Monday, August 26, 2013

What Katy Perry can teach technology PR writers

Punchy writing includes a seldom-taught ingredient called assonance. Technology PR writers who make themselves aware of this subtlety are more likely to get compliments such as “She makes copy sparkle” and “His copy really sings.”
The usual reasons for compliments like these are shorter and more five-senses-oriented words, sentence lengths that average 16 words, and audience-centric content that surprises or helps with decision-making.
But assonance -- which includes “vowel rhyme” and is greatly helped by parallel structure -- is another reason, though it’s rarely taught.
Katy Perry uses assonance in “Roar,” as do many artists on your favorite pop channel. For example, notice that the highlighted words don’t rhyme but do share the same vowel sound. (This placement of assonance at the end of the sentence is called “vowel rhyme.”)
I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point

Here’s a similar example you might find on a website:
“…makes our job more enjoyable and your company more profitable.”
First, notice that both sides of the “and” are parallel in structure:
pronoun + noun + adverb + adjective

our/your + jobs/companies + more/more + enjoyable/profitable

Then, notice the vowel sounds. In addition to the “uhl” sound that ends each phrase, notice the many “O” sounds. This is assonance.
The following sentence is not as easy on the ear because the two phrases aren’t parallel or assonant.
“… makes tasks fun and our clients look great.”
noun + adjective (tasks fun – two syllables)
pronoun + noun + verb + adjective (our clients look great – five syllables)

The vowels are mixed: A, Uh and Ow, “I,” Eh, oo-uh, Eh.
Even the following sentence might be better (depending on the tone required for the situation) because each phrase at least begins with the same two parts of speech.
“… makes us smile and brings you success.”
verb pronoun verb
verb pronoun noun

Still more parallel: “… puts smiles on our faces and dollars in your pocket.” Both sides have these parts of speech in this order: noun, preposition, pronoun, noun.
Notice that “smiles” and “dollars” are both stressed on the first syllable, share an “uhl” sound, and are the first words on each side. (Notice that spelling doesn’t help you; it’s all in the ear.)
Katy Perry also uses parallel structure in “Roar.”
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything – parallel contrast

Similarly, count the syllables in the second halves of the first two lines of her song, and notice they each start with the same structure: [and] [verb] …
“… and hold my breath.”
“… and make a mess.”

I’ve got more examples of assonance and parallel structure to share with you, if you like. But if you’ve got the gist, this would be a good place to stop reading. My bottom-line advice is: Listen to vowels and aim for parallel structure.
Caveat: Don't get carried away. It's nice if people say your copy really sings, but not if they say it's sing-song-y. ;-)
Here’s an example of sounds that are at odds, albeit in a subtle way that an attuned ear can pick up but is otherwise denotatively fine.
“… mistakes activities for results.”
The writer’s goal was to contrast “activities” with “results,” but the vowels in the contrasting words are a bit too dissimilar to go down perfectly smoothly – different number of syllables, different sounds, different stress.
Activity versus results
 [xxx]-ih-ih-ee versus [xx]-uhl-[tz]
They fight each other. The sounds “ih” and “ee” don’t go well with “uh.”
Notice the following sentence is a bit better, even though it’s not perfectly parallel and doesn’t have really fabulous assonance.
“… change your business outcomes, not just raise your profile”
In poetry (not our goal in tech PR), vowels help create the mood, and the “ee” and “ih” sounds often help create a harsh mood.
"If I bleat when I speak it's because I just got . . . fleeced"
                    "Deadwood" by Al Swearengen

"Strips of tinfoil winking like people"
"The Bee Meeting" by Sylvia Plath

“Without me, without me, without me-ee-ee-ee-ee”
 “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift

You don’t necessarily need assonance. I don’t recommend that you aim for it every time you write a sentence. But raising your awareness may help you begin adding secret sauce to your writing.
Personally, I don’t strive for it, either. But I noticed recently that it serendipitously appears and sounds pretty good. Clients of mine seem to notice that something nice is going on, but they can’t put their finger on exactly what.
Even if you choose not to pursue assonance, I recommend you aim for parallel structure, especially in lists at the ends of sentences. For example:
“… tames chaos, speeds results and builds relationships.” 3x (verb + noun)
is better than
“… gives you faster results, tames chaos and fosters better relationships.” (verb, pronoun, adjective, noun; verb, noun; and verb, adjective, noun)
Or, at a minimum, consider moving the most non-parallel item to the end:

“… gives you faster results, fosters better relationships, and catches mistakes.”

Friday, August 23, 2013

How to approach a dreaded writing project

Here's an excerpt from a note I recently sent to a colleague of a colleague who asked for writing advice. 

She was working in a field I normally don't help with and on a document type that's also outside my expertise. I free-associated a response that I thought might help her. 

The essence of her question was: "How can I get started on a big writing project that intimidates me? I have a lot of knowledge, but I don't know how to channel my efforts. I feel lost."

Top three tips

1. Look for "turning points" in the content in front of you. Comb though your initial "brain dump" and look for new decisions, rejected options, shifts in perspective, forks in the road, or the place in your story where you didn't know what would happen next (or still don't know). Usually, that's where you'll find insights rather than a mere sequence of facts or observations. Pay the most attention to content at this point in your chronology, and dig deeper for more detail, facts and understanding of what's at stake and why it matters. Answer these questions: "Why did it matter?" and "How did I know that was true?"

2. Look for obstacles overcome and lessons learned. Show the journey from Point A to Point B, but not in chronological order. Start with the lesson learned or outcome achieved, and contrast it with the obstacles overcome, all in the same paragraph or -- when possible -- in the same sentence.

3. Make the first three words in each paragraph the most "to the point" or the most 'visual, memorable, active ..." The first three to five words are where skimmers' eyes will fall, and you may be able to lure them in and glue their eyes to the page if you deliver something good from the get-go. 

About process

4. Be messy. Dump your thoughts in a sloppy pile onto the page. Don't "write well." Just dump. Fragments. Ramblings. Lists. Brainstorm questions "the audience" might be asking themselves. Don't judge. Don't fix. Allow typos. Allow wrong vocabulary and tone. The first step is to generate what I delicately spell in make-believe French as "crappe." Write crap. Let it stay crap. Don't worry --- yet. 

5. Step back from your brain-dump. Make a hard copy and add circles, arrows and notes in the margin as you begin to discern some order in the chaos. Then determine a structure -- as in three main points that back up your central premise. 

6. Then look for holes, gaps, things you *wish* you knew. Reflect. Go get more info. Add. 

7. Draft. Now and only now begin to smooth over your sentences and "write well." This is where you fix the typo and search for the most precise word. Then, after a break, delete words and shorten sentences. 

8. For an ending, look at your beginning. Come full circle by picking up something from the start and repurposing it for use at the end. But spend time making it short, visual, emotional, catchy -- good stuff like that. Journalists use the term "kicker." In a great feature article that is likely to be read to the end, they sometimes use their second-best quotation as an ending. Something resonant and memorable that feels good to the ear. Notice, this is not like a conclusion in an essay; instead, move your conclusion to the intro ("get to the point fast") and let your ending instead be very sensory.

The big picture

9. Help others. I always advise looking at an organization's own long-term aspirations. Where does your organization want to be in the future, like in three to five years? How can you help it get there? I would keep those things in mind while doing the brain dump, and look for details and themes that dovetail with the organization's overarching goals.

10. Read current events. Spend time developing your own thoughts about data and current events in your field. Read a lot of articles and notice your response. Look for trends, contrasts and surprises. Repeat the arrows-and-circles process, paying most attention to insights that pop out, not necessarily the facts you gather.

Deepen, then forget. Those last two -- No. 9 and No. 10 -- can help you deepen your content. But don't dwell on your findings overly much so that you're writing *about* them. Just let them prime you, ready you, inspire you, coax you into exploring your own thoughts. Then "forget" about all of that and refocus on the question you've been asked.