Communicating is about connecting

When writing for any technical audience, it’s important to think about the audience as a real, breathing person. They may be reading your sales brochure or proposal for its informational content, but they are still human and need more than seductive ad words. To communicate an idea effectively, you have to connect with the reader first. Building rapport is key in any relationship, but it’s trickier to accomplish in printed communication. To make your case, whether you want to sell a technology or discuss a process that works better than others, you need to connect.

This means stepping out from behind the computer and making real face-to-face connections. It might be called networking, but I prefer to think of it as getting to know someone. This takes time, energy, and doing what doesn’t come naturally to most writers (myself included!).

Only then, when you have met this person or group of people, can you start writing. And even then, you have to understand where the reader is coming from. This requires asking several questions as you write:

  • Who is the person I’m talking to?
  • What is their main priority in reading what I give them?
  • How can I make their task as a reader and also as a customer/project manager/end user easier?

The reader may be a staff person at a facility tasked with looking for new employee training modules. What kind of information can you give him to make the decision easier? What are the challenges that he faces in making this decision? What are his concerns? And how can you address these concerns, either through good information (meaning a bit of research and factual data) or by interviewing a credible source, such as an expert at a nonprofit organization?

By addressing your audience’s immediate concerns and needs, you can make the connection.

Pictures trump words in changing minds

I recently came across this fascinating article on about how, if you want to change minds, use visual content:

Our brains privilege visual information over any other kind. More processing power is devoted to it. Studies have shown that we understand images more quickly than words and remember them longer.

The article discusses a study in which the researchers sought to persuade people holding one set of strong political beliefs (liberal or conservative) that the president representing the opposing political party (George W. Bush or Barack Obama) had a successful policy: In the case of Bush, that violence decreased in Iraq after the Surge; for Obama, that the number of jobs increased during his first year in office.


What the researchers found worked was not an explanatory paragraph, or an appeal to ego, but a simple graph showing the data before and after the event.

Coming from a journalism background, I had been trained to consider graphics as an afterthought. The photos and figures would support my words, and only if there was room, not the other way around! But in looking at how technology has changed our world and how it has allowed us to receive information in much richer ways, it seems that the opposite is true. We should become better at writing to support, dissect, and explain what a graphic is showing.

There will always be a need for good writing, but if the main goal is to persuade, inform, or connect to audiences, especially on a global level, a picture is always worth a thousand words.

Telling stories about storytelling

Every so often, the business world comes up with a hot new catchphrase or word to encapsulate what the innovators are thinking. Waaaaay back when I first started my career, I kept hearing about “thinking outside the box.” Ugh. I don’t think I still quite know what that means…being creative? Working for a federal government contractor at the time, I found that phrase really confusing. Because if you work for the feds, the last thing they want is creative. Currently I can’t avoid the word “storytelling.” It’s the new way to sell your business, your service, your brand, your cat gif site. I suppose in theory it’s a good way to connect to your audience or customers. Stories are what make us human, connected, and relatable. But the problem is not everyone has a knack for storytelling. What might seem like a whimsical introduction or a dramatic attention grabber will sound like hack writing.

Also, not every business is suited for storytelling. My primary goal in writing is to connect to the audience. What can I do to serve readers and make their job easier? If I’m sharing information, I want it to be clear and upfront. I don’t want to force them to sit through three paragraphs of anecdotal noodling before I get to my point. Sometimes you have a rare topic or element of a business that lends itself to storytelling. But most of the time it’s better to save the stories for bedtime.

From underground to aboveground, Center Stage

Mt-Hood-misty-morning A view of Mount Hood from Fernhill Wetlands. Photo courtesy of Clean Water Services.

I write a lot for environmental organizations and companies. These are not the typical advocacy groups fighting to protect our natural resources and habitats, but the people who make a daily living with boots on the ground, solving complex and sometimes overwhelming environmental problems that most of us Portlanders are unaware of.

Public utilities receive a lot of heat from the public because our interaction with them is limited mostly to bills and unions. There’s not a lot of love lost there. Gaining popularity is the May ballot measure that would allow Portlanders to create a public water district that would place rate setting of our notoriously expensive water and sewer bills under the purview of a volunteer board.

As a result, utilities have traditionally wanted to be invisible, to fly “under the radar.” This has worked for decades, as long as there was no blame to assign. But in today’s prickly political environment, there is a lot of finger pointing. Invisibility it is a double-edged sword, too, in that no one knows of the small hard-won victories, either.

This is changing, especially water and wastewater utilities faced with longstanding drought. Utilities in drought-stricken areas have been combining their missions to address water scarcity and shorten the periods in the water cycle, mainly by looking to wastewater reuse as a means to replenish our drinking water supplies.

Fortunately we here in Oregon aren’t at that milestone yet. But utilities are adapting ways of treating wastewater as a resource that is enjoyable for the community at large. Take, for example, Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove. It is a natural treatment system for advanced treated wastewater at a nearby Clean Water Services (CWS) facility as a final polishing step before release to the environment. Although wetlands treatment is nothing new, it continues to gain popularity because it enhances a natural area that is beautiful, enjoyable to the public, and hospitable to wildlife while fulfilling the CWS mission to be good stewards of the environment.

Behind every great writer is a great editor

Recently, I read about Amy Tan's search for an editor in the Wall Street Journal to help manage her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement. Tan is a best-selling author whose most famous books is The Joy Luck Club. After a courting phase, she chose Daniel Halpern, editor and president and publisher of Ecco, an "imprint" (branch) of HarperCollins.

He made suggestions to shape her new manuscript:

One of the first things Mr. Halpern did when he received the full draft of "The Valley of Amazement" was make a timeline of the entire novel, with notes on each individual character. He also made comments on the story and chapter-by-chapter notes.

He suggested altering the opening, so that the story began with the characters in the courtesan house in the early 1900s, instead of later in the plot. He worked with Ms. Tan on developing the narrator, Violet, who seemed "thin" to him in the beginning. "I remember saying to her, 'You've got to add flesh onto this woman,' " he said, "I mean, who is she really?"

Although Mr. Helpern is a book editor, what he does applies to a what a great editor does for any genre of writing. Rewriting intros, strengthening characters or aspects of a story, and cutting out extraneous detail are the job of an editor and can transform a rough draft into a highly readable (and hopefully memorable) final product.


Getting started in writing anything

Writing is challenging. But the rewards are worthwhile. So, while it is difficult to get started, if you break it down into small, manageable tasks, you can get going very quickly. It's like exercising. If you think about all that you need to do to lose 20 pounds, you'll never get started. But if you break it down into tasks (e.g., put on workout clothes, drive to the gym, sit down and pedal on bike machine for 30 minutes), the whole ordeal becomes less onerous.
Here are some preliminary steps I take to get into a writerly mode:
  • Step 1: Do what I need to do to get comfy. This means making a cup of tea, sitting in my favorite writing spot (on the living room sofa with my legs propped up, preferably with a napping cat nearby), keeping my phone nearby but on silent mode.
  • Step 2: Put my immediate, foremost thoughts, in one sentence, on the screen (or on paper if that's how you like to work). I imagine telling my boyfriend or friend (or child, depending on my intended audience) about this topic or event. What would the first thing out of my mouth be? I try not to think too much, try not to let the Spelling and Grammar Check part of my brain jump in. I allow punctuation errors, run-on sentences, disorganized thoughts, whatever goes.
  • Step 2: I rewrite this lead sentence so that it says what I want it to say, more or less. It doesn't have to be perfect or final. You can always change it later.
  • Step 3: I write down different topics that I want to discuss in further detail using this sentence as the jump-off point.
  • Step 4: I create headers for these different topics. These headers can be a short phrase or a word.
  • Step 5: I create subheaders under these headers that further pull apart ideas or concepts that I'd like to elaborate on.
  • Step 6: I write a paragraph or two that go further into detail under each subheader.

Voila! I've created an outline. Organization is the key to writing effectively. And the bonus of an outline is it creates a scaffold on which to build your piece, meaning 50% of the work is done. All the other elements of writing — adding the fancy words, tinkering with punctuation and sentence structure, making sure you're making your point — are secondary acts.