Cognitive Daily posted some research a couple of days ago about how patients interpret doctors’ statements.

Specifically, that when a doctor says you may possibly develop a condition, the more severe the condition the more you will assume the doctor thinks this condition will develop.

There are, of course, direct implications for medical professionals who want to communicate information, but it’s also a reminder to copywriters and anyone else tasked with communicating information. People process and filter information based on many factors: their own experiences, the context of the communication, their expectations, their opinions and biases about the communicator (or company), etc.

A thorough copywriter will make sure he/she understands who he is communicating to and factor in what kind of filtering of the message is likely to happen.

The research explicitly suggests that qualitative statements are likely to be misinterpreted and that specific numerical statements may therefore be more effective. Yet one more reason to be specific in your marketing message.

Happy Halloween.

Today’s trick-or-treating reminded me of an encounter I had not too long ago with a writer friend of mine. And 1 simple trick that is very helpful to most writers.

My friend had just transitioned from a journalism job to one in PR. I saw her one morning after dropping off my son at preschool.

She told me she was really stressed out about something she had to write. She said she couldn’t come up with something good. She said the piece needed a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and she just wasn’t into it.

She said that the owner of the company who was really enthusiastic would be able to do it…but it was her job.

Here’s the simple trick I promised:

I said, you need to imagine that you are the company president. You need to feel his emotion and channel his energy and perspective. Be him as you write. Then afterwards use your writing and editing skills to polish it up.

A couple of weeks later I bumped into her.

It worked.

Good fiction writers are adept at writing from different perspectives, at adopting a persona that isn’t necessarily themselves. But not all writers are.

Copywriters should feel comfortable writing with different voices and from different perspectives. It goes with the territory. After all, brands are like people with distinct voices, so you’ve got to be a bit of a ventriloquist to be successful

If you’re not used to this, a good exercise is to find an ad (or a web page) that you like but think you might have a hard time writing yourself. Use this as an exact model for something you want to write.

Don’t copy it word for word, obviously, but let this other work inform your sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, and sales strategy. You may simply need to internalize  the writing itself, or you might try to imagine  the person who wrote it (or the persona of the copy if it has a strong voice) and try to inhabit that personality.

And remember, putting on the “masks” of other writers/copywriters should be more than a once-a-year event. That is, if you want your writing to treat you well and not trick you into thinking you can’t be effective with all kinds of projects.

Good luck. And Happy Halloween.

Empty Words, Lazy Editing

October 8, 2007

On my way to work this morning, I heard this report about hackers on NPR:

“Hackers are finding new ways to deliver spam, steal data and introduce computer viruses. New research suggests that online media players could be their next weapon.”

While it’s mostly a prediction of a coming trend, it starts by mentioning that we all know to delete suspicious emails without opening them and it does lead to a mention of recent threats on YouTube.

In closing (“bottom line…”) it sounds like we are going to get some specific, actionable advice.

Perhaps to keep our media players up to date with the latest security patches? Or to avoid certain websites? Or certain kinds of files? Something.

No. We are only cutely advised “viewer discretion.”

Which means what? What are we supposed to do (or not do) with that advice?

Nothing. They are empty words.

It is sloppy reporting and lazy editing. It’s journalism that favors style over substance, the cute over the real.

It may also mean NPR is not taking the online world quite as seriously as the “real” world.
In any case, it was the sort of “story” that I expect James Michaels (the demanding editor of Forbes for 37 years who died last week) would have sent back for a rewrite, penning something like this on the draft:

“This is a real snoozer, lacking in specifics. Why not just send them a nice lacy valentine and forget the prose.”

I expect better from NPR.

Let me explain.Today on Kottke.org I saw a link to a piece about Roger Federer and his “relaxed concentration.”

It’s a subject that’ s interested me for a while now, since I’ve always loved sports and had a fascination with zen. A good book on this subject, which was what got me thinking about it ages ago, is The Inner Game of Tennis.

When preforming at their peak, athletes typically report being “in the zone.” I know that beautiful feeling first-hand, albeit at a much lower level than a pro.

It is definitely a time of relaxed concentration, a zone of calm fluidity that’s conspicuously devoid of doubt, hesitation, or self-consciousness. You don’t think. You just do. Act. React. Flow. And if you’re thinking at all, it’s really more like a knowing or trusting than thinking. Knowing the ball’s going in. And it does. (Think Luke Skywalker trusting the Force to work through him.)

Great athletes are those who can get in the zone more often, stay in it longer, or summon it in big games/tournaments. The later are called “clutch” performers, like Derek Jeter or Tom Brady, and they are contrasted by the “chokers” (until last year, the incomparable regular-season star Peyton Manning was criticized for choking in the big games).

Kottke also links back to a previous post on relaxed concentration in acting, which links out to another piece by John Lahr about stage fright, the antithesis of relaxed concentration (something I’m also familiar with).

That got me thinking about writing. Or rather not writing: writer’s block.

“Stagefright is a traumatic, insidious attack on the performer’s expressive instrument: the body. According to the psychoanalyst Donald Kaplan, who studied this morbid form of anxiety, the trajectory of stagefright begins with manic agitation and moodiness, proceeds to delusional thinking and obsessional fantasies, and then to “blocking” – the “complete loss of perception and rehearsed function.” [Bold emphasis mine.]

Because the immediacy and intensity of the stage actor’s experience (unlike the actor, the writer can walk away from his desk, never go to his desk, or simply sit and doodle without any immediate consequences), stage fright typically has more obvious and dramatic outward symptoms.

But at the core, I really think it’s the same underlying issue as writer’s block (as well as some sports performance issues).

It’s self doubt. It’s personal insecurity. It’s being watched (or read) by the audience. It’s the critics.

“Stagefright, with its ties to both terror and shame, inspires a powerful desire to hide.”

The actor experiences more intense terror because he/she will be watched, and the choice to hide has more dramatic and immediate repercussions for him/her, all the cast and crew, and the audience members already present in the theater.

Writer’s in general have the greater ability to hide. They simply don’t write. Writer’s block is the writer hiding. Hiding from anxiety. Hiding from responsibility. Hiding from scrutiny, critique, rejection, destruction.

Some types of writers with specific assignments and tight deadlines, such as journalists and tv staff writers, share the actor’s experience even more. Though in some of those cases, a meaningful distinction would be that the end product is either shared (staff will write the episode together) or not personally identifiable (copywriter for an e-commerce website).

Sometimes to write well (and on deadline) you need to get out of your own way. You need to trust that it will happen and be confident in the outcome. You need to court [pardon the pun] that Roger Federer inside you.
You find a way to get in the zone, so you’re just relaxed and focused and engaged, and the ideas and words just flow. And you know it’s good. And you try to stay out of the way and simply let it happen. Ahhh, it’s a beautiful (and too rare) feeling.

Like being Federer at your keyboard. Game. Set. Save As…