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Why Learning Another Language Makes You a Better Writer

LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE MAKES YOU A BETTER WRITER

Most of the time, language is effortless. Despite the labyrinth separating the thoughts in my prefrontal cortex from the words in my mouth, I can ramble all day without thinking twice about the process.

Language is effortless, that is, until we encounter a new one. In a foreign language, finding the right words suddenly takes work, and we’re forced to dissect sentences, rethink our message and consult the dictionary.

This exercise of searching and editing mirrors the process of writing. Skilled writers attempt to construct language in particular ways — clearer, richer, more visual, funnier, shorter, longer — that may not immediately flow to our fingers. Language learning is like interval training for writers; in fact, learning another language makes you a better writer and may be one of the best ways to enhance writing skills.

Descriptions get more creative

When we first learn a language, our vocabulary is limited. At times, we have to be creative to get our message across. For example, imagine that I want to tell someone that I bought a vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately, I don’t know the word for “vacuum cleaner.” How can I say vacuum cleaner without saying vacuum cleaner?

  • A thing that cleans the floor that is not a broom
  • A broom that sucks dirt
  • A broom that breathes
  • An electric broom
  • A carpet cleaner without water
  • A floor sucker
  • A mop for the rug
  • Something that washes the ground with air

 

It’s like a particularly painful game of Taboo in which I can only use the words I don’t need. Yet by going through this awkward process — saying the words “floor sucker” while making a whirring noise — I’m stretching my mind to build new, concise definitions and clever descriptions.

There’s a whole new world of idioms and metaphors

Metaphors and idioms add spice to language and help readers grasp abstract or complex concepts. They’re also often unique to languages and cultures. Learning another language makes you a better writer because it gives you a whole new reservoir of metaphors.

Russians use the phrase “spitting at the ceiling,” to describe sitting around and doing nothing. The closest parallel in English might be “twiddling your thumbs,” but that phrase doesn’t deliver quite the same punch that the Russian does. Used in English, “spitting at the ceiling” could add an interesting if icky visual to any prose.


LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE MAKES YOU A BETTER WRITER

Foreign languages give new insight into familiar words

Learning another language makes you a better writer by forcing you to examine your native vocabulary in new ways. In English, the word “know” is simple: It has one core definition, and even small children recognize and use it. However, Italian dictionaries offer two different translations of “know”:

  • The first is sapere, which means “to know” something that can be learned or memorized, like a fact or a skill.
  • The other is “conoscere,” which expresses familiarity, personal insight and recognition in the way you might know a song, a person or a place.

 

I took “know” for granted my entire life. A single language lesson led me to reconsider it and has changed the way I use this simple English word. Rather than using “know,” I now seek out terms that add more clarity to the narrative.

It’s English Grammar 101

Even people who sneer at the “AP Stylebook” and “Strunk & White” depend on the English grammar systems. When we use our native tongue, however, we have little appreciation for its complexities.

For example, in English, the word “the” is always placed before a noun, and it always looks the same:

German grammar (6)

Foreign languages learners learn a new grammar system from scratch. In German, the shape of “the” depends on the role it (and its noun) plays in the sentence. For example,

Why Learning Another Language Makes You a Better Writer

In these German sentences, “the” takes multiple forms (der and den) depending on who is doing the biting. The main subject (the biter) takes “der; the object (the bitten) takes “den.” This kind of differentiation between subject and object actually exists in English, but its usage is limited to pronouns:

LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE MAKES YOU A BETTER WRITER

To speak German, I have to learn to recognize the role that “the” (and the noun it modifies) plays in the sentence, and doing so forces me to reflect on a facet of English grammar that most of us never consider.

Learning another language makes you a better writer

There’s some irony in the fact that a new tongue is the best way to understand your own, and that learning another language makes you a better writer. Yet for those of us who spend our days surrounded by words, it’s a powerful way to expand and grow as  writers, messengers and thinkers.

Conversational Writing: The Art of Keeping it Real

Conversational Writing

How often do messages on websites or marketing emails make you wonder if a human wrote them? A lot of content supposedly “targeting” us completely misses the mark. The writing is not conversational. It doesn’t sound like us. It doesn’t make us want to engage, and it lacks personality altogether. Some brands still confuse professional with formal and corporate with serious. Others forget how important it is to tailor content for each medium, coming off stiff and dated in social media and blog posts.

What is conversational writing?

Conversational writing is the kind or writing that makes readers feel you’re talking with them, not at them. It’s meant to keep things fresh and casual, and to help establish a brand’s voice across their website, social media, blogs and contributed articles.

Is conversational content better?

Conversational writing works better in some contexts. When we read content that sounds like us, we immediately feel a connection. As content marketers, our job is to inform, connect, persuade and inspire. We focus on finding the right “voice” for our audience and then on tailoring messages for each medium so they are more likely to convert. Sometimes this may mean relaxing our tone in client’s website’s landing page to establish trust and open opportunities for more personalized connections. Sometimes it’s about writing friendlier, shorter emails with one ask instead of five. It’s not about ignoring all brand guidelines, it’s about tweaking them to match how readers speak in different touchpoints. Some industry experts view conversational writing it as a form of copywriting UX, a way of using language to create more engaging experiences for readers.

But what about the serious technical and business stuff?

There’s still a place and a purpose for jargon and technical writing in formal business pieces like case studies, reports, RFPs and white papers. But don’t expect visitors to stay on a website that reads like an obscure instructional manual or to click on a link inside an email that sounds like a bank’s automated phone system message.

writing, conversational writing, copywriting, audience engagement

Can we write conversationally and still respect grammar rules?

Most regular rules don’t apply in conversational writing because it’s often full of slang and crutch words, creative punctuation and sentence fragments. It’s personable and unpredictable. While it’s never okay to sacrifice clarity for the sake of style, it’s okay to start a sentence with “and” or “but” to match your natural cadence in a blog and to use contractions or #hashtags on social to keep your messages light and your character count low.

A few tips on conversational writing

Conversational writing doesn’t have a style guide. What sounds like a conversation to me may not sound the same to you. The level of flexibility depends entirely on your target audience and the style they connect with. Below are a few tips to start using a healthy dose of conversational writing.

  1. Write as if you were talking to a friend. Start by reading your content out loud. Does it sound like something you’d actually say, or does it sound like something out of the Pelican Brief?
  2. Don’t write for everyone. Know who you’re talking to and write for them. Attempting to write for everyone will only dilute your message.
  3. Start with clarity. Start with your main message first so it doesn’t get lost when you add personality.
  4. Keep your sentences short. You know that amazing white paper intro you want to share on LinkedIn? Try chopping up the sentences to sound less academic. Unless your English teacher is your target audience, you definitely want to keep it short, sweet and light.
  5. Skip the long word when the short one will do. You don’t have to flaunt your vast industry vocabulary everywhere. Don’t let poor word choice stop a reader in their tracks.

Design Week Portland 2017

To be honest, I was supposed to post to our blog last week, but I was too busy checking out Design Week Portland 2017. Did you experience any of the great events last week? For those who haven’t heard, Design Week is an annual celebration of all things design-related: architecture, art and craft, graphic design, design education, experiential design, fashion and apparel, film, landscape design, manufacturing design, illustration, industrial design, interior design, interactive design, music, urban design, and writing and design criticism.

IMG_3796

Political resistance through design

It is overwhelming how much there is to experience, including talks, panels, events and parties, open houses, competitions, screenings, workshops, and the list goes on. I had the opportunity to check out a few cool events, including a panel on design’s role in political and cultural resistance, designing for craft brew brands, and a fun pin show benefitting arts education. Our own client, IDL Worldwide hosted an awesome (and delicious) “Design Fight Club // Crossover” where local chefs teamed up “with IDL or guest creatives to challenge participants to solve similar problems in a 30-minute sketch-off competition.” So fun.

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Designing for a Craft Brew Brand

Every year Design Week gets bigger and better—there is no shortage of things to do, and with increasing participation from all sorts of Portland businesses and organizations, the events are more and more appealing to any and everyone—not just those who work in design fields.

IMG_3810

Designers from all over the country contributed beautiful, wearable pins to sell at this show, with proceeds benefitting arts education.

So if you missed this year’s events, make sure to mark your calendar for next year!

The CEO’s role in a brand crisis

brand crisis ceo

In the middle of a crisis for your brand, who do you want facing the public and weathering the storm? The instinctual answer might be your CEO. However, even in the midst of an exceptionally terrible time for your brand, someone other than your CEO could be a better option to help communicate with the public. There are a variety of factors to consider, and the planning for these scenarios should happen long before a crisis occurs.

The debate

As the head of your company, the CEO probably already has a public presence. Whether or not they’re always the best spokesperson for your company, however, is up for debate.

Public perception of business executive duties and roles is one of the strongest arguments for having your CEO step up to the plate in a crisis. As the highest-ranking executive, consumers expect them to know what’s going on, care about finding a solution, and figure out how to implement this quickly. Especially with corporations, where CEOs are often well-paid, consumers assume CEOs are adept at managing their businesses and place a high priority on customer experience. In a brand crisis, having the person highest on the executive chain publicly address it can go a long way in quelling public upset. A CEO who appears absent (or worse, isn’t good with the media) can prolong the crisis.

On the other hand, however, certain crisis situations can benefit from having the CEO be present, but not serving as the “mouth-piece.” Interacting professionally with the media and public isn’t a skill that comes naturally, and a CEO not prepared to defend their brand while keeping public perception in mind can create a long-term brand reputation issue. Additionally, a CEO doing rounds of media interviews may appear to be doing nothing more than talking; if they’re always on TV, are they jumping in and doing any of the hard work to solve the problem? In some cases, it makes more sense to have the CEO on the ground, visibly working to solve the issue, and leave the speaking to a lower ranking executive or official spokesperson.

Preparing for a crisis with your CEO

Whether or not they’ll be the spokesperson, a CEO needs know the crisis communications plan inside and out well before an issue arises. Plans to address a crisis and the role top executives will play should be developed to address a wide variety of potential problems, and should be revisited and updated often. Key things to keep in mind:

  • Transparency and authenticity above all else. “No comment” is not an option. Brands and their spokesperson need to be ready to be transparent about how the problem happened and what they’re doing to solve it. The response needs to show concern for the customers affected, authentically – don’t have a Tony Hayward And if your CEO does slip and make a statement like Hayward’s “I want my life back,” make sure they’re not photographed on their yacht a few days later.

 

tony hayward BP

Tony Hayward, former BP CEO

  • Media training. Even if they won’t be doing the press rounds and will be focusing on being hands on, media will likely still approach and cover the CEO’s activities during the crisis. CEOs should be fully media trained, with refresher courses frequently. Beyond speaking to journalists in person, this should include how to present themselves in public in case of any photos, and how to handle their personal social media channels.
  • Understand the level of response required. Not all crises are 5-alarm fires. Adidas’ recent flub with their Boston Marathon congratulatory email was bad, but the majority of the public understood the intern. It didn’t require a groveling press tour from the CEO, and their response was quick, open, and authentic. United Airline’s recent troubles, however are definitely a serious crisis that requires the visibility of the CEO.

 

In times of crisis, the CEO certainly has a role – it just might not be that of spokesperson. As United Airlines’ Oscar Munoz has shown recently, this can backfire – and Munoz and the airline are both paying for it. Whether or not the situation calls for the CEO to be the spokesperson, the key thing to remember is that planning for a crisis can often avert one before it starts, and save your brand a lot of trouble.

Influencer Marketing for Small Businesses

influencer marketing

Influencer marketing is a priority for brands in 2017. In 2016, influencers emerged as a powerhouse for brands looking to reach millennials in the personalized, authentic way that they desire. Celebrity endorsements have always been a tool for marketers with the right budget, but influencer marketing takes this concept to the next level. It combines star power with the more casual endorsement you get from word of mouth – social media influencers are typically much more connected to and familiar with their fans than A-list celebrities are. While some social media stars command big pay checks from the huge brands they work with, there are thousands of micro-influencers that are more easily accessible to small businesses with limited budgets.

Influencers with millions of followers aren’t right for every brand. Micro-influencers in specific industries are not only more affordable for smaller businesses, they’re more likely to reach the people who will become actual customers. Micro-influencers are often cheaper for businesses to work with, and may even do partnerships for free products or services. In exchange, they can offer direct, personal connections with consumers businesses may struggle to reach efficiently otherwise. Their reviews of products are much more authentic than major influencers with millions of followers that they definitely can’t connect with individually.

How to Find Micro-Influencers

You can find influencers who would be a great fit for your business in a variety of ways, ranging from free options to purchasing tools built for this purpose.

  • Start with your own followers: Take a look through your own fans on social media. For followers who have a few thousand followers of their own, and are already fans of your business, a partnership with your brand could be a natural choice for them.
  • Connect with local bloggers: Google is your friend here – search for popular local bloggers in your area. If their content is a fit, check out how they prefer to connect.
  • Hashtags: On Instagram and Twitter, browse popular hashtags related to your brand’s products. Chances are, some of the top tweets come from influencers in these topics.
  • Buy a tool to help: Buy a subscription to a service like Klear to get a more in-depth look at who holds influence in your industry.

 

What to Expect

When working with influencers, it’s important to pursue an authentic, mutually beneficial relationship. Treat influencers with respect, and they’ll be more open to working with you. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Research how the influencer prefers to be contacted, and respect what types of partnerships they’re willing to do.
  • Do your due diligence and research the influencer’s history and past brand sponsorships. This can help avoid a crisis for your brand later.
  • Plan to build a relationship over time. Influencers may not be open to a partnership right away, even if you’re willing to pay. They need to get to know your business first, and understand if it works with their brand.
  • Make sure all posts from your influencer clearly state their relationship to your brand – transparency pays off with your audience and avoids legal issues.
  • Ideally, plan for a long-term relationship and not a one-off sponsorship.

Women’s History Month Wrap-Up: 4 Brands Celebrating Women

International Woman’s Day has come and gone, and we’re approaching the end of Women’s History Month. Over the last few weeks companies and brands throughout the country and world have been celebrating women. Using a variety of strategies, many businesses utilized International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month to announce ongoing initiatives, campaigns or a commitment to a gender-related cause.

From paper towels to financial investors, here’s a quick review of a few creative favorites:

Proctor and Gamble #WeSeeEqual

The same company that launched the #LikeAGirl campaign during the Olympics last summer kicked off a campaign called #WeSeeEqual. The video depicts women and girls conquering their fears, loving on their families and achieving their goals.

Western Union

Western Union released the results of a global survey that found women across the globe believed education to be the key to advancing gender equality. Citing the survey, Western Union announced new education initiatives targeting girls on International Women’s Day, including a new global scholarship program.

Brawny #StrengthHasNoGender

The paper towel brand known for plaid and biceps produced a series of mini-videos about strong women. The move accompanied the announcement of a campaign called #StrengthHasNoGender. The Brawny website revealed its commitment to contributing $75,000 for STEM education programs to Girls Inc, a nonprofit that helps girls grow up to be healthy, educated and independent. They also created a timeline of important events impacting women throughout history.

State Street Global Advisors-Fearless Girl

This viral sculpture installation is now seeing requests to have a permanent residence on Wall Street. The Boston Globe reported that the fearless girl was commissioned and placed by Street Global Advisors as part of their initiative to encourage their investors to increase the number of women in leadership roles. SSGA’s official press release referred to the statue as “a Symbol of Need for Action”.

Photo credit: Reuters

Photo credit: Reuters

These campaigns are eye-catching and inspiring reminders that while there is still work to be done for girls and women, there is ample support behind ongoing efforts. While the month of March shouldn’t be the only time businesses evaluate their commitment to supporting women, it provides an opportunity to share stories of successful women and reminds us they’re all around us.

 

Inspiring Women in Graphic Design

To continue the month’s celebration of women’s contributions to history and the world, I thought it would be fitting to highlight five super talented women doing big things in the field of graphic design. There are so many inspiring women in graphic design right now; I love learning from their unique styles, career challenges and successes, and perspectives on what design means to them.

Take a look, and click through to see more of each designer’s work.

Paula Scher

scher_PP scher
 

“It took me a few seconds to draw it, but it took me 34 years to learn how to draw it in a few seconds.”

 Paula Scher

Marian Bantjes

bantjes_I-wonder-4  bantjes_sorrow-1
 

“My aim is juxtaposition and surprise, but also, while I have an affinity for the organic form, I can’t help the way my brain works, which is logically and in a very structured manner. I’m a sort of free-flowing control freak.”

-Marian Bantjes
 

Jessica Hische

Hische-Penguin-DropCaps-2013
 
jessica_hische
 

“To be a good artist / letterer / designer / guitar player it takes practice. A lot of it. More than you can even fathom when you’re starting out.”

-Jessica Hische
 

Laura Pol

lp_cards_bc_final  Laura-pol-art3
 

Jessica Walsh

walsh-5
 
jessica_walsh_NYT
 

“Play is the state of mind that we can use in our creative process to our advantage.”

-Jessica Walsh

Dark Social: Digital Word of Mouth

Cellars

“Dark social” isn’t as malicious as it sounds. The term was coined by Alexis Madrigal in an article for The Atlantic in 2012 to describe the sharing of information in emails and instant messengers – sharing that existed long before social media platforms were popular. Social media ROI is getting easier to measure, but dark social is more difficult. And it accounts for a huge portion of the referrals your website is probably getting.

When looking through your Google Analytics, you probably notice a large chunk of the referrals are listed in the “direct traffic” category. These hits can come from a variety of behind-the-scenes sources; a link shared through text, email, native mobile apps (like Facebook’s), messengers, Slack messages, Snapchat, and someone using a secure HTTPS browser all fall in this bucket. It’s word of mouth on the internet, but not the kind you can track easily through Facebook Insights.

The Struggle for Social Media Strategists

While it’s great to have so many avenues for your content to be shared, dark social adds to the struggle for social media teams in proving the value of what they do. If you can’t specifically show that these direct traffic hits are from people copying and sharing a link you put on Facebook, it’s tough to show true ROI. Social media marketers are under a lot of pressure to show concrete metrics, which is sometimes next to impossible. There’s no real way to say “yes, all of these direct traffic hits were from text messages sent in this market.”

texting

Dark social can also make optimizing content tough. Without knowing how the content is being shared specifically, marketers can’t design it for those platforms. These shares are likely hitting demographics that may not be on other social channels, like the 55 and older age group. When you can’t pin down the audience and the channel, it’s difficult to be strategic.

Shining the Light on Dark Social

So, what can PR pros and marketers do about dark social? Here’s a few things to focus on to get a better handle on this type of sharing:

  • Use Google Analytics’ customer URL builder. This can help with proving that your social sharing is driving dark social communication, and which posts are bringing in the most referrals. No matter where the link is clicked from, you’ll be able to see that it was that specific link you created for your latest Facebook post that brought visitors to the website.

 

google analytics

  • Invest in a tool made for dark social tracking, like st by Radium One.
  • Make shareable content a priority. Even when it’s hard to track, dark social is still sharing of your content. Make sure your social posts are shareable – find the emotional connection, keep text short, and include visuals whenever possible. You might not be able to optimize it for a Snapchat message, but you can still focus on creating content that resonates with your audience, no matter where they are.

The beauty of a brand manifesto

Mieux Derma Brand Manifesto

Mieux Derma Brand Manifesto

I’ve talked about the moodboard process, as well as the importance of brand guides, but have yet to touch on one of the other tools in the master brand toolkit: the brand manifesto.

What is a brand manifesto?

As a manifesto is “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer” (Miriam-Webster), a brand manifesto is just that, publicly declaring the intentions, motivations and views of the brand. While not every company needs a manifesto, it can be a great way to get to the essence of a brand. The language that forms the manifesto helps excite and guide employees as they share the brand with the world, and also inspires and connects with consumers who interact with the brand.

Key elements

A manifesto can be a single page statement, or a lengthy, designed “bible,” but it needs to have some basic elements:

Impact – This is the call to action, for you, your employees, and your consumers. What do you want to enable/inspire/change/create?

Passion – This is main differentiator for the manifesto (compared with the straight brand guide). Stir the emotions, and open up. Be vulnerable, be authentic. If there’s something about your company’s mission or goals that makes your heart pound, put it down here.

Essence – What do you believe? Why are you getting out of bed everyday to do this? What really drives you?

Connection – A good brand manifesto will inspire and create excitement and connection, resulting in easy brand evangelism. Employees will enthusiastically sell and consumers will enthusiastically buy in.

Muse Manifesto

Muse Manifesto

Make it look good

Turn it into a designed poster for the office, a glossy brochure, or a beautiful hardback book. Just give it some design love—it represents the heart of your business, so should be considered and given special attention.

nike

Nike Running Manifesto

Put it into action

The brand manifesto is more than a fluffy brand exercise—it can translate into hard marketing strategy around your service or product. The emotion and messaging can be tweaked for target audiences and applied to marketing materials that will create strong brand connections. We’ve seen this a lot with brands like Nike, Levi’s, and Apple.

Levi's Ad

Levi’s Ad

A brand manifesto may be unnecessary or excessive for some companies. But for those attempting to connect with consumers on a human level, those experiencing the challenges of focus despite growth, or those simply needing to document the essential “why” of their business, a brand manifesto can be a beautiful part of their brand identity toolkit.

Is Jargon Bad?

Is jargon bad?

Forward-facing innovators can optimize deliverables by leveraging a holistic view of language.

Last weekend I used the word “optimize” while out with friends. My husband nudged me. “You’re using your business jargon in real life again,” he whispered. My work is a nonstop cycle of blogs, articles, brochures, press releases, POVs, web copy and white papers, many of them for clients in technology or management services. It’s no wonder these words are creeping into my daily conversations more and more. But is jargon bad?

Like most people in buzzword-laden professions, I have strong opinions on the specifics. Still, I’m careful not to write off jargon simply because it’s popular. Content that is all jargon is garbage, but so is content that is all metaphors, or exclamation points, or flowery language. Just as metaphors, exclamation points and verbal curlicues have their time and place, so does jargon. Some terms – including “evergreen” and “disrupt” – are actually delightfully tactile. I don’t like “game-changing” or “siloed,” though I’ll admit to using them. On the other hand, “synergy” and “actualize” make me want to pour hot tea over my keyboard and then bang on it with the mug.

It may be annoying, but is jargon bad? As a writer, it’s my responsibility to communicate messages well. Compelling content requires creativity; clarity is even more important. But writing doesn’t simply relay information: Writing relays specific information meant to leave a specific impression on a specific audience. My work must be unique but still aligned with the client’s voice and industry. Because most of the content and thought leadership projects we produce at A.wordsmith will be consumed by our clients’ peers and customers, they must fit the style that those audiences expect. Sometimes, that style is business-ese.

The business-ese code

The process is similar to code-switching. I don’t speak to my boss the same way I speak to my husband. I use a higher pitch when interacting with a three-year-old, and it’s different than the small talk I make with my Uber driver. I say “ya’ll” when checking in with old friends from Atlanta, throw in Yiddish phrases when chatting with family in New Jersey and dampen my energy with colleagues here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not limited to verbal communication, either: Watch how President Obama greets a member of the coaching staff for the US Olympic basketball team and then, without missing a beat, changes his body language to address a player.

Is jargon bad?

Barack Obama code-switches like a pro

The change doesn’t indicate insincerity: Neither of these is “the real Obama.” We communicate differently according to our environment and interlocutors. It’s a practice called code-switching, and it’s a natural feature of language that we unconsciously use to indicate relationships, power and culture.

Business jargon is a kind of code that represents the culture of professional interactions. It uses sleek, trendy, smart language because consultants and tech companies acquire business and impress peers by coming off as sleek, trendy and smart. Using the appropriate verbiage establishes credibility by demonstrating that the speaker (or writer) knows what they’re doing and respects the norms of the environment.

Jargon on purpose

We need to get over the idea that jargon for the sake of jargon is wrong. Jargon actually serves a very specific purpose. It’s a hallmark of poor writing, but it’s also a component of skilled and appropriate business communications. My husband sees optimize as a ridiculous word, and, three beers in on a Saturday night, it is. It would be equally ridiculous to write “try really hard to do our very best” in a formal POV targeting CIOs. The challenge is to distinguish between the two, and then infuse the vernacular with enough energy and charm to make it stand out while still fitting in. Every word has a place, even the cloying business jargon we love to hate.

Except for synergy – synergy is gibberish.