Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Killer Web Content: Trains, Tickets, Toilets

Killer Web Content: Make the Sale, Deliver the Service, Build the BrandImagine you are on the escalator in a train station. As you scan the signs, there are only three that really matter – Trains, Tickets and Toilets. In Killer Web Content, Gerry McGovern recommends keeping this in mind as you develop the content for your website.

Website readers want very clear messages that directly meet their core needs.

For example, McGovern compares the content that different groups hope to find on an educational website. Government officials were looking for reports and policies. Teachers were looking for lesson plans. Parents were looking for information about how the schools would support and protect their children.

McGovern believes that you can’t satisfy everyone. You need to identify your primary audience, find out what really matters to them – what they care about – and then develop your web content accordingly.

“Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that, just because you passionately care about something, your customer will. This is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Sometimes what you care about can stop you seeing what your customers care about.”

McGovern agrees that search engine optimization is important, but believes that, “For now and for the future, the most important competitive advantage you can have is a deep understanding of what your customers care about and a relentless focus on helping your customers to fulfill their needs.”

Follow Gerry McGovern on Twitter and read his great weekly newsletter article.

Killer Web Content: Successful Websites are Task-Focused

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Killer Web Content: Successful Websites are Task-Focused

The vast majority of people come to your website to do something specific, and they want to get in and out as quickly as possible. Identifying the most important tasks that people come to your website to complete, and helping them do so as quickly and efficiently as possible, will be critical to the success of your website.” (Gerry McGovern, Killer Web Content)

I was so excited when the Saskatoon Public Library got new software for reserving books and managing your account. But then I started using it, and I was horribly disappointed. They have fixed some of the most glaring errors, but it is still an unfriendly website. There are two different search features that are linked so the results can look different every time you enter the system. Important buttons are located in at least three different positions so I have to hunt for them. And there’s a reason why all the books I reserve come from Regina – Saskatoon staff haven’t been able to buy books online for the last six months.

On the other hand, websites that make it easy for a customer to complete their task are a delight. In Killer Web Content, Gerry McGovern uses Amazon as an example of a website that is well designed and easy to use, and I agree. Here are some of the features that I really like.

It’s easy to use and easy to understand. Ordering a book is quick and safe, and they tell me when it will be shipped and when I can expect it to arrive.

It gives me choices. I can save money by purchasing a second hand copy. I can pre-order books that are not yet out in print. I can save a title to my Wish List if I’m not ready to buy it.

It’s informative. I love the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought feature as I discover books I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. Or I can scan the New books section. The book reviews are helpful when I can’t decide whether or not to buy a book.

It provides useful links so I can get additional information when and if I want it. I can click on an author’s name to find out what other books they have written. I can review a book’s table of contents.

McGovern says that your aim when designing a website should be to GIVE rather than GET attention. “Giving attention is about facilitating the quick and easy completion of a task. It is about having answers to the most important questions your customer has.” Amazon is successful; Saskatoon Public Library isn’t.

P.S. All the libraries in Saskatchewan moved to a new, integrated software system this past year. They spent a great deal of money on the new system, and I don’t think they got their money’s worth. Surely there are better library software systems. If not, there is a crying need for customer-focused library software.

Killer Web Content: Trains, Tickets, Toilets

Monday, June 28, 2010

Blue Bread and Penguins

Playful marketing and playful products are a delight.

Penguin Biscuits
A package of McVitie’s Penguin chocolate-covered biscuits was an impulse purchase, but it brought back happy memories of bus journeys in England.

And the packaging is such fun. A playful penguin on the front and a joke on the back: “How does a penguin make pancakes?” “With its flippers.”

The website has three sections: Fun Stuff (submit your own joke), Working in Antarctica, and All About Penguins.

These are not world-class biscuits, but it’s world-class advertising.

Blue Bread
There were new varieties of bread to choose from at Earth Bound Bakery (8th Street, Saskatoon) on Saturday. The blue corn bread caught my eye, and Trent, the baker, told me how much fun he had kneading it because of the colour. It tastes great too.

I have to put in a plug for Earth Bound – great organic products fresh from the oven – we buy their bread and croissants (and sometimes their cinnamon buns) every week. And I actually get to talk to the baker when I shop here! No anonymous, mass-manufactured goods here!

Have Fun
I hope you have fun today and that your work is sometimes play. Mine certainly is.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Public Speaking Tip #5 Rehearse Until You're Confident

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.
It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

Nobody just walks out on the stage and makes a great speech. Practise so that you can work out problems in advance. Know your material inside and out by rehearsing your presentation over and over and over again. Catch and fix errors. Improve the sections that don’t flow properly. “Confidence, not perfection, is the goal,” explains Scott Berkun.

Experienced presenters recommend identifying and memorizing the key words and phrases for each segment of the presentation. You should also memorize the most important points from your introduction and closing and be very sure of the sequence and connections between the different segments of your speech.

If you have memorized your key points, you’ll be confident enough to improvise and respond to unexpected events (equipment failure, tough questions, bored audience).

Practise using the equipment as well – a new laptop, new presentation software, the remote – and make sure it’s working perfectly. Arrive early enough to walk around the stage and do a tech. and sound check.

For more helpful advice on public speaking, read Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun.

Public Speaking Tip #4

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Connect with your Reader: Writing and Gestalt: Part 2

Resolve Ambiguities, Impose Structure, Make Connections

In the 1920s a group of German psychologists studying visual perception learned that the human brain seeks patterns. We don’t see objects in isolation; we see them as part of a greater whole, and we make connections between the individual parts. In fact, we often “see” things that aren’t really there because we are trying so hard to create unity and closure.

This is the second of two blog posts (Gestalt for Writers: Part One) about applying gestalt principles to written text.

If three sections of text are in blue ink and one section is in red, two things happen. First of all, readers will assume that the blue sections are related because they look the same. Secondly, the section in red will stand out and be perceived as more important because it’s different and because red symbolizes urgency.

We are very aware when designs are symmetrical and asymmetrical. In fact, we crave symmetry. A doorway with a column on only one side would look odd. However, asymmetry is a powerful tool for creating movement and energy.

A uniform layout (e.g. placement of headings, length of paragraphs, font) creates symmetry in a written document, making it easier to read. But breaking the symmetry with callout boxes, bolded words, or a change in layout will grab the reader’s attention and add energy.

The search for patterns is a search for simplicity. We’re trying to make sense of a complex array of information. Again, there needs to be a balance between a simple layout that is boring and a complex layout that is busy and confusing. The following image is complex, but the repetition of certain colours and the careful placement of the various elements ensure balance.

Jump to Conclusions
The challenge for content designers is to use gestalt principles strengthen key messages but to make sure that viewers don’t jump to the wrong conclusions.

“The spatial arrangement of text, that is, the use of blank space, the arrangement of rows and columns, and the juxtaposition of words and graphics can influence the way readers see the text. The document designer needs to create these spatial arrangements in order to lead the readers to see the text in specific ways. Leading readers and helping them to follow the order and importance of information efficiently and effectively is, in essence, the overall goal of the document designer.” (Gary Bastoky)

Additional Resources
The following articles shaped my thoughts and provided graphic examples:

Andy Rutledge – blog posts on gestalt and graphic design:
     Figure Ground Relationships
     Proximity, Connectedness, Continuation
     Common Fate

Fundamentals of Document Design for the Technical Writer, Gary Bastoky

Before and After magazine – Gestalt Theory: Equilibrium

Gestalt Theory in Visual Screen Design – A New Look at an Old Subject

Jeremy Bolton – gestalt principles and logos
     The Law of Similarity and Anomaly
     The Law of Closure

In addition, Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds has a section on gestalt.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Connect with your Reader: Writing and Gestalt: Part 1

Resolve Ambiguities, Impose Structure, Make Connections

Text doesn’t exist in isolation. It is part of a page or a computer screen. And the way the words are organized on the page affects the way they are perceived.

In the 1920s a group of German psychologists studying visual perception learned that the human brain seeks patterns. We don’t see objects in isolation; we see them as part of a greater whole, and we make connections between the individual parts. In fact, we often “see” things that aren’t really there because we are trying so hard to create unity and closure.

The psychologists called their studies “gestalt,” which means “unified whole,” and they established a set of principles that are widely used by graphic designers but are also relevant for writers. The next two blog posts will explore some of the key concepts and how they apply to writing.

If some words or objects are placed more closely together than others, they will be perceived as a group. We use this principle frequently by creating a list with bullet points or by placing a box around certain words or phrases.

But sometimes we forget. Subheadings that float at an equal distance from the text above and the text below seem disconnected instead of forming a strong introduction to the following section of text.

When we look at a set of objects, we try to find a way of connecting the diverse elements. If one of the elements is missing, we’ll try and fill the gap.

It is remarkable just how few letters we need in order to work out the meaning of the words: “Th prchas of a hme s lkely th sngle mst mprtant fnancl dcisn y’ll evr mke.” We complete phrases as well: “the more things change . . . .”

We complete partial images as well. We recognize a triangle even if the lines aren’t fully connected.

If a group of words are organized one below the other, our eye will automatically move downwards. If there is an arrow on the page pointing to the right, our eyes move to the right.

As a result, it’s important to ensure that you don’t break the vertical flow of the information columns in a table by adding sub headings and horizontal lines.

If you want to draw attention to a particular section of text, make sure that the graphic design elements are leading the reader’s eye in that direction. These tai chi poses would be ideal as the outstretched arms and legs could lead the reader’s eyes to key words or phrases.

Note: A list of the articles that shaped my thoughts and provided graphic examples will be provided in Part Two.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

5 Tips for Eye-Catching Resume Cover Letters

Resume cover letters can be very boring – mine have been in the past. The next time, I’ll keep these five points in mind. See what you think – maybe they can help you as well.

Focus on the Employer and the Future
The cover letter shouldn’t duplicate the resume. While the resume focuses on you and your past accomplishments, the cover letter should focus on the employer and the future. Your goal is to clearly illustrate the value that you can bring to their company.

In Brazen Careerist: New Rules for Success, Penelope Trunk says that every line of your resume should include a specific reason for hiring you.

Keep it Short and Punchy
Keep your cover letter short and memorable. Provide the employer with sound bites that help them identify and remember why they want to hire you.

Convey personality and enthusiasm. One effective way to do this is by recounting a specific incident – for example, how you discovered the importance of occupational therapy as a first-year Candystriper or the day you discovered the secret to sky-high sales.

Make sure your language is full of energy – action words like ‘achieved,’ ‘exceeded,’ and ‘accomplished.’

Tweak their Curiosity
Your goal is to stand out from a stack of uniform, uninspiring applications. So start with a bang. Highlight your greatest strength or tell an amusing anecdote. I once applied for a job with a museum and recounted how I’d managed to visit 5 museums during a 3½ day visit to Madrid.

Imitate Steve Jobs and include “just one more thing” as a postscript to your letter. The PS will stand out from the body of your letter, so make the content count – an award you received or an outstanding achievement.

Include a personal branding statement at the top or bottom of your letter. This is a short summary of what you have to offer – the combination of skills and experience that makes you unique.

Don’t Forget the Eye Candy
Cover Letters for Dummies by Joyce Lain Kennedy really brought home for me the importance of using formatting and graphics to highlight key information. This extends from bolding key words and phrases to incorporating a box with three key skills as bullet points. If the numbers are impressive, why not include a small, simple graph? Or you can include a sidebar with quotes from past evaluations or employers.

And don’t forget! Your contact information should be front and centre – an attractive letterhead containing all the relevant information will not only provide the relevant information but will also catch their attention.

You Require – I Offer
Be sure to match what you have to offer with what the employer is looking for. Mimic the words used in the job ad as this will indicate that you understand their organization and their needs. I once asked a customer why they had hired me, and they said it was because my proposal showed that I understood what they were looking for.

One eye-catching way to highlight what you would bring to an organization is to prepare a simple two-column chart listing what the organization is looking for and what you have to offer – ‘Your Needs’ and ‘My Qualifications.’

For more ideas on preparing a killer resume, see:
     Writing a Killer Resume
     Want a Job? What do you have to Offer?
     Resume + Portfolio = Success
     Resumes: Identifying and Describing your Talents

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Corporate Storytelling: Strategic Planning

Two of my favourite topics – storytelling and Roger Martin.

Moving from Strategic Planning to Story Telling
Strategic planning can be a painful process – SWOT analysis, financial spreadsheets, the fear of putting forward and defending your ideas. There is so much focus on what is practical and so much competition amongst units, that the resulting plan is often mundane and uninspiring.

Roger Martin recommends a different approach:

My solution? Think about a strategic option as being just a happy story about the future. It doesn't have to be right and it doesn't even have to be sensible. It just has to result in your organization being in a happy place in the future. In fact, if it were absolutely right and utterly sensible, your company would probably already be doing it.

It doesn't have to be constructed analytically. It is a holistic story — here is where we would find ourselves playing and how we would see ourselves winning. The only real requirement is that it be a happy, aspirational story. If it isn't happy, it isn't worth being an option in the first place.

If every participant tells one another a happy story, the group will have a wonderful list of options — and quite quickly, because participants won't feel that they have to work super hard and be terribly careful and be highly logical.”

What is Needed to Make it Work
Martin also proposes a unique approach for discussing the different strategic options without descending into adversarial position-taking:

“The solution lies simply in posing a single question, which I believe is the most important question in strategy. . . . Rather than have them talk about what they thought was true, ask them to specify what would have to be true for the option on the table to be a fantastic choice. It was magic. Clashing views turned into collaboration on really understanding the logic of the options.

If you think an idea is the wrong way to approach a problem and someone asks you if you think it's the right way, you'll reply ‘no’ and defend that answer against all comers. But if someone asks you to figure out what would have to be true for that approach to work, your frame of thinking changes. No one is asking you to take a stand on the idea, just to focus on what would have to be true for that idea to work. This subtle shift gives people a way to back away from their beliefs and allow exploration by which they give themselves the opportunity to learn something new.”

Roger Martin
Martin is the Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. For more information about his books and ideas, see my blog posts:

Wading into Complexity (The Design of Business)

Integrative Thinking (The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Corporate Storytelling: The Partnership Story

Over the past five years, the City of Saskatoon partnered with Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, Saskatoon Public Schools, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education and Saskatoon Soccer Centre Inc. to design, construct and operate two integrated community facilities.

I was hired to interview the key stakeholders and to prepare a report outlining the benefits and key factors involved in creating a successful partnership.

It was a fabulous project to work on. By talking to representatives of each of the partner organizations, I was able to understand the partnership from their individual perspectives. And I tried very hard when preparing the report to let their voices be heard.

Facts come to life when they are given a human voice.

The report has now been published and is available in print or online. My thanks to Sandi, Joy and Donella (as well as Carla and Jennifer) who were a delight to work with.

Friday, June 11, 2010

SK Craft Council’s Glass Garden

The Saskatchewan Craft Council’s gallery on Broadway Avenue in Saskatoon has been transformed into a garden with the fantastical flowers and vines designed by Susan Rankin. There are tall columns of leaves, vases and epergnes covered in flowers, and wire form landscapes.

The Valid Objects of Beauty exhibit will be on display at the Craft Council from June 4 through July 11. The gallery is open daily from 1-5.

“Every piece of design must have a combination of something that’s familiar
and something that’s surprising.
The familiar gets us in the door, and the surprising keeps us engaged.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Public Speaking Tip #4

Confessions of a Public Speaker

Meet your audience’s needs

Here's some valuable advice from Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun:

“The things speakers obsess about are the opposite of what the audience cares about. They want to be entertained. They want to learn. And most of all, they want you to do well. Many mistakes you can make while performing do not prevent those things from happening. It’s the mistakes you make before you even say a word that matter more. These include the mistakes of not having an interesting opinion, of not thinking clearly about your points, and of not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience. Those are the ones that make the difference. If you can figure out how to get those right, not much else will matter.”

“Even a topic as mind-numbingly dull as tax forms becomes interesting if the speaker cares both about the problem and the people affected by it.” – e.g. ‘Here’s line 5 of the new tax form’ versus ‘80% of you in the audience confused line 5 with line 6 on your last tax return, which cost you $500. Here’s how to not make that mistake.’ ”

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Content Design: Serendipitous Word Placement

Writers tend to believe that the words themselves are all important. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that how you place the words on the page is equally, if not more, important. I’ve been looking at magazine layouts and analyzing why some layouts work for me while others don’t.

I realized that I’m attracted to collages that assemble a variety of different items – text, photos, graphics. The juxtaposition is often unexpected but compelling. It’s also an opportunity to use small pieces of information that wouldn’t be significant on their own but are effective as part of a larger piece. A unifying theme creates unity out of diversity. Here are some examples:

The road map pulls together an assortment of information about the Florida Keys. The combination of photos, objects and text is emotionally appealing.

An assortment of sticky notes is an interesting way to integrate short pieces outlining various celebrities’ dream vacations.

You don’t need photographs to create a collage. This word cloud introduces an article and can be read either as a continuous whole or as isolated words and phrases.

This page combines various short pieces about vacation rental properties. Rather than one long article, there is a compilation of short, quick-to-read pieces. The narrow red column down the middle and the red flags along the bottom provide a unifying theme.

Another way to link bite-size pieces of text is by numbering them. Small pieces in a different size and/or different colour of ink help to break up the page.

This layout combines a number of different techniques. The abundance of white space provides a unifying frame and simplifies what would otherwise be a very busy combination of different design techniques.

Note: Photographed page layouts are from Travel and Leisure, April 2010; Budget Travel, April 2010; HiLines, Winter 2008

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Customer Service

I work for a software company that prides itself, and very rightly so, on providing great customer service. They customize the program to meet their customers’ needs, and they spend hours on the phone helping customers with their problems. And it’s tough. The customers’ requests often seem unreasonable. As Gerry McGovern points out in a great blog post, the customer is a stranger so we can never really understand their point of view.

The essential challenge of the Web is to become customer-centric. To truly succeed on the Web the organization must shape itself around the customer. This is very difficult for any organization to do because at heart all organizations are tribes. And the one thing a tribe does not like to do is shape itself around the stranger, the outsider.

The customer is a stranger, an outsider, and the customer is more in charge on the Web than the organization is. This is the essential shift in power and control that organizations must embrace if they are to thrive on the Web. The customer isn't just king anymore. The customer is dictator. Impatient and always in a hurry.

If you simplify things for the customer then they will respond positively. That's easier said than done because simplifying for the customer requires creating extra complexity for the organization. Nobody likes to have their job made more complex. What is even more problematic is when something you do to make life easier for your customers makes life harder for one of your colleagues. That makes you unpopular within the tribe.

I would suggest that this applies to all forms of customer service; it’s just more obvious on the web. What is your experience – as a customer or as a service provider?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Meetings - Active Participation and Tangible Results

A colleague mentioned in an email that meetings are the bane of his existence. I’m sure many of us agree with him, so I thought I’d share some tips I’ve come across for ensuring that the time we spend in meetings is worthwhile.

The Three-Purpose Meeting Rule
In The Key to Shorter, Better Meetings, Anthony K. Tjan recommends an action-oriented agenda that focuses on what you expect from meeting participants: “Consider a meeting that sets its agenda goals along the lines of: ‘I want to bring you up to speed on these two things; I need input on this item; and finally I would like to seek your approval on these outstanding issues.’”

Stealth Meeting Facilitation
Melissa Raffoni has written a great article on Stealth Meeting Facilitation for the Rank-and-File to help participants fix the meeting from hell:

If the conversation becomes really muddled, Raffoni suggests playing dumb and asking for an explanation. But the trick is to specifically address your request to the person in the room who is the clearest thinker and communicator, giving them a chance to get the group back on track.

Another valuable question to ask is, “Who is responsible for this decision?” If they’re in the room, ask if they’re prepared to make a decision right away. Or, if the right person isn’t in the room, go get them or arrange to meet with them.

Or you can offer to take notes that are immediately projected for everyone to see. Now you’re in a position to help move the team forward by framing the discussion in terms of Problem, Objectives, Action Items, Next Steps, etc..

Some Off-the-Wall Options
Google has a giant timer on the meeting room wall that counts down the time remaining for a particular topic or the meeting as a whole. Other groups meet standing up, which is sure to curtail long-winded discussions. (BusinessWeek).

What has worked for you?

Image courtesy of 37 Signals

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Communicating with Numbers #3

Use Numbers to Enhance not Disguise the Facts

A lot of people are intimidated by numbers. As writers, we know we need to include data/statistics in our material, but we’re not really comfortable with them so they’re added hastily without a great deal of thought or understanding. We add a colourful chart because it will brighten up the page, or we stick in a few statistics.

Premium on Numbers
In Hungry for Numbers, Allergic to Data, Steven DeMaio says, “In publishing circles today, there’s a premium on numbers. Editors, writers, and journalists often seek to crystallize or legitimize a story with an eye-popping statistic that will become the sound bite or “takeaway” of the piece. Yet most of these professionals have an aversion to examining the underlying data developed by expert authors or sources. Sometimes proudly asserting “I’m a word person,” they soil their hands with numbers just enough to make the story work but refuse to learn what the data really mean. In many cases, they don’t even bother to check the accuracy.”

DeMaio claims there are sins of omission when writers don’t verify the data (if you interview 25 people, it’s impossible to have 94% give a particular response) and sins of ignorance (“65% of workers are not properly trained” – fine, but how do you define “properly trained”).

Spin Doctors
2845 Ways to Spin the Risk is an animation showing how risks can be ‘spun’ to look bigger or smaller, how medical treatments can be made to seem useless or to be wonder cures, and how lifestyle changes might look worthwhile or not worth bothering with. All by changing the words used, the way the numbers are expressed, and the particular graphics chosen.

As writers, we have the power to present information completely and accurately – or to fudge the facts and disguise the truth. Let’s not let laziness or our discomfort with numbers lead us astray.

See Also: Dynamic Tables and Graphs

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Paint Me a Picture

Our minds quickly discard jargon and abstract language, but images and stories capture our imagination. Here’s what grabbed my attention at the wine store this weekend:

Fats Johnson, Prospect Winery

“A kindly older neighbor, Fats Johnson was known for loading donuts onto a long pole, and giving them away to kids as they rode by on their bicycles. His dog Tupper was a constant companion, and always by his side.”

The Big Take, Misconduct Wines

“A late night bull session leading to a caper of grape proportions. All dolls, molls and bearcats aside, they’re on the lam and the race is on to get the hooch harvest back to the joint. The berries are ready and the clams have been exchanged. All that’s left is to take the grapes for a ride and not get pinched.”

Lost Angel Wine, Eos Vintage

“Legend has it an angel came down from the sky to explore the garden of earthly delights and lost her way home. Tired of searching, she created her own paradise in the region now known as Paso Robles. So happy with her utopia on earth, a tear of joy fell from her eyes and landed in the rich, fertile soil. From the tear a vine grew reaching for the stars, trying to show the angel her way home.”