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How to motivate anyone

Writers are motivators. Whatever you write, the chances are that you are trying to motivate someone either to do something – or not do something.

A headline motivates someone to read the first sentence of an advert, a blog post, a newspaper article.

The first sentence motivates them to read the second.

The opening sentence of a novel persuades someone to read the first page. The first page motivates them to buy the book.

A business report motivates someone to allocate funding to a project. A website motivates someone to email you, or call, or subscribe, or buy.

A love letter is a motivation tool, an instrument of persuasion. Same goes for a facebook profile, or the ‘about’ page of a blog.

People are motivated by two fundamental factors: pain and pleasure.

So how do you motivate and persuade people?

There are two powerful factors at play. People are motivated by two fundamental factors: pain and pleasure. [continue reading…]

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Monk in the mistHow do you get ideas for blog posts? How do you add more original content to a blog, rather than relying on reusing material from others?

This was a question posed by a commenter on this blog, who is using the name ‘Beginner’. Beginner wrote:

I have a lot of ideas to write about whizzing around my brain, my question is how do I use these to write original blog posts, as I always struggle with this. Actually a post on this would be awesome. Problem is I seem to use a written pieces but change the words around, does this make sense, so in effect it’s not really my work. Does research have to come into this? If so where and when?

We’ve exchanged a few emails, and have been able to elaborate on this a little. Beginner writes:

“Instead of relying for information and ideas from other places. I want to create something original from my own perspective and experiences… It would be great if I could use my own experience and be able to write and show others what I have learned.”

I’ve seen the blog, which I’m not linking to at Beginner’s request. It’s more of a private journal for a select few than a big public thing.

But it seems like Beginner has lots of ideas of his own, but he tends to write blog posts by basically using other people’s writing, often quoting it verbatim, or sometimes changing things around.

He’s doing a good job of this really, because’s he’s not lifting material, not stealing stuff. He’s selecting wise and timeless advice from great writers, and presenting it as snippets.

But he would like to start more of his own ideas into his posts.

These are a few ideas of mine – I hope they help Beginner, and anyone else who wants to find ways to express more of their own thoughts and personality through their writing.

1. Write your ideas down
When you have ideas, dreams, thoughts, inspiration, write them down. Not straight onto a blog or into an online journal. Keep a scrap book where you can write with complete freedom, and just make quick notes. Hopefully, some of this will give material you can use at some point, perhaps in combination with ideas from your reading. If will also help with point 2…

2. Practice writing, lots of writing

Writing is one of those things that gets easier the more you do it. If you need ways to just get started, and write about anything, see my post here on ways to kick-start your writing.

3. Learn to touch type
I really can’t stress this enough. If you want to write, it really helps if you don’t have to struggle with the physical production side of things. Fighting the keys and hacking back the typos can really knock you out of your flow. I know learning to touch type will take a long time, but let’s face it, we’re all going to be working on computers for most of our lives, and that means keyboard input for the foreseeable future. Practicing touch typing for 15 minutes a day will pay off in the long run. There’s a free online typing course here.

4. Read more
It seems to me that Beginner is pretty widely read already. But the more sources you have for material the better. Because that brings us to point 5:

4. Don’t copy – recombine
If you take someone else’s idea and information and reuse it, even if you’re rewriting it, then that’s not really creative. But if you take three or four related ideas from different people, recombine them in original ways, show how they are related, discuss them, now that’s adding value. It’s also creative. Creative people don’t magic things out of fairy dust. Creativity is recombining old ideas in new ways.

5. Add personal experience and insight
If you take something written by someone else, and add your own perspective to it, add your own experiences to the original material, then you create an insight into how useful that book has been to one person. That’s useful. I think Beginner is already doing this, partly at least, and this is something he could build on. Instead of just quoting material, put something in about why you chose this, how you feel about it, how you found it, your thoughts, how it relates to your life, why you thought it might be useful for your readers.

6. Don’t beat yourself up
By selecting wise and informative snippets, quotes and writings from a wide range of sources, and presenting them in a new setting, you are creating something new. The trick is to do that in a way which adds value.
I found Beginner’s site interesting to read and I came across some new ideas, new names and authors I had never heard about before. So I think Beginner should take their time, and gradually start adding more ideas, mixing some of the stuff up so that each post draws on several ideas perhaps from different areas, showing how they are linked or how one sheds light on the other.

In summary
Beginner wants to: “use my own experience and be able to write and show others what I have learned.” At the risk of stating the obvious, I think Beginner has answered the question already. The solution is to use more of your own experience. Be aware of what you are thinking, doing, experiencing, reflect on that, and write about it when you are ready.

William Wordsworth described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” He means that writing poetry is the act of describing and evoking an emotional experience from the past, and doing so once you have had chance to think about the experience, and when you have the time to find the right words to express that emotion in ways that will create resonance with the reader.

Take your time, write lots, record your ideas, mix stuff together, and be honest about where you’re getting your ideas from. Best of luck.

Picture by Okinawa Soba via Flickr Creative Commons.

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Writing advice is everywhere on the internet. There’s way too much to link to on a regular basis without getting overwhelmed. But today there’s a great article on writing advice from a range of writers, mostly novelists, on the website of the UK newspaper The Guardian. It’s well worth checking out.

These are not archive tips from long-dead writers. It looks like they’ve contacted all these writers in person and asked for their thoughts. There are plenty of famous names in there too, although inevitably a little UK-centric. There’s plenty of timeless writing advice here though.

The writers have been asked to give their top ten tips for writers. (Hey, that sounds a bit like a Digg-bait blog post, doesn’t it? Maybe newspapers are finally ‘getting it‘.)

One of my favourites is from Philip Pullman, who only gives one tip:

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.

Michael Moorcock is in there too:

Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

Jeanette Winterson says:

Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.

Margaret Atwood contributes:

Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

Roddy Doyle adds:

Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven’t written yet.

Anne Enright says:

The first 12 years are the worst.

And:

Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

The article is a response to a book being published next month – Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. (UK link)

The article is split into two sections here and here.

If you have the time, and fancy a chuckle, go check it out. It’s a keeper.

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10 ways to write scannable web copy

People don’t so much read on the web – they scan. There’s lots of research and statistics around scannable web copy to back this up. It’s overly simplified but let’s take it as read (so to speak) and get to it: how do you write scannable web copy?

1. Write powerful headlines

Make sure your headlines are:

  • Short
  • Informative – give a summary of the whole article
  • Structured with the important keyword at the start
  • Clear and easy to understand even out of context
  • Honest – don’t promise something you can’t or don’t deliver

2. Use subheads

Create scannable web copy by breaking up the copy with subheads that mean something and guide the eye, giving an idea of the progression of the content.

3. Use bullets and lists:

  1. Everyone uses bullets and lists
  2. They do so for a good reason
  3. People like lists
  4. You don’t even need a proper list
  5. You can just put sentences into a list form
  6. And it makes for scannable web copy
  7. You see what I did there? 🙂

4. Keep paragraphs short
Keep paragraphs short because it’s easier on the eye. And the brain. For scannable web copy, stick to one idea per paragraph.

5. Highlight important words
Don’t be shy about using bold and italics to highlight important words. That way, if they scan through your copy, at least they’ll pick out the important bits – the bits you want them to see. But don’t use underlines: people will expect that to be a link.

6. Get to the point

Create a logical structure for your content – put the important information first using the ‘pyramid‘ style.

7. Use text boxes

Put material such as testimonials, quotes or a summary of benefits into text boxes so that they really stand out.

8. Use design elements

If there’s something you really want to emphasise, you could turn it into a design element – big, bold, brash and colourful.

9. Use short, familiar words
This is good writing advice whatever you’re writing, online or off. But if you’re using lots of long and complex words, your copy starts to look dull. People will start to scan even faster, and perhaps give up all together. Short, everyday words are ideal for scannable web copy.

10. Use hypertext
Links are your friend on the internet. You can break up longer and more in-depth content by using hyperlinks. For example, you could put background information onto a secondary page. You can use the hypertext as a way of showing the reader, once they’ve finished your article, where they should go next.

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Even though it will take time to reach a climax, and even though the reader will have to wait and wait for the punchline, and even though this may make some readers think ‘hey, what’s this guy’s problem already,’ and even though it breaks just about every rule of blogging and SEO, even despite all these things and more – today, of all days, today I am going to start my post with a periodic sentence.

‘Blimey,’ you may well say, ‘Simon’s gone all rhetorical and portentous on us.’

But I may say in reply, in reply to your raised eyebrows and quizzical stare, I may say to you that you should stop for a moment and consider something important here, because if you want to write with power and impact, if you want to persuade and influence people, if you want to sway opinion and win over hearts and minds, then you will need some rhetorical tricks up your sleeve, and one of the most powerful of these is the periodic sentence.

It’s important to note, however, that a periodic sentence does not have to be long.

Indeed, some of the most powerful are very short.

There is one thing these long and short periodic sentences all have in common, though, and that is, as if you hadn’t already guessed, that the important point, the meat of the sentence, the real punch, always comes right at the end.

One thing I would stress, however, is that the periodic sentence technique should be used with moderation.

That’s not, you will have noticed, something I have done here. Here, in fact, the technique has been used in almost every sentence.

Clearly, that is overkill. It is excusable in this instance, I hope, because it is so clearly done for effect.

I hope you’ve found this little insight into rhetorical devices interesting, hopefully even useful. If so, please feel free to leave a comment, but please, for this post only, all comments must consist exclusively of periodic sentences.

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I recently wrote about the importance of using case studies as a way of telling stories about a product or service. But what do you do if you have no genuine case studies or testimonials?

All is not lost.

The key thing about case studies and testimonials is that they show other people getting the benefits of using your product or service.

You can still ‘show’ that, even if you have to use some smoke and mirrors to pull it off.

1) List your customers, mention them by name, or show similar proof, such as the number of countries in the world where your product is used; the number of government departments that use your software; the percentage of top 500 companies using your service and so on.

2) Use images and photos of people using your product or service. The photo may be staged, but it creates the right impression.

3) Create a character: this is the written equivalent of using an image. Describe someone using your product or service.

4) Resort to back-story: mention facts such as how long your company has been in business, the number of products sold, the number of customers you have, even the number of products sold.

5) Imply demand: you can suggest that there is huge demand for a product and that it may be in short supply, so customers should act and buy now. At its most simplistic level, this gives the old favourite: ‘buy now while stocks last.’ It is implying that everyone else is rushing to buy, so you should too.

6) Say you’re a market leader – which directly implies that lots of other people use your product or service.

7) Use celebs: an image of one famous person using your product can be more powerful than any number of more genuine testimonials. You will, of course, need their permission, which means you’ll probably need to pay them.

8) Use reviews: if you’ve had good reviews in magazines or on websites, these can perform the same task as case studies and testimonials.

9) ‘As seen on…’: you can always simply refer to the fact your product has been featured on television or in a magazine, to show that it is well known.

Any I missed? Comments are open…

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One of the secrets to great copywriting is storytelling. People are interested in stories. Stories get their attention. And it’s much easier to convince someone of something through a story, than it is by banging them on the head with a raw sales pitch.

Which is where case studies come in. Case studies are superb marketing tools for two key reasons:

• They provide proof

• They tell stories.

A good case study starts out with our hero – our satisfied customer. Like every good hero, he wants something, he has a story goal. He may want to find the perfect ice cream; he may want to buy the car of his dreams; he may want to learn to play the piano; or he might be looking for a world-class data centre where he can host the corporate databases and applications for which he holds prime responsibility. You get the idea.

There is conflict however: he doesn’t know how to reach his story goal.

This conflict is resolved when he discovers product X or service Y. We see how he is able to reach his goal, and come to a satisfying happy-ending when product X delivers a huge range of benefits.

So, to write an effective case study, you need to remember you are telling a story about a person or a company that wanted to achieve something, what they did about that, and how it all worked out in the end. It gives a proven, rock-solid structure for a case study that works every time:

1) The problem – the status quo, the situation at the start of the story, where we see our hero/customer struggling to achieve his story goal.

2) The solution – we show how our hero found product X, and how he used it to achieve his goal.

3) The benefits – we show how using product X has enriched our hero’s life and made him happy-ever-after.

This formula should work for any case study you need to write, be it for a big company, or just a testimonial for online marketing. The story can be a few sentences long, or many thousands of words. The structure can remain the same, only the level of detail needs to change.

Remember, however, to give your story a touch of life. Every good story needs a believable character, so include details of the person/company and a quote which lets us hear the proof in their own words.

Finally, make sure the quotes don’t read like corporate committee speak. Many a case-study has been ruined by the inclusion of so-called ‘quotes’ that don’t sound like something any human being would ever actually say. If the customer can only supply that kind of material, then change it so it sounds like a real quote, or write something for them. In either case, go back and get their approval.

If you’re not sure how to make up a quote for someone, just ask any journalist to help. They’re always making up quotes…. 🙂

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I have a problem with ‘Authority’

One of the cardinal rules for writing a successful blog is to write with ‘authority.’

Brian Clark of Copyblogger, who himself is without doubt one of the leading authorities on successful blog writing and internet marketing, makes it one of the cornerstones of his advice.

He has released a free e-book on the subject, one I can recommend, and which makes a powerful case for why one should always use an authoritative tone of voice on a blog.

Is it morally right to pretend you are an ‘authority’ on a subject just so you can build a blog?

Brian is by no means alone in offering this advice. The message is the same everywhere you turn. Darren Rowse of Problogger says the same, as do scores of other bloggers. Now, I’m in no position to argue with these folks. They know far more about how to build a successful blog than I do. (Hey, they even post regularly, which is more than I can claim).

I have little doubt that they are correct. If you want a successful blog, if you want to make money and sell e-books and the rest, then you should follow their advice.

They are right.

Up to a point.

Because there is a wider question. Is it always honest to do this? Is it morally right to pretend you are an ‘authority’ on a subject just so you can build a blog?

You can end up with the absurd situation where someone’s first blog is a blog about how to blog. You can see why. Blogging is a subject they are researching, so they blog about it as way of learning. That’s cool. But why the authoritative tone of voice?

We have the situation now, online, where people can establish themselves as an authority on a subject thanks to their ability to launch a successful blog.

Is that a good thing? At least it’s a powerful testament to the importance of knowing how to write well – so maybe I shouldn’t be complaining.

A twenty year old offering life wisdom runs the risk of sounding like a complete bl**dy idiot.

However, what about – and I’m going to show my age here – what about when you come across some blog where someone is solemnly offering you the benefits of their wisdom, their insights into life and how it should be lived, and you go to the ‘about’ page and discover they are aged 22 or something.

I’m not making this up. The internet seems to be full of people in their early twenties who think they have life sussed.

I’m sorry if this is offensive to anyone in their early twenties, but the older you get, the more you realise how little you really know.

You see, there is a danger to always writing with ‘Authority’. Sometimes it comes across as dishonest, or pompous, or foolish, or comical. A twenty year old offering life wisdom runs the risk of sounding like a complete bl**dy idiot. Especially when you realise that the sum of their wisdom comes down to chat up lines and how to pick up girls while making easy money on the internet.

I have links I could be using here, evidence and examples. But I’ve decided not to use them. I don’t want to attack anyone personally, or even to discourage anyone from writing their thing, or doing things their own way.

But I do want to sound a note of caution about the overuse of the authoritative tone of voice.

For one thing, since everyone else is doing it, all those blogs end up sounding a bit the same.

And there has to be room for a little humility here and there. There have to be times when, even if we’re writing about subjects we know well, we have to admit we’re not world-leading experts, gurus or philosophers.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’ve become a little jaded and tired of the authoritative blog voice. I’ve become suspicious of it.

I tend to assume that people who write this way are trying to sell me something. And that’s not good, because then they start to lose my trust.

I guess when that happens, then something has gone wrong, and it just needs to be fixed. So, I suppose what I’m struggling to say here is… write with authority by all means (especially when you have some), but please… remember to give it a sanity check once in a while.

‘Cos you know what? No one likes a know-it-all.

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Let me ask you a hypothetical question: what’s the best way to make money during a gold rush?

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: the best way to make cash during a gold rush is to sell shovels.

All those crazy people dreaming of getting rich, they all to need to buy a shovel or two.

What does this have to do with blogging? Well, the dream of making easy money online is kinda like a gold rush.

Someone makes a pile and word gets round. Sooner or later, someone else makes money too. Suddenly everyone rushes in.

There’s a mad frenzy of excitement. Most people do an awful lot of digging, an awful lot of work for little or nothing. But so long as someone somewhere is making money, there will always be new dreamers hoping to strike it rich – and lining up to buy a shovel.

So they start their blogs and get writing. But there’s so much they don’t understand, and so much they need. Like hosting, and a template, maybe some design. They might buy some e-books on how to make money online, or how to blog, or how to sell ebooks. You get the drift.

Who’s making the money? The people selling the shovels. They people selling the tools which allow you to live the dream.

Which is why most of the people who seem to make cash blogging are those who are selling information on how to blog, how to make money blogging, how to sell ebooks, premium templates and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with what they are doing, and if you want a shovel, why should they give you one for free? After all, you’re not going to cut them in on your share of the gold, now are you?

So, the moral of the tale is clear: if you want to make money from the blog rush, open up a shovel shop. Sell people the tools they need, be it information, templates, whatever.

You won’t get rich quick. But you can always run a blog or two on the side, just in case you strike lucky.

Pic by ToOliver2 via Flickr
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Is print newspaper journalism too long, too florid, too full of conventions compared to leaner, sharper online writing?

Is traditional newspaper journalism doomed? Is the style of writing itself one of the reasons for the decline of newspapers? Is that why people often prefer to get their news online – because it’s better written?

There’s an article in The Atlantic magazine online here, which says online writing is much simpler, more straight-forward, and gets to the point much faster than traditional print journalism. The whole article is worth a read, because the author back up this assertion with some convincing detail and evidence.

ONE REASON SEEKERS of news are abandoning print newspapers for the Internet has nothing directly to do with technology. It’s that newspaper articles are too long. On the Internet, news articles get to the point. Newspaper writing, by contrast, is encrusted with conventions that don’t add to your understanding of the news. Newspaper writers are not to blame. These conventions are traditional, even mandatory.

Now, I’m from the UK where our newspapers tend to be a bit less formal in their writing style than those in the USA. That’s a pretty sweeping generalisation, I know, and might take some people by surprise. But I think it’s the case.

Nonetheless, I think the writer of the piece in The Atlantic has nailed something pretty important. He analyses a report in the New York Times, and shows clearly just how verbose it is, how long it takes to really get to the point, how many words are wasted justifying things unnecessarily.

In the newspaper article. people you have never heard of are quoted, yet explaining who they are takes up more room than what they have to say. There is hype all over the place. The reader is constantly being reminded of things they must surely already know, and the article is packed with ‘florid subordinate clauses’.

You look at the style of online writing, especially in blogs, and you see something very different.

Online writers tend to get straight to the point, be clear what they are writing about, kill all those ‘florid subordinate clauses’ and pack articles with useful information.

Blog writers, of course, are free to put forward their own opinions, rather than having to quote those of others.

And blog writers don’t have to write 1,000 words where 500 will do, just to fill a space.

The summary of The Atlantic article is itself pretty succinct: ‘newspaper articles are too long.’

Is it time for the newspaper industry to take stock, learn some lessons from the blogosphere?

Are the conventions and traditions of print journalism holding it back, and contributing to its demise?

I’d love to hear you opinions.

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