A Simple Lesson from Obama’s Speechwriter

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Courtesy of http://www.freeflagicons.com

It all comes down to one thing: emotion.

That’s what Cody Keenan told the Today show this morning. He said that communication comes down to simply creating emotion. And as President Obama’s speechwriter, he should know.

Keenan is the one who stirred laughter in the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Dinner remarks — and then stirred sobering respect in Ted Kennedy’s eulogy. He was the one who called for national unity in Tucson in 2011 when Gabby Giffords was shot.

And he is the one who stayed up this morning until the wee hours, putting the finishing touches on the State of the Union address that Obama will deliver tonight. Keenan has been applauded for creating the right emotion for each circumstance, and he’s worked hard with Obama in hopes that they’ve created it again for the nation.

So what does this mean for business leaders?

As you face 2016, consider the primary emotion that you want to inspire in your people. Peace, security, clarity, gratitude . . . . Think about the one thing they need most from you this year.

With this emotion in mind, rethink the ways you communicate in your personal and professional life. What’s working? What can be changed to create this emotion?

Here are just a few ways you can change your communication to inspire change in others:

  • Create peace by boldly talking about the elephant in the room, forming and documenting a resolution plan, and regularly checking progress.
  • Create security by keeping promises, regularly updating clients on projects, accepting ultimate accountability, and requesting online endorsements to prove your track record.
  • Create clarity by forming a mission statement, writing clear job descriptions and expectations, posting answers to FAQs, and providing a clear plan of action.
  • Create gratitude by steadily expressing appreciation for others in every situation.

When you focus on emotion, every form of communication becomes an opportunity to motivate and inspire others.

What emotion will drive your communication in 2016?

Ella Hearrean Ritchie is the owner of Stellar Communications, a Houston-based publishing company that delivers quality editing, writing, and publishing services on time to nonfiction authors, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, and federal government agencies.  Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her website for more information.

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How to Get Your Writer to Write Like You Talk

talkingheads“This sounds nothing like me,” a client recently confided about his content from another writer. “It’s not what I wanted.”

His disappointment was evident–and not uncommon.

What do you do when you read your first draft of content from your writer in high hopes . . . and feel disappointment instead?

Some people give up on their writer and return to cobbling together their own words. Some seek another writer, hoping to find The One that will magically breathe life into their content.

To be sure, not all writers are equal. Some are better than others at certain forms of writing, such as blogging, business, or advertising. And some are simply just better writers.

But before you ditch your writer, consider this: Have you provided her with enough guidance? Have you taken the time to tell her about you and what you want? Writers are a bit like hairstylists: Provide little instruction, and you’re likely to get a mohawk instead of that simple trim you wanted.

My clients are usually sure about one thing: They want a writer who can write like they talk. And a good writer changes her tone to accommodate each client as easily as she changes her wardrobe.

But what clients aren’t always certain of is how to communicate what they want to their writers.

To get your writer on board with your expectations, consider these four simple ideas:

  1. Compile a style guide, which is simply a list of what you want in your written communication. The most well-developed guide I’ve seen so far is that of Explore God, a nonprofit organization that invests deeply in its team of writers. In addition to six instructions dedicated to tone alone, the organization provides 15 more parameters as guidance—down to the ideal number of words to include in a sentence.
  2. Provide your writer with any existing corporate materials that help her get a feel for the way you’ve been presenting your company, including your online materials such as your website and social media forums as well as print materials such as article, brochures, and flyers.
  3. Provide direct, specific feedback. You’d be surprised how many people hesitate to tell their writer they’re unhappy with their content in an effort to avoid an awkward conversation. Experienced writers, however, already know that their writing will not satisfy every client, particularly a first draft. They appreciate clients who are honest and specific about what they want to change.
  4. Perhaps the most critical—and most overlooked—piece of information is the published version of your content. Don’t let your busyness or fear of an awkward conversation get in the way of this step. In addition to providing specific guidance to your writer, she can begin compiling a study guide based on the final product. That way, you both win.

With a little effort and communication, you can align your writer with your expectations – and you might get a better haircut to boot. What other strategies have you used to communicate with your writer?

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based freelance editor and writer for companies, publishers, and organizations. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her website to continue the conversation.

One Lesson From Spanish to Make Your Writing Reader-Friendly

r-HARD-SPEAKING-SPANISH-large570I’ve observed one basic difference between the Spanish and English languages: The languages handle the order of their nouns and adjectives differently. And this one difference can be pivotal in writing effectively for an audience.

You see, the English language places adjectives before nouns. English speakers tell all about something before they tells what it is they are talking about. Take this sentence, for example: The skinny, white, male cat sat by the door. Listeners hear three descriptors — skinny, white, male — before they discover that the sentence is about a cat.

The Spanish language, on the other hand, places nouns before adjectives. Spanish speakers tell what they are talking about before they tell about it. The Spanish version of that sample sentence is translated literally as: The cat skinny, white, male sat by the door. Listeners are told that the sentence is about a cat before they hear the three descriptors.

Although I speak English, I’ve always been impressed with this difference that makes the Spanish language more friendly to its listeners. Spanish speakers give their listeners a heads up as to what they are talking about before diving into details.

So, what does this mean for writing?

When presenting information to readers, consider shifting your mindset to that of a Spanish speaker. In other words, look for opportunities to place your nouns before their descriptions to make your writing more reader-friendly. Your readers first want to know what you are talking about before wading through details.

Take a look at this sentence before and after one of my clients considered the order of his nouns and adjectives.

The largest contributor to infor­mation security related regulations is section 501 (b) of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

The largest contributor to regulations related to infor­mation security is section 501 (b) of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

In the second draft, the writer puts the focus on the word ‘regulations’ before telling more about it. The noun gives the reader something solid to which he can hold on before delving into details.

Look at one piece of your writing today. Where can you change the order of your nouns and adjectives to make your sentences more reader-friendly?

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based freelance editor and writer for business leaders, publishers, and other writers. Connect with her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/ellaritchie.

Add Structure to Your Writing in Four Easy Steps

shopping-cart-tantrum-child_MAt the grocery store yesterday, a preschooler threw a tantrum that was quite impressive. Head back, mouth wide and wailing, he dropped to the floor in a lifeless heap.

His mom calmly surveyed the dead weight at her feet. She cupped her hands under her son’s arms, pulled him upright, and firmly instructed him to stand on his feet. And stand he did, though his whimpering trailed behind them as they moved to the next aisle.

Editing is a very similar experience.

Blogs, for instance, can look more like blobs. Great subject matter more often resembles a shapeless heap of words than a strong piece of writing.

The job of editors is like that of mothers. Our task is to pull up a piece of writing by the shoulders, brush it off, and make it stand up. Even the shortest blog post begs for structure that allows it to stand on its own.

How can you edit your blob into a strong piece of writing? Here is a process that I follow with my clients to transform their jumble of ideas into a structured piece:

1. Identify the few defining words or points you want to communicate.

Read these first few sentences of my client’s blog:

Do you know what enables you to dream? Is it solitude? Is it prayer? Is it the beach? Is it music? Whatever it is, embrace it more and dream more.

We narrowed the point of those first few sentences to the word dream.

2. Give each point a mini beginning, middle, and end.

My client surrounded his point about dreaming with supportive sentences. He began with the purpose of this point, followed with details, and then ended with a tiny conclusion drawing his sentences together:

The first step to creating the life you want is to identify what enables you to dream. Is it solitude? Is it prayer? Is it the beach? Is it music? It is different for everyone. Find out what enables you to dream and then embrace it more in order to dream more.

By leading his reader from an introductory thought to a concluding thought, he is helping his audience connects the dots of his thoughts.

3. Give each thought its space.

Since that first paragraph represented one point, my client then put a space between that and the next paragraph, which began:

The second step to creating the life you want is . . .

The space indicates to his readers that he’s moving to another thought. Spaces also make his page look less crowded and more appealing to the eye.

4. Reconsider your title.

After defining three key points and adding structure to each, my client realized his title no longer applied to his writing. He changed his title from Imagination and the Myth of Motivation to How to Create the Life You Want.

His new title is more effective and appealing to readers – because his structured material is now more effective and appealing!

When you follow this process to clarify, support, and give space to your ideas, your readers are more willing to follow you to the end of your thoughts. What other tips do you apply to add structure to your writing?

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based freelance editor and writer for business leaders, publishers, and other writers. Connect with her at http://www.linkedin.com/in/ellaritchie.

Three Simple Ways to Improve Your Word Choice

flight attendantEvery word matters.

This truth was clearer than ever last week, when I was terrified on a flight to Houston.

You see, I’m no frequent flyer. On the spectrum of regular business travelers to fearful hermits, I’m somewhere in the crowd of white-knuckle advocates of all things road trip. The fact that I was flying for the first time in a few years was notable.

And then this happened: A young flight attendant announced in a microphone that there was a “surprise” for us passengers. That’s right, he had to tell us about a surprise.

And let me just tell you – a surprise is the absolute last thing I want mid-air.

In the space of that single word, my body instantly launched into panic mode. My hands started sweating, my head pushed stiffly into the headrest, and my breathing stopped.

The attendant went on to say that the airline was offering a great deal. Yes, we travelers all needed to know about the credit card that combines the perks of miles and savings. I don’t remember any of the details beyond that – I was busy regaining feeling in my limbs.

We make the same mistake, don’t we? Sometimes we say and write things without thinking through the effect that our words might have on others. As a result, our readers are left to make sense of our words the best they can – which can lead to misunderstandings.

So, how can we improve our words in order to reach our audience as effectively as possible?

1. Slow down.

Your timeline for every project should include time devoted to reviewing your work. Resist the temptation to work right up to your deadline without letting your work “cool.”

At the very least, give yourself 24 hours to revisit your work the next day with fresh eyes. At best, give yourself a week to perfect your work. When I revisit a piece of writing without making any further changes, this is my signal that a project is ready for submission.

2. Let someone else read or hear your words.

Having something to say is one thing, but it’s an entirely different thing to say it in a way that is received well by your audience.

Case in point: A college hopeful used words in his entrance essay that implied a negative attitude toward his high school teachers. Forget the fact that the essay was well-structured – he was putting down educators, the very people who would judge his essay!

Luckily for him, he sought another set of eyes before submitting his final draft. Just a few changes in his choice of words shifted the tone of the essay from arrogance to confidence. (He got accepted.)

3. Be receptive.

Letting others review your work is useless unless you’re willing to consider their feedback.

Recently, an executive practiced a speech with me before a work function. Although I advised that he replace a questionable joke, he decided to keep it for laughs. Unfortunately, the joke didn’t sit well with an employee, who later complained. He resolved the issue well, but the incident could’ve been avoided if he had heeded another’s gut instincts.

Taking these simple steps can go a long way toward determining the best choice of words and avoiding negative “surprises” for your audience. What resources or tips do you apply to your own writing to improve word choice?

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based freelance editor and writer for business leaders, publishers, and other writers. Connect with her on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/ellaritchie.