Humor: do laughs belong in your business writing?

For generations people have been saying that funny jokes and laughter are good medicine. And now the scientists have taken an interest it turns out great-grandma was right. The boffins have discovered that laughter releases helpful goodies in the body which boost your immune system.

Humor: do laughs belong in your business writing?

Just because something makes you laugh, it doesn’t mean it will work universally. Here are some tips
to make sure you don’t upset anyone…

In fact the therapeutic benefits of laughter are now being harnessed by academia and the business community into laughter workshops and other formalized chuckle sessions. Get the workers laughing and you raise productivity, so it seems.

However it is extremely easy to get humor wrong. And a joke that’s sent to someone who doesn’t see the funny side will create more ill health through raised blood pressure than a few laughs could ever cure. So what’s the answer? How do we harness humor and make it work for us, not against us?

People often say that the internet’s international nature makes it an unsuitable environment for humor for fear of it not translating across national boundaries – and inadvertently causing offence. But there are a couple of simple rules which – although not universal panaceas that always work – can help you use humor in your writing without risk.

Make the jokes about issues, not individuals

If you think about it, the butt of many jokes and other humor is a person or group of people, so it’s hardly surprising that offence is caused. The more extreme types are obvious – mother-in-law jokes, blonde jokes, women jokes, men jokes – but there are many more subtle ones too.

Then there are the nationality gags. I remember in one year hearing exactly the same joke (in three different languages) told by an American about the Polish, by a Canadian about Newfoundlanders, by a French person about Belgians, by a French-speaking Belgian about the Flemish, and by a Flemish person about the Dutch.

Obviously most humor is going to involve people in one way or another. But as long as the butt of the joke is an issue or a set of circumstances, not the people, you’re far less likely to upset anyone. And there is an added advantage here.

Whoever they are and wherever they come from, people will usually identify with a set of circumstances. Take this one for example…

Some people are driving along at night and are stopped by a police car. The officer goes to the driver and warns him that one of the rear lights on his SUV isn’t working. The driver jumps out and looks terribly upset. The officer reassures him that he won’t get a ticket, it’s just a warning, so there’s no problem. “Oh yes there is a problem,” says the man as he rushes towards the back of the car. “If you could see my rear lights, it means I’ve lost my trailer.”

As the butt of the joke is the broken rear light and the loss of the trailer, not the policeman or the driver, no-one can be offended. And most people can identify with how that would feel.

The other key issue with humor is word-plays, puns, and anything else that’s based on figurative speech, slang, or jargon. The short answer is these don’t work internationally. However if the play or double entendre is in the concept rather than the words, it probably will work.

These may be funny to us, but would not be understood by anyone who is not a good English speaker because there is a play on the words:

* Déjà moo: The feeling that you’ve heard this bullsh*t before.

* The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

The following, however, probably would be understood because the humor is in the concept, not in the words themselves:

* You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.

* The trouble with doing something right the first time is that nobody appreciates how difficult it was.

Books to help you laugh – all the way to the bank:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

photo credit: Norma Desmond via photopin cc

Copyright: you can’t lock up your ideas

Can you protect your ideas for blogs, books, etc.?

Copyright: you can't lock up your ideasThere is a very short and not very pleasant answer here: you can’t. You can copyright titles, texts, poems, novels, etc., and you can trademark a logo or name, but until an idea is expressed and recorded in some considerable detail you can’t stop somebody else developing and exploiting it, or at least something very similar to it.

Once upon a time – at around the time that food intolerances became fashionable – I came up with a nifty idea to develop a range of dairy-free and gluten-free food products. Like a good citizen I consulted my friendly local Business Link advisor who said, “great idea, forget it.”

When I asked why he said, “because your potential distributors, like supermarkets, will sit back and watch while you spend a fortune on developing the products, get a few samples from you, make the products themselves with small differences in names and ingredients, and then tell you to **** off.”

Another time I came up with an idea for a documentary series for one of the main TV channels in the UK. I made four consecutive presentations to so-called “commissioning editors” (who turned out afterwards to have been freelance, independent producers) who liked the idea very much. Then I heard nothing.

12 months later the channel aired a series using not only my idea, but even my title … the only thing they had changed was whereas I had suggested featuring three men and three women, they had six women. Although I had what seemed like a valid case, I was advised that should I try to take legal action they would mess me around with their expensive lawyers until I ran out of money.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there

It’s often a case of striking a balance. On the one hand you want to run your idea past sufficient people whose opinions you value, and this is a very important part of your development and refinement processes. On the other hand, though, you don’t want to talk about your idea in a busy pub, bar, restaurant or even bus or train, because you never know who might be listening.

And even if you write up your idea in some detail, it won’t necessarily be enough to prove it’s yours in a court of law. When I had my run-in with that TV channel (see above) my idea ran to a 20 page proposal with skeleton scripts of each episode and a full production and post-production budget.

Essentially, the only real protection you can get is if your idea could only possibly be developed and written by you … and that anyone else couldn’t do it successfully without you.

So … use your uniqueness!

And if you have any tips on how writers and other “creatives” can protect their ideas, please share them – they will be very gratefully received!

Writing advice that helps you win:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“Business Writing Made Easy…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published

photo credit: Darwin Bell via photopin cc

Why experts are the wrong ones to write

Are you too much of an expert to write about your topic?

Why experts are the wrong ones to write

Are you too much of an expert to write understandably about your topic?

Experts are usually the last people who should finalise any piece of writing about what they’re experts at, unless the target readership consists of experts too.

What an expert thinks is easy for a 12-year-old to understand is often beyond the 12-year-olds’ parents’ comprehension. And there is another danger to clear thinking if you, or someone closely involved, knows the subject matter backwards; familiarity breeds contempt. Because you’re used to dealing with the subject matter every day, it’s very easy to overlook things that may seem trivial to you, but are very important to your readers.

I fell victim to that one when I gave my very first video scriptwriting workshop years ago, and I was showing someone the best way to write a piece of narration. The workshoppee said, “but why is it better to do it this way?”

Reality checks are critical

I only just stopped myself in time, from saying “because it’s better, that’s why.” I knew it was better that way, but I couldn’t articulate why it was better. I just did it that way by instinct. It was only after I’d gathered my thoughts for a minute or two that I could explain it properly to the workshoppee. Yet it was important to her, and to her learning process.

This is where a good editor’s skills can be really helpful, by performing a reality check on your writing and by putting him or herself in the readers’ shoes and telling you honestly if you’re writing at too high a level, or too low, for the readership you’re aiming at. It’s always easier for someone who is one step removed from a writing project to pick up on issues like this.

So no matter how irritating you find your editor’s criticisms (and I know how it feels on both sides of that fence, being both an author and an editor) do listen to them, and remember that their intentions are entirely honourable!

(Adapted from “How To Write Winning Non-fiction” by Suzan St Maur: click here.)

Now, make sure you  write expertly:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy…everything you need to know about writing for business in English


photo credit: Search Engine People Blog via photopin cc

10 quick reality checks to tighten up your writing

When you’re writing – especially for business – it’s helpful, sometimes, to get a colleague to check through what you’ve done and feed back their impressions to you. But what if you’ve written some text that needs you to hit the “publish” button now, and there’s no-one else around to give you the reality check you’d like?

Here’s a checklist that will help you. It’s harsh, but it should be – if you don’t judge it harshly, your readers will.

1. If I were reading this, would I find it interesting?
Separate yourself from your job or business, and just look at the text objectively. Put yourself in the shoes of whoever your text is aimed at. If you were them, would it ring your chimes? Or send you to sleep? Be honest with yourself.

2. Is this true?
OK, in business and other forms of writing we often, er, shall we say, paint an attractive picture of what we would like our readers to absorb. Making stuff look attractive is OK, but lying isn’t. Ensure that what you say is true, because if you don’t someone will find out and destroy your credibility.

3. Is it convincing?
Even in our highly abbreviated online era, there is always room for some quick-but-effective substantiation. People may warm to your text and feel inclined to believe it, but there’s nothing like some cool, hard facts to back you up.

4. How does it look?
You may think that you can dismiss the cosmetic look of your writing because such things shouldn’t matter when much more important things are at stake, i.e. what your words say – not how they look. Wrong. A good layout with plenty of white space around it and plenty of paragraph breaks and cross-headings make your writing more easily absorbed.

5. Is this fresh, or have I seen it before?
There’s no point in producing a document, blog, article of other piece of writing on a subject which has been done to death by dozens of others. On the other hand if it’s a topic that’s on everyone’s mind, there’s always a need for a new, fresh viewpoint. Is your viewpoint really new and fresh?

6. Is the key message clear?
What distinguishes business writing from most other forms is that business writing seeks to bring about a change in the reader … whether a change in buying habits, thoughts, attitudes, voting preferences, etc. If relevant, does your key message make it clear to the reader how you want them to change, and how they should do so?

7. If I removed this paragraph, what difference would it make?
Look through your text and choose, at random, a paragraph and take it out. Does that make any difference to its overall value? If not, look at your text again and see where else you can tighten it up.

8. Is it correct?
Have you checked all your facts, double-checked that all links in your text go to the right sites, and generally ensured everything in your piece of writing rings true? It’s very important that it does. All it takes is once instance of a goof and your credibility can go straight down the toilet.

9. Is every thought complete?
We all know that the thought process should flow from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next. Does yours do this? Or are there some leaps of logic? Check these out and if there are some hiccups, sort them out.

10. Does it grab you by the throat?
That’s the “bottom line,” to use a horrible cliché. If your text seizes your imagination and fires up your enthusiasm, it’s a winner. OK, if it’s a blog post about tax planning it may not create quite this effect; but all the same it should make you think when you have read it through for the umpteenth time, “yes – that’s what I wanted to say, and it achieves that properly.”

Now, let’s tighten up your writing some more:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Pinterest: boost your pinterpix with some great pinterwords

With all the fuss going on about the exponential growth of Pinterest and how to do everything with it short of performing micro-surgery or splitting the atom, I’ve been quietly observing and thinking about how to write for it. Yes, I know it’s visually based but words matter here as much as they do everywhere.

A picture is worth a thousand words – PLUS…

My take on creating really good Pins is to enhance your images with some great captions and hooks. With these you can add some extra spice and intrigue into your images and encourage readers to look into the stories further … especially useful if you’re using Pinterest with an eye on business.

Remember that you’re limited to a total of 500 characters. That’s somewhere around 80 – 90 words, but your Pinterest screen will cut you off when you go over the limit so you’ll know when to stop anyway.

Add your own hook to media headlines to flag up the main issue

My hooks are in capital letters. Media headlines are in italics.

BE WARNED: “Painful womb condition endometriosis linked to higher risk of ovarian cancer.”

SHEER INSPIRATION: “In diary extracts raw with emotion, Shane Spall reveals how her film star husband overcame ‘terminal’ cancer and is now fulfilling a vow he made to her on his deathbed”

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT WHALING? (THIS BREAKS MY HEART) “Japan has ended its whaling season with less than a third of its annual target, said the country’s Fisheries Agency.” The whaling ships headed home from the Antarctic Ocean this week with 266 minke whales and one fin whale, falling short of its quota of about 900. The agency blamed “sabotage” by anti-whaling activists for the shortfall.”

I OFTEN WONDERED WHY I FIND MYSELF HUMMING A SONG: “Earworms: Why songs get stuck in our heads”

Use an intriguing mini-headline and catchy and/or useful caption for your own Pins

HERE’S A BIG MAC FOR PEOPLE WITH A SWEET TOOTH … brilliant birthday cake by my clever cousin in Ottawa … especially love the fries with ketchup! She makes fab cakes and other desserts to order… (pic of one of my cousin’s amazing cakes…)

ONE OF MY TENANTS: Gypsy Vanner – Anglo Arabian cross (Mom’s in the background.) Now 6 months old and “practising how to be a stallion” … what a handsome little chap he was as a newborn, here! (pic of baby horse)

NO-NO: when grooming horses’ feet, stand to one side facing their rear end. If horsey, here, raises his/her right hind leg in a hurry that fetlock will go smack into the rider’s face. Ouch… (pic of someone grooming horse’s feet the wrong way)

EVER HEARD OF THE “CANADIAN HORSE?” This is “Charbon,” a stallion I met (but declined a ride on – was too chicken…) who typifies this vigorous breed. More than 100K of these horses were exported to the USA during its Civil War, and the breed is said to have influenced even the mighty US Morgan horse. Was threatened with extinction in the 20th century but now is flourishing again in Canada and beyond.

Use your own sense of humor to enhance already amusing images

WHAT NEXT – COSMETIC BOTOX FOR BEARS? “Brown bear exfoliates using rock as a tool”

YOU PUT BUBBLE BATH IN? I HATE BUBBLE BATH … grrrr  (pic of tiger underwater with bubbles, snarling ferociously)

IS THIS A MEXICAN HAIRLESS PUPPY WITH A BAD CASE OF MANGE? OH, SORRY … Chanel is making eyebrow art a thing… (pic of model with jewel-studded eyebrows)

JUST GO AWAY. I’VE GOT A HANGOVER. (pic of one of my dogs in my bed…)

WHY MY CONTAINER CORN WAS A BIT STUNTED LAST SUMMER (pic of one of my cats asleep in a plant pot)

Infographics: pictures or tortures?

Increasingly I’m seeing infographics on Pinterest and although they are an interesting phenomenon in themselves (I’ll be doing a post about how to write for those soon, so watch this space) I wonder just how many Pinterfolks click through to the final, final image to read all those lovely bits of tiny text spread around in a cute diagrammatic format.

Especially when there are clearer, more viewable images about other stuff on their Pinterest home pages which don’t require a powerful magnifying glass to view.

Much as I’m longing to spout an opinion on infographics here, I will zip my lip and shut up. For now.

Using images that may be subject to copyright restrictions

I know that this isn’t about writing but as everyone is chewing on this one right now, here is my take on it. I have asked many, many people – several of whom are experts in this or that – what the b*lls-out reality is here.

I have received widely varying responses but one comes through loud and clear – wait until a case is brought and a judge makes a ruling.

In the meantime, what do I do about an image I put up on Pinterest but didn’t photograph myself (where an attribution is possible?) I thank the copyright owner for the kind loan of the image and include a link to his/her/their website. Probably counts for diddly squat in a court of law but at least it’s honesty on my part and hopefully may enhance business traffic through to the copyright owners.

Some useful Pinterest resources

Here are some blog posts and other resources you may find helpful if you’re just starting out on Pinterest, and even if you’re an existing user these links might be handy for you too.

Pinterest? But what about my writing?

This may be of Pinterest to you

Pinterest: measuring your pinfluence

5 industries that should be on Pinterest right now

Sourcing great images for Pinterest

5 ways brands can use Pinterest to boost consumer engagement

Why I’m not putting all my eggs in the Pinterest basket just yet

Pinterest being taken over by marketers? Don’t make me laugh

Can Pinterest become a small business’s new best friend?

What is your experience of Pinterest so far? Would love to know and share your thoughts. (And if you want to follow me on Pinterest, click here. Especially if you enjoy a good chuckle…)

Now, let’s pin up your  writing!

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Is email dead?

According to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg back in June 2010, “email – I can’t imagine life without it – is probably going away.” Was she right? Here are my thoughts, and I look forward to reading yours…

It seems that by Sandberg’s calculations only about 11 percent of teenagers were using email at that time – significantly less than their parents did. Maybe it was wishful thinking on Facebook’s part, but they seem to think the next generation will dump email in favor of texting/SMS plus messages and live chats on social networks.

Having grown up back in the dark ages of telephones, typewriters, faxes and snailmail, I’m not complaining. Typewriters were a pain in the ass and broke more of my fingernails than housework, horses, and children ever did.

My fax machines would spew forth from their rolls of shiny toilet paper, dropping pages all over the floor for the cats to play with and the dogs to chew. The only upside was our charming Mr Mailman who helped old ladies cross the village streets and expected us to turn a blind eye to his voracious, noisy affair with the baker’s wife.

But then we got the internet. And we got EMAIL!

Email in its early days was a very expensive luxury

In the late 1980s I was told by a conference production company for whom I had worked for several years that should I wish to continue doing freelance work for them, I would need to invest somewhere around £2,000-£3,000 (USD $3,200-$4,900) in an email system which would allow them to tell me whether or not my bid for whatever scriptwriting services had been accepted or rejected.

That was a lot of money then and needless to say I didn’t do it. (Amusingly enough neither did most of their other suppliers so they had to eat humble pie and abandon the idea.)

But it does make me smile to think that in just over 20 years we’ve gone from email being an expensive posh luxury, to its current status as a free commodity that’s nearly obsolete, if you listen to the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world.

So could we do without email?

I think the people who rant on about email being snuffed out by the messages you can send on these dinky clever phones and from person to person on the online social platforms, are missing one rather important point.

Until the dinky phones and the social media inflate themselves by somewhat more than 140 characters, email – as far as I know – is the only way for ordinary mortals to communicate larger amounts of information electronically.

Speaking as a professional writer and author, I’d love to know how Sheryl Sandberg’s teenagers, once a bit older, would send a 50,000 word book manuscript to a publisher via text/SMS, Twitter or Facebook.

(And I’d love to know how the thousands of organisations using email for marketing purposes would shoehorn themselves entirely into the bijou platforms, despite maybe running complementary campaigns on text/SMS, Google Ads and the like.)

Still an important part of our writing and communication toolbox

I have to admit that these days I tend to set up meetings and do other simple communication jobs using text/SMS or Facebook, as an alternative to exchanging emails. And the live chat facilities somehow seem less of a palaver to use than that ancient artefact called a telephone.

But I would hate to see email disappear. It may be replaced in part by the bijou online media but for the heavyweight stuff, I reckon it’s here to stay.

Do you agree?

And if you agree, here’s some help with your email writing:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English