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A modern take on the old yule log.

This is our last scheduled post of 2018.

As is our tradition, we're sharing our top-performing blog entries for the year. But first, we want to thank all our clients and partners who made 2018 a terrific business year. We're grateful!

We're taking a few weeks off and will return to regular programming on Monday, 7 January 2019.

Here's hoping you and yours have a wonderful close of the year and a healthy and fun New Year.

Best of The Word Factory Blog 2018

Seasonal content carried the year:

Heart icon on The Word Factory's nonprofit services pageMost-read honors go to our post on how to write a candidate endorsement letter.

The next-most popular was our Q&A with design partner Marc Borzelleca on how to design a business holiday card.

The top non-seasonal posts are:

  1. Brand Journalism: How to do better interviews  (from my workshop at the National High School Journalism Convention)
  2. Mini Case Study: Corporate Social Responsibility (feat. Icon Undies/Thinx)
  3. Lessons learned from 25 years in brand journalism
  4. The role of empathy in content marketing and brand journalism (a recap from #CMWorld)
  5. Mini Case Study: Conference Marketing (feat. Ingram Spark)
  6. Nonprofit Content Marketing: Remember the PSA?
  7. Writing Pro Tip: How to get that story unstuck
  8. Content Marketing Success Tip: Focus on writing
  9. Writing Pro Tip: When your writing doesn't flow
  10. Content Marketing Success Tip: Develop long-form content

...or any other holiday gathering

It’s great to have a friend who’s also a professional image consultant with legit chops. Knowing we’re all a little stressed about holiday attire this time of year – what with holiday office parties and family gatherings looming, I corralled my pal Lee Heyward for some guidance on how dress appropriately this holiday season.

Image expert Lee Heyward

Style consultant Lee Heyward

Holiday Party Fashion Tips from a Professional Stylist 

Me: What's the biggest mistake we make when dressing for holiday parties and events and how can we avoid it?

Lee: The biggest mistake I see is people feeling like they "have to" wear certain things because it’s a certain function. I truly believe in dressing for the occasion, but make sure you’re being true to yourself at the same time.

So how do you address the age-old conundrum: "what to wear to the office holiday party"?

Cute picture from a holiday office partyThe most important thing about a holiday work party is to remember that you are always at work, even if the location is somewhere else. Dress in a way that helps you maintain your professionalism and personality. This is not an opportunity to show off your wild side, because everything you do, even outside of work, reflects on how people view you.

Shiny is a recurring wardrobe theme this time of year. If we don't feel like busting out the lamé, what's the best way to add some shine or sparkle to the old holiday wardrobe?

I love playing with accessories to add holiday pizzazz. You can add a strappy sandal and a bold necklace to transform a dress you find for work into a party-worthy style. Accessories are a great way to get more versatility out of your favorite thrift store find, too.

Right. I’ve seen some fun seasonal tie-clips, pins and scarfs or handkerchiefs on out there, too.

Now, let’s talk about plaid, which is having its annual moment. What's your best advice for doing it stylishly?

Don’t overdo it. Adding a dark jean or black velvet pant to a favorite plaid keeps it sophisticated and chic.

Some of people bust the budget on holiday themed clothes they can wear only a few days a year. What's a better plan for creating a holiday wardrobe?

A cute snowflake pinPut your money in pieces and accessories that help make the outfits you already have more versatile. Calculate the cost per wear of an item to help make a purchase decision. Simply take the cost of the item and divide it by the number of times you think you’ll wear it.

Let me put in a shameless plug here for the Image Edge calculator you have on your website. What a cool way to figure out how much it makes sense to spend on style.

A truly ugly holiday sweater vestNow, one last question: If there was one wardrobe item you could ban for the holidays, what would it be?

I have to say holiday sweaters and vests. I know they’ve made a huge comeback, but they’re now so common it’s almost taking the fun out of them.

Learn more about dressing smart from Lee’s super helpful book, Strategically Suited.

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The Young Person's ThesaurusI like words. A lot. I even still have my very first Thesaurus. So a recent blog post by a PR firm on alternatives to the word "good" caught my eye.

The purpose, judging by the subtitle, was to motivate us to use more precise language. And it did offer a bunch of words that define something that's better than good. Unfortunately, most people read the article as promising a list of synonyms for good, which it didn't do, and there were a lot of snarkly comments. But I digress...


Writing Tips: How to get word choice right

Making lists of words can be helpful. We get even more from the exercise, though, when we go beyond the Thesaurus.

I was consulting* with a Canadian company a few years ago and the team leader was aware of how often they used certain words — and not just jargon that might be appropriate for some audiences or regulatory terms they couldn't delete. Regular words, too.

We took 30 minutes out of a team meeting to brainstorm replacement words. We asked everyone to bring the words they or the company overused. Then we brainstormed alternatives. We had a lively discussion about audience, definitions and connotations and came up with a decent list that everyone could -- and did -- use in writing from content marketing to interoffice memos to ad copy. It was fun and effective.

A random lists of words we could use is nice, but a more directed, thoughtful list of words is better. Bonus points if you listen closely enough to your audience to know how they talk and factor that into your decision making.

a photo of the inscription in Margot Lester's first Thesaurus

The inscription from my first Thesaurus.

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*Looking for some help solving problems with your writing team? I work with folks on process and quality issues, via consulting, team training and individual coaching. Email me to learn more.


6 gift ideas for coworkers

a nicely wrapped gift for a coworkerI work with a bunch of current and former journalists, so most of our gifts revolve around newsroom clichés like coffee, booze and baked goods. It's hard to go wrong.

But those may not be criteria that work for you. So I've come up with a short list of holiday gifts for coworkers or office Secret Santas that they'll actually use.

6 Gift Ideas for Coworkers

  1. Margot Lester's favorite blue penNice Pen. Despite the prevalence of devices, everyone still needs a decent writing utensil. Plus, data show that note-taking by hand is actually more effective. Choose one that feels good in your hand. Bonus points if it has a stylus for use with mobile devices. I like this one, and not just because it's my favorite color.
  2. Small Notebook. In the same vein, a small notebook or hefty notepad is one of those practical presents that's sure to get use. I can never have enough of these bad boys. Look for one with a sturdy cover that adds heft and makes writing during a commute easier. Your local office supply has tons, but don't overlook gift and specialty stores (or Etsy) for hand-crafted versions.
  3. Light Sweater. Seems weird, but we all know how insanely unpredictable office climate is. You can usually find the recipients size on a jacket or sweater that's hung in their workspace. Then buy something in a neutral color that will go with anything. Pro Tip: If you're cost-conscious, visit your local consignment, retail or thrift store. I'm always amazed at the high-quality, clean and good-condition sweaters (including cashmere) I find at the PTA Thrift Shop.
  4. Gift Card. Hang on! I know these feel impersonal, but you can make them feel special with a tiny bit of effort. Instead of a big chain store card, choose a small local business near the office or your coworker's home. Personally, I like giving cards from local restaurants (slightly pricey) and coffee places (less costly). For instance, at my local, Open Eye Cafe, coffee is $1.25, making a $15 gift card go a long way.
  5. Go-Cups & Mugs. I know. These feel like the low-hanging fruit of office holiday gifts, but hear me out. Only use this option if the recipients current model needs an upgrade or if you can personalize it in a meaningful way. That may mean purchasing a branded mug from her favorite coffee place (or vacation coffee place), or snapping some pictures of the family/vacation photos in his cube and creating a picture mug or tumbler. There are tons of ways to do this, but we like Shutterfly. Pro Tip: They run specials all the time that make giving more affordable.
  6. a pic of the WakaWaka Power+Portable Power. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't need additional battery power. One of my favorite things is my Waka Wake Power+ solar charger. It's easy to charge (via USB or ambient/sunlight), and the small form factor means its easy to stash in the old backpack, briefcase or purse; jacket pocket or those deep-pocket jeans from Men's Wearhouse). I keep mine in a sandwich-sized zip bag. Related: I'm also a fan of the ChargeCords products that are longer, sturdier and faster charging that the cords that come with your device.

Use these suggestions to solve your office gift-giving problems, or as inspiration for your own coworker gift ideas.

P.S. Looking for gifts for writers? Our award-winning book, Be a Better Writer, gets rave reviews from writers young and old!

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Dunce cap photo illustrating a post on The Word Factory blog

Nobody likes to feel stupid. And nobody likes to be around people who make them feel that way. Yet so many brands talk down to us. Even if we know we're not stupid, we end up with bad feelings about a brand whose marketers thought that tone was appropriate.

As content creators, we're most likely to do this when the subject matter is super-technical or super-serious. And making sure people understand the stakes is critically important in this kind of writing. But just like yelling at someone who may not understand your native tongue doesn't make them more likely to comprehend what you're saying, using a tone that says, "I'm not sure you understand what's at stake here" doesn't make people pay more attention. In fact, if often has the opposite effect. We think, "Of course I know that" and either stop reading altogether or harbor bad feelings about your brand. Neither, of course, is what needs to happen.

Writing to make people feel smart and capable is the key to keeping them engaged and getting them through the content that's crucial. It's an empathic act that makes us all feel more confident and that makes us more loyal. Who doesn't like hanging around people who make them feel great?

As Wharton prof Adam Grant wrote in a terrific article on vulnerability last year:

Good communicators make themselves look smart.

Great communicators make their audiences feel smart.

Sometimes, we get hung up with the content itself -- the ideas and details we decide to communicate. If they are too below or too above where our audience is, we can be perceived as talking down or talking over the audience's head. But more frequently, what I see causing the biggest problem is the voice or tone.

How to Make Your Audience Feel Smart

Voice and tone feel amorphous sometimes. Like good design, which many people can only "know" when they see it, the right voice is often not known till heard.

But it doesn't have to be that vague (or frustrating). Voice is actually pretty simple, driven by two key elements of our writing:

  1. Word Choice
  2. Sentence Fluency

Word choice is the easiest to master. Knowing our audience well enables us know pretty much where they are in terms of background knowledge and context. When we pay attention to that, we have a better barometer for what's too high or too low. For highly complex topics, plain language explanations go a long way to defining complicated processes and topics without "dumbing it down". This is also easy to suss out with A/B testing. Take a deeper dive into word choice.

Sentence fluency is the way we line up the words and sentences that tell the story and convey the information. Lots of long sentences (like in a lot of highly technical or legal content) is hard enough to get through that even good readers may start feeling intimidated. When we add in words that are too high -- and don't even bother to explain them plainly -- the impact is even worse. Learn more about how to create a rhythmic flow in your writing.

Similarly, a lot of short sentences sends a subtle signal that we might not think you can understand this. And a lot of short sentences in a row is tedious as Hell. Add words that are too simplistic and we lose the audience because they figure they can manage this on their own.

The best way to make people feel smart is to combine words that are at or just above their comfort level and to put them in sentences of various lengths so the rhythm literally propels them through the piece.

When we make progress and build understanding, we feel not just smart, but like learners.

Let's think about that for a minute. Almost every one of us recalls a favorite teacher who imparted some kind of learning on us. Decades later, we look upon them fondly. Those teachers who made us feel stupid? Our bad feelings about them persist just as long. We like feeling smart about what we know and feeling smarter after learning new things.

5 Actionable Insights to Connect with Your Audience

  1. Before you start any piece of content, take what you know about your audience and develop a persona for you, the writer. Describe a person your audience members would want to hear from on this topic. Jot down those criteria. Then think about how that person would sound (i.e., knowledgable, helpful, compassionate). What words do you think this person would use to talk about this topic? What words would you audience would use? Write them all down. This is your guide.
  2. Draft your content without thinking too much about word choice or sentence fluency -- just get the ideas out of your head and into a format you can work with. Do a quick revision to clean up errors and make the piece better.
  3. Now look specifically at word choice. Do you see opportunities to change words up or down to meet your audience? Do you need to describe some complex terms or processes? Have you used language that's too simple?
  4. Read over the piece again with your eye on sentence length and patterns within each paragraph, section and the entire piece. Is there a pleasing rhythm? Can some long sentences be broken up or punctuated more clearly? Can some short sentences be combined? Make those fixes, then read the piece out loud. Chances are good you'll find more places to create better fluency, including moving some stuff around.
  5. Finally, review what you know about your audience and your writer's persona. Read the fully revised piece aloud again to make sure it meets both sets of criteria. Keep turning the dials on your words and paragraphs until you get the right sound for your audience.

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