search and they scan. A lot of what we’re going to talk about in the next 10 or 15 minutes has to do with low hanging fruit, meaning things you can do right now on your website, in your social media, in your email marketing to increase the readability of your content based on this fact: The fact that on screens people don’t read the way they read offline. There’s a lot of scanning, a lot of hunting, so we always have to keep that in mind. There’s another question of literacy, and the question here is: At what grade level does the average American adult read? Maybe I’ll let you all take a moment and come up with your best guess. I’ve heard everything from 3rd grade to 12th grade but the official answer is 8th grade. Which translates to this fact: That about half of American adults cannot comprehend a book written above an 8th grade level. That is probably a little surprising to some of you, maybe a little upsetting. If you’re curious what 8th grade writing looks like, the books by John Grisham are generally right at the 8th grade level. Believe it or not, the Great Gatsby is an example of a book written at an 8th grade level. So we’ve got low attention span, we’ve got more competition, we’ve got the fact that people don’t read in the same way we think of reading when they’re on a screen, and we’ve got a relatively low grade level for our users.
Another thing we have to keep in mind is really illustrated by this great story about Nora Ephron. If you don’t know Nora Ephron was a really great writer, she wrote a lot great movies, like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, really smart, really funny. And there was a story about her when she was a senior in high school she was in a journalism class and the teacher came in one day and said, “Alright class, we’re going to practice writing a lead for the student newspaper.” As you may know, a lead is the very first sentence of a newspaper story and it tends to need to be the most important sentence in the entire story. So what he said is, “Alright, we’re going to practice this. I’m going to give you a bunch of facts and I want you to figure out what the lead should be for that story. These are the facts that he gave his students: Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the entire school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Pat Brown. And all the students put their heads down and began trying to rearrange or make these facts more concise, just trying to figure out what the best lead for the story would be. Nora Ephron, already being a genius at that you age, wrote this: There will be no school next Thursday. I just love this story because what it reminds of is how important it is to keep our users at the front of our minds when we’re creating any sort of message for our organization that we’re going to put out into the world. It’s very, very easy, and we’re going to talk more about this in a minute but it’s really easy to forget about our users, what they want, what they need. She understood, Nora Ephron understood in this story that what students care about is getting off school, so she’s going to start there. They don’t care about a colloquium in new teaching methods, she kept her audience at top of mind, and that’s challenging because we spend all day thinking about our other work and our organization, thinking about ourselves. So there’s a lot that we’re up against as professional communicators but I think even just acknowledging them, keeping them in mind will help us avert some of those pitfalls or potential challenges.
So with that in mind, I want to talk about the low hanging tactics for making your copy online way more readable. And when I say readable, I mean more likely to be read because it is x, y and z, it’s got all these features that we know increase readability. The first thing I talk to clients about when we’re coming up with a content strategy is they just need to write everything. I think there’s so much institutional knowledge trapped inside of your organization that doesn’t make its way of out the minds of the people who know it so well. Part of the reason it doesn’t make it out is because they know it so well and so they assume others do too. But, I think it’s our job as professional communicators to get the raw ideas out of our mind and out of the minds of our colleagues, and even our users. So just get it out of your head, write. I think we write sometimes too obsessively, we try to write well. The truth is, your first draft will be terrible, let’s just internalize that reality; if you’re doing it right, your first draft will be horrible. What I mean is that you’re not worried about form or audience even really, it’s more just getting the massive thoughts out, even the little thoughts out, anything. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ but there’s some element of stream of consciousness writing. I think we need to just let go of our inner editor, smother it as you might say and just lower your standards for that first draft. Alright, so that’s our first task, we just want to get all these great ideas. I think it was Flannery O’Connor that had a great quote, she said, “I write in order to know what I think.” So for so many of us, writing is a form of thinking but if we inhibit ourselves at every step and try to make every sentence perfect the first time, we’re inhibiting our thinking, so I would encourage you not to do that. Next, it comes time to cut. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. I love cutting copy down. I would encourage you to aim to cut about 50% of the words from your first or your second draft.
I had a college professor once who told us we had to cut 66% of the words from our first and second draft. And I think he knew that it was an abused number but if we aim for 66% we might land around 50%.The truth is that most people write way too much and, again, remember 8 seconds attention span, tons of competition and the fact that people read differently on screens than they do out of books or on paper. Here’s the other interesting thing, when you cut your copy down, when that becomes your pursuit, it almost always injects your copy with more energy, personality, dynamism, it becomes more interesting to read. That’s not always the case but it seems to happen a lot. I know it happens around here at Mighty Citizen quite a bit. So get the ideas out and then worry about making them work, and the quickest way to make them work is to make them shorter. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Here’s a sentence you might read on a website somewhere, like a technical website: Please note that although Chrome is supported for both MAC and Windows operating systems, it’s recommended that all users of this site switch to the most up to date version of the Firefox web browser for the best possible results. That sentence has 41 words, it doesn’t initially strike you as a terrible sentence. It’s relatively clear, there’s not a bunch of typos or grammatical mistakes so at first glance this might seem like a sentence you could put up on your website, but I think it can be way improved. So from 41 words let’s go to this: For best results, use the latest version of Firefox. Chrome for Mac and Windows is also supported. This version of the sentence has 17 words and we cut 59% of the words. Notice two things, first of all, easier to read, we get the idea and we didn’t lose a single piece of important information. I think that marketers sometimes worry that they’re leaving ideas out, but you can be concise in your language online without losing important ideas. I just wanted to prove that it’s totally possible and just want to encourage all of us to aim to do that.
A few quick ways to simplify your copy, by the way, the next 120 seconds are going to sound like we’re revisiting your 6th grade language arts class. Forgive me, but even those of us who write all day every day need to be reminded of some of these things. Illuminating prepositions is a great way to cut your copy down, obviously prepositions are really important words, we couldn’t have language really without them, but they’re often overused. The way, by the way, that I remember what a preposition is I learned in 3rd grade when my teacher told me that any word that can connect a squirrel and a tree is a preposition. So you know the squirrel is in the tree, the squirrel is under the tree, the squirrel is on the tree, the squirrel is next to the tree. All of those being good prepositions and it’s still how I remember it all these years later. Number two, this is a classic one from English teachers, cut those ‘to be’ verbs. So a sentence like, ‘The program is designed to serve single moms’ can become simply, ‘The program serves single moms’. Notice we cut, I think three words, just like that and boom the sentence has more life, more energy, it’s more readable. Number three, use the active voice not the passive. As n reminder, the active voice is when the subject of a sentence performs the action as opposed to having the action performed upon it. So a sentence like ‘Jim was hit by the whiffle ball’ becomes ‘the waffle ball hit Jim’. Obviously there are instances where an active voice would make a sentence kind of weird, but most of the time a passive voice can be switched to an active voice and the sentence becomes shorter and easier to read. And then finally, cut these filler phrases. This is probably my biggest pet peeve when I’m surfing around the web or reading an article or something like that, it’s: ‘one can easily see’, ‘it’s important to realize’, it goes without saying’. They often open sentences but sometimes they appear right in the middle of a sentence. These just sort of say-nothing phrases that are really just the writer stalling for time basically.
Another thing to keep in mind is something called the F-Pattern. So, the F-Pattern kind of describes how people look at websites. What we have here is just a regular old article from Science magazine, I apologize if it’s a little too small to read, but the point I really wanted to show you is the way that users read websites generally looks like a capital F. What I mean by that is that they read the top of the page and then as they scroll down the page they read less and less. You can Google this, but there are great examples of heat maps, of eye tracking software that shows that when people look at websites their eyes start at the top and then as they move down the page their eyes dart to the right less and less and less. They kind of scan along the left side of the page. This is just really nuts and bolts sort of web copy, web design stuff that you should keep in mind when creating content, especially on your website. Now, this is a desktop site on a smartphone or on a mobile device, there is a more loose f-pattern. It looks a little more schizophrenic the way people jump their eyes all over a smartphone screen. But the implications of the F-Pattern is, again, that people are not going to read everything but you want to put the most important information at the top of the page. That’s not only good for your users sake, it’s really good for Google’s sake, that is your search engine optimization; the higher up on the page the more weight content is given. So just keep that in mind, don’t bury the lead so to speak. You also want to make sure that information carrying words go along the left side of the page. You want to adhere to the F-Pattern to make sure that you’re increasing the readability of your site.
Here’s a little pop quiz, I’m going to show you two blocks of text, you tell me which is easier to read, they’re identical text, here we go. Probably a pretty easy pop quiz if you’re looking at this on a large screen. You might think the one on the left is easier to read but the vast majority of users of course say the one on the right is far easier to read, especially on a screen. So the question is, why? Well, it’s because the one on the right uses structure and format in ways that the one on the left does not. A few things I’ll point out here. There’s a title on the right, that’s nice, it kind of orients us a little bit, there’s an image and the image is relevant, gives a little visual interest, draws the eye. It uses a sans serif font meaning it doesn’t have those little hooks on the edges of the letter so that tends to be a little easier to read on a screen, there’s more paragraph breaks, more white space. So really this is just a lead up to how important it is to structure pages to increase readability. So, again, add white space, more paragraphs breaks than normal, there should be more paragraph breaks on your site then there would be if you were printing it out on paper. On paper our eyes can handle longer paragraphs, on screens not only does it hurt the eye but it can make a page very daunting to a user to the point where they’re like I’m not going to deal with this big old block of text, I’m just going to leave this page. Of course remember they’re scanning, they’re searching, they’re hunting, we want to make it easy for them by giving them more paragraph breaks.
Break up text with images but here’s a really key point: Only relevant images. There was a study that came out, I believe it was last year, that basically proved that these days users don’t even see stock photography online, it’s not that they see it and ignore it, it’s that they don’t even see it. They have become so savvy and so attuned to irrelevant or stock images that they don’t see it, so it’s a waste of your time to create it, put it up, etc. Now, if you have high quality premium stock photography, or better yet custom photography, that can really improve the usability of one of your pieces of content whether it’s an email or web page or a social media post. But it really does need to be high quality and also relevant to the subject matter. Add scanability, so really think about your content as sort of a puzzle, and the goal of the puzzle is to make it scannable. So headlines, subheadlines, lists, bulleted lists, numbered lists, what you might call a pull quote, something like that. Anything that allows the eye to move easily across and down the page is going to improve the readability of your content. And of course you can get creative, pull quotes, stylish buttons, video, what have you. These days, a website manager or marketing person really needs to be as much of a designer as they are a writer because there is so much design that can influence how your content connects with your audiences. So, again, I really encourage you to play with that.
We’ve reached sort of the final section but I love this section because it talks more about sort of the bigger idea. So, so far we’ve covered obviously some tactical things that we can do to make our content more effective online. This has to do with the substance and the messages and how we frame the content in order for it to be more engaged with. Before we jump into those tactics though, I want to introduce this concept, and you may have heard of this before, but it’s called the Curse of Knowledge. It basically says that once you know something, it’s impossible to imagine what it was like not to know it. This alludes to something I said earlier, which is we spend 40+ hours every week at work thinking about our organization, who we are, what we have to do, what are our goals, what are we doing this week, how many meetings do I have. Then we turn to communicate with the larger world, whether it’s customers, students, potential donors, what have you. And we are cursed by that 40 plus hours a week we spend thinking about ourselves and our organization because your users don’t think about you even a percentage of the amount that you think about your organization. They just don’t, they don’t have the knowledge, they might not have the interest or it might not be relevant to them. For whatever reasons, they just don’t think about you the way you think about you and the way you wish they thought about you. That is a very difficult bridge to cross or to even create. For example, when you say a particular phrase or word that is pretty well understood in your industry, it may not be understood by your user and even if it is understood, when you use that word it comes packed with all of your professional and personal experience. In your mind it means one thing, but in your users mind it means much less.
So what I want to talk about now are some ways that we know we can improve our content online, especially, in order to build a bridge between us, who have this knowledge, and our users who don’t. So, sticky content is one or more of these six things, we’re not going to talk about all six today because we don’t have time. This presentation, by the way, is sort of a shortened version of one that we offer to all of our new clients that lasts about an hour and a half and we dig into all six of these. A lot of the examples we’re going to talk about are borrowed from the excellent book that I’m sure some of you have read called Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath. If you haven’t read it, I would put it immediately on your Amazon wish list, it’s a quick read, it’s really enlightening and if you like those sort of Malcolm Gladwell social psychology books then you are going to love Made to Stick. But I do want to pull out a few of these six, and talk about how they can help you connect better with your readers. The first is the idea of being simple, simple, simple, simple. I love simplicity. In fact, around here at The Mighty Citizen offices I’m probably accused of being overly simple with my ideas and my writing but I think we need to push ourselves to a simpler place. Again, all that stuff we talked about at the top of the webinar, all those challenges we’re up against can be mediated if we focus on simplicity.
There’s a great example of how simplicity is so powerful. When Southwest Airlines was founded by a guy named Herb Kelleher, he said ‘I’m going to found Southwest Airlines and we will be the low cost airline. If you want to fly somewhere, we are going to be the cheapest option for you, we will have the cheapest tickets and that’s just how it’s going to be. That is a pretty simple idea, now obviously what goes into keeping costs low and what not is complicated and complex and always changing but the idea of having a simple guiding message I think is really important for marketers to keep in mind. For starters, there is the simple idea of why your organization even exists, that is the first thing we always ask when we have a discovery with a new client: Why do you exist? Often, they don’t have a real clear answer but even from a macro level like that down to a really micro level like what is the point of this webpage? What is the point of this marketing email? What is the message, the singular message we want to send out when we post this blog to our Facebook and Twitter and Instagram accounts, right? I think we need to get real clear on that and I think one way to get clear on that is to keep it simple, just like Herb Kelleher did. Now at one point one of Herbs underlings came to him and said, “We did a little bit of a survey and our passengers tell us that they would love a chicken Caesar salad,” and Herb said, “That’s great, I love chicken Caesar salads, it sounds wonderful. Let me ask you one question, is it going to cost anything extra, will it make ticket prices more expensive?” And they said, “Well that is the best part, it’s only going to increase the ticket prices maybe 50 cents or a dollar,” and he said, “Then we’re not doing it because it violates our simple idea, our simple purpose, our simple philosophy. If we’re going to be the low cost airline then we need to be willing to sacrifice some of our users and passengers desires and needs in order to keep that cost low.” Now, the advantage of that is that it really helps give your organization a strong point of view. By saying no to some things and yes to one thing then you certainly have more of a personality and people will tend to be more attracted to that point of view as opposed to, for example, trying to be everything to everyone. By the way, when I talk about simplicity, I don’t mean dumbing your ideas down, I don’t mean dumbing your content down, it just means finding a core singular idea and then expressing it compactly. If you need a really good example of a simple content, any of those fables from Aesop are great. You know, “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush” that is a great philosophy, it’s simple and it’s compact, it doesn’t take a paragraph. Your mission statement shouldn’t be more than two sentences, for example, we need to get simpler here. And that’s because we’re competing with content, we’re competing with low attention spans, low literacy levels, etc. I’m going to play now two real quick 30 second commercials and I’m hoping the audio is good on these, we tested it before and it sounded good but forgive me in advance if the audio is a little off. Two 30 second commercials, here’s the first one, sorry folks, I’m getting ahead of myself here, let’s see if we can get this to play, here we go.
Is it playing? I don’t think it’s playing. Darn. I know why, it’s because we’re doing this microphone instead of the computer audio. Well ok, this is a commercial for outpost.com, you can find this on YouTube by the way. It’s basically a guy saying we wanted to make a statement so we decided to have a marching band help us and then we released wild wolves to attack these marching band members. So this is a commercial that ran years ago, it was really popular, it ran in the Super Bowl. It actually got a lot of news stories written about this commercial because it was an early example of being unexpected. Here’s an unexpected idea, you don’t expect wolves to attack this marching band to promote some computer company. The other commercial, and I’m so sad that you can’t hear this, I apologize, but you will be able to see them when we send you the recording and of course the slide deck has them in there too. This is an ad that appears to be a typical ad for a minivan. It’s describing all the wonderful features of the minivan like the heated cup holders and the great navigation system, it shows the kids and the parents having a grand time. The music is soft and inviting, it’s very, very, very wholesome, and then there’s a car accident and this message about buckling up. So here we have two examples of content that attempt to cut through the content glut, or to cut through that 8 second attention span by being unexpected. And I know that the clients we work with, there is some appetite from them to be unexpected, a little provocative maybe in their messaging or in some of their content. I think that’s a good instinct to have. I wish that more organizations were willing to sort of be bold, but here is the thing, if you are unexpected or provocative without being interesting, then I would say your message is going to be in ineffective. So between these two commercials, the wolves attacking the marching band and the family getting hit by the car for a buckle up PSA, I would argue that the wolves attacking the marching band is ineffective as a piece of communication. The reason is the unexpectedness, the provocation, is not linked in any way to the message trying to be conveyed. It was a commercial for a computer company and wolves attacking a marching band has nothing to do with computers or the computer company or any of the products or services they offered. There was a total disconnect, so in that case it was a gimmick, and we don’t want to be gimmicky. I think a lot of commercials these days, if you watch tv, are really gimmicky. They try to be so outrageous or weird in order to capture your attention but what they fail to do is to convert that attention into something interesting, something relevant to their organization or their product or what have you. Meanwhile, this car PSA with the buckle up message is effective, I would argue, because the unexpectedness, the car suddenly slamming into them when you don’t see that coming is related directly to the message they’re trying to convey. I’ll say this, I haven’t stumbled across a formula for making unexpected content work, there is a little trial and error, but I’ll tell you who is really good at it is the local news. So you’ll see these commercials for your local news and they’re like ‘is your toothbrush killing you tonight at 11’, or ‘are escalators dangerous for children tune in at 10’. What’s so effective about that and why we can learn a lesson form that as organizations is if we’re going to be a little provocative, a little unexpected, one way to do that is to create a mystery, to be mysterious, to create some sort of ‘huh’ in the user, the reader, they’re like ‘what is that about, I have to know’. See, humans have this innate need for resolution, we like things to be tidy and tied up at the end. It’s why people had such a problem with the end of The Sopranos because it just cut to black in the middle of the scene and people were going nuts, we want to know how does it end. So if you as an organization put out some sort of mystery, people will sort of naturally want to know how that is resolved. So that’s one technique for being unexpected in an effective way but again I want to encourage you not to be gimmicky but to be relevant and interesting. It can be done but it takes a keen eye and probably a little bit of trial and error.
Alright next up, so we talked about simplicity, we talked about unexpectedness and real quick I want to talk about Charlie Strong and his core values. So Charlie Strong, for those of you who don’t know, is a former head football coach at the University of Texas at Austin. Mighty Citizen, by the way, is here in Austin, Texas. In fact, I’m looking out the window now and I can see just the very tip top of the tower on campus. He is no longer the football coach because it turns out he didn’t win a ton of games and in Texas that’s a bit of a sin, but he did something that I thought was pretty amazing, and I’m not even sure if he knew just how amazing it was or that he was being amazing. He was a great guy, fantastic leader, really understood the people that he worked for and with. So when a football coach comes into the locker room and says, “Alright men, here are our teams core values,” you expect them to say something you would see on Friday Night Lights, you would expect them to say things like, “Our core values are teamwork and sacrifice and discipline.” And that’s all fine and good but what Charlie Strong did that was so genius was his core values were this: No drugs, no guns, no stealing, no earrings, attend class and treat women with respect. Now, what I love about this is that it is concrete. This might be my favorite of all these techniques, when I’m writing something, especially if I’m writing for a client, what I always want to know from them is: What is the concreteness of this? And by concrete I mean physical presence in the real world, not an idea, not a concept, not just some other adjective but what is the physical manifestation of what it is you do or think or believe etc. because concrete language eliminates user confusion. When a football coach stands up in front of his team and says our values are sacrifice and hard work, he just created 50 different interpretations of hard work. Again, this is sort of a curse of knowledge thing, right? Meaning, when I hear the word ‘discipline’ I have one idea of what that means but the guy next to me has a different one, it might be just a little different or it might be radically different. Now we’re immediately talking a different language and if your organization uses a lot of ambiguous, nebulous, fuzzy marketing words, lingo or jargon you are absolutely creating a disconnect from the jump. From the moment you send that message out into the world, you’re creating a disconnect with your users because you’re not talking in concrete terms. Listen, you’re either on drugs or you’re not, you either have a gun or you don’t, you either wear an earring or you don’t, there is no ambiguity or mixed messages possible here. Here’s another example of what I mean, if you search a fuzzy word, a non-concrete word like ‘helpful’ in Google image search you get all sorts of a big variety of things, it means different things to different folks. But if you search something concrete like ‘v8 engine’ guess what you see, a whole bunch of v8 engines. Concrete messages are immune to user confusion, look for opportunities to use them, give people examples.
I’m going to speed up a little bit here because I want to make sure we end in plenty of time. Credibility, right? Simplicity, unexpectedness, concrete. I do want to talk about credibility just for a second. There are two types of credibility: External, and the best websites are nothing but external credibility - testimonials, awards, reviews - here are all the people saying how great we are. And by the way, external credibility is so much better than internal credibility; meaning, credibility where you’re saying how great you are. But there are ways, especially online, to kind of establish internal credibility. The first is use details, when people use details we tend to trust them more because they seem like they know what they’re talking about. But I want to talk about data and statistics, and I put this slide in here because I just see it misused online so much and I just want to shout from the rooftops “we can do better,” so here’s what I mean. Hopefully you can see this, it gets a little fuzzier when we get bigger but this is an infographic that was published a couple years ago. A few years ago in May we had a ton of rain in Texas, there was this crazy month of just rain, and the National Weather Service put together this infographic to show just how much rain fell in Texas in the month of May. At the top they say 35 trillion gallons, now 35 trillion gallons sounds like a lot, but we don’t know, your users don’t know if that’s a lot, I mean it’s a big number obviously but how many gallons are in a lake? Is it 100 times that? I mean it’s so big that it’s meaningless. So what they did is they went one step further and instead of just saying 35 trillion gallons fell, they put numbers, data and statistics into something our users care about or at least something that users understand. So that’s what I would encourage you to do. If online, or really anywhere for that matter, you’re trying to convey some sort of number or metric, frame it in terms that your users could understand, even if it’s totally irrelevant to the original metric or piece of data. For example, they say that’s enough rain to have filled the entire state with 8 inches, that’s kind of good. Or, that’s enough to fill up California’s 200 reservoirs 3 times over, that’s enough to fill up the island of Manhattan 4 times over the Empire State Building. My favorite is the one in the lower right, if you can’t read it, it says ‘enough to supply the entire world’s population with 10,000 days of water if everybody drank 8 glasses of water a day’, I mean that’s huge. Suddenly what was a lifeless number suddenly feels enormous. So an infographic, if you all are out there creating infographics, an infographic is not just slapping up numbers and changing the font size and the font color, it’s about using images or graphics to convey that number in a way that people understand. A bit of a digression for me but I find it very fascinating and I hope you do too.
We’ve got about, let’s see here, I want to finish in the next 7 to 8 minutes.
Let’s talk about emotions for a second, mad, sad, glad and afraid, those are the four basic human emotions. Every other emotion is usually just sort of a combination or a shade of one of these emotions. Why did I bring up emotions? Because no action is possible without an emotional component. I really believe that, I hope you do too, that every action, especially actions we’re persuading people to do, have an emotional component, even really small ones. You might have heard of the Truth Initiative, they’re an anti-teen smoking campaign, they’ve been running for years now. They do these very provocative, emotional appeals. Here’s an example of one of them that sort of plays on fear and anger about how smoking kills people who smoke. They’ve also run these really outlandish, provocative tv commercials where they pull out fake body bags and dump them on the steps of Phillip Morris to protest the advertising. Anyway, a very emotional anti teen smoking campaign. Now at the same time that the Truth Campaign started, this other one started called Think Don’t Smoke, so we’ve got these two parallel anti teen smoking campaigns running. The Think Don’t Smoke campaign was a lot more traditional and logical, it wasn’t as provocative or interesting, sort of what you would think of when you would think of a PSA. And guess who ran this one? Phillip Morris, they were forced to run anti teen smoking PSA’s when they lost a bunch of lawsuits in the 90’s. A couple of year ago they did a study and they found that teens that had been exposed to the emotional campaign were 66% less likely to smoke, while teens who were exposed to the non-emotional logical campaign were 36% more likely. More likely to smoke if they appeal to your logic, way less likely to smoke if they stir up your emotions. It’s just a great illustration of how important emotions are. Now I think that marketers sometimes feel like ‘oh, I don’t want to be manipulative, don’t want to be craven, I don’t want to play on emotion. I understand that instinct but my response to that is look, as long as you’re not lying, as long as you’re being authentic, as long as your organization is telling the truth as you see it, as you believe it to be, then ignoring the emotional component of your audience is, I think, short-sighted. You have to acknowledge that there is an emotional component to every action, that human beings are emotional creatures, and that to acknowledge that is to better persuade, better engage and really, frankly, to be more real. I’m sorry I’m speeding through this, there is just so much.
Last thing I want to talk about is stories. Why is storytelling so popular, why is it such a buzzword in the marketing space. That’s because how you share your message tells people how to respond to it, and that’s why storytelling is popular. Here’s what I mean, if you make a claim, like we are this and we do this, then what you’re saying to your audience is: I want you to argue with us over the facts. You’re on that side of the fence, I’m on this side, I’m shouting something over that fence and that causes your brain to fire up its rational and logic. Even if you agree with whatever it is I’m saying, you’re still using that part of your brain, you’re arguing, we’re facing each other. But if you tell a story, you’re saying ‘I want you to see things from our point of view, come over here to this side of the fence and look out at the world the way that we do’. That’s so much for engaging. I’ll give you a little demonstration of how effective this is. Let’s just take 60 seconds right here at the end and let’s imagine the following four things, just there at your desk, imagine these four things. Imagine a flashing light, imagine someone tapping on your skin, imagine a word that begins with the letter b, now imagine the Eiffel Tower. Now what was going on there? When you imagined the flashing light, the visual area of your brain lit up, if we had you hooked up to a cat-scan or MRI you would see the visual part of your brain light up, same thing with tapping on the skin, the part of your brain that processes touch would light up just from you imagining it. If we had a high definition camera on you when you thought of a word that begins with the letter b, we would have seen your lips move into the shape of making the letter b. And if we had that same camera on you when imagined the Eiffel Tower, we would have seen you look upward slightly. This is just facts, this is proven, this is science. So what does this mean? What it means is that imagining something is almost as good as doing that thing. At least from your brains point of view, there is very little difference between experiencing something and really imagining it, and that is why telling stories, and by the way when I say stories I want to be real clear I’m talking about ‘once upon a time’, not literally a fairytale but I mean there’s a hero, there’s a journey, there’s obstacles, there’s success and, you know, traditional storytelling. If you tell stories, you’re saying: Imagine this. Humans can’t help but imagine it, it’s how we’re wired, that’s why stories are so powerful. You’re on my side of the fence, we’re seeing the world from my point of views, and now we are far more engaged and I can influence you a lot more effectively. And by the way, who’s the hero of the stories that your organization tells? Here’s a hint: It’s not your organization. The hero of the stories you should be telling is your customers, donors, students, what have you, your audience, your users, they are the hero. Talk about them, less talk about you, way more talk about them.
By the way, here are three quick plots you can spot really easy in an organizational structure, and you can tell these stories over and over and over again and people don’t get sick of them. The first, David versus Goliath, hero faces a huge challenge and succeeds. We all know David versus Goliath, that one pops up over and over. Odd couple, we love when a hero joins forces with someone or something unexpected. It’s why we watch YouTube videos of turtles riding on the back of dogs for hours, we just love unusual couples coming together for something greater than. And then what I call the MacGyver, based on that great tv show from the 80s where the hero uses innovation or ingenuity to succeed, they find a loophole or the break the rules or they invent something new in order to have success. These three plots in organizational structures seem to come up again and again, especially if you go looking for them or at least open your mind to them. But please tell more stories, and use concrete language when you do. Alright last slide, here are the takeaways. Our job as professional communicators is to make it as easy as possible for people to understand our message, that’s our primary job. The writing is in the rewriting. Let’s get our ideas out and then let’s worry about cutting them down, formatting them well, injecting them with the right information. Cut your text, use page structure. These are things you can do right now today on your site to make it easier for users to engage with you. And here are the 6 elements of sticky content, you’ll notice it almost spells the word ‘success’ as an acronym. Simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, storytelling. I promised you my email address, there it is: firstname.lastname@example.org. We really appreciate you taking an hour out of your time, let’s see let me look at my clock, oh look at that I’m with 2 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we don’t have time and we have hundreds of people on the call so we can’t really do a Q&A unfortunately, but take down my email address, feel free to email me. Again, later today we will follow up with an email that just has a link to the pdf version of this slide deck along with a recording of this webinar. But with that in mind, I want to thank you all for your time and wish you happy writing. Thank you so much.