A big part of keeping up with the competition online is keeping the lines of communication open with your customers.
There’s a reason why the “gift of gab” is considered to be a ‘gift’ in the first place. You may be using a keyboard instead of your mouth, but what you say is still the most important means of establishing a dominating presence in the digital domain. If customers are listening to you, then they aren’t listening to someone else.
The words “online” and “network” owe their etymological origins to the very idea of connectedness. During the birth of modern computing in the 1940 and ’50s, when computers were successfully communicating, they were said to be “on-line” with one another. This was likely a shortening of the now archaic phrase for bringing someone into a telephone conversation: “on the line,” as in, “hold on while I get my mother on the line.” To be online is inextricably linked with the idea of actively communicating and connecting with other people.
Believe it or not, the word “network” is even older. It has existed in the English language since the 1560s, originating in descriptions of metal latticeworks, but quickly growing into a metaphor for something more, being used in descriptions of rail lines in the 1860s, telegraph lines in the 1880s, and wireless communication in the 1910s. (Human beings have always been oddly fascinated with things that are made up of repeated connections: this is why trees led to family trees and spiderwebs led to the Internet’s Web.)
Being online, networking with the public–these aren’t new ideas. They are very, very old concepts. And those concepts have continued to persevere for this long because of how indispensable they are. If you want to succeed in the public sphere, you don’t have a choice–you’ve got to establish communication, arouse the public’s interest, and then manage to maintain a dialogue.
Writing is the bane of many people’s professional existence, regardless of how long they’ve been in the business world. For many, the idea of composing blog posts, Tweets, Facebook posts, and myriad other piles of digital missives for public consumption is shudder inducing. This isn’t the product of an inability to write a competently composed sentence.
For those on the older end of the spectrum, it’s at least in part the result of living through decades in which the written word wasn’t an integral part of day to day communication. In the past, the majority of business was conducted face to face or over the phone. For this population, vocal tone and body language were a much more familiar kind of grammar than the sort they had once learned in a classroom: struggling with those pesky subject/verb agreements and their hands slapped with a ruler every time they wrote a dangling participle.
On the other hand, while the days of writing essays for high school and college classes may still be fresh in the memories of those in their twenties and thirties, the years since then spent writing text messages and other informal communiqués have weakened their technical writing skills. While this contemporary comfort and familiarity with informal grammar may come in handy for limboing under the 140 character limit on Twitter posts–“wut r u w8in 4? ✓ r nu swag 2day”–it doesn’t lend itself to communicating with the public at large.
Like it or not, when you’re communicating with the public, you aren’t talking with your friends or family, or speaking with a carefully prescribed demographic defined by age, ethnicity, or first (or second, or third) language. The broader the audience that you can successfully and deftly communicate with, the better your chances are of establishing profitable relationships with a twenty-something-year-old welder in Los Angeles, a seventy year old retired teacher in Detroit, or a forty year old executive in Tokyo who speaks six languages and feels the full weight of running a company nearing its hundredth anniversary. What you say matters. How you say it matters even more. The ability to write well and use grammatically correct language is integral to connecting with customers.
A survey conducted a couple of years ago indicated that nearly 60% of people in Britain wouldn’t do business with a company that made obvious grammatical mistakes in their written materials. This inclination may not just be a concern with professionalism. Assessing the grammar in emails and other written communication has become a trusty tool in discerning whether an individual or business is legitimate, or simply a spammer. In a brief blog post titled, “Sign of a scam: bad grammar and misspelled words,” a writer on Microsoft’s Cyber Trust Blog stated rather bluntly: “Email messages from Microsoft or other familiar and trustworthy organizations that are full of bad grammar and misspellings are fraudulent.” Now, the example of spammy email that they were using was more poorly written than what a typical English speaker could come up with after a moment or two of thought, but the takeaway is pretty clear. The public is using the caliber of writing as a benchmark for measuring the legitimacy and overall quality of businesses. Yes, you can easily outclass a spammer. But if it comes down to you and another legitimate competitor, the final decision maker may be your A+ writing versus your competitor’s B+ writing.
So, this blog post is going to be a two-parter. Today, I want to talk about the basics of getting your fingers marching across the keyboard: dealing with the practicalities of typing, finding motivation, and keeping your audience front and center. If you can achieve all of those things, the quality of the content you write will be far better than the vast majority of that put out by your competitors.
Next week, we’ll discuss the more nitty gritty stuff, like common writing mistakes and finding ways to avoid or work around them.
If you’re reading this, then you use a keyboard. You may only use a smartphone or an iPad for communicating with family and perusing the Internet, but the vast majority of touchscreen devices use the same layout that your grandparents were staring at when they typed out their first job application on a typewriter. Though input methods vary, with swipe-style keyboard apps becoming increasingly common, it’s still the same basic layout, known as QWERTY.
Many people struggle to feel comfortable with the QWERTY keyboard, and are endlessly hunting and pecking regardless of whether they’re on an iPhone or a computer. It’s not an intuitive setup. In fact, it’s intentionally unintuitive and unnatural. The QWERTY keyboard dates back to 1873, when a slightly different key arrangement was first developed for use on typewriters. Typewriters back then were strictly mechanical, for obvious reasons (hint: it wasn’t because of the popularity of steampunk cosplay). Their operation depended on elaborate mechanisms that connected each key to a metal arm, tipped with a small steel die cut in the shape of the letter that matched the key. Push the key, and the mechanism would cause the metal arm to extend and contact the page, stamping the paper with the selected letter. The problem with this system was that if two keys next to each other were pressed sequentially, the type arms would cross paths, get hung up on one another, and jam the typewriter. To avoid this, the most commonly used letters in the English language were spread out across the keyboard layout, so that the odds of creating a jam were minimized. This solution fixed the issue, but as a consequence has continued to stymie amateur typists for over 140 years.
Chances are, you’re going to be stuck with QWERTY for the rest of your life. While voice recognition apps have become readily available on phones and computers, there are a lot of limitations to this approach. Only advanced applications–such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking–allow for the level of grammatical formatting that is necessary for writing anything longer than a few sentences, and these systems take so much practice to master, that you would be much better served by developing your keyboard skills. Laptops, netbooks, Chromebooks, iPhones, Android phones, third-party software keyboards–the overwhelmingly vast majority of them use an old-fashioned QWERTY keyboard. How many folks do you know who are still carrying around Palm Pilots and writing emails using Graffiti?
The ability to type fluently is a requisite for being able to write well. If you want proof, go grab a pen and a piece of paper. Come up with something simple and short to write: a short letter to someone, a short story about kittens, whatever strikes your fancy. Two or three hundred words long, nothing major. Wait. Take your time. Come up with something. Don’t move down to the next line (and don’t start writing!) until you’ve thought of something.
Okay. Take that pen and put it in your non-writing hand. Lefties, put it in your right hand. Righties, you’re now honorary southpaws. Now start writing. I’ll wait here until you’re done. Ready? Go.
Welcome back. Did you discover the problem? When you have to dedicate so much of your attention to the actual act of putting the letters on paper, it makes it extremely difficult to keep track of your train of thought. When piecing together a word is a laborious process, you may finish writing/typing a word, only to realize that you’ve completely forgotten what comes next.
You need to be able to type at around forty words a minute, at minimum. No matter how many years ago it was that you last had to type on a keyboard while a piece of cardboard kept you from peeking at the keys, it’s entirely doable. Take a couple minutes, and Google the phrase, “learn to type.” There are literally dozens and hundreds of websites that offer free courses on how to type. Some are very basic typing tests that simply measure your speed, and prompt you to repeat the same thing over and over. Others are much more sophisticated, and offer structured lessons just like you would have gotten in a classroom–whether it was from a seasoned secretary in the ’70s, or Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in the ’90s.
Even if you feel seriously out of practice, you aren’t behind the curve at all. As I’ve noted previously, I worked in a high school for several years, around the end of the last decade. Your average teenager is woefully inept at setting their phone on ‘silent,’ let alone mastering a keyboard. With a modicum of practice, you can smoke your kids and grandkids. When you can type quickly, then your fingers will be able to keep up with your mind, and writing will become much, much easier. Pinky swear.
When you’re having to consistently come up with new things to talk about, and then force yourself to write about them, you’re going to get tired of this whole blogging thing really fast. Especially if you don’t particularly enjoy some of the topics you’re writing about.
For instance, Josh enjoys carefully crafting little amusements for himself every once in a while. He’s incredibly talented with Photoshop, to an almost infuriating degree. And occasionally, he’ll get a wild hair and gleefully spend an hour on a tiny visual joke that 99.9% of readers won’t ever notice. But that’s because it isn’t for the readers–though he enjoys getting a laugh or a smile–it’s for him.
For me, I’m a little more verbal, and so I tend to play word games in my head. Sometimes I challenge myself to come up with pairs of alliterative words (for the non-English majors, those are words that begin with the same sound) in my writing. For instance, in the past few paragraphs, I’ve used “seasoned secretary,” “digital domain,” and “carefully crafting.” At other times, I challenge myself to completely eliminate a word that I know that I use too much. Lately, “pretty” has been a serious offender, as in “pretty good,” pretty bad,” “pretty interesting,” ad nauseum.
If you enjoy music, try to incorporate rhymes or beats into your words. I actually often punctuate my sentences with commas and periods based upon how I would speak them. If something feels awkward to say, I’ll try and find a smoother way of getting the point across. Which leads me to…
I break this rule all the time, as you could probably tell. In the process of keeping myself in the game, as described in the last section, I’ll get a bit out of control. My words get away from me, and suddenly I’m loquaciously depositing myriad instances of superfluous vocabulary all over the place (meaning, I get talkative and start using too many big words).
But when I have to, I will write things very plain. This is more true when I know some might not know some of the things I write on in my posts. Incidentally, the last two lines are comprised entirely of one syllable words. You can write very simply so that anyone can follow along, and still keep your mind engaged.
The blog posts you write, the podcasts you record, the videos you post on YouTube–they aren’t for you. They are for your viewers. If you talk over their heads, try too hard to impress them with a slick pitch, express all your ideas using jargon that’s not well known outside your industry, then you’re missing the point. My rather broad background has taught me a very simple rule: the more complicated the topic you’re explaining, the simpler your words should be.
As I said, I break this rule constantly. That’s why I have other people read everything I write, and edit it in order for it to be more understandable. Find yourself a test audience, whether it’s a hired editor, a coworker with minimal knowledge of the topic you’re writing about, or heck, even your kid. If you can craft ideas that your twelve year old can follow, then chances are your audience will be able to as well.