Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tell Me a Story, Please. And Make It GOOD! Part Dos

madison rose, a resale maternity shopImage by cherrypatter via Flickr

In Part Uno of Tell Me a Story... we talked about finding a hero and supporting cast and making sure the end of the story resolves the problem posed at the beginning. In this post, we'll talk about how your word choices can affect the story you're telling. And what I've seen over the years is that when it comes to writing, many small nonprofits write a clear but boring message - instead of inspiring people to action, the prose just kinda lays there like the one cube of gummy cheese left on last night's party platter. It's probably edible, but not appetizing.

Here's An Example That's Got Nothing to Do With You, And Yet...

On one of the numerous newsletters dumped into my mailbox every morning, I saw this:
Company offers clothing for pregnant professionals
Obviously a news item, I thought. But nooooo - it was actually written by the company selling the clothing. Did they pull the headline from a poorly written press release? Or did someone with no marketing sense write it? Hmmm... which would sound less bad?

Let's start by replacing the first word with an actual company name. We'll say, Professor Mom. So now we have:
Professor Mom offers clothing for pregnant professionals
Clear, but not very appealing. "Offers" is ambiguous.What kind of images do you get when you think of it? I got someone hoping to have something taken off her hands. Substitute a few other words and see what you get.  Seems like Professor Mom is catering to a specific niche of pregnant professionals, but the word "catering" is old-fashioned and slightly patronizing. The next word - "clothing" is serviceable, but vague. What kind of clothing? "Pregnant" should probably be left alone. The days when even professional women would be described as being "in a family way", "expecting" or "enceinte" are long gone. "Professional" is a key word in this sentence - they want to appeal to women in the workplace who are unable to dress casually, even when in a family way. Who would want to be part of a panel discussion on international banking while wearing a shirt emblazoned with "Bump, not plump"?

So what would I have written? Maybe my first pass would be something like:
Professor Mom specializes in fashion-forward apparel for pregnant professionals
Is that it? Nope. I'd keep working on it until I either hit the deadline or felt I'd really nailed it.

The Take-Away From Professor Mom

Make every word count - make sure every word you're using pulls its weight by evoking the images or feelings you want to touch on. If it doesn't, then replace it or drop it. Yes, it's time and thought-consuming enough to do this for one sentence; imagine doing it for a whole letter or report. Ordinarily, I'd suggest hiring a professional - like me - and I'll still endorse that idea if you've got the funding. However, I know you don't always have the money for outside help and you still have to get those social communications out the door, so here's to keeping them clear, but interesting.

In the next post, we'll continue to talk about keeping your writing vigorous and why adverbs are not your friends.
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