Business Writing

This Business Writing Tip is Freaking Elite

Posted by on Jun 28, 2014 in Business Writing | 0 comments

This Business Writing Tip is Freaking Elite

I’ve dedicated more of my life than I care to admit to an admittedly fringe sport that requires much more athleticism than the public realizes and may or may not involve a Frisbee. In fact, this sport may or may not have just received official IOC recognition earlier in the week. And my old, slow ass may or may not have tossed a pretty sick behind the backer from my knees for a goal in a summer league game earlier this week – prompting the following response from my buddy Jared to a teammate who’d missed it.

“Don’t worry. If you didn’t see it, he’ll be telling us all about it for years. Watch – he’ll figure out a way to work it into his damn blog on creative writing.”

Jared, you are a freaking soothsayer. You say sooth.

So why am I talking about Ultimate Frisbee in a writing blog other than to highlight my wicked awesome play in a lame attempt to convince myself that I’m still good? It’s all because of a single word.

That word? ELITE.

Many of you may be surprised to learn that there are top-level Ultimate teams in just about every major city who travel all over the United States to battle against each other for the club national championship each year. In the men’s division, two of those teams reside in my hometown of Pittsburgh. And one of them has the annoying habit of always describing everything they do as “elite.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, I played on the OTHER Pittsburgh team for the last two years.)

Seriously, there isn’t a single article, email, or press release about them that doesn’t say, “Pittsburgh’s Elite Men’s Ultimate team makes an elite run through an elite tournament because of their elite skills and general overall eliteness.”

“Man, we thought we couldn’t get any more elite,” said team captain Eli Teness. “But then we managed to find a whole different level of eliteness. Like we kicked our eliteness into elite overdrive and just out elited all the other teams because they weren’t quite as elite as we are.”

And I mean, they’re good. They’re very good. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say that they are in fact elite. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that I’m not the one saying that they’re elite. THEY’RE the ones saying they’re elite. And uh, that’s just kind of… what’s the word I’m looking for?

Eh, the first thing that popped into my mind was kind of harsh. Let me flip through my Thesaurus here for something softer… Damn it, it doesn’t have any synonyms for douchey.

Yeah, so I’ll just skip that part.

So what’s the point? As a writer, what can you learn from the elite Pittsburgh Men’s Ultimate Team? Well, there’s a lot you can learn, especially as a business writer or marketing director. And that lesson is – nobody likes the guy who goes around telling everyone how handsome he is. Let OTHER people heap accolades on the business. If you’re going to use higher-tier praise words like “elite,” have it come in a quote from a customer or another professional.

For instance, the following is totally cool to put on your website…

“Cupcake World has truly evolved into one of Denver’s elite dessert establishments.” – Willard T. Plumptummy, Good Eats Denver Magazine

What’s not cool to put on your website is…

“At Cupcake World, our cupcakes truly ascend into the realm of elite.”

See the difference there? It’s just one of those things. The business doesn’t have the authority to internally make that claim without sounding,…

Still trying to come up with a synonym for douchey…

But you get the point. There are all kinds of great adjectives you can use to describe your business, or the business that’s hired you.

Experienced
Finely-crafted
Friendly
Top-notch
Hard-working

All those terms are cool to use. Using the word “elite” is only a problem because it promotes exclusivity and you don’t just invite yourself into an exclusive club. Typically, other people have to grant you access.

“Hey there bouncer, I know I don’t have a VIP pass, but you can take it from me that I’m VERY freaking important. So out of the way Creatine Dan.”

What? You ended up underneath a dumpster with a broken scapula? You don’t say.

Anyway, I can’t believe how elite this blog turned out. And it just goes to prove how freaking elite the Pittsburgh Elite Men’s Ultimate Team actually is. Simply by being so elite, they’ve spawned the most elite article in the history of the Internet.

And how do I know it’s the most elite article in the history of the Internet?

Because I freaking said so.

That’s not an obnoxious claim at all.

OBNOXIOUS! YES! YES! That’s the word I was searching for all along. I knew I didn’t have to use douchey.

That’s a relief.

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Writer’s Block: World Cup Edition

Posted by on Jun 20, 2014 in Business Writing, Creative Writing | 1 comment

Writer’s Block: World Cup Edition

I’m going to let you all in on a secret. If you’re a writer, it’s a secret that’s going to make you outright want to slap me across the ears. It’s a secret that I’m sure many writers keep, but almost no one wants to admit for fear of being ostracized by other writers. Ready? I’m going to lower the boom.

I’ve never had writer’s block.

I know, I know, what a bleephole, right? Writer’s block is a rite of passage. You’re not a writer if you haven’t stared blankly into the backwaters of your mind for hours, days, weeks in an attempt to reel in the perfect idea. How dare you claim it’s never happened? HOW DARE YOU!

All right, I lied. I lied. In fact, it happened to me just today as I tried to come up with something to write about this week. Unlike a lot of writers, I’m not a fountain of ideas, so my main source of anxiety in relation to this blog tends to revolve around coming up with a different subject every Thursday morning. There’s some dread there. Not a lot of dread. A very tiny bit of dread. You probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were peering into a microscope. Yup, there’s definitely some dread in there. And some microbes. And mold spores.

Sometimes things jump out at me. Hey, you just spent a few days on the set of a TV pilot you wrote. You should write about that! What a great idea, italics! But most of the time, it’s not that easy. A lot of times I’ll get suggestions from other writers, readers, and most often my sister, who manages this blog. (Hi Kelly) But sometimes she’s busy location scouting for commercials all week, so I’m left to my own devices. And you know what my device has been this week?

Soccer.

I don’t in fact know if soccer is a device. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s not. In most circles it’s considered a sport. But I do use a device to turn on the television in order to watch soccer, so I’m pretty sure that counts.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the world AT ALL since last Monday, there’s a soccer tournament going on in Brazil that’s kind of a big deal. Like if you ran into it at a party, it would be that guy with the sunglasses clipped to his Polo who sips on his martini and tells you, “I don’t know if you realize, but I’m kind of a big deal.” And he actually is a big deal instead of most of the piss ants at parties who tell you they’re a big deal but they actually sell after-market car stereos out of their cousin’s van.

I’m going to freely admit, I’m the worst kind of USA bandwagon soccer fan there is. I’m the guy who doesn’t pay attention whatsoever for damn near four years but when the World Cup begins, I watch EVERY SINGLE GAME. I’m the guy who has no idea what the difference is between a fullback and a midfielder but runs home from the gym so I don’t miss a single minute of Belgium vs. Algeria. And then I spend the entire match thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe Algeria is up one to nill,” (I even use nill instead of zero like some speedo wearing European) Also, I amuse myself by pretending to be the British announcer and saying things like, “Wow, look at all those Belgians! That’s quite a lot of Belgians, Roger,” because I don’t know any actual soccer phrases other than “Well, Suarez sure played a good ball there,” and “What a terrible ball by Suarez.”

So what does the World Cup have to do with writer’s block? Well, quite a lot actually. First of all, soccer is amazing in that it’s about the only team sport you can watch while simultaneously focusing on other things. This makes it absolutely ideal to have on in the background while you’re writing. Even soccer fans will admit that a large portion of every game is dedicated to things ALMOST happening.

“My God, Roger, the chap from the Netherlands almost got free there. If it weren’t for the six defenders in the way, he could’ve really mounted a challenge!”

You can turn away from the game for ten to fifteen minutes at a time and literally miss nothing. Try writing during a hockey game. Impossible.

In order to prove my point, I’m going to use actual statistics rather than emotion and pure speculation. The other day Mexico played Brazil in what was widely described as one of the most exciting games of the tournament’s first week. (We’ll look past the fact that the final score ended up nill to nill) Why was it so exciting? Because the Mexican goalkeeper made spectacular save after spectacular save to keep the Brazilians off the board. I mean, in soccer terms, he was under constant bombardment, fending off shot after shot, not letting a single ball cross the line. At the end of the game, I wondered just how many saves he’d made. It had to have been an insane number. And it was. But not for the reasons I anticipated. The number was indeed insane. Because that number was…

Six.

The guy had made six saves. And it was like the most saves a Mexican goalie had made in the World Cup since 1950. SIX! Now let’s say Brazil had four other amazing chances that barely missed the net. And let’s say Mexico had seven or eight amazing chances as well during the match. That averages out to be one moderately interesting thing happening every five minutes or so. That’s more than enough time to write a paragraph or an entire block of dialogue. The key is to have the volume down so low that you only notice when the crazy British announcer starts raising his voice…

“And here we go, Hammarschlooben making a run toward the box…”

This is where you quit writing and look up.

“And oh….oh, his shot goes forty feet over the crossbar. We almost had some real honest to Christmas action there, Roger.”

What’s the second thing that soccer has to do with writing? Well, I’m not sure yet. But as I was dreading this blog, I had a curious thought. What if I write something about the World Cup? I’ve dedicated disturbingly large chunks of my day to it. Surely there has to be something I can do to merge writing tips with the world’s largest soccer tournament. It’ll be easy.

That was Sunday afternoon. Sunday night came and went.

Monday – Nuthin’.

Tuesday – Nada

Wednesday – Nah, bro.

It’s now Thursday morning. I’ve watched parts of twelve matches since then. I’m set to watch England vs. Uruguay here this afternoon and I haven’t thought of a single thing to write. I still haven’t come up with that perfect idea to meld the World Cup with writing in any meaningful way.

Oh wait. Wait a second. I have over a thousand words here. It may not be the most informative piece I’ve ever written, but it’s moderately entertaining and makes a pretty good point if I do say so myself. What’s that point you ask?

Writer’s block is bullshit.

Yeah, you heard me. Writer’s block is crap. It’s something writers invent to torture themselves into feeling superior when all they’re really doing is putzing around. Other professions get this too. But you never hear of mathematician’s block or contractor’s block. Why? Because they explore all their options, make a decision and freaking go with it. They don’t just sit there sipping coffee and staring at their keyboard going, “Well no use now, I got the block.”

Great ideas don’t often come about when you’re putting pressure on yourself to come up with great ideas. They hit when you’re not thinking about it. Like when you’re watching a bunch of Ecuadorians you’ve never heard of kick a ball from sideline to sideline for nineteen straight minutes.

Writer’s block is only the monster you think it is because we’ve given it a name. Now it’s something tangible that we all have to battle instead of what it actually is – a very temporary lack of direction. Taking the soccer reference way too far, it only happens when you’re focused on the five guys in the wall in front of your free kick instead of how easily you can bend the ball around them. It doesn’t do any damn good to keep drilling the ball straight into the wall of bodies. It’s not going to go through.

Here’s a crazy suggestion – if you have “writer’s block,” just go ahead and start writing. Start typing the random crap that pops into your head. Don’t worry about where it’s going or if it fits in with your theme or tertiary story arc. Get your mind working. Free the blockage. Maybe you’ll realize that writing really is like soccer. Sometimes like Clint Dempsey versus Ghana, you score a goal almost immediately. But a majority of the time, it takes a lot of boring passes through the midfield probing the defense for weakness before you bury one in the back of the net. It’s all part of the process. And like soccer, sometimes that process is very, very slow. But that’s ok. It’s all part of the game.

And if all that fails, just flop to the ground and roll around holding your shin with an anguished look on your face. I’ve heard that works.

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Advertising Rates – The Tijuana Method

Posted by on May 9, 2014 in Business Writing, Kel's Corner | 0 comments

Advertising Rates – The Tijuana Method

When I was a sophomore in college, I spent spring break with my then boyfriend and his family at a beach house in San Diego. One morning we awoke and decided to drive to Tijuana since none of us had ever been to Mexico before. I had no idea what to expect. After crossing the border and parking, my mind was assaulted by the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. It was street after street of painted donkeys, car horns, tourists sporting awful Hawaiian shirts, large signs reading TEQUILA HERE, the smell of authentic Mexican food, and people of every age, shape, and size yelling about their product or trinket or marketplace. I was overwhelmed.

“Mamacita! You would look so pretty in this scarf!”

“Hey honeymooners! My tequila has the best worms in all of Mexico at the bottom of the bottle!”

“Real Sterling Silver! No junk!”

And on…and on. I definitely wanted to buy a souvenir or two, but I could hardly get myself to make eye contact with anyone. I wanted to look around, to take it all in, but I was afraid if I did, I’d have to purchase the whole town! And good lord, if I’d bought tequila from everyone who offered, I would have been passed out by noon. I could tell that each salesperson I passed knew I was a sucker. That was it. I was done for. I really should have named this blog, “How I Nearly Bought a Mexican City.” Eep!

There was no hope until… Don, my boyfriend, took over.

Oh how my liver and wallet thank him until this day! He must have noticed my growing anxiety. Don took my hand and proceeded to show off his bargaining skills. I watched with awe as he spoke with carefully chosen salesmen. They’d start off ridiculously high, to which he’d come back with something ridiculously low. The salesperson would laugh and scoff at him but come down to a more reasonable price. After a bit more back and forth, he would turn to me with a skeptical look that said, “Go with it,” and ask me what I thought. Caught up in his confidence, I started playing the game too. I’d look concerned and say, “I don’t know, hon, that seems like a lot.”

Hearing it, he’d tell the salesperson, “Sorry. The old lady won’t let me spend that much.” And the salesman would bring the price down AGAIN! I was in awe. Little did I know he had more up his sleeve.

Don, still unsatisfied with the price, would look at the item a little bit more, sigh and say, “The guy across the street was willing to give this to me for $5.”

“HA! The guy across the street is loco!” the salesman would exclaim. “This item is worth $20 at least!”

Don would then shrug, take my hand, and we’d walk away. “Don’t look back,” he’d whisper.

Ten yards down the street, we’d hear, “OK, OK! Come back, we’ll talk.” When we returned to the stand, he’d say to us, “Listen, I can’t go any lower then $10. If I go lower than $10 I will make no money myself. $10 is my final offer.”

By now, in my head I’m screaming “TAKE IT! We win! The guy started at $75!” Don would take a deep breath, thinking it over as he looked around the man’s table. “If you throw in that painted donkey magnet, I’ll give you $10.”

“FINE!” the man would say, throwing his hands in the air, exasperated.

I never realized that this memory of my first trip to Mexico would come in handy later in life. Not because I now love haggling at yard sales, but because when it comes to negotiating advertising rates, you absolutely must use the Tijuana Method.

When I first started doing marketing, I had no idea how much things should cost, and moreover I had no idea that posted rates were highly inflated for suckers like me who didn’t know any better. In the following paragraphs I’m going to break down what we can all learn from my trip to Tijuana when negotiating ad rates.

They start high. You start low.
Everything begins with the posted rate found in their media kit. It’s basically the equivalent of them trying to take you for six times everything you’re worth. Are there companies who can pay those ridiculous rates and not care? Sure. But if you’re reading this, you’re most likely not working for one of them. When you first begin talking with your assigned sales rep, they’re going to immediately refer you to their posted rates. Let them know that that is WAY out of your marketing budget for the quarter (if not the year) and ask them if there is anything they can do to help you out. If they reply with another ridiculous number that’s still way too much, then talk with them a bit more about why you think you’d be a good fit in their magazine or television show, etc. Sell your company and product a little bit.

“We’re growing and I believe with your help we could be paying more reasonable rates in no time but we really need some help right out of the gate.”

OR

“We have a celebrity athlete who we could probably get to do an interview if you could give us a little bit of help on the ad price.”

Things like that will help. At this point they’ll probably drop the price a bit, but only if you commit to multiple months, shows, or issues. This is not a bad thing. You really want people to consistently see your ads in the same place. Your customers will then start associating your product or company with that network, website, or magazine.

Pass the blame.
Just as Don blamed the “old lady” for not letting him spend the money, you can blame a manager, boss, or financial supervisor. Stall for a bit as you ask (or pretend to ask) the person in charge if this money is available. If the person in charge won’t pay the asking price, ask him or her what their bottom line would be. Then you have a goal to shoot for in your negotiations. On the off chance they tell you to go for it… still try to get the price lower. Then you’ll get bonus points and have extra money to spend elsewhere.

When you go back to your sales rep, let them know that you just don’t have the funds at this time. Explain that you spoke with your boss and while he was willing to give a little bit extra, he wasn’t willing to give THAT much extra. Tell them how bummed you are and that you tried everything you could to get them to budge. “But it’s simply a numbers game. You’re a salesman. I’m sure you understand.” At this point there is a very good chance they will give you another offer.

“But your competitor gives me similar ad space for less.”
This is actually a really good strategy. Just make sure you’re telling the truth. If you exaggerate too much, they’ll know you’re just blowing smoke and the deal will be dead right here. All your work to this point will be lost. Maybe you negotiated your face off a few months back and got an INCREDIBLE rate with one of their competitors. If so, use this to your advantage. There is a good chance they will do what they can to price match. They don’t want potential business going exclusively to their biggest rival.

This tip can really be used at any state in the haggling game, but I suggest creating a rapport with your sales rep before tossing this one out. Most of the sales reps I’ve worked with are very friendly and the more they like you the more they seem to want to do what they can to work with you.

Walk away.
But understand that they may not offer you a better rate when you do. There’s a chance that they’re already negotiating with several other similar companies and might not need your business. On the other hand, they might have a quota to meet and be willing to go above and beyond. Either way, if the final price they offer is significantly out of your budget, you need to be willing to turn around and not look back. Ask them to keep you in mind in the future, especially if they have any last minute remnant space that they can give to you at a better price. This is your final sign off and depending on their situation, they may never call you again. Then again, they may indeed call you about remnant space in the future, OR they may holler down the road at you begging you to come back.

Ask for added value.
At the end of the negotiating it’s unlikely either side is going to feel like they got what they wanted. One way to ease the pain of paying a little more than you hoped is to ask if there’s any added value you can get from the transaction. Whether that’s a full article talking about your product during one of the six months you’re ad is running in their magazine, a banner running on a television show’s web page during the month your commercial airs, inclusion in a weekly e-blast, or a few extra shout outs from the radio morning show, you can typically get just a little bit more than what you are being offered. (This is your painted donkey magnet.) They aren’t going to offer these things on their own. You have to ask… and have suggestions! These added value items may seem so easy to the sales rep that they’ll happily throw them in just to officially close the deal on your business.

So those are my tips for getting more reasonable advertising rates. Just like with anything, you may not need or want to use all of these with the same person. I’ve said this in other posts of mine, but it’s imperative that you pick up the phone and talk to your sales reps if you can. This will help you get a read on their mood, their personality, etc. It will help you to know if you should start off blaming your boss or telling them that you got a better rate a few months back from their competitor. It also might let you know if it’s worthwhile trying to haggle at all. Basically, what I’m saying is to mix and match these tips based on your needs and your situation. Sometimes all of these tips will work. Sometimes you might only need one, and sometimes you might have to walk away and be OK with it.

OH! BONUS TIP! Who doesn’t love a bonus tip, right?

Speak their language.
On our way back to the car carrying a few bags of souvenirs, we must have really looked like suckers. Little did these guys know I had a superhero haggler on my arm! But by the end of the day, even Don was tired of playing the game. One particularly pushy sales guy started following us down the street despite Don’s frustrated reassurance that we were done shopping. Finally he stopped, turned around and started to speak… in Spanish. I knew Don could speak Spanish fairly well, but because of the demographics of the rural, mountain town where we lived, I never really got to experience his language skills first hand. The sales guy’s demeanor totally changed when the first syllable left Don’s mouth. Suddenly, they were both laughing like old pals and before I knew it, he handed Don a gold chain. Don inspected it and bought it for an absurd discount. The salesman patted Don on the back and walked away.

“What was that?!” I asked.

“I told him us gringos were tired and just needed to get home. He thought it was so funny that he offered me the chain for free. I told him I’d give him a few bucks for it. I think he was just happy to be speaking his own language for once today.”

Basically, the point of this story is to learn what you’re talking about. If you don’t have much experience with radio advertising, get some info from someone who does. Then you can speak the right lingo. If you are talking to a video production company and they say they need to shoot a few extra hours of b-roll and you’re clueless about what b-roll is, they will be annoyed at having to waste their time explaining such a simple concept. Having a little bit of knowledge for WHAT you should be discussing will save both you and the sales rep a lot of unnecessary aggravation.

One of my old bosses had worked for years in magazine advertising. When I felt I was being ripped off, I would often get him onto the phone for a conference call. He could speak to them in a way I was still learning about. Similarly, given my history within the video production world, he would make sure I was in the loop any time we were doing anything involving video. Use your resources. People love helping out, especially when it also gives them a chance to feel like an expert for a few amazing minutes in the day.

So that’s it. Go haggle your bottoms off! I hope you get great rates… and if you’re lucky you might even get a free gold chain or a painted donkey magnet out of it. Eep!

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Not Everything is Exciting – How to Write About Boring Stuff

Posted by on Apr 25, 2014 in Business Writing | 1 comment

Not Everything is Exciting – How to Write About Boring Stuff

Sometimes as a freelance writer, you get to write awesome things. Occasionally someone will hire you to write a horror comedy about a swim team trapped on a space train full of aliens with chainsaws. (Which by the way, actually sounds like a freaking blockbuster. TRADEMARKED! TM! TRADEMARKED!) But more often than not, you’ll get hired to write a piece on the benefits of flood insurance or an advertisement for a company that installs bleachers. And your first thought will be…

How in the hell am I going to write 300 words about bleachers?

Jones Bleacher Company is a company that makes and installs bleachers.

Ok, sweet, that’s eleven words. Only 289 more and I get paid.

Their bleachers are nice to sit on.

And you realize you’re doomed.

Have I been in this situation before? You bet. In the last month, I’ve written articles and advertisements for a company that installs fake plastic lawns, a local insurance agent, a chandelier cleaning business, two semi-depressing fundraisers, and a company that repairs old garage doors. As you can see, it’s just a big candy circus of exciting content.

So how in the name of all things holy do you make any of those things interesting or upbeat? Here are a few tips.

Create a story around the business or situation. For the piece I wrote for the insurance agent, I spent the entire first paragraph talking about a fictional tornado. It drew people in, hitting them with a real world scenario, thus accomplishing our main goal – getting the reader to reexamine their homeowners policy. As an added bonus, it got me a third of the way though my work without actually having to talk about insurance. Any time you can realistically put something creative into a normally dry article or advertisement, go ahead and do it.

Go historical. There are a million roads you can travel here. Talk about how the product developed, the people behind the company, or even find an interesting tidbit about the area the company serves. I recently wrote an article for a large home improvement center that began by pointing out how all of the “new” homes built in northern Allegheny County the 1980’s are now three decades old. It’s stunning for most people to realize that 1984 was that long ago. This served two purposes. First, it gave people a reason to start thinking that they could probably use the services of the company I was writing for, and two – it got me about a hundred words into the article before I had to start talking about the company’s amazing home improvement deals.

Ask “What separates you from your competitors?” You’d be amazed what this question does for you as a writer. It gives you all kind of stuff to capitalize on.

“Well, uh, our bleachers are consistently rated 45% more comfortable than our competitors. Is that helpful?”

Helpful? That’s a gold mine! How many times has my ass started to hurt halfway through the third quarter because I was sitting on an inferior bleacher? Practically every time I’ve sat in bleacher seating! My god, people need to know about this! What I thought was a boring article is now going to literally save people’s asses!

This is a nice lead in to the final tip.

Find ANYTHING that interests YOU and go with it. If it’s even remotely interesting to you, it’s probably interesting to the rest of the populous as well. “Wow, you make your bleachers out of recycled velvet Elvis paintings?” Just imagine how many toxic old Elvis paintings you’re keeping out of landfills nationwide. Hire Jones Bleacher Company and you’re doing the Earth a favor! Amazing!

Now, obviously most examples aren’t that extreme. But let’s say you’re writing for an AstroTurf company and they tell you that their product makes it much easier to clean up pet waste. You can easily run with that. In my experience, people don’t particularly enjoy cleaning up pet waste. Anything that streamlines the process is something pet owners will want to know more about.

In conclusion, it’d be great if all your projects were fun, fast, and exciting like a Friday night. But as a freelancer, you have to realize that many of the projects that roll in are the equivalent of a Tuesday afternoon. Just remember that boring projects tend to pay more because nobody’s really throwing elbows to get to them. The key to completing these projects without drilling a hole in your skull is to break them down into smaller, more interesting elements. There’s something at least kind of intriguing about everything – even insurance, bleachers, and AstroTurf. But yeah, sometimes you really have to search.

And now onto my next project.

FADE IN:

INT. SPACE TRAIN – NIGHT

CLINT and TARA, slender and athletic college swimmers steal a romantic moment in the shower. They giggle, flirt, and moan until –

A SHADOW blocks out the light from the bathroom.

TARA: Clint, what was that?
CLINT: Don’t worry, baby. Even if it’s an alien, you’re with the toughest guy this side of Gamma Quadrant. Nothing’s gonna happen to you while I’m around.
TARA: Oh Clint, you’re right. Let’s throw caution to the wind and do it right here on this space train!

The shadow creeps closer. It has distinctly alien features. It reaches for something. We don’t know what until we hear….

THE ROAR OF A CHAINSAW.

Yup, that’s a winner right there.

photo credit: szajmon via photopin cc

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Punctuation Mistakes – Stanley Cup Playoffs Edition

Posted by on Apr 18, 2014 in Business Writing | 0 comments

Punctuation Mistakes – Stanley Cup Playoffs Edition

So it’s April, which means it’s my favorite time of the year – the NHL playoffs. I love sports. All sports. I’m the type of guy that will watch a baseball game being played between two teams in two cities I care nothing about. It’s not uncommon for me to be flipping through the channels and say to myself, “Oh wow, Oakland versus Anaheim. Sweet.”

When it comes to sports, I know what I’m talking about. And trust me when I say that nothing even comes close to the skilled and brutal, fast-paced insanity of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every game is a minor heart attack for sixty minutes and a full-fledged pulmonary embolism if it goes to overtime. Being from Pittsburgh, I’m a loyal and slightly neurotic Penguins fan. And as any Penguins fan will attest, it was absolutely brutal this week watching them desperately try to hold onto a 4-3 lead for the final eleven minutes as vulcanized rubber screamed toward our goalie from every conceivable angle. When Sidney Crosby managed to dive and knock the puck back to center ice with five seconds left, “to let the heat out of a hot kitchen” as our announcer would say, everyone in the city simultaneously pumped their fists and remembered to breathe again.

That type of excitement led our color commentator, a gritty former player named Phil Bourque, to yell in excitement after a particularly amazing goal in our first round series against the hated Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. For some reason, the phrase he shouted became a rallying cry amongst the team and the fans. To prepare for the playoffs this year, the Pens media department decided to capitalize on Bourque’s phrase, printing thousands of gold T-shirts and towels featuring that particular slogan. If you go to the CONSOL Energy Center where the Penguins play their home games, you’ll even see Bourque’s words painted in giant white letters across the glass façade of the building. It’s a great rallying cry for the team, and man, does it get everyone pumped for a hockey game.

The whole thing is absolutely perfect. Well, except for one thing. The T-shirts, bumper stickers, towels, and the outside of the building all say…

BUCKLE UP BABY!

Which is slightly perplexing. I mean, the Penguin organization is well known locally for the amount of community outreach they do, but it seems odd that they’d be so concerned about infant safety that they’d all but ignore the playoffs in their marketing strategy. It’s a good message to get out there to new parents but let’s be realistic – telling them about the benefits of proper car seats could’ve waited until after someone hoisted the Cup.

I mean, it’s almost as baffling as the playoff slogan of the San Jose Sharks…

REPORT ELDERLY ABUSE!

And the Colorado Avalanche’s …

CHECK YOUR SMOKE DETECTORS EVERY THREE MONTHS!

They’re all great messages, but to me, none of them really scream fast-paced NHL action.

Oh, wait. Wait a second. I think the Penguins really mean “Buckle Up, Baby!” As in it’s not an actual baby – it’s a cute pet name for the person you might be in a relationship with. And you’re telling them that since the Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to start, they’d better fasten their seatbelt because you’re about to step on the gas… oh, I get it. I get it now.

Ah, those silly commas. Always forgetting to show up where they’re needed.

What we’re seeing here is the same basic concept as the often cited…

“Let’s eat Grandma,” and “Let’s eat, Grandma.”

It’s the difference between a nice home cooked meal and cannibalism.

Since the Penguins omitted the comma, we’re actually being instructed to buckle up a baby instead of go on a crazy series-by-series ride with our favorite team through the greatest two months of the sports year. And that’s a bit of a problem.

The weird thing is that someone had to have made a conscious decision to exclude the comma. I have a hard time envisioning a world where the educated people in the Penguins media department simply didn’t notice. My guess is they spent three hours locked in a room where the following conversation took place…

“We can’t print all this merchandise without the comma! It’s not grammatically correct. We’ll look like fools!”

“Commas look like dead pill bugs. They’re weird! And it’s only three words. Nobody will care!”

“I swear to you, some idiot with a blog will notice and skewer us for this.”

“You wanna go? You wanna go? Let’s go. Let’s go right now.”

“You wanna drop the gloves? Fine, let’s go. Let’s dance.”

And then I figure the anti-comma guy was like the PR department goon so after a spirited tussle, the comma was eliminated. And they both served ten minutes in the break room before they were allowed back into the meeting.

Anyway, that’s just an example of how easy it is for even the best people in the business to make a tiny grammatical mistake. And if highly skilled people who do this for a living can make a mistake in a three word phrase that took a couple hours to paint on the side of a building, imagine how easy it is for you to overlook something in a two page press packet you typed up in twenty minutes.

And don’t get me started on the Philadelphia Flyers playoff slogan…

LETS ALL BE IRREDEEMABLE JAGOFFS THAT SHOULD REALLY BE STUFFED INTO A TRASH CAN AND NOT ALOUD TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY UNTIL SOMETIME IN LATE JOON.

Obviously the most glaring mistake is that Flyers fans should be stuffed into a trashcan until at least August, but I digress…

Buckle up, baby!

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Professionalism in Communication – Don’t Be an Uncle Melvin

Posted by on Mar 20, 2014 in Business Writing | 1 comment

Professionalism in Communication – Don’t Be an Uncle Melvin

Back in middle school, a few friends and I made up a character named Uncle Melvin. Over the years, he’s sort of become this odd amalgam of bumbling male characteristics. I picture him with a fantastic shop-teacher-style comb over, big brown 70’s glasses, a bright Hawaiian shirt and khakis. He’s the type of guy who’d occasionally wear a beanie and chat your ear off about the hovercraft he’ll never actually get around to building. If you see a shattered jar of mayonnaise on the ground somewhere, it’s a good bet that Uncle Melvin did it. Consequently, many of the emails I’ll send my buddies end like this…

All right, man, let me know,

Uncle Melvin

And they chuckle because they know it’s me and not actually Uncle Melvin. The real (made-up) Uncle Melvin would’ve spent most of the email complaining about the crackers in his beard and railing against Obamacare. So they know it’s just me pretending.

Fortuitously for the transition I was hoping to make here, while I was in the middle of writing the previous paragraph, a business client of mine called. I’m currently helping her put together a brochure for her linen rental business so I just spent the last ten minutes firing a few emails back and forth to the design company she’s using. And wouldn’t you know it, Uncle Melvin decided to sit those emails out.

Now many of you might be saying, “Thanks Captain Obvious. Sign your own name at the end of a professional email. Got it. Groundbreaking information, buddy.”

And while something that dramatic might truly be obvious, what isn’t so easy to discern is at what point your professionalism begins to slip.

As a freelance writer, I’m constantly sending emails back and forth to various clients. Some of them I’ve gotten to know very well over the years. It would be very easy for me to respond to them with something like this…

John,

Yeah, bud. Give me a minute and I’ll get to it. What’s that sonuvabitch want changed now? Ha. Nah, I’m kidding. Send me the changes and I’ll get ‘em done as soon as I’m done dropping the Browns off at the Super Bowl. Been holding it in a while.

Uncle Melvin

No, Uncle Melvin, no! Totally unprofessional! Never talk about crapping OR the actual Browns in a professional email. Have you followed the Browns front office situation lately? Just admitting you know that franchise exists makes you seem like an amateur.

And while that was an extreme case that you’re probably laughing at, there are a lot of freelancers and small business owners who make that mistake on a regular basis. They forget to make a distinction between business communication and personal communication. Take this next one for example. It’s not as extreme as my previous example, but in many ways, just as bad.

John,

Thx. I’ll get 2 those as soon as I get a sec. Dave being meticulous again? LOL.

TTYL,

Uncle Melvin

Yeah, see, not as hard as you thought to slip from professional to wildly business inappropriate. Usually all it takes is a deadline, a little stress, and the assumption that you’re going to somehow put the three seconds you saved by abbreviating everything to REALLY GOOD USE.

Oh, crap, you sneezed. Well, there goes all that time you got back.

And I can see some millennial just out of college saying, “Hey old man, that’s how we communicate now. Everyone understands. I don’t see what the big deal is. You sure put the GRANDPA in GRANDPA HANK. Go put on a flannel and listen to your old NIRVANA and SOUNDGARDEN cassettes you ancient half-dead curmudgeon.”

Well that all might be true, but the big deal is that your clients aren’t the drunk girl whose digits you scored at the bar last night, bro. They’re probably not “DTF cause YOLO!” Fair or not, what you’re subconsciously showing them is laziness and a lack of intellect. If you were giving your money to someone, who would you want to communicate with?

This guy?

John,

BTW, I can’t find that attachment u sent. Can u shoot it to me again? Thx.

Or this guy?

John,

When you have a moment, can you send me the mock-up for the brochure again? I just want to make sure I have the latest copy so as I’m not working from a previous version.

Thanks so much,

Maybe you’d prefer the first one. That’s a fine decision. Have fun sleeping on that futon until you’re 45. But the second one is obviously much, much better.

With that said, here are my top three rules for writing professional emails.

1) It isn’t a text or a tweet. No stupid abbreviations for things you could easily type out. Good rule of thumb – if it’s an abbreviation that could easily fit into a middle school gigglefest, it probably doesn’t belong in that email you’re sending to the marketing director of a Fortune 500 company.

2) Take a second to proofread. We’ve all been there. We have sixteen things to do in the next hour and an email comes in that you figure you can just breeze through and send out in about fifteen seconds. One more thing crossed off the list. And then you realize you misspelled the recipient’s name Pual or Lidna. And now they know for certain that you dedicated as little time as possible to their issue and moved on to something else. So seriously, before you hit send, just take a deep breath and read it. Don’t scan it. Don’t breeze through it. Actually read it. You’ll be amazed at how much trouble that thirty seconds ends up saving you down the line. (And my god, if you’re a freelance writer, remember that clients are judging you on the quality of your work. If you misspell something in an email or write something that doesn’t make sense in your initial communication, how likely are they to hire you? I mean, how safe are you going to feel if you see your mechanic stranded on the side of the road in their own personal vehicle?)

3) Even if it’s a friend or acquaintance, work emails are for work. Talk about beers on Friday somewhere else. Because you never know, your friend’s boss might be standing behind them when your email pops up. You don’t want to accidentally get them in trouble. Also, people often need to forward business emails to other departments. One forward and next thing you know, Joanne in accounting knows all about your St. Patrick’s Day plans to get WASTED AS A MONTH OLD GALLON OF MILK, BABY!

Anyway, those are some tips to keep your writing professional. And if none of the other arguments sway you, just remember that a few extra seconds of mental effort can make you A LOT MORE MONEY.

Or as the teenagers like to say, AFESOMECMYALM$$$$$$$$$$!

L O flippin’ L,

Uncle Melvin

photo credit: byronv2 via photopin cc

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