Word jumble: Common phrases that need some editing

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Word jumble: Common phrases that need some editing

Welcome to post number eleventy-billion and then some on phrases that are commonly misused and/or misunderstood. Why am I adding my two cents that probably duplicates work put out there by others? Because I still see it happen all the time and anything that helps people write (and speak) more accurately and with clarity seems like a good idea.

Let me start by saying that I don't judge people's intelligence based on whether they write or say these things. They know what they mean, the people around them (I think) know what they mean, so no harm, no foul. I also get that it's easy to misunderstand the exact words someone says, not having seen it written down. It's the opposite of people mispronouncing words they've only ever read in books. But I'm a fan of lifelong learning and I think it's a worthy goal to know better and do better, even in small things. So, this is for anyone who feels the same.

Now that my cliché-ridden intro is out of the way, I'll share some of the phrases I've been seeing used recently that need some editing.

To "flush" or to "flesh" it out

Whenever I hear or see the phrase "flush it out," I think of work being flushed down the toilet. To me, that's what it means. Except it's usually describing the process of building something out, adding substance - like a skeleton idea that needs skin (flesh) to be fully formed. I have lots of ideas, but I rarely flush them without first making some attempt to flesh them out.

I "couldn't" care less...or "could" I?

Whether it's a disdainful dismissal or amicable carte blanche to take over, saying you "couldn't care less" means you can't be bothered to give the topic du jour any mental or emotional space. However, to say you "could care less" means you actually do care. While most people use the phrase to express how little they care (i.e., not at all), the words say the opposite. But do you care enough about this distinction to add on that second syllable next time? 

Happy belated birthday!

You know what never comes late? Your birthday. Every single year, it comes on the exact same day (unless you're a February 29 baby). You know what does come late? Birthday wishes. Dictonary.com's definition of "belated" is "late, delayed or detained." So, when we say "Happy belated birthday," we're actually saying "Happy late, delayed or detained birthday." And that's kinda funny when you think about it. As my father drilled into my head for many years, the correct way to say it is, "A belated happy birthday to you." Because the "happy birthday" is late, not the birthday. But that sounds super formal and I get why people don't like to say it. So, I skip using "belated" at all and just say, "I know I'm late, but happy birthday!" 

Woulda, coulda, shoulda used "have"

To me, this one has to be rooted in our tendency to use contractions in the spoken word, but I didn't bother to research the theory so don't quote me on it. "Could've" actually sounds like "could of," even though it's actually "could have." Using "of" after any of these words is a grammatical error, but I can see why it happens. Bonus tip: It's also never "wouldn't of," "couldn't of," or "shouldn't of." Those pesky spoken double contractions: wouldn't've, couldn't've, shouldn't've.

"Rather than" end things too soon

I thought I'd squeeze one more in. I believe it's yet another example of misheard, then miswrote. When comparing two things, someone might indicate they prefer X rather "then" Y. Unfortunately, "then" is always wrong in this context. Put simply, "then" is used as an adverb, adjective or noun when talking about order or time. "Than" is used as a conjunction or preposition associated with comparisons and the phrase "X rather than Y" happens to be a comparative clause.

"We're none of us perfect."

I like Miley Cyrus' mentality of enjoying life without the pressure of perfection and it brought Matt's oft-quoted Homerism to mind.My husband loves quoting The Simpsons and this quote happens to be a favorite when he makes a mistake.

We all say or write things that aren't quite right, but if you learn something you say is incorrect and attempt to internalize the correction, it's just going to help you be a better communicator when it's your turn to share ideas and information with others in your world.

Now it's your turn: What have you heard lately that you can add to the list?

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Don't be selfish with your communication

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Don't be selfish with your communication

Have you ever known someone that couldn't explain a concept to others?

They probably knew it backwards and forwards, but when they start talking and it sounds like they have their own private language.

This is an example selfish communication - not that it's done intentionally! - but it's important to be aware that how we share ideas is as important as what the ideas are.

I really like the term "selfish communication". It makes a critical point about the words we use and when. 

The truth is, we've all communicated selfishly at some point. It happens most often when you know a topic so well that you forget that others aren't as up-to-speed as you are. 

Talking to someone who neglects to take that giant step back can feel a lot like opening a long book in the middle - you've missed so much of the story that you're completely lost. 

How do you ensure your communication isn't "selfish"? 

The first step is opening the book on the first page. Set a foundation and then start building the structure of your ideas and information from there. Keep these four tips in mind:

Be audience-focused.

Put yourself in your audience's shoes. Would you understand what you're sharing with them? Unless you know differently, assume people don't know what you know.

Avoid jargon.

Industry-specific terms and acronyms could leave your audience cross-eyed and head spinning. It might sound impressive to your colleagues but your colleagues probably aren't the people you're trying to reach. 

Write conversationally.

Social media is meant to be a two-way conversation. Using this style makes it easier to take a step back and give context and critical details to topics you have expertise in. 

Ask for input.

Ask someone you trust to read your content and give you their honest feedback. 

Selfish communication isn't an overt act. It just happens out of habit. The people we work and collaborate with usually know the background. So, it's easy to forget that we need to start at the beginning with others. 

These are simple steps you can use to make sure your content speak to your audience on the right level about any topic.

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Improve your writing with these easy tips

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Improve your writing with these easy tips

When people send me something to edit, these are some things I'd change if I found them.  I try to make my writing simple and clean, especially since I write mostly for web/digital mediums. After all, K.I.S.S. is the #1 rule in digital media. 

Do as I say, not as I do.

I have a firm belief that if you're putting words together to communicate something, someone should read it over to make sure you're accomplishing what you want. At the very least, you'll avoid landing on one of those Buzzfeed lists that show bad copy mistakes. And, if you and your copyeditor are in sync, you'll get your message across in a clear, concise way. 

Do I have my writing copyedited? At work, yes. Outside of my day job, not so much. I like to think I'm better than the average bear at catching errors since copyediting is something I do professionally, but no one is perfect and you shouldn't edit your own copy. I cringe when I see errors I've made in work that's been published.

Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Short words. 

Writing on the web is choppier than you're used to from books. Paragraphs usually have 1-3 sentences. I know some bloggers who almost never have 2 sentences in a paragraph. The reason? Scannability, not readability.

I mean, who cares if people can read it? We need to make sure they can scan it! Because if they scan through quickly and don't see the value, they're gonna bail tout suite

But if they scan through and see good stuff they want to learn more about, they might spend more time and actually read it.

There are certainly industries and topics that vary on the complexity and formality of the writing and tone. But even academic subjects can be written less formally online than you'd find in journals and textbooks.

Scannability is critical, regardless of the subject.

Don't abuse punctuation.

Punctuation helps readability and scannability. I could probably go on a long rant about punctuation and my desire to institute fines for people who abuse commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks. 

Commas

Did you know you don't always need a comma before "but" or "because"? And you pretty much never need one after, though many people throw them in because they think there's a rule about putting commas where you'd pause in speech (there's not). That imaginary rule is kinda silly since everyone reads copy with different interpretation and inflection. 

I'm not rigid about when serial commas are used as long as what's being said is clear. You can be pro-Oxford comma and I'll like you just as much as that person over there who's anti-Oxford comma.

Quotation marks

I've lost count of the number of quotation marks I've deleted from words that had quotes around them for emphasis rather than an actual requirement to quote something. And every time I see it, I think of this:

Do you want me imagining Dr. Evil doing air quotes as I read your words? 

Do you want me imagining Dr. Evil doing air quotes as I read your words? 

In Austin Powers, the recently-woken-from-30-year-nap Dr. Evil is describing a "laser" designed to destroy the "Ozone layer" to his evil team. Of course, no laser was necessary to do that and the team already knows what these things are.

Does your audience know what you're talking about? Ditch the quotes. Do you want to emphasize a word or phrase? Italics are a better way. In fact, the HTML code for italics is "em" and it's short or emphasis: <em>This text would show in italics if I was typing this in the HTML editor.</em>

Is it a genuine, meaningful quote that's longer than a few words you can paraphrase? Keep the quotes and I will, too. (But I am going to double check the quote wording and attribution.)

Apostrophes

These handy little marks are mostly used to indicate possessives or create contractions. With contractions, the apostrophe stands in for the letters you remove. Somehow, though, apostrophes end up creeping into places they don't belong. Here are a few examples of words that don't need apostrophes (and I'm not talking about the confusion between plural and possessive):

  • Pluralized words that aren't typically plural: Dos and don'ts NOT do's and don'ts/don't's
  • Possessive pronouns don't need apostrophes: his, hers, its, theirs, ours, yours, and whose
  • Nouns that are plural but not possessive: 1980s (unless you go with: '80s), CDs, GICs, SUVs 

A few grammar gripes

There's a tendency amongst some to adopt an attitude of superiority about their skills and knowledge around writing. Some people call them "grammar Nazis" and some are proud to take on that title. I've had that tendency myself, but I don't criticize. I assume mistakes are not intentional and send a quick private note with an FYI just in case an error goes unnoticed. 

That said, I correct grammar mistakes because clarity is important. Here are a few common ways clarity is compromised in writing:

  • rather then to rather than (when referring to alternatives)
  • accept when you really mean except (or vice versa)
  • loose when you mean lose (you lose weight; you don't loose it)

You know why people get hung up on grammar rules? Because the rules help us communicate more effectively and efficiently. 

Of course, rules are made to be broken.

Breaking the rules: The fluidity of language

It pains me to see some of the short-form words that are now common in the tweet and text world we live in. But changes to communication channels have influenced changes in the words we use since the beginning of time. (I swear, I will never get used to seeing "ur" instead of "you're" and yes, I type in full words/sentences in texts.)

But if the language is fluid, that means all the rules are somewhat fluid, too. I can know every technical writing rule there is (along with all the exceptions) and opt to go with personal preference. That's the fluidity of language.

And, because the words we use are evolving along with how we use them, it's better to be forgiving of different ways of writing. Even errors are made for a reason - missed in edits or ignorance of correct usage.

If you want to keep something I think is wrong, it's not important enough to me to argue. After all, rules are made to be broken, but take time to learn them so you can say you're doing it on purpose.

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Find good quality, legal images for your website

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Find good quality, legal images for your website

I love creating lovely images for my website. I have developed my own brand style guide so that fonts and colours I use on images are consistent throughout. I've personally invested a lot of money in tools like Adobe Creative Cloud and a subscription to Adobe Stock because I take on occasional graphic design projects for clients, in addition to doing all of my own design work. 

That said, I don't know many business owners that want to buy and use Adobe design tools, because there's a fairly heavy learning curve and it's expensive when design isn't your genius work. 

So, I've compiled a list of just a few of the places you can look for good quality images that you can use with or without attribution. This list is pretty comprehensive and contains image sites that you may find don't work as well for your particular business.  

One quick note before we get into the photo resources - It's always important to check the license available on any image that's free or paid. The least restrictive license for commercial use is Creative Commons Zero, which allows for personal/commercial use without attribution - other licenses are more restrictive so read carefully or choose selectively to ensure your use is permitted. CC0 doesn't waive all rights, but it is the least restrictive.

Free photo pack subscriptions 

I've started to subscribe to sites that send me free pictures and I've developed a pretty extensive library of beautiful stock photos that I have rights to use. There are many photos that I may never need for my own site, but that doesn't mean my clients won't ever need them!

Search free image sites

If you're used to going on to stock image sites and doing searches instead of sifting through your own library of photos, you may prefer these sites for finding images. They are all free, so once again, check the licensing. Note that all of the photo pack subscription sites have various degrees of search function as well. 

The free image sites I use most

Morguefile - Truthfully, I use this one a lot less lately because I can find better quality images elsewhere, but don't discount it entirely. There have been many times it's the only place I can find the right image. 

FreeImages.com - This was my go-to replacement for Morguefile when I realized I wasn't finding good images as often. 

Stock Up - I start on Stock Up these days. The site aggregates search results from a number of different sources and when you hover over pictures, you can see the license. It's just really handy and the quality is excellent.

Pixabay - Even though Pixabay results often show up in Stock Up, I still do a search there separately because I get lucky from time to time. I've been really happy with the quality of the results there too.

Gratisography - This is a searchable photo collection that is ever-growing and has quite a mix of content. Some is very artsy. Some is weird. All of it is high quality. I don't think I've used more than one or two images so far, but I made sure to donate so they don't go away. :)

Other free sites I occasionally use

These are but a few sites that are out there. In fact, a fellow WBN member posted this list of the best free stock photo sites recently and I haven't had a chance to check out the ones that I'm not already using just yet. 

A little side note to promote that friend a wee bit more, because it's apropos of this post! Rachela, the owner of Butter and Honey Design is a talented graphic designer who is teaching so much about DIY graphic design. You can join her group on Facebook to get a taste and then be sure to check out her courses which I hear great things about!

Paid stock options

Of course free is easier to fit in the budget, but sometimes it's harder to find what you want or need for free. That's why I suggest you start with Canva if you have to go paid. Canva stock images are $1 each. If you want an image without any other design elements, just pick a layout size, then find an image you want in their library and download the image without adding text/design elements. Just be mindful of the license.

A new comparable Canva alternative is Desygner. For now, it's free and the images available are also free to use. But that never lasts, because they'll need money to keep going eventually. The image library is linked to Wikimedia, which can be limiting in terms of useful images, particularly if you need larger sizes.

I mentioned Adobe Stock above, but I also like Shutterstock for paid stock because of the way they structure payment compared to other paid stock sites. 1 credit = 1 image, regardless of size/file type. They also have pay as you go plans. They tend to cost more per image than a subscription, but if you don't need lots of images regularly, it's cheaper to pay as you go.

I need more images more regularly now, which is why I now have a 10 credits/month subscription at Adobe Stock. Shutterstock became my paid stock site of choice after using iStockBig StockDreamstime, and a few others. They have transparent pricing so I know exactly what to expect. And since I often buy large image sizes and vector graphics, the others cost me more.

Design bundle sites

Last, but not least (IMHO), is membership sites and package deal sites. If you aren't a designer, these will have limited value for you, so skip this section if you're not interested! 

Design Cuts - I stumbled upon Design Cuts sometime last year and I'm addicted. I've bought quite a few of the monthly bundles and now they've launched a marketplace where you can build your own bundles and save a ton of money. The quality has been amazing. The amount of design elements I have is overwhelming, but I have also invested in a couple of bundles that included photo packs. And they're gorgeous. I've used quite a few in blog posts. 

Mighty Deals - Like Design Cuts, this is a site that offers design bundles. They seem to have more photo packs than DC does, though, and I've grabbed a few from them as well. Just be careful if you buy multiple photo pack bundles. I've found some overlap, so vet them carefully, even if you buy from different bundle sites.

As you can see, there are many, many resources to find affordable images to use on your website to maintain a high-quality look. You don't need to use google image search and worry about copyright infringement or the hit and miss caliber of the graphics. 

If you have a favourite photo site that I haven't listed, add it in the comments! 

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Get curious and stay curious

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Get curious and stay curious

How many times a day do you ask yourself or someone else a question about how something works? Or maybe it's a question about whether some idea you have exists.

Do you ever attempt to answer the question for yourself? Is your favourite search engine a regularly visited website?

I was reading a book about freelance writing several months ago and the author stated that writers often have broad knowledge bases because they have to do extensive research to authoritatively write about subjects that are outside their area of expertise.  (I wish I could cite the source - I've forgotten where I read it because I've read quite a few in that time!) 

Knowledge is power

I've always absorbed tidbits of information (not usually trivia-type info - you don't want me on your Trivial Pursuit team) easily. I am often stunned at the random recall I have at times when I need seemingly random information. I'm even accurate in my recollection often enough that I'm impressed with myself. Just don't ask me to remember the plot of a movie I've only seen once, or a TV show even two days later. Those details are probably gone.

I realized that I related strongly with that and, yes, I have this tendency to learn a little about a lot. When you look at my work experience, it jumps from law firms, to doctors offices, to government, to not-for-profits, to private industry, and that's just on the surface. I've studied music education, web design, computer programming, graphic design, marketing, and database design. It's been an asset to have a better than basic understanding of a wide variety of topics.

Curiosity is good

I was reading Brené Brown's Rising Strong (affiliate link) recently and had a little AHA moment when the book started talking extensively about being curious. I realized I am genuinely a curious person, regardless of what they say about it killing cats.

It's one of the things that has continually spurred me to write. I learn, I think, I write to share what I've learned and thought about. 

Want more content ideas?

I've always advised clients to write down the questions that customers and clients ask them and use their blog/vlog/social media channels to answer those questions. But you don't have to restrict that practice to the questions from others. Answer your own questions on your platform too! 

Make that search engine your best friend online. Get curious. Do research. Share your knowledge. 

You never know where it will lead you.

What question will you research today to learn more and stay curious?

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Is writing a challenge for you? Try these tips!

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Is writing a challenge for you? Try these tips!

The internet makes it so easy for just about anyone to become a content publisher, but writing doesn't come easily to everyone. It's a good thing that writing is a skill you can improve with practice - whether you consider yourself to be a writer or not!

I know lots of business owners that have heard about the benefits of blogging, but it's overwhelming to get started when you don't feel you're a writer to begin with. (Here's one of my dirty little secrets: I didn't call myself a writer when I started blogging!) Fortunately, you don't have to call yourself a "writer" to write well about your subject matter expertise.

What would you say to clients and prospects?

Do you struggle to answer questions or explain concepts within your expertise to people who make inquiries with you? I hope the answer is (mostly) no because half the battle in writing is knowing what to say. If you can do that verbally when someone asks you a question, you're half way there.

The next step is getting those words out onto a page - physical or virtual really doesn't matter. There are a few ways you can do that:

  1. Write questions/inquiries down to answer on your blog, then do it.
  2. Record conversations (with permission, of course) to review.

Writing down questions and inquiries you get on a consistent basis will give you a flow of content that speaks directly to what clients and prospects are asking. That means these are the things they're interested in learning more about. That is critical information for your business! Playing back a recording of your answers will help you to hear the responses you give without thinking. That can form the basis of good content for your business.

Write with active voice, not passive

I don't see passive voice a lot on the web, but it nearly always gives me a double take when I do. Here's an example of active vs. passive that I've borrowed from Grammar Girl, because it's very funny to me. Imagine each of these versions sung by Marvin Gaye as you read:

Active: "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"

Passive: "It was heard by me through the grapevine"

The difference from a technical perspective is that in active voice, the subject is taking action. Marvin Gaye is the subject, and the action is that he's hearing that you won't be his much longer. 

In passive voice, the subject becomes "it" - the news that not much longer would you be mine - and the song title becomes both silly, overly formal sounding, and challenging to fit to the rhythm and melodic sequence of the song. Not to mention that "it" - the news - is an incredibly awkward subject given that "it" isn't really doing anything other than being heard.

Active voice is stronger, simpler, and gives your writing greater clarity. Most of the time. If you read the full text of Grammar Girl's article on active vs. passive, she explains that it's not really wrong. Sometimes there's no real way to get around using passive voice. Active voice does, however, work better most of the time when creating web content.

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Proofread your writing

I often write posts a week or two before I actually publish them. Sometimes longer. This allows me to come back to them 2-3 times before I publish to review what I've written and correct errors. This also gives me the chance to solidify how I want to present my thoughts and ideas.

  1. Check for spelling. Actually re-read and try to catch any words that are the right word, wrong spelling (e.g., to, too, two). This applies to similar words also.
  2. Check for grammar. Please don't ask me to draw a sentence diagram. Ever. But I can still edit for grammar and you should be able to as well. 
  3. Check for punctuation. Commas are often overused and underused. I'm not sure which is worse. The same goes for apostrophes. Avoid punctuation abuse.

Even if you struggle with proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation, spending time to proof your work before it's published will help you put your best work out into the world for your audience. 

Write like you're talking to someone 

That's what people mean when they say to write conversationally. I actually read parts of my posts out loud if I start to worry that my words are sounding too formal. When I hear the actual words coming out of my mouth, it's easier to decide whether that's how I would verbalize them to someone. The flip side is that you can record the words you want to say and then transcribe them or use dictation software to get them on the page.

Don't worry too much about the rules of writing

The rules matter, but you can break them if you want. Also, mistakes happen. You're human and fallible. Don't be too worried about errors, because no one's perfect. I love when people give me a heads up about problems they spot in my writing. It helps me fix them and (hopefully) do better the next time. 

Everyone gets stuck

After writing for a while, you may find yourself stuck and unsure what to write. There are many ways to combat the affliction of writer's block. Try out anything and everything to find what works best for you.

Bonus tip: You can outsource, too!

You don't have to do it alone. There are many writers out there (like me!) who offer blogging services - from editing to writing whole posts. If you are stuck for time, ideas, or need help with the actual words, you can get the help you need.

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Grow your audience with guest blogging

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Grow your audience with guest blogging

If you want to grow your audience and you aren't guest blogging, you're missing out on an important opportunity!

What is guest blogging?

Guest blogging is preparing content that is posted on the blog of a website other than your own. I submit at least one "guest" blog post a month at a minimum as President of the Women's Business Network, because I write the President's Pen which is published at the beginning of each month. I link back to my own site each time, which brings me to the benefits of guest blogging. I occasionally manage to sneak in posts on other sites as well - this is something I want to do more often.

Accumulate backlinks

Your website is your home online. The goal with any content marketing is to lead followers back to your website. Backlinks are links from other sites that lead back to your website. When a site that is linking to yours has greater authority, it gives your site a little boost. Backlinks aren't a one and done activity.

It's important to keep working to get mentions by other sites or use opportunities to be a guest blogger as part of an overall linkbuilding strategy (simply put, linkbuilding is a proactive effort to accumulate backlinks). The better the quality of your backlinks (i.e., links from more popular sites), the more it helps you. Since they have a cumulative effect over time, it's an ongoing process.

New audience

I have a decent sized audience in my own right. It's not huge, but any chance I have to reach out to a new audience is an opportunity to grab the attention of someone I can connect with. It isn't always about getting business. As we all know, the ability to get quality referrals by clearly communicating what you do and who you do it for is every bit as important. Ten quality referrals of clients within my target market are far better than 1,000 cold leads that will go nowhere. 

That's why it's so critical to deliver stellar value when you create guest blog content. There's a delicate balance that you have to achieve between offering valuable information and trying to make a sale. The easiest way to avoid the appearance of trying to sell is not to try to sell. 

Showcase expertise

My dad drilled it into my head growing up. Don't lend money with the expectation of being repaid. Sometimes the loanee just can't seem to get ahead of their financial obligations to be able to repay the loan. Sometimes they just forget, especially if it's a small amount. The point is that if you lend without the expectation of repayment, you will never be disappointed. 

The same goes for guest blogging (and a lot of other content marketing activities, too). Give freely. Give openly. Give without expectation. It's okay if you don't give every last detail of how you do your business - I would never suggest that. But you can give a lot of valuable information away without affecting your bottom line. If you aren't trying to make a sale, the content will resonate more completely with the people you're reaching. 

Guest blogging challenge

I challenge you to write and submit a guest post for another site by the end of April. Will you do it? Don't worry - your post doesn't need to be published by the end of April. Just submitted to the site. This is an honour system challenge. :) 

Try it once. See how it goes and come back and tell me! 

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How are you making a difference?

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How are you making a difference?

Your work is making a difference for someone. I know it is, because my work makes a difference too. 

You have stories in what you're doing, even if you don't yet realize it. I bet you tell your stories when you go home in the evenings, or when you're visiting with friends. If you truly don't, then why are you doing what you do?

Stories are a bridge that create a connection. In the telling, you can provide information about what you do, why you do it, the outcomes you anticipate, and the kinds of problems you can help solve.

How does a story make a difference?

What you have to say can make a difference in numerous ways:

  • Inspire ideas,
  • Spur action,
  • Provide help,
  • Incite understanding,
  • Solve problems.

These are the things I love about the work I do. What do you love about your work? That's probably one area where you're making a difference. 

Find stories to tell

Think about a time you got excited about your work. Maybe a client or customer showed appreciation for you leading them to something they needed. Maybe it's a product. Maybe it's an idea. Maybe they didn't even know they would find it helpful! 

Tell your stories

I see friends with businesses tell stories about breakthroughs with their clients every day. In fact, while I was in the middle of writing this post, one of my clients sent this in an email to me:

I didn’t even know that was do-able! You teach me something new every day.

That kind of feedback is exciting to hear, but it also tells me that I'm continuing to provide ideas and information that help, even when the client hasn't been looking for it. 

Are you thinking about the work you do in terms of how you contribute to helping others? If not, take a few minutes and write down five ways you made a difference for someone last week. It doesn't matter how big or small. You can feel good about the fact that you've helped someone else. 

And, if you're so inspired, write some content about it. (Then come let me know so I can check it out!)

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Don't get caught violating copyright

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Don't get caught violating copyright

And when I say "don't get caught", I actually mean don't violate copyright. I'm going to talk to you about how you can avoid copyright infringement in your content creation, but keep in mind that I'm no lawyer and I'm not providing legal advice.

Copyright laws were established to provide protection for creatives, such as writers, artists, designers, and other disciplines. The laws lay out what the creative's rights are and how they can be assigned. In other words, if you want to use something you don't own, you have to ask permission. It's really no different than asking your neighbour for a cup of flour. 

Copyright protection is inherent in most works

Not all. Most. But I'm only focusing on works that do inherit protection.

This post is protected by copyright even though I haven't gone through the process of registering it. The automatic protection is one of the best parts of copyright legislation, but for more important works than a lowly blog post (say, the great Canadian novel?), it's not a bad idea to get intimately familiar with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office

The Internet has brought copyright protection to the forefront of many people's minds, because creating quality content that gets attention isn't easy. I hear stories of bloggers having their content stolen on a regular basis. And there is an astounding lack of understanding about what constitutes theft of content. (Tax? Really? Massive misunderstanding right there.) 

Theft of pictures

Search engines have this fantastic option to search for images. I use it all the time myself. Sometimes I'm searching for ideas. Sometimes I'm searching for logos. Sometimes I want to figure out what something looks like. 

The thing about all those photos that come up in image searches is they're protected by copyright. It's super easy to right click and save them to your computer and then re-upload to your website or social media accounts, but when you do that without permission, you are potentially violating the rights of the owner.

Using pictures on your website is pretty much a requirement now, and having good quality images just makes you look like you know what you're doing and care. I'll write a follow-up post about how you can find good quality images without breaking the bank, but today's pro-tip is that searching for images on Google orBing is not the answer.

Breaking copyright laws can cost you

The downside of using a "free" picture you've found in an image search is the cost of defending yourself in a lawsuit, and shelling out damages to the plaintiff. Experienced photographers, in particular, zealously defend their work. And they should. Because if they don't, it can become a lost cause. The bottom line is that "free" picture can cost you many times more than the cost of licensing the photo for your legal, permission-based use. 

Bloggers, unfortunately, don't seem to have the same options available to photographers and other artists. I couldn't find any cases of successful lawsuits over content theft. You're basically on your own to prevent/defend content theft. 

Your integrity is worth the effort

I want to blog weekly, but time is limited and sometimes I just don't have the creative juices to come up with a good angle on any topic. So, I end up skipping a week or four or something. I would rather do that than lower my standards or steal from someone else. My integrity is worth more to me than that and it should be to any business that wants to succeed. Dishonesty online creates a record and the consequences can be far-reaching.

Know what is right and do what is right and you'll always be able to hold your head high and confidently defend your actions and choices.

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Content creation for highly regulated industries

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Content creation for highly regulated industries

The most common industries that come to mind with challenges to creating content are those that have strict rules handed down by regulatory bodies, usually because they handle highly confidential, sensitive information: lawyers, accountants and other financial services, government contractors, etc.

I think we can all agree that there are few more regulated entities than the United States White House, right? Look at what President Obama has had to go through to sort of be able to use a Blackberry

It's impressive (if you have an interest in such things like I do) to see how much Obama has embraced and used technology and the internet to connect with the world.  

If the man who is considered the leader of the free world (and keeper of the ominous buttons we hope never get pressed) can have a successful, useful, engaging social media presence, why can't lawyers, accountants, bankers, investment advisors, government contractors, and others do the same?

Think differently

Some might think it's a trite and overused phrase, but it's what's required! Too often organizations focus entirely on what they're selling, pushing out all kinds of sales-y posts that offer little to no real value for readers. 

Here's a quick truth bomb for you (and I may have to do these more often): No one cares about your product and service offerings enough to connect with you and only ever hear about your product and service offerings. Remember the saying "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? The bottom line of this truth bomb is that all sales and no value (or entertainment) makes you boring, irrelevant, and less likely to be followed. 

Instead of focusing on selling what you do as content (the act of telling), share stories about your industry, give followers a glimpse of your human side and the culture of your workplace, educate them about related industry topics that your target audience would be interested in.

Bust myths

Highly regulated industries, particularly government and professional services, give the world a lot of fodder for erroneous beliefs. We've all heard so many jokes about doctors and lawyers - often around the fees associated with going to one or the taxes we pay. (Well, maybe not so much doctors in Canada.) While the beliefs may be based in factual experiences of some, it's not a given that they apply to all.

How can you combat myths? Within reason, within the bounds of confidentiality and regulation, share the truth of what you do and what goes into your work.

  • Re-certification and ongoing licensing requirements
  • Insurance
  • Professional associations
  • Pro bono activities
  • Continuing education

No doubt every highly regulated industry has a laundry list of mythical stories floating around about how they operate. Where you can, share the truth in a way that educates - defensiveness not required.

Be helpful

Seriously, above all else, be helpful.

There are probably hundreds of topics that elected representatives can create content that educates followers. Besides education pieces, public service announcements, and useful information that apply to your audience are all valuable content that helps. 

People who work in regulated industries get all kinds of questions ALL. THE. TIME. You have to answer them when they come in, so take the ones that you can use to help the masses and use them...to help the masses.

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What should a brand post during bad news cycles?

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What should a brand post during bad news cycles?

Tragedies happen. Deaths are inevitable and high profile people get a lot of attention - and there have been a lot of high profile deaths this year. If you listen to people like me telling you how to manage social media for your business, you're posting regularly - yes, even using tools for automation - and you might end up posting during a time when people are upset about one event or another. There are two common questions: The first is whether you should pause your business feed. The second is whether or not you should comment on said event. 

I tend to have a more open viewpoint on these questions than some, and I don't agree with the view that there's a best practice in this area. I think there's a safe practice. If you err on the side of not posting, you're not opening yourself up to criticism. Therefore your brand is safe from the inevitable ugly scrutiny, such as the outrage that spread quickly after Prince's recent passing. 

Is it truly inappropriate to post during a tragedy? This is a hard question to answer, because the answer is "it depends". Here are just a few questions to think about:

  • What is your business' relationship to the tragic event?
  • How much impact is there in your community?
  • Are you geographically close?
  • Do you have connections to those affected? Are they business or personal?
  • Is your business in a closely relevant industry? 
  • What is the scale of the event? Are we talking one or two local news cycles or will this be talked about for weeks or months nationally?

When you start to weigh all these things, it's easy to see why so many default to the "don't post" rule. The problem is that rule doesn't take into account the absolute fact that there are humans behind brands with feelings and good intentions that don't always include the desire to make a sale. Yes, sometimes the inclusion of branding is blatant and comes across insensitive and salesy. Perhaps in those cases there's good justification for criticism, like these blatant sales messages during Hurricane Sandy. To me, this tweet from Getty is in the realm of salesy, not tribute:

Should you pause posting as a brand?

I don't remember the first time I saw outrage about brand posts after a tragic event, but the one I remember best was about 3 years ago after the Boston Marathon. I was attending a conference in Toronto at the time and about an hour or so after I heard about the bombing, I got news of a cancer diagnosis of a close family member. Needless to say, I really don't remember anything about the conference that afternoon. Tragedy struck a city on a major scale. Cancer struck my world on a major scale. 

I stopped tweeting about the conference. I used the conference hashtag to let others who were tweeting know about Boston in case they were unaware. The tweet stream went on through the day. People didn't stop talking about what was going on at the conference. Life was going on, as it does. But it didn't take long for the criticism to start. People were killed and maimed, probably by a terrorist bomb, and people were online talking about their lunch or their business, or the conference they were attending. And if anyone appeared to let scheduled content continue to run, they were pretty much the devil incarnate.

The reality is that life does go on even in the midst of devastating news and events. When such incidents come to light, it's important to weigh the impact of these events on the audience you serve. The last thing a city, state, country, etc., experiencing tragedy wants to see is an invitation to order a pizza or buy clothes or other frivolous calls to action. 

Once again, it depends on the situation whether it's appropriate to pause. It's a decision that can and should be made on a case-by-case basis unless you opt for the blanket "don't post" approach. While I can respect that view, it does feel somewhat like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

Should your brand/business entity comment on tragic events?

This question is even harder to answer than the question of pausing your feed. And here's my possibly unpopular opinion:

"Brands" are entities. They are not human, but the creators and operators are. Brands do not exist without humans in the background. I guess that's why I don't really have a problem with many of the tributes that came out from various brands after Prince died, with exception to the Getty one I mentioned above and a few others that were seriously misguided. It's too bad that Cheerios deleted their tweet - I just don't see that one as offensive. No one is going to be persuaded to go out and buy Cheerios because they dotted the i with a Cheerio. 

Brand tribute. Not on social media. No complaints.

Brand tribute. Not on social media. No complaints.

The Daily Dot piece suggests that many of these sentiments could be shared on personal accounts, and I agree. But it smacks of a double standard toward brands to tell them they shouldn't react in a human way to events that impact us as humans. It's fine to want them to donate to causes that help make the world better, but showing sentiment takes it too far? 

Content marketers talk all the time about how content shouldn't be about selling all the time, but the minute a death or tragic event happens and a brand responds they're exploiting said event for profits. (That's a bold judgement for anyone who isn't in the room with the people deciding what to post to make unless the messaging is a blatant call for sales, like Getty. Can you tell theirs rubbed me the wrong way?)

We can't have it both ways. Either brands must be human and be allowed to show human sentiment, or we have to relegate them to corporate drone status, with only the ability to sell. 

I'm not a fan of the latter option personally. I connect better with brands that show a human side and appropriate reactions to any event - good or bad. 

Criticism distracts from the real issues

One last thought I had as I was considering all of the angles of how brands can deal with these situations is that the immediate rush to judgement is actually a major distraction from news of an incident. Yes, the first one to post a negative article wins, but then the whole debate starts and that becomes the news rather than the news being the news. I think this is less of an issue with a celebrity death, because let's face it, we connect with celebs on a different level than we do family or friends. However, I'd find this (old and tired) debate inappropriate if it occurred after news of the Paris or Beirut attacks or another similar event, such as the Boston Marathon. 

The bottom line is brands that go too far will not be rewarded. Like any piece of content, if their audience doesn't like it, they will suffer for it. Brands that have appropriate reactions may get some criticism, but they're probably getting criticized to a similar extent no matter what they post. Reactions to news events are, understandably, going to get greater attention and higher amounts of criticism. Unless the criticism is disproportionate compared to other content, I don't see why damage control measures should be required, but that's also not an easy call when you're in the thick of a negative situation.

As followers and influencers, we have the ability to help brands learn what is and is not appropriate. While not everyone will agree onappropriateness of different items, it doesn't help to instill fear into brands (big or small) about posting when bad news strikes. If we want to have better, more human content, we also have to give brands permission to react when individuals are reacting to events. After all, the people behind the brand don't turn into robots when they walk into work every day.

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Be original. Be classic. Don't jump on the bandwagon.

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Be original. Be classic. Don't jump on the bandwagon.

Because the bandwagon isn't original or classic. It also gets old pretty fast.

I've started to get meme-fatigued in recent months. I'm also list post fatigued, and how-to post fatigued, and all sorts of other typical kinds of content fatigued. It's not that I never find value in these types of content, because I sometimes do. There's an enormous volume of them out there, though. 

I've gotten away from producing these kinds of posts myself, because I want to focus on ideas and concepts at a higher level. That's not to say I won't ever write a listicle or how-to post, but it won't be a go to source of content for me. Truthfully, it'd be easier if I did. 

Jumping on the bandwagon

The thing is, those kinds of posts are a dime a dozen. They're unoriginal and usually not terribly creative. They serve a purpose, and even if there are 100,000 posts of the same list from 100,000 different sources, there are still probably many people who haven't seen that set of information who could benefit from it. That's where we're at now in this world of constant content.

People like to jump on bandwagons. There's even a book about doing it as a strategic tactic.

One recent bandwagon is the "Be Like Me" meme, which allows users to create lovely passive aggressive internet wisdom in the form of a "funny" cartoon to share with their friends. (Some really are funny, some are dumb, but most are judgey and we can all do without seeing them.

And now, of course, brands have gotten in on it. Because, why not?

In truth, I think the brand renditions of the meme are a mix of the usual combinations of bandwagon-jumping - some lame, some meh, some all right, but nothing really exceptional in that particular list.

The easy path to content

It took me about five minutes to create and save the images in the gallery above. So easy. If I wanted to create something branded it may have taken me 10-15 minutes. Longer if I decided to get fancy about it. Either way, the idea is easy and effortless. It's not particularly strategic because the statements aren't going to tell anyone about my business or what I have to offer. Though in the case of the brand examples in the article above, it was also a mix of vague to blatant. I did appreciate that Firehouse Subs basically created a sort of on-brand PSA. 

In general all of the brand examples felt like forced, unnatural, unrelatable (Maybe Pizza Hut is more woo-worthy in India?), contrived content. Who wants any of those words used about their content!? I sure don't.

Think about how many times brands have been accused of leveraging tragedies or catastrophic events to get attention/make sales - every 9/11 anniversaryHurricane SandyDavid Bowie's death, and I could go on and on.

It's not always a bad thing

When a meme or formulaic type of content serves as a good way to create great content, why not use it? 

There's honestly no reason not to.

But ask yourself:

  • Is this actually great content, or is it easy filler? (There's nothing inherently wrong with easy filler, but consider that it could waste your audience's time and you may lose their attention.)
  • Does it communicate something relevant or important? 
  • Will it be lost in the far-too-similar noise of others using the same tactic?
  • Is there a better way to share this idea or information?
  • What are the chances it will generate positive/negative sentiment?
  • Does this fit the brand I'm building?

Good content is good content

The formula you use to create great content really doesn't matter in the end. And no, not every piece you create is going to be a winner. However, that's no reason to hitch a ride on a bandwagon that's already overfull. We all have the capacity to do and be better than that.

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