4 Elements of Better Writing

It was January 2007, and I was lying in bed, minding my own business.

My wife Linda and I had just heard a story on the radio about the previous day’s Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Apparently, cities across the country were encouraging residents to make it a day of volunteerism… “A day on, not a day off.”

Linda, being the sort of person who doesn’t sit on the sidelines, leapt out of bed (I’m exaggerating) and declared, Our town should do something like this next year.”

For those of you who’ve also been married to Linda for 20 years, I’m sure you knew right then that this would indeed come to pass. And so it did.

Under Linda’s guidance, the 2008 kick-off event attracted 450 people; the 2009 event, 700 people; and this year’s event, over 900, all involved in a variety of service projects. Just to put that into perspective, had you grown by as much during that same period of time, you’d now be 12 feet tall and weigh well over 300 pounds.

Each year’s event has included a keynote speaker – someone charged with getting the volunteers excited and pumped up before they head off for the day. It’s not an easy assignment, but this year’s speaker – a young teacher named Evren Gunduz – clearly hit a home run.

It occurred to me later, in fact, as I was busily braiding yarn into doggie chew toys, that not only could Evren’s name be reconfigured to spell “Vend Zen Guru,” his speech contained many of the elements that make for a well-written E-Newsletter:

  • He opened with a story. I know, I know, your readers are too busy to read stories; they just want the facts. That sounds nice, but it’s simply not true. Stories draw people in, stories help people remember your message and, perhaps most importantly for those of us selling high-trust professional services, stories reveal the people behind the company.
  • He let down his guard. Despite addressing an auditorium filled to capacity, Evren immediately stepped out from behind the safety of the podium and stood center stage to give his talk. That can be scary, but it made him seem more accessible.

    For business writers, the “podium” tends to be excessive formality and business speak. It feels safer to hide behind tested, stock phrases… even if they communicate little in the way of genuine thought and emotion. When you stick to words that actual humans use, on the other hand – the kind of words found in real life conversations – you’ll also come across as more accessible.

  • He used a prop. After telling the story of how he played the trumpet as a kid at a Salvation Army collection site, Evren put the microphone down on the stage, stepped briefly behind the curtain and emerged with his trumpet in hand. Then he played “Amazing Grace” for the spellbound audience.

    Similarly, the “props” in your newsletter are the interesting, “off topic” things you include in addition to the expected information. A link to an intriguing video, a review of a book you just read, a photo of the soccer team you coach. Because while few people would sign up just to receive this random stuff, they seem to enjoy these brief (I said brief) side trips which, if done well, provide yet another opportunity to share some of yourself with readers.

  • He kept it short. The entire speech took less than 10 minutes. Nobody was checking their watch and when it was over, you could sense that we all would have happily stayed for much more of the Evren Gunduz show.

    Good newsletters leave readers with the same feeling: Long enough to convey a message, but short enough so that readers eagerly await the next installment.

Maybe the most interesting thing about Evren’s speech is that while the audience clearly loved it, he didn’t actually share that much breakthrough information. Any number of people could have communicated the same few ideas; it was his unique presentation style that made it captivating and memorable.

P.S. For a look at Evren’s talk (begins at 2:50), introduced by my lovely wife Linda (back off fellas, she’s taken), follow this link.

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