How to Correct Two Common Mistakes in Business Writing

The way something is written can say as much about the subject matter as the content itself. Applied to business communications, writing style and tone help reinforce a brand or company culture, while a logical flow of information creates both understanding and credibility.

To keep your readers’ eyes on the content you create—whether it’s a blog post, newsletter, or simple internal communication—proofread (at least twice) for both clarity and correctness.

You don’t need to know all the rules of grammar (and their wonderful exceptions) to edit your own content, and it won’t take much time. All you need is to recognize the most common mistakes, and know what trips you up as a writer and a reader.

Writing: If you’ve collaborated with someone on a document, were changes made to your portion of the writing? What feedback do you receive?

Reading: As a reader, what do you find jarring? Where do you get lost? Confused? Do you feel lost and confused right now?

Chances are that the prose suffers from one or more of the two most common mistakes in business writing –homonyms and sentence structure.

Homonyms

These are words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. In the sounds-like category, the “it’s,” “you’re,” and “they’re” offenses get the most attention. Other examples of homonym errors, briefly, include board/bored, where/wear/ware, lessen/lesson, to/too, hole/whole, role/roll.

The homonym errors involving contractions are most common because those are the words used most often in our communications (or, um, intended to be used). A good way to figure out the proper usage and spelling is to read the sentence as though the contraction were written out, mindful of whether there is a verb that would indicate two words joined together, as the contraction form.

Reading the entire sentence, or clause if you’re confident, is important because it gives context for proper usage. Here are some examples:

Its

Its is possessive; it’s is a contraction for “it has” or “it is.”

It’s (it is) a lovely day.

The dog licks its paw. (No contraction here. Adding the apostrophe [it’s form] would mean The dog licks it is paw. No.)

Your

You’re (you are) going to be so excited when you see your new walk-in closet.

Their

With their tutus and ballet slippers in hand, the little dancers sit backstage, waiting there until they’re called for dress rehearsal.

Their is possessive, there is a place, and they’re is a contraction for “they are,” whether you’re writing about tutus or technology.

Whose

Who’s (who is) going to the game? Whose vodka is this? The latter is the possessive form. And the vodka is mine.

Run-ons, Comma Splices, Sentence Fragments

Sometimes writers have a lot of ideas and they to cram them into a single sentence it makes it difficult for the reader to take in all those words without a breath between them but somehow meaning is agreed upon between writer and reader and the reader responds to the writer but may address only one of the ideas presented in the original communication because the other ideas got lost in the need for a single sentence per idea and a break between them whether it’s a semicolon to separate clauses that can stand alone or the use of a coordinating conjunction or breaking the content into separate sentences and for fuck’s sake a few different paragraphs too.

Independent clauses (ideas) need to be treated as such. Does the content read as a complete sentence? Two sentences? Can you make three? If the sentence (the thought) isn’t complete, make it so. Read the sentence aloud—how often did you pause for breath? Add commas and coordinating conjunctions (and/but/so) in those places to separate ideas.

Here’s how to untangle the unintelligible:

This is getting to be a long post_maybe I should create a checklist instead. {fused sentence—two whole sentences joined together}
This is getting to be a long post, maybe I should create a checklist instead. {comma splice—two complete and independent thoughts on either side of the comma}
This is getting to be a long post, so maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected using a coordinating conjunction}
This is getting to be a long post. Maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected by creating two separate sentences}
This is getting to be a long post; maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected with a semicolon}

In just about every industry where writing and communication play a key role in bringing a product to market, the subject matter is highly technical, scientific, subjective, or abstract, making it even more difficult to convey information clearly to create meaning with a target audience.

Simple business communication tools like email and instant messaging mean everyone creates, contributes to, or writes a business communication or two, no matter their role in a company.

Keep homonym errors and faulty sentence structure out of your communications, and you can keep jackasses like me from deleting you’re sales pitch because it’s grammar steels clarity from it’s message.

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A Three-Minute Guide to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in Advertising

This article was originally published on Avenue Right’s Media Buying Automation Blog.

All advertising is, most fundamentally, an attempt to persuade an audience. We want those people to buy our products, to enlist our services, to support an organization or cause.

The media we use to deliver these messages should match the habits of our target audience, and the message needs to remain consistent, however it’s presented within the media mix.

Just as the media buyer needs to incorporate multiple media channels to reach an audience, the ads need to blend a combination of rhetorical appeals to be effective.

It’s not good enough anymore to tell the audience that a treat from Peggy’s Pie Palace is a guilt-free experience—we need some evidence telling us why it’s a low-calorie snack option.

The art of persuading an audience means using the three basic appeals that Aristotle first described: ethos, pathos, and logos.

This means using the appeal of personal character, emotion, or logic, respectively.

Ethos

Ethos is the appeal of a speaker’s/actor’s character or authority, such as the use of local celebrities or the business owner/employees in a company’s advertising.

This appeal gives character and personality to the message, making it easier for the audience to relate to, trust, or place authority in the figure represented.

Ethos may be represented differently in different media. Visual media has the benefit of using images, such as that of sports hero, where text-only ads and auditory media such as radio rely on style, tone, and name recognition to convey ethos.

Pathos

Perhaps the most powerful tool in advertising, pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions. It can be used to create feelings of confidence and intrigue in a brand (“established in 1915”), to reinforce value (“find more time for you with Acme Widget”), or to promote a sense of urgency (“don’t spend another night with bedbugs”).

The emotions to which the message appeals may be many and varied: safety, well-being, pride, anger, insecurity, desire.

Logos

Logos is a logical appeal typically marked by facts, figures, and data. This information is quantifiable and helps us rationalize our decisions through hard data on money saved, time saved, higher status, and so on.

One tactic that combines all three rhetorical appeals is telling the audience how many people, just like them, have purchased a product or service. This social proof approach

  • helps lower perceived risk and lessens our insecurity about the purchase (pathos),
  • paints a concrete picture of market share through data (logos), and
  • introduces like-minded characters and personalities through testimonials (ethos).

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What Satan Taught Me About Content Marketing

Remember that English teacher who taught you to write five-paragraph essays? The pattern was simple: introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Tell them what you’re going to tell, tell them, and tell them again.

From this basic structure, the writing assignments evolved. They moved from exposition to more complex arguments, pages instead of paragraphs, primary and secondary research, visual rhetoric, a companion video or slide deck.

For me, it all came together in a paper on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, arguing for an interpretation of Satan as epic hero that differed from popular criticism. My desk was littered with the flotsam and jetsam of my efforts—the primary text (PL); a position to take; a list of key points, supporting data, and examples from the text; a somewhat annotated bibliography of my research sources; what might pass for a flowchart that laid out the argument and possible objections; and a rough outline of the paper.

That desk doesn’t look much different today.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Those same writing and research processes from academia are useful tools for any kind of business writing, but especially for creating collateral such as white papers or case studies, or posts aligned with defined blogging strategy, or the email messages used in a lead nurturing campaign.

As content marketers, our most fundamental goal is to persuade an audience and motivate them to take action. We take a position—our unique selling proposition —and we develop, support, and defend it.

Sure, it feels good to say our main goal is to inform, educate, and nurture our audience, but a business needs to keep the lights on.

Each message in the customer lifecycle, from marketing to sales and services, is another piece of evidence in support of that position. Its effectiveness in getting, closing, and retaining customers is more measurable now than ever.

The ROI of our efforts is splashed in bright colors across the pie charts and graphs of our CRM dashboards.

While the simple five-paragraph structure is hardly feasible (or desirable) in our marketing communications, the exercise is. The creative process of writing that paper for English class can be adapted to help content marketers develop a messaging framework, and then use it to produce content that’s consistent and value-based, across marketing channels.

From 5 Paragraphs, 5 Concepts for Content

Whether writing a post on the company blog, a case study, or a status update, marketers can deliver an effective and consistent message by keeping in mind five basic concepts:

  • Audience
  • Argument
  • Appeals
  • Evidence
  • Opposition

Audience. The art of persuasion is equal parts writer and reader. Good content is adapted for a target audience, never one size fits all.  Not only do we need to create content for a specific buyer persona, but we also need to set expectations for that audience, and deliver a content experience that meets those expectations.

In B2B marketing, there are often multiple people involved in the decision-making process, each for different reasons. Segment that house list for targeted communications. Offer content relevant for the end user (how a specific functionality saves time), and something for the business decision maker (how the complete package saves money).

Argument. Again, the Unique Selling Proposition. Who should buy your product and why? How will they benefit? Do existing customers feel good about their purchase decision, and will they stick around? A product or service can’t be the best at everything for everyone, so this core concept should focus on what differentiates that product or service from others in the marketplace.

Appeals. To persuade and motivate that target audience, look to the Aristotelian rhetorical appeals ethos, pathos, and logos.

  • Ethos refers to the appeal of the speaker’s character or authority. It’s how we position the “About” page and our online company profiles, what we put in our bios. A good example of ethos in advertising is celebrity endorsements.
  • Pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions. It can be used to convey feelings of confidence and integrity in a brand and trigger the desired response.
  • Logos is logical appeal. This persuasive strategy is usually marked by facts, figures, and data.

The most effective content combines all three appeals.

Evidence. This one is closely tied to logical appeal but worth calling out on its own. General statements only bring an audience so far. Providing credible evidence to support a claim shows the buyer how other people just like them have realized tangible benefits from a product or service. And it doesn’t need to be boring. The statistics part may be a bit dry, but things like video testimonials, case studies, and online communities can turn this evidence into a more interactive experience for the audience.

Opposition. What are the opposing viewpoints in your marketplace? The reasons for not buying your product or service? If the price point high, for example, then provide some quantifiable ROI data from current customers. Opposition to a change in process or technology? Reinforce the benefits of making the change with evidence, and remember that change brings about feeling of both excitement and fear. Build on the former while addressing the latter with a solid nurturing program.

Putting these concepts together in an internal corporate essay, so to speak, with an introduction, supporting ideas, and conclusion helps clarify positioning, communicate value, and motivate the audience to the next step in the sales cycle. Those ideas make up the parts of the whole, the overarching narrative told through our website, blog posts, social media efforts, sales collateral, and customer service.

It’s worth noting that the essay outline mentioned earlier wasn’t so much an outline as a collection of sticky notes and pizza napkins that could be rearranged while the argument in my paper developed based on new research and perspectives.

The corporate narrative should be organized this way, too—it’s a fluid process as we learn more about our audience and how they interact with our communications, or introduce new products and functionality.

A messaging framework based on audience, argument, appeals, evidence, and opposition helps content marketers tell a consistent and compelling story. It may not be the same as writing about Satan, sex, and the phenomenology of sin in Paradise Lost, but the same concepts of argumentation that we learned in English class can inspire a content strategy that adds color to the marketing dashboard.

This blog post originally appeared on B2Bbloggers.

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On Craft, Career, and Cabernet

Driving downtown to meet some writer friends, I roll down the windows, hoping the breeze will carry away the acronyms of my day (ROI, KPI, CPM, CPA, FFS), sprinkle in a few verbs, and drop them into a marketing plan.

I pull around to the back of the building, find a spot in the bank parking lot. My ride these days is a minivan, and it doesn’t fit in the compact parking spaces along Broadway like the little black car of my graduate student days.

It’s been five years since then, my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

This whole writing thing—the impulse to create, revise, destroy, and begin again—is something that stays with us long after the MFA program, no matter the shape of our postgraduate careers. The craft and its dialogue are our pomegranate seeds, and those of us who ate at that old table would never really leave.

Tonight I crave the company of this community, the way it keeps the spirit of writing pure and its language real.

We’ve followed the trail of pomegranate seeds across the river and to another table. This one is dimly lit, filled with MFA alumni rather than students, drinking Cabernet instead of the viscous vending machine coffee on campus, gathered again to discuss current writing projects, curse creative hurdles, and pray for manuscripts submitted.

“It depends on how we define ‘professional,’” one of us would say, “and of what we’ve become the master.”

We’re discussing whether a creative writing degree has any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching, and if so, how those skills might transfer. Participating in that conversation are a software developer (genre: screenplays), a local magazine editor (genre: poetry), a PhD student/professor (genre: fiction), and a marketing director (genre: fiction), all of us MFA program graduates. An interesting mix of viewpoints, to say the least.

Ours is just one of many conversations contemplating the merit of creative writing programs and the MFA degree. Popular arguments against it include the perceived homogenization of writing or the studies heralding a poor academic job market. Most certainly, the fact that academic jobs advertised in the English discipline have declined by 39.8% from 2008 to 2010*  is cause for concern.

But the graduate writing experience amounts to more than “sedentary toil/And…the imitation of great masters,”* sealed with an advanced degree that may or may not lead to a professorship.

In fact, the degree is but a byproduct of an MFA program for the majority of those who attend them, writers driven instead by the craft itself, its exploration and promise of perfection. In an article contemplating what brings people to the table some 70-odd years after the first MFA program (Iowa Writer’s Workshop) was founded, poet/attorney Seth Abramson cites a recent survey finding that “fewer than 20% of MFA applicants consider the credential itself to be their top reason for pursuing a graduate creative writing degree.”*

Given that an advanced degree is typically required for teaching college-level courses, this sentiment signals a new generation of writers with designs on a nonacademic career, seeking the MFA experience in order to further develop the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market.

Daniel Pink argues in his book A Whole New Mind that “the MFA is the new MBA.”  His logic makes sense: the routine entry-level tasks that help an MBA break into the job market are being outsourced overseas, and there’s an increasing demand for the kinds of people who can provide the “high-concept” thinking and strategy behind these inputs.  Pink writes*:

…that something first must be imagined or invented. And these creations must  then be explained and tailored to customers and entered into the swirl of commerce, all of which require aptitudes that can’t be reduced to a set of rules on a spec sheet—ingenuity, personal rapport, and gut instinct.

Though industry job openings might not explicitly state “MFA degree required,” the skills learned in graduate creative writing programs are transferable and quite employable.

Is there a large percentage of MFA degree-holders seeking academic jobs? Of course. But, unscientifically speaking, there are just as many who have no desire to teach. The program is driven as much by the trifecta of technique, art, and talent than by any professional goal, academic or otherwise.

Some of us simply focus on our writing. Others go on to become software developers, magazine editors, PhD candidates, or marketers.

Only the writer can determine how best to transfer her craft from workshop into the workplace. Like anything else, it is what you make of it.

The results of a postgraduate survey* from the creative writing program at MSUM , home of that beat-up table in Weld Hall, provides some interesting insight into the professionalization of the MFA degree, even if it’s just a microcosm. Here are some highlights:

  • An equal number of respondents have attained postgraduate employment in a professional/technical writing capacity (44%) as those who hold teaching positions (44%).
  • Of those teaching, 38% have attained the rank of Associate Professor or higher, including one Dean.
  • 48% of the industry-employed MFAers are at or above the mid-management level in their careers.
  • Common job titles include marketing, communications, public relations, and technical writing. The most interesting is perhaps “Teacher, Mortician.”
  • Not reflecting freelance writing, 8% of respondents work full-time in publishing, either as editor, journalist, or publisher.
  • Everyone has published something.
  • 34% of those surveyed did not respond. We like to think it was because they were too busy writing.

Eat Here and Stay Forever

It’s late in the evening. The wine is gone, the crème brulee and coffee on the table, and we realize none of us have actually graduated the MFA program together. We were, in fact, barely classmates.

But we share the same experience of sitting around that table, where together we got to taste the seeds binding our community to its particular craft, to travel that underworld where ideas are translated into art and process is revered over end product.

Exploring the craft of writing before that forbidden lawn  of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar or impractical is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether in teaching, corporate storytelling, or mortuary science.

The MFA graduate develops a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

Sources:

* Modern Language Association. (September 2010). “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2009-2010.” MLA Office of Research. Web. November 29, 2010. p 1.
*Yeats, William Butler. “Ego Dominus Tuus.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. J. Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print. p. 66-68.
*Abramson, S. (2010). “The New Face of the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts.” The Huffington Post. Web. Posted: October 28, 2010; Accessed 12/1/2010. Survey conducted by The Suburban Ecstasies.
*Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006. Print.
* Minnesota State University Moorhead (December 2010). Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program Postgraduate Survey. Conducted online, November 1 – November 25, 2010.
*Tsetsi, Kristen. (2010) “Owning is a sloppy second to knowing.” this i believe. Web. Published March 17, 2010. Accessed March 18, 2010.  Fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

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Vodka, Sauerkraut, and the Spice of Life

Whether you blog for business or pleasure, or both, it’s always interesting to see what search terms are driving traffic to your posts. Those search terms offer strategic insight for marketers and copywriters, and often a few good laughs when we perform a similar analysis on our personal blogs.

I hope those of you who came to this blog through search phrases like business writing, buyer decision making, how advertising works, linguistics and copywriting, lead nurturing literature, and ethos in advertising found something useful here.

Visitors arriving from terms like “mfa thesis” paper outline structure and telling story from the end and ethos and logos in paradise lost no doubt found a little something to read.

But, not all visitors to this blog find what they’re looking for.

Take, for example, the one looking for “I like it on my…” phrases. Sorry, I don’t have anything out here for you today, but check back later. It’s been a long winter, and I need to write more than marketing copy.

The point of this post—other than to use the saying that inspired the blog’s name in the title—is to provide something for those who get here from search terms related to the tangible, gluttony-tempting treats, vodka and sauerkraut.

So, here are a few recipes in attempt to atone for my inability to provide information relevant to searches for cultural interpretation of vodka or introduction of sauerkraut.

To Drink                 

Vodka
Put ice in a glass. Pour vodka on it.

Vodka/Tonic
Put ice in a glass. Pour vodka on it. Add a splash of tonic water and two slices of lime.

To Eat

It’s worth mentioning that I’ve always made the following dishes using homemade sauerkraut (fresh cabbage, canning salt, fermented awesomeness). The dishes would likely taste much different with store-bought ‘kraut.

Sauerkraut Balls

This one is a family specialty. Preheat your oven to 350, pour a VT, and be ready to get messy.

2 quarts of sauerkraut
about a cup of flour
one or two eggs
a splash of milk
a splash of pepper
fried onion (optional)

Drain juice from sauerkraut, and mix everything together. Crush a bag of corn flakes cereal. Form little balls out of the sauerkraut mixture (like making meatballs) and coat them in the crushed cornflakes. Fry the balls on the stove until golden brown, then bake in oven at 350 for about 45 minutes.

Sauerkraut Hotdish

Always a hit at Lutheran potlucks.

1 or 2 quarts of sauerkraut
1 lb of hamburger
an onion
1 can cream of celery soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1-2 cups of white rice

Preheat oven to 350, and pour yourself a V&T. Fry the hamburger and onion together and add a little salt and pepper. Taste it. It’s good. Combine all ingredients in a big dish that can go in the oven, and bake the concoction for about an hour or so. Check it halfway through, stir, and add water if it looks dry.

Vodka and aristotle…That was my favorite. At the risk of creating a self-perpetuating situation where I actually drive more of this kind of traffic to my blog, here are some more vodka-related search terms from last year’s traffic, worth a laugh or at least a hmmm:

  • vodka startups
  • how to make sauerkraut with vodka (editor’s note: if you figure it out, let me know)
  • need a nice assignment structure of case study about vodka
  • ethos vodka
  • consumer process vodka
  • does sauerkraut make you poop (editor’s note: depends on what you have with it)
  • sauerkraut juice and vodka
  • sauerkraut and arthritis
  • sauerkraut and gout
  • suarkraut poop black
  • literature of vodka
  • research paper on sauerkraut

*Goblet image credit: Will Murray (Willscrlt) via Wikimedia Commons

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5 Principles of Fiction for More Effective Content Marketing

Marketing these days is all about content. Storytelling.

Online marketing is an iterative story. Content may be final—published on website, posted on the blog and promoted through social media—but the story is in a constant draft state, a work in progress that is created and developed as much by the agency of the corporate author as the community with which it speaks.

In these stories, characters and plot lines are distributed through multiple online channels, each quite different, from purpose and audience intent to profile character limit. Our audience expects a different tone on our company Facebook page from what’s delivered in a standard news release. We pour syrup on our pancakes at breakfast in an 80/20 pattern every morning because 80% is about the audience and their needs, and 20% is about us.

(De)constructing the corporate narrative using five key attributes from the craft of fiction and storytelling provides a solid frame of reference for translating business goals into online content strategy.

Somehow it seems prudent to provide a disclaimer here that we should emulate not the imaginative nature of fiction in our marketing, but rather its structure and style.  Storytelling is, after all, the oldest form of human communication.

1.    Tight Lines

Good writers can produce tight lines of copy that are creative, compelling, and persuasive. They tend to have a healthy aversion to adverbs, hyperbole, and exclamation points.

These writers can use metaphor and analogy to convey complex, technical information, or to tease an emotional response from the reader that leads to an action or contributes to feelings of brand affinity. Here are a few tips for being more like them:

  • Use active voice. It means the subject of the sentence is the agent, performing the action. Instead of writing donation was given by {company} to benefit… , write {company} donation benefits…. Not only does active voice eliminate unnecessary words (the be verbs of passive voice), it’s more engaging for readers because it emphasizes the action and clearly conveys the main idea.That said, there may be times when passive voice is useful for de-emphasizing the performer of the action or putting focus on the recipient. (The distinction between active and passive voice for marketing and professional communications is, perhaps, another blog post altogether.)
  • Show, don’t tell. This is Fiction 101, using setting, character, and tension instead of description to illustrate action and create sequence. Marketing communications, whether online or offline, illustrate with data points, customer testimonials (social proof), and specific evidence given at various decision points in the sales cycle.
  • Be grammatically correct. Always get your ideas out before worrying about copy editing a blog post or product marketing email, but do take the time to proofread the content. If you break the rules, do it for style, not by accident. An excellent resource for grammar and punctuation is Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

2.    Character Drives Action

It’s true in fiction, and it plays out in marketing.

The process of identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is like developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

The marketer needs to create content for the individual buyer and her needs. Audience strategy isn’t a matter of B2B vs. B2C so much as a combination of immediacy of need, complexity of product, and to some degree, price point.

For example, the simple B2B software sale may rely in part on emotional triggers related to time/labor savings, while the B2C buyer may be facing a more complicated decision-making process for a product or service (higher price point, status, longevity of product, its prominence in daily life).

Serving up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers create buyer personae that guide their efforts and help uncover what motivates that audience.

This persona is literally a profile, or character sketch. It’s all those demographic characteristics, habits, and behavior patterns scribbled on sticky notes across a fiction writer’s desk, color-coded to indicate role in the story or a specific scene.

The marketing lesson from fiction writing is to think like the characters do, and use that knowledge to focus editorial strategy and create content that attracts the most qualified sales prospects.

3.    The Plot

Plot is what happens in a story—the sequence of events, conflict, cause of the action, the outcome. Writing workshops present a five-step formula: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution.

The corporate storyteller can use these elements of plot to guide an audience along a conversion path, which is marketing babble for a reader or viewer taking the intended action, such as submitting a form or dialing a phone number.

This writer strives to lead prospects through a sales funnel by engaging and educating them with content. Information architecture and website copy function to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in an action—the writer decides what information to provide at each decision point in order to move the plot and its audience forward.

Another plot development exercise in marketing is mapping communications, such as email campaigns, to where an audience is in their decision-making cycle.

Is that person in the discovery stage (exposition)? Is she being nurtured with informative and relevant content (rising action)? Has she identified a problem or need (climax)? Is she evaluating technical solutions (falling action)?

For most marketers, the plot lines are many. Following this dénouement of the sale, the story begins again with the customer relationship.

4.    The Narrative

Narrative creates the reader’s experience of the plot, how the sequence of events, conflict, and resolution are presented. The narratives of effective marketing communications follow the same arch of explanation, rising action, and resolution—whether in a 500-word blog post or a 140-character interrogative.

Marketers can employ narrative technique to get the attention of their audience, tell a story, and elicit emotional response in the reader. Effective narrative vehicles include advertising campaigns, white papers, case studies, and online content such as blog posts and videos.

In a crowded, always-on marketplace, it’s not enough to make a story stand out—it has to carry meaning that resonates, too.

Audiences are overwhelmed with information and communications. They go online to find to the information they need and, depending on the scope of the problem, a website has a limited amount of time to gain the interest and trust of this audience.

Don’t just present the plot, but create an experience of the plot for the reader. It’s the difference between using your website homepage as the landing page for a PPC campaign, versus a page that uses content specific to the reader’s search, a form to request more information, and a follow-up email campaign to keep the audience engaged.

5.    Setting the Scene

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

That doesn’t work in business writing, either.

Threading together character, plot, storytelling, and copy is scene, the place where these other elements of the narrative interact.

Developing the themes that tie an online corporate narrative together requires content to be organized and somewhat consistent.

The narrative is the combined content—the blog posts, status updates, news releases, static web copy—that reflect the ethos of the business in order to appeal to the character/buyer personae.

Effective online content strategy speaks to both humans and search engines in order to provide value, whether facilitating immediate purchase or bringing prospects into a months-long educational sales cycle.

Setting the scene is often a function of public relations. PR positions the company in the marketplace—its strengths, limitations, competitors, and even corporate personality—setting the scene for the action to take place, for the sales lifecycle narrative to unfold.

The company’s culture, list of awards, digital footprint, and online sentiment create a scene that tells an audience whether to trust or retreat.

These five lessons from fiction writing can string the thousands of words from our content marketing efforts into a narrative experience for the reader, who alone can drive the action for the corporate narrative.

This post was originally published on B2C Marketing Insider. It is a revised excerpt of this post (sans fuckwords), inspired by reasons 1, 2, 5, and 8.

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Misery and Me: Grammar, Copywriting, and Laundry Soap

In an advanced technical writing class as an undergraduate, I remember the professor saying, “This should sound wrong to you all.” She meant simply that we should be able to identify grammatical and mechanical errors by sound (or more accurately, sight) by the time we landed in that class.

It occurs to me now, after so many years and blog posts and white papers and fiction pieces, that I’ve never actually had a formal course focused on grammar. A technical writing course that showed how to put those words into reports and documentation, and creative writing workshops that focused on how those words were used, yes, but never a formal study in grammar.

At this time of night, it’s probably best to lay off the coffee and go watch tv, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether writing is something that can and/or must be taught/learned (that question alone a longstanding debate that requires at least the length of a seminar paper).

Perhaps we absorb writing style and proper grammar more from what we read than what we practice in the typical classroom context that’s often hard to translate to any real-world rhetorical situation. And I mean what we read as in what we’ve always read, long before entering college, the profession, or the writer’s basement studio.

I remember reading books like Watership Down, The Call of the Wild, and The Catcher in the Rye as a kid, not because they were assigned, but because the stories were good. Soon after writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz took the place of those fluffy animals and rye fields (which could explain a lot about my fiction writing, it seems).

Reading books served as writing instruction. We absorb the language we’re exposed to, it seems, which is what establishes the foundation for our awareness, understanding, and command of grammar.

Our university courses and professional writing excursions serve, then, as an opportunity to exercise those skills can be developed naturally through a love of works like, in my case, Misery and The Door to December. From there my time as an undergrad studying English resulted in a love of literary works most of my friends have never heard of, and my graduate writing workshops taught that, as creative writers, we have to know the rules of grammar in order to break them.

Long before my consumption of anything book-length, I practiced the strange habit as a child of reading each line of copy on packaged products. Any products. Shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, motor oil, bags of dogfood, soup cans, laundry soap.

I’m really not sure what the point of this post is, other than to say that writing is no longer the dominion of the English or communications major. The business world is now an extension of our private worlds. Brands and consumers alike “publish” their writing online everyday through social media, blog posts, and reviews.

Ultimately, the source of mechanics and style that we draw upon in our writing, whether consciously or otherwise, is everything that we’ve read up to the point where we sit down at the keyboard, be it Ars Poetica, the labels on personal hygiene products, or the stuff of nightmares.

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