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At one point in my life, commercial design was giving journalism a good run for my career-planning money. In high school, I won contests in both. Here's the holiday card I designed that was chosen for a charity card set:

In the end, words won out over images and my design skills serve me on a project management or creative director gigs.
two examples of holiday cards

How to design a unique corporate holiday card

If you're like me, you get a little chapped seeing all the merch for the December holidays on store shelves with the Halloween candy. While I feel it's too early for that stuff, now is definitely the time to start planning your custom business holiday card.

I asked Marc Borzelleca, who's been our design partner for 20 years, to share some advice and tips. He's designed business and corporate holiday cards for everyone from large regional health systems to small local businesses.

Margot: You’ve been doing this a long time. What's the biggest mistake you see us making with business holiday cards?

Marc: Sending generic cards with nothing personal added. It looks like you ordered 200 cards, printed your name on it, mailed it and called it a day. It’s the same as getting a form letter. And while the acknowledgement is nice, it doesn’t show sincerity. It’s like, “we are acknowledging that you are a client, but not special enough for us to do more than slap your address and a stamp on this envelope.”

Right. Nothing wrong with ordering pre-made cards, but it does mean you have to seriously raise your personalization game.

What are a few things we we should think about before starting our card? 

I’d say three things:

  1. What do we want to convey about our business? How do we want our clients to see us? As a serious, earnest company; as a company that has a religious leaning or other important sentiment to convey — this can be tricky — or as a fun, hip place, or cutting-edge, hi-tech company. This sets the mood for the design of the card.
  2. What are the practical considerations? What is the budget? Is there even a budget? Will these be printed and mailed, or sent digitally? If mailed, will they be bulk mailed, or hand stamped. P.S. Hand-stamped is always better. If printed, how many, and will they be designed or bought off the rack?
  3.  Will these cards have a personal note included, or a real signature from the owner or employees? Will the card accompany a gift?

I love what you said about the message — both the overall message and the actual business holiday card sentiment. You really have to know your values and your audience to get that right.

Exactly. And it can take a lot of time to work that out internally.

Speaking of time, so many of us put off our holiday card planning. Why is that a bad idea?

You certainly don’t want to rush it and send out something that has typos or the wrong message. Make sure the copy and imagery adhere to the corporate standards — like if your company does not want any religious or political affiliation, or has a standard message that is used in its pieces. This impacts the design “language”, too. It can help to develop a piece, then give it a little time and look at it again with fresh eyes, or have another employee look at it, and see if any issues come up.

If you’re printing cards, it’s best to start as early as possible because printers get overloaded during the holiday season. I try to give them 1 to 2 weeks at least, more if shipping is involved. That also gives time for addressing and mailing, which can take a while. You want the card to arrive not too early, but also not so late that it gets mixed in with everyone else’s cards, or after the holidays, that makes you look like they were an afterthought or you are bad with time management — unless you’re intentionally doing a New Year’s-themed card.

Even if you’re doing e-cards, don’t wait around. While digital cards will save mailing time, the design process can take just as long, especially if there are multiple parties who need to approve it.

What do designers need to produce custom business holiday cards?

Communication! What makes a designer cringe is when a client tells them “I don’t know what I want or like, but I know what I don’t like”, or “I’ll know what I like when I see it”. It's best to communicate everything in the beginning — but at least your budget and some examples.

Ideally, though, you'd give us as detailed instructions as possible, so we don’t waste hours creating designs that are off the mark.

For instance, If there’s a certain style you want to go with, send examples so we know what direction to go in. If you want to keep the printing costs down, don’t spec special sizes or multiple folds that increase the cost. If it has to fit within a corporate design style, give us the colors, fonts and icons to adhere to that style. Do you want to include your logo or not? If you want to use a photo of your business or employees, make sure it's high resolution — 300 dpi at 100%, by the way— and that you have people's permission to use their images. Finally, let us know if you want – or don’t want – religious or seasonal imagery.
two examples of corporate holiday greetings designed by Marc BorzellecaAny final advice for designing a unique business holiday card?

Make your card special, and sincere in the message that you convey through imagery, text, a personalized greeting, or best, all of the above!

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9 tips for great business holiday cards

How to produce holiday content fast

• Content we created for the Staples Small Business Hub:

  1. Holiday Face-Off: Should You Send Printed Cards or Digital Cards? Hint: It depends.
  2. 4 Trends in Creative Corporate Holiday Cards. Get inspired by these enduring trends, or design a creative corporate holiday card that breaks the mold.
  3. Business Holiday Card Design Checklist. More tips to avoid costly seasonal card fails.

A Quick Case for Budget Transparency

Early in my career, I was on the buy side, sourcing agency and freelancer PR and creative services for my employer. We had a budget, but unless it was a very large project, like creating a new logo for the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, I was told to never share our dollar figure with the outsiders. They had to go first. The fear was (and still is), that if they knew how much we had to spend, they'd find a way to spend it all and we'd get screwed.


There are a bunch of problems with this mentality, chief among them that most agencies and suppliers aren't out to bilk clients out of their money. The good ones know the best way to stay in business is to quote fair prices for great work. That's how we keep your business and get those valuable referrals.

Why You Should Be Transparent About Budget

There are two other reasons client reticence about going first is detrimental:

  1. It creates an at least somewhat adversarial relationship from the get-go
    • This makes everyone a little cranky and suspicious
  2. It produces unnecessary cycles of going back and forth negotiations that aren't transparent
    • The time you spend quantifying your project budget and requirements before reaching out to clients streamlines the process and gets the work done faster

If you're on the buy side, I encourage you to give serious thought to being transparent about the budget you have available and what you expect for that amount. You're actually less likely to "get screwed" when you do. And agencies and freelancers are better able to give you great service and product because they know the criteria.

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Regardless on where you stand on any of the pressing political issues of the day -- and there are many! -- it's important to share your ideas and opinions with others in a constructive way.

I've been working in advocacy and politics most of my life. In fact, locals say I teethed on a ballot box. That lifetime of experience has taught me a few things about being an effective advocate and campaign volunteer, especially when that comes to writing. I compiled a set of strategies to make it faster and easier to put your opinions and ideas in writing, and to make the resulting prose more effective.

Political Action/Get Out the Vote Writing Toolkit

Use this tiny toolkit to get the word out on behalf of candidates and causes you care about. There's enough trash talking going on that I hope you use these tools to be FOR something or someone, rather than against something or someone else.

How to Capture the Power of Your Ideas

The first tool is the Content-Purpose-Audience Strategy™, which captures your thoughts at the top level:

  • Content: The most important idea and crucial details to support it
  • Purpose: The things you want people to think, feel or do after reading/hearing your case
  • Audience: A solid description of the people you're trying to reach and their questions, objections and concerns; and the personality the audience is most likely to trust

A nifty picture of the Content-Purpose-Audience Strategy

Download my Writing for Advocacy slide deck for a quick overview of the strategy and how it helps gather, organize and solidify your thoughts. Download the mini workbook for capturing the power of your ideas, which includes step-by-step instructions for using the Content-Purpose-Audience strategy and examples of successful opinion writing for various media.

How to Write a Candidate Endorsement

Help others understand why they should vote for a particular candidate with an endorsement posted to your blog or social media accounts, published in the paper or aired on radio, TV or podcast. Recommendations are important tools for political action, yet many people feel awkward making them. The What-Why-How™ Strategy makes it easy to outline and explain the key reasons you support a candidate, using a logical framework that meets your audience's need:

  • What you think: your main idea
  • Why you think it: an explanation of your rationale
  • How you know it's true: examples and evidence that prove your point

Template for the What Why How Strategy

Check out this blog post for a quick walk through using WWH to write a candidate endorsement and to see a recommendation published in our local paper. (Hint: If you do the CPA first, make the Main Idea the What and use the Key Details as a Why or How).

How to Advocate for an Issue with Public Service Announcements

If you're working with a nonprofit organization, you can also share your ideas on ballot initiatives, constitutional amendments and other issues being considered by the public. TV and radio stations are required by law to provide free air time to nonprofits meeting specific criteria (so check with your local station before adding a PSA to your advocacy plan).

Idea-Details Strategy copyright 1995-2018 Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc. Used with permission.

Read this blog post for more insights on why and how to use PSAs. Then check out this slide deck for a quick overview of how to write a PSA or download the worksheet to get started.

Sharing your perspective with others is always valuable, especially at election time -- and even more so in off-cycle and midterm elections like the one coming up next month. Voice your opinions and make sure to vote!

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Team training icon on The Word Factory corporate training pageWhat if I told you there was one really easy tactic you could deploy to improve the quality and impact of your writing?

Well, there is: Chop your prose by 15-20%.

I got this great little piece of writing advice from editor Chip Scanlon decades ago and it's still my go-to tactic. It's especially handy when you're in a hurry.

How to improve writing

We all over-write. We bog down our writing with qualifying remarks, unnecessary tee-ups and other verbiage that we don't really need. So here's the simple trick (which regular readers of this blog will recognize):

  1. Write whatever you want
  2. Read it over to address obvious issues
  3. Grab a word count and figure out how many words equal 20%
  4. Revise your piece to cut out that many words

I challenge you to aim high for 20% because it's easier than you think to prune out 10-15%. The incremental effort to cut out another 5-10% makes your writing even crisper and clearer.

If you're not sure you can do it, try these specific cuts:

What to do: Remove unnecessary introductory and parenthetical phrases.

Why it works: Improves impact and clarity.

What to do: Rework deeply nested constructions.

Why it works: Knocks out long, complicated sentences that cause confusion and/or give people a reason to stop reading.

What to do: Delete qualifying statements.

Why it works: Omits the tone of uncertainty qualifiers and conditional tense create, which weakens your case.

Try this technique on the next piece you have to write, whether it's a memo, report, article, white paper, whatever. You'll be surprised how much this simple strategy improves your writing.

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We can all be better communicators. Collaborating with someone to improve your skills, boost your productivity or crush an important process, and increase your effectiveness has measurable impact on your success. Whether you've got a big speaking opportunity ahead, are eyeing a promotion or career change, or want to be a more compelling communicator -- working with a writing or leadership communications coach could be the difference-maker. Same if you find you're in a rut that's impeding your progress, or have developed bad habits that keep you from making your point clearly.

What does a writing coach do?

How can a writing coach help you?

Most of us benefit from coaching in two areas:

  1. Developing or enhancing skills to communicate clearly
  2. Learning tools and techniques to produce more effective content faster and consistently

Nifty chart showing different ways to work with writing coach Margot Lester

What are our hang-ups about getting a coach?

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Yet some people feel weird getting help with their writing or communications projects, for the same reasons we don't get help with other stuff. We're self-conscious. We're not sure how it works. We're worried about cost.

Becoming a stronger and more effective writer and communicator isn't a "nice to have". Everybody writes, no matter what job we have. Work with someone to get strategies, tools and feedback designed to make you a better writer (as opposed to make the commenter look smart) makes increases your ability to excel at your current job, be more prepared for a new job, and get the support you need for important projects.

Questions to ask before you hire a writing coach

Ready to take the plunge? Here are some questions to ask and answer before engaging a writing or communications coach:

Ask yourself:

  1. What is the specific help I need and what results do I want to see? The more you understand your needs, the better a coach can understand how to meet them. 
  2. Do I need a writing coach near me? You may want someone who can literally sit down with you, or prefer to meet via video or phone call. 
  3. What are my expectations for availability and services? If you want rapid review of your writing, you need a coach who's able to provide it.
  4. What's my budget and timeframe? This information helps coaches your requirements going in.

Questions to ask a communications or writing coach

Here are 6 key questions to ask any coach you're considering:

  1. Do you have experience with this kind of writing or project? A book coach probably isn't going to be much help with your content marketing writing.
  2. How do you figure out the help I need and how we'll work together? You need to trust your coach and feel confident they can get you where you want to go.
  3. What's your process and availability? When your coach's process doesn't mesh with yours, you're not going to get results. Ditto for scheduling and responsiveness.
  4. What's your approach to feedback? A coach who's focused on providing corrections or rewriting for you isn't focused on making you a better writer.
  5. What tools and techniques do you use to help me improve and keep me on the path? Successful coaches equip you with proven strategies and methods that make you a better writer and that you can continue to use after your engagement ends.
  6. How do I know I'm getting better? A good coach develops criteria with you to measure results.

Look at your career, personal and business goals and opportunities for 2019, and think about how a communications or writing coach can help you meet them.

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