Writing well, often

I very much believe in the power of good writing. As such I admire the good work of companies like Mailchimp and Slack to promote good writing that is more approachable. Hence I was delighted when Anna Pickard started publishing some of Slack’s content style guide and writing principles. They follow Mailchimp’s great work, who published their voice and tone style guide already last year.

At work me and my team started writing a monthly newsletter. It started out as a mailing just for the broader team to help us understand what everybody else is working on. However, people enjoyed reading it and started sharing. Now we have a group of family and friends throughout the organisation that loves reading this newsletter every month. Although it might seem insignificant, it is one of the highlights of my job. It is a chance to connect with people, find out what they are working on and spread the good news. The newsletter is very different from other corporate emails, as we aim to write it in very accessible language (thank you Mailchimp and Slack for setting such good examples). We spend a good amount of time to get it right, and people appreciate it.

When I saw Anna speak earlier this year at Webstock, it clicked with me, why it was so hard and how we can make our job easier: Each month we were trying to figure out how to write a good newsletter from scratch, based on our experience. And even worse, we all did it individually. As a result, writing the newsletter took a lot of time and effort to make it sound right with good content and a consistent voice. We needed to reflect on what people love about the newsletter, why they read it despite their own email overload and write it down. This helps February-Michael be as good as January-Michael, and James write with the same passion as Elizabeth and vice versa.

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On writing – Where Creativity, Fear and Action go on a road trip

Any creative endeavour is an adventure. It takes us from here to somewhere new, hopefully somewhere exciting. That sounds simple and exciting in itself, but the devil is in the detail and once we embark on our adventure, we notice that things turn out to be trickier than previously imagined.

Let’s take writing as an example.  Everyone knows the situation: we’ve got a wonderful idea, something to say and we want to share that idea. So we sit down and start with a blank sheet or screen. We write our first words, realise that they don’t really work so we start over again, start differently, it still doesn’t work. We get frustrated, doubt creeps in. Maybe we aimed too high and the idea was not as good as we thought it was. We really want to put ourselves out there, but worry that we are not good enough. We start checking our email, then Facebook, then Twitter, post the picture of our lunch on Instagram, then go back to email. At some point we declare defeat and leave the idea altogether.

That’s how many writing efforts end – the adventure stops before it even really begins. And that’s sad, because the world likes adventures and needs more of them. Let’s find out why it is so challenging by borrowing from two concepts:

  1. Using the road trip analogy that Elizabeth Gilbert used in her TED talk about success, failure and the drive to keep creating.
  2. Visualising our inner dialogue as different personalities that interact with each other. They all mean well, but they all value different things. They are our fellow passengers, the forces at play in our road trip. Yes, this is blatantly stolen from Inside Out, or before that Herman’s Head.

Once we understand who’s with us and why they are coming along, it is possible to appreciate them for what they are and how they want to help us succeed. There are three passengers in our car:

#1 – Inspiration

Inspiration is the star of the show, the headliner that gets a lot of glory and credit. Everybody loves her and she comes in alternative flavours like creativity and genius. Inspiration is the first spark of the process, the match that lights the fire of revelation. She suggested the road trip and called shotgun. She sits there with the map and snacks in her hand, navigating us to the best spots.

However, Inspiration is kind of a pushover. While she lights up bright for a short moment, she burns out quickly if her flame doesn’t catch on quickly. She forgets at times that she needs two important side kicks to come through and deliver on her promises. Which brings us to the second, probably most underappreciated passenger:

#2 – Fear

Fear is the grump, the cynic that shouts “that’s not a good idea”, “are you kidding me, leave that to other people” and “that’s never going to work”. Fear often disguises himself in the more approachable form of procrastination. Ironically, while writing this post, I starting browsing through the old program of Webstock, looked up how to write better, what Elizabeth Gilbert says about fear, browsed Twitter, Twitter on Webstock and the recent tech news. All very important and definitely urgent topics that need my undivided attention. At some point I finally got the joke and got back to writing.

Fear sits in the back, constantly mumbling and asking why we’re not there yet but Fear is there for a reason. Fear means well, but is horrible at articulating his constructive feedback in a way that is actually constructive. Fear wants to make sure that we have enough gas in the tank, that the tires don’t fall off in the middle of the freeway and that everybody has slept enough. While Inspiration brings snacks and a mix tape, Fear makes sure that we don’t die. He asks us to be our best and protects us from burning ourselves with Inspiration’s match. Fear is the reason why we edit our work. He tries to protect us. Sadly, he chooses very unfortunate means to communicate. As such we should meet Fear with compassion and accept him for what he is. Sometimes he goes as far as screaming at us to step on the brake and cancel the road trip altogether, especially before embarking on the first stretch. That’s why we need a third character on this journey:

#3 – Action

Action is the doer of the group. Action is the one who takes over the steering wheel in the middle of the night when everybody is tired. But she needs encouragement. She needs faith in her ability to deliver, a belief that once she comes into play, things will turn around and the fun will start. Action puts wood behind Inspiration’s flame and turns it into a fire.

Even better, she is self-perpetuating. Once she gets going, Fear pipes down, Inspiration starts firing on more cylinders and things move forward. Action cures Fear and encourages Inspiration. However, every once in a while, Action should check in with Inspiration to connect with the bigger picture of why we are on the road trip. Otherwise we might miss important sights on the way. Even Fear should feel heard to know the worst case scenarios. But don’t ever let Fear take over, don’t even let him play with the radio or adjust the air conditioning.

Make no mistakes. There will be setbacks. We will take the wrong exit, get into a traffic jam or run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. As with any road trip, those bad experiences will be great stories to tell later, they are just not very much fun in the moment. We have to push through them.

Diversity makes for a better team

If we get the sudden idea to embark on a spontaneous road trip, it is important to understand who is sitting in the car and why they came on the trip: Inspiration gets us going, Fear wants us to be the best we can be and Action moves us forward and keeps Fear in check. All three are critical for a great road trip that is exciting, safe and happening.

As in any diverse team, the relationship within the group is complicated. There are fights over who is driving. But diversity is good, because all three want us to succeed. Embrace them for what they are and appreciate what they contribute, but don’t let anyone take over fully.

This applies to blog posts as much as to that tricky email where we ask for a favour, the cover letter for the job that we really want to land, the love letter you’re sending on Valentine’s Day. We’ve all been there. The trick is to get into Action as soon as possible and connect it to Inspiration. This might be the one time, when advertising is right: just do it! Start writing and keep at it. Have a little faith in your ability to come up with something good, maybe even great. Who doesn’t like a great adventure?

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Writing good copy

I write a monthly newsletter at work. Our team is distributed across three continents and too many timezones. From time to time things slip through the cracks and you hear the inevitable “I wish I had known that earlier”.  The newsletter tries to close the space between the cracks and helps people know what’s going on. It is also a welcome place to highlight the great work that people contribute to the team.

I very much enjoy writing it. It’s a highlight of my month, because I can channel the best person I want to be: fun, enthusiastic, empathetic, helpful, … My objective is to write in the tone that I would like to have a good conversation in. As a German, I’m a non-native speaker in Australia and tend to overthink and over-structure my sentences when I speak. I choose words deliberately and it’s common to hear me talk in numbered lists. The newsletter is an opportunity for me to freshen it up. And it works: people enjoy reading the newsletter, they forward it – even our CEO reads it. Not bad for a 30 people team in a company of 40,000.

My big secret is that I copy the newsletter. Not the content, that would be obscure. But I try to channel my inner Slack. They have such a wonderful tone all their copy, be it tweets, quirky messages when you open their app or even release notes for software updates. Anna Pickard is Editorial Director at Slack helped create that tone:

It is sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes just plain and informative, but throughout, it should feel like nothing more than a person, talking to another person. Human to human […] making sure we’re treating people with respect, empathy and courtesy all the way through. […]We want people to like using Slack, and to want to share the experience. 

Slack’s Editorial Soul: Anna Pickard
on Writing the Brand Experience

And the best thing: they got their inspiration from Mailchimp, who have been kind enough to publish a Style Guide for Content. I’ve only dipped my toe into it for now, but it looks like a wonderfully written guide on how to write well, especially the section on Voice and Tone. Mailchimp rules and I love them for doing this.

Once you manage to have good topics and write them up well, you have a winning formula to make a lot of people’s lives easier and happier.

Photo credit: Martin uit Utrecht / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Bad writing is a meeting factory

From Guilded, a Seattle web design & engineering firm, comes a nugget around why good writing is so important:

Bad writing is a meeting factory. Being able to articulate a thought in writing means your team gets to take advantage of asynchronous communication. Whereas meetings are synchronous— requiring all parties to be present and engaged for the duration of the communication event—written communication is asynchronous, meaning the recipient can address your request or idea on their own time.

Source: Software is 10% Code