CategoryWriting

Dear [Firstname] at [Company] — Drop the Fake Friend Act

Dear [Firstname] at [Company],

Today, you sent me a message that pushed me over the edge after a blogging hiatus that has been far longer than I like to think about.

Subject line: “Was it something we did?”

Body: I have no idea, do you honestly think I opened that? The message was clearly based on some pre-configured logic catching users who signed up for your service eons ago, then stopped using it. I’ve tested a lot of services for work in the past year, most of which I’ve left behind. It was less something you did and more something we didn’t.

But why oh why would you think it’s appropriate, funny, cute, or *shudder* engaging to sound like a needy ex-partner?

Overly Attached Girlfriend: In ur mailbox, begging for ur attention. Also known as [Firstname] at [Company].

AWKWARD!

Today’s overly attached subject line was not an isolated incident, of course. Just a handful of fairly recent examples from my inbox:

  • A subject line welcoming me to the [service] family, message starting with “Hey, you’re awesome!!”
  • A “thank you for upgrading to a pro account” message signed “Your friends at [company]”
  • A service sign-up response with the subject line “Friend, welcome to [service]”

All sent, of course, by [Firstname] at [Company] — a trick so ubiquitous it no longer stands out in the least in the increasingly crowded Promos section of my Google Inbox.

Most of my personal and even work messages now go through chat, but everyone and their grandmother’s company is bombarding me with email as a lead or customer — “drip campaigns”, auto-responders and quasi-personal messages intended to steer me along the journey to conversion from lead to customer, and from customer to evangelist.

But I must admit, [Firstname] at [Company], it’s increasingly rare that I even open your messages. And you just seem to get chummier and chummier.

I expect your company does a lot of A/B testing, so please do tell me: Does the bromance lingo actually work on a majority of your targets? Because to me, really, very little could be more alienating.

It may have to do with regional culture, it may have to do with being too old to be part of the main target group for Every Marketing Campaign on Earth — millennials — but honestly, even a few millennials have mortgages and PTA duties and the odd gray hair and cellulite at this point, are you really sure they don’t prefer being talked to like grownups?

And for those who would be on board with the “you’re awesome double exclamation mark” thing amongst actual friends, are you sure they don’t see you as something of a wannabe, or like the awkward parent who picked up a little bit of slang 10 years ago and still thinks it’s the bomb?

[Firstname] at [Company], are you sure you're not sounding a little like Vanilla Ice: Oh, I'm just coolin?

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

One of the reasons I’m ranting about this is that since going from tech writer at a massive corporation to information architect at a small company where everyone wears a rich selection of hats, technical marketing for the business-to-business market is a form of communication I’ve suddenly had to care about. I’ve been reading up. And I’ve despaired, discovering that “landing pages” does not actually describe pages for visitors to land on, but pages for businesses to land people’s email addresses.

After reading a few more marketing blog posts than was clearly good for me, a bit too much of it started to make sense. Then, thankfully, I was lucky enough to spend most of last week at the Information Architecture Summit, an amazing conference about IA and user experience, whose theme this year was inclusion and “a broader panorama”. What happens when we put people at the center, when we design inclusive experiences, when we genuinely care about the humanity of every user, visitor, customer? And I came back reassured that what doesn’t happen is shiny happy auto-responders holding hands. (I learned a bunch of other stuff, too. There will be more blogging.)

So no, it’s not that I don’t think that businesses can have interesting information to share with (potential) customers by automated email, or that customers and vendors cannot have a friendly tone when they know each other — on the contrary. But here’s the thing, [Firstname] at [Company], the two are entirely separate things. And because you are not a person, but a set of merging and mailing rules, that is something you will never understand.

And that is why we can’t be friends. So can you please drop the act?

Not exactly yours,

Jorunn

Making a list? Check it (at least) twice!

Making a list is a great way to make content accessible and scannable and give readers an overview. Lists are everywhere, and for good reason.

A well-written list can be a quick read, but when making a list, taking some time to properly consider the format and syntax will pay off in clarity and helpfulness for your readers.

Below, I have gathered some advice for writers and editors dealing with lists, based on my own writing and editing experience. If you have other tips or pitfalls on your mind, please share them in the comments!

Tips for making a list summarized: Use the right kind of list, avoid redundancy, and be consistent

Use the right kind of list

It’s easy to think that usage conventions for list types are exactly the kind of thing only writers would care about. If you think that way–I have myself on occasion–then consider this progress screenshot from a WordPress backup plugin that I recently installed:

Screenshot of a message saying DO NOT DO ANY OF THE FOLLOWING and goes on to list in numbered sequence 3 actions not to perform while the installation is ongoing. When making a list, try not to confuse people more than necessary.

Without reading this multiple times, would you feel certain that you were actually not supposed to do anything mentioned in this numbered list? The introduction says one thing, but the choice of list type is communicating something different entirely.

Use an ordered list if you are describing any of the following:

  • a procedure to follow
  • a sequence of events to observe
  • a clearly prioritized order

Some may also prefer alphabetical ordered lists for options where only one may be selected (“Do one of the following: a. b. c. d.”).

If the list is not a sequence, an unordered bullet list is the most common option. However, long bullet lists are not particularly easy to read. For lists that are long and/or include a lot of information in each list item, these two other options are worth considering:

  • description lists (definition lists pre-HTML5) for glossaries, metadata listings, and similar. These tend to be styled in a manner that make them a lot more scannable than bullet lists. See Mozilla Developer Network for a good description and examples.
  • tables. I know, tables are not actually lists, nor do they have the Twitter or Pinterest appeal of a Top 5 list, but for reference-style material, a table provides much better findability and overview than a bullet list.

I like lists, I’m controlling, I like order. I’m difficult on every level. (Sandra Bullock)

Avoid redundancy

List items that start identically, or semi-identically, reduce scannability. Keep in mind that tables of contents are also lists. If you have a table of content that is generated based on your headings, considering each heading a list item is useful.

To ensure list items remain scannable, you can:

  • front load each list item by starting with important keywords that set it apart from other list items rather than something generic , such as “You will need to …” or “For simplicity and ease of use, we have …”.
  • move repetitive phrases outside of the list itself. For example, instead of starting each list item with “how to”, make “how to” part of the introductory phrase that comes before the list.
  • drop any words and expressions that don’t add to the meaning. In most cases, list items don’t need to be complete sentences.

As a bonus, if your writing will be translated, you’ll save money by avoiding redundancy.

Every morning I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I’m not there, I go to work. (Robert Orben)

Be consistent

In a list, each item should have a similar syntax. This is a pet peeve that probably annoys me as a writer more than most readers, but I have seen plenty of bullet lists that would be confusing for any kind of reader.

Before unleashing a bullet list on the world, read through it starting with the introductory phrase and check that all list items:

  • start in a similar fashion to the others and read as a grammatically correct continuation of the introductory phrase. If the introduction says: “This chapter will tell you how to:”, you cannot have list items starting with “making” or “configuration”.
  • share the same grammatical subject or state their subject clearly. Otherwise you may easily conflate, for example, something done automatically by software with something  users must do themselves, or something the software vendor can do for you upon request. In my experience, this problem is not uncommon in lists of features and software specifications.
  • use similar syntax and punctuation. Mixing questions with statements in the same list will usually not read well. Whether or not to end each list item with a full stop is a style/preference issue. It is also painfully hard to remember and follow up on in a consistent manner.

We like lists because we don’t want to die. (Umberto Eco)

Kill your darling tech analogies (Almost nothing in life is like a car)

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Over the years, I have come to fear and loathe most uses of metaphor, simile, and analogy in technology discourse. Interesting, helpful analogies are the exception rather than the norm.

What makes a bad analogy?

The main problems as I see it, are that the images used tend to be:

  • Unoriginal and predictable. 9 times out of 10, it involves a car or traffic. (Seriously, have you tried a Google search for * is like a car?)
  • Hard to understand. How many people understand, in technical detail, how a car works?
  • Far-fetched at best, faltering and completely unnecessary at worst. Because not that many things in life are like a car.

Explaining an unknown with an unknown

Far-fetched is your smallest problem if you are able to get the first two right; be at least somewhat original and make it understandable to your audience.

Understanding is where you can’t afford to fall short, because for an analogy to be successful, at least one side needs to be well known to your audience, and both of them need to be familiar to you. You can explain something your audience doesn’t know by comparing it to something they know. Or you can give them new perspectives on something they do know by comparing it to something that might be new to them.

However, way way way too often, I see tech analogies that try to explain an unknown with an unknown. An audience that is already struggling to grasp a technology concept, is asked to wrap their brains around another concept that is somehow related to the first, in ways that shall only be fully revealed once they properly understand both concepts.

I’m not going to claim that it is impossible to pull such a dual explanation off. But it is very hard and requires the speaker or writer to realize that they must explain both sides of their analogy for it to work.

Ignoring cultural context is a related pitfall. For example, some traffic rules vary by country and continent, as do knowledge of and interest in sports. On this subject, I recommend Espen Andersen’s blog post on Pitfalls for the US speaker in Scandinavia.

Loving your analogies too much

The real problem with doing away with poor metaphors and analogies, though, is that as their makers, we tend to fall in love with them. I don’t use them a lot myself, but when I do, I can find myself struggling to make connections where few exist even as I realize it adds little value. William Faulkner adviced that writers kill their darlings. Analogies should be near the top of the hit list. Refusing to see past an analogy’s shortcomings can only hurt your case. Bad analogies are likely to leave your readership confused, annoyed, zoned out–or led down a ridiculous line of argument by a faulty analogy that devolved into a discussion on traffic rules when the subject at hand was copyright.

Analogies are the darlings of many a geek with something to convey, but there is little to indicate that the receiving end yearns for more analogies. In my experience as a tech writer, I don’t think I have ever seen a request for comparing technology to other things when users are struggling to understand something. One of the most common requests, on the other hand, is more and better examples.

Killing poor analogies in three steps

If you want to avoid unhelpful analogies, this is my advice:

  1. Don’t use a car or traffic analogy, unless traffic and cars are part of the subject matter at hand. There might be a fantastic car metaphor for what you’re about to explain, but if so, it has in all likelihood been done to death already.
  2. Pick an analogy where at least one side will make sense to the audience, and where both sides make good sense to you. Go with something you know well and can talk or write about in a compelling manner. Don’t try to explain Transport Layer Security by comparing it to a kevlar suit if you have a limited understanding of either. Competent audience members will see straight through it, and your analogy will have weaknesses that you can’t even know about.
  3. Test your analogy on as many friends or family members as you can dig up, trying to make sure they have a somewhat different skillset than your own. Ask for their honest assessment of your analogy: is it interesting? Do they understand it? Is it helpful?
    • If yes, you have an analogy that seems to work well. Now try to avoid overselling it. “With ready-made WordPress themes, giving your blog a makeover is as easy as dressing up a paper doll” is a reasonable simile, while “WordPress blogs are paper dolls” is taking it too far, in my book.
    • If no, kill it, and skip using an analogy altogether. A straightforward explanation accompanied by one or more relevant examples will be every bit as helpful as an analogy. Probably more.

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