Category Archives: Communications

Writing for the Web

14108561722_2a5c4984da_zWhat websites do you like reading? What ones do you glance at once and never come back to? Have you ever thought that your favorite websites might be just that because of the way the content is presented?

One of the biggest challenges for academic and educational websites is to inform, but not bog down, the website visitor. People are used to being able to quickly digest little snippets of information when they’re looking at a screen, rather than reading long paragraphs of prose.

Good content developed for your website also increases the accessibility and search engine optimization (SEO) of your website by tailoring the words to be concise and descriptive. Continue reading

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First impressions and fresh eyes

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This quote has been attributed to Will Rogers, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain — there is disagreement as to the original author — and has been used to sell everything from men’s suits to dandruff shampoo.

Regardless of who first said it, its truth is not disputed. The adage can be applied to job interviews, sales calls, and first dates.

It also applies to our writing. Whether it’s website text, a press release, a newsletter, or an email about an upcoming event, our written words are often the first way others learn about our college, our programs, and our people.

What first impression do we make if our material has typos or other errors?

Errors can be costly

According to Professor William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, errors can cause concerns over whether a website or communication — and the people or organization behind it — is credible and trustworthy.

If those reading your content find reason to doubt your credibility or competence, the result could be fewer people attending your event, learning about your research, or buying your product.

For example, Charles Duncombe, an online marketer in the United Kingdom, found that fixing a simple spelling mistake on a website accounted for a 100 percent increase in sales.

Put fresh eyes to work

We all make mistakes, but it’s hard to catch our own errors. One reason is because we’ve already looked at what we’re writing a dozen times, and we know what it’s supposed to say. That causes our eyes to skip over mistakes and instead see what we know should be there.

Psychologist Tom Stafford with the University of Sheffield, quoted in the Aug. 12, 2014, edition of Wired, says that writers don’t see their own typos because, “When you are writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task.”

In other words, when the brain is focused on the complex task of conveying ideas, it is difficult to see the individual letters, commas, and sentences involved.

That’s why it’s so important to have someone who is not familiar with the material — a fresh pair of eyes — review it for misspellings, factual errors, and grammatical issues.

Proofreading your own work

If you have to proof your own work, here are some ideas for helping you pinpoint errors:

  • Print it out. For most people, it’s easier to proof on paper than on a computer screen. Before printing, double-space the text.
  • Use a ruler. A ruler helps because it keeps the eyes from jumping ahead. Clear plastic rulers don’t work for this purpose. Another option is sliding a piece of paper in a contrasting color (a bright or dark color works best) down the page as you read line by line.
  • Read aloud. Turn on the white noise or go to a quiet location and read the text out loud. Or have someone else read it to you.
  • Change it up. Before reviewing, try printing it in a different font — something wider and different from what you usually use. And while you’re at it, print the text on brightly colored paper to make it stand out.
  • Back it up. Some people suggest reading a document from the end to the beginning. This trick might help with locating out-and-out typos (an extra letter or transposed letters), but it doesn’t help with grammar errors or homophone misuse (there, their, or they’re).

For more information about the science behind typos, check out Nick Stockton’s article in Wired, “What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard To Catch Your Own Typos.”

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What’s the best thing you can do in a digital space to promote community? Be Human.

I’ve recently been reading a book by Sarah Robinson called Fierce Loyalty.

In short, it’s a mini tome on how to make people feel connected to your brand, be it Harley Davidson or a group of surfing enthusiasts, through community in a digital space.

Though we work in a public institution, and don’t live and die by the number of widgets or gadgets that are sold, Virginia Tech also relies heavily on brand loyalty just as any institution that sells material goods for survival. And many alumni cultivate a connection to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the university that lasts throughout their entire lives.

Robinson has done a lot of work not only creating communities in a virtual space but also creating the intangible SENSE of community that tends to foster very strong connections to loyalty like those found among Hokie alumni and current students.

One of the themes that re-appears throughout her book and her blog is that there is no substitution for being human, even in a virtual space, to attract members into your community.

She cautions against merely making transactions in a digital space, but really attempting to make connections. And making connections can only be done by investing the one thing that we’ve come to associate exclusively with face-to-face interactions: Time.

Easier said than done?

Here are some tips:

  • Make members feel valued and important.
  • Create something together.
  • Fight a common enemy.
  • Create a culture of “we.”
  • Empower members to make the community their own.
  • Build in exclusivity.
  • Create a barrier to entry.
  • Stand for something bold.
  • Build structure with an eye toward fostering pride, trust, and passion.
  • Initiate opportunities for shared experiences.
  • Love your community.
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The Magical Number Seven

If you want your audiences to remember what you have to say, there are techniques that can be used to help people retain your message. Grouping information into bite-sized chunks can help readers recall important content you want them to remember. This is called chunking.

In the mid-50s, cognitive psychologist George A. Miller, wrote about the concept of chunking in a paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” Long story short, human memory can store up to seven bits (chunks) of information in short-term memory, plus or minus two. In other words, some people can store nine chunks of information, others five, thus the “plus or minus” part of the equation. This is why phone numbers are seven digits (or they used to be!).

These chunks of information can be stored in short-term memory for about 30 seconds before it is forgotten. If you look at billboards, notice that the ones you can remember as you drive past. At 70 mph the industry average time for reading a billboard is six seconds. So, around six words is all you get for your message. Continue reading

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Don’t forget to update your calendar!

One of the easiest and most effective ways that Extension faculty and staff members can promote their programs and events is by posting them on their local calendar. Each local unit office and Agricultural Research and Extension Center has a calendar. For a complete listing of VCE calendars, visit the calendar page on the VCE website.

There are many benefits to using the your VCE calendar.

  1. Your calendar provides a central location to post event details and contact information.
  2. Information can be easily added and updated by using the Web-based interface.
  3. Viewers can download individual calendar items directly to their own calendars and mobile devices.
  4. Information can be shared easily on other unit calendars, helping to promote your programming to neighboring communities.
  5. Calendar items can be put on a topic calendar, making it easy for viewers to find similar events.
  6. Having events on your calendar allows other faculty members to see what is planned so they do not schedule similar events on the same day.
  7. Calendar events can be easily promoted on other websites and through social media.
  8. Having complete information easily accessible on your calendar should reduce the number of emails and phone calls you receive with questions about events.

Putting an item on the calendar is as easy as filling out an online form. For more information on how to use the VCE calendars, visit our online training.

example of calendar

Make sure to include as much information as possible, including a link to a website that has additional details, links to paperwork, and registration information. If clients know that they can rely on the information to be accurate and helpful, they will review the calendar on a regular basis, making your job all that much easier.

Remember, people won’t participate if they don’t know what is going on. The first step to promoting your program is to post it on your calendar!

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Know your audience

We all have to write material to influence and inform people, but before doing anything, it behooves us to think about who our audience is and what we want the take-away message to be.

For example, if you are writing a business memo, your intended audience is probably people with whom you work. What and how you report information should vary depending on the reader. When we talk to people face-to-face we adjust our speech to be sure we are communicating our message but many people don’t think about this when writing. Different audiences have different levels of understanding based on age, level of experience with a given subject, education, and interest.

The importance of your audience

Understanding your audience is important when making decisions about what information you should include, what kind of supporting details the reader needs to understand about your topic, and how you should structure the hierarchy of information. If you are writing to persuade, you need to be able to appeal to and address a specific group of people. Continue reading

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Managing spam comments on your blog

Blogs are handy. They allow us to easily make information available to a wide variety of audiences. They also allow readers to post comments, providing a way for authors and readers to interact that isn’t possible on traditional websites. But with this useful feature comes an annoyance: spam comments.

Our blogging software, WordPress, uses a comment monitoring system called Akismet to help monitor comments made on our blogs. While this software filters out a vast percentage of spam, it isn’t perfect. As a result, we also have a system set up on most blogs to further manually moderate comments from unknown commenters.

Continue reading

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How to tell the world about your exciting discovery

Good news! The findings from the research you have been working on for years have been accepted for publication by a major journal!

What now?

Get in touch with Office of Communications and Marketing. And the sooner the better.

By working with us, we can increase the profile of your work both within Virginia Tech and in the outside world, help you fill in some important blanks in your eFARS report, appease your external funding sources, and potentially pull in new streams of revenue.

So how do you do it?

Chances are, you know that your article is going to be published months ahead of time. This is the moment when you should get in touch with our office.

Our standing joke is that if you call us and tell us that you are going to be on the cover of “Nature” tomorrow, we’ll tell you congratulations. But if you tell us a month before, we’ll tell you that we can try to get you some high-impact media coverage.

The advantages of letting our office know early are many.

First off, we are working on many different releases and publications at once, so we can’t drop everything for a last-minute request.

Continue reading

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Top 10 email best practices

  1. Get to the point. If action is required, say so at the start of the email. Don’t tell a long story with the requested action at the end.
  2. Keep it short. Break up your text into short paragraphs or bullets. If there’s a shorter way to say it, use it. Remember what we already know—people get too many emails.
  3. Put important information in bold so it’s easier to scan. If you’ve addressed an email to several people with an action for certain person, bold that person’s name.
  4. Assume it’s public. If people want to read your email and share it with others, they will.
  5. Refrain from using colored text, background images, sounds, or animation. Your emails will be hard to read, difficult to reply to without converting to plain text, clog up email storage because of file size, and are just plain irritating.
  6. Proofread it and check your spelling. Nothing says “I don’t know what I’m talking about” than misusing and misspelling words. Bad grammar can lead to confusion. Here’s a Grammar checker.
  7. Use Bcc: for group emails. When sending group emails, list the recipients in the Bcc: field. The recipient will get a copy of the email but the others are protected from the view of the other recipient – some of whom they may or may not know.
  8. Never expose your contact’s addresses to strangers. Long lists of email addresses at the beginning of an email is an immediate sign that the sender is either a novice or doesn’t care or respect other’s privacy.
  9. Do not type in all caps. Typing in all caps is yelling. Also, studies* have shown that it takes longer to read text typed in all caps. *More info on reading paper vs. online.
  10. Don’t send emails when you are angry. If you receive a nasty email, do not respond immediately—if at all. If you don’t have something constructive or nice to say or at the very least sternly professional, just hit delete.

Words of Advice
Think twice about adding an inspirational quote at the end of your emails, especially one with religious overtones. What is inspirational to you may not be inspirational to your recipient. Better safe than sorry.

Forwarding political, humorous, or religious emails has no place in business communication. Create a general message that you are not a forwarder of jokes or inspirational messages and you don’t open attachments in order to protect your computer. They’ll get the message.

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Effective emails: From subject lines to signatures

Since we retain so little of what we read it’s especially important to communicate effectively when we send emails. There is a lot that can be misinterpreted, especially when people are busy.

Subject Lines
People who get a lot of email scan the subject line to decide whether to open, forward, file, or trash a message. If your subject line is vague—or even worse, if it’s blank—you’ve missed your opportunity to inform or persuade your reader.

If you don’t put a subject line, you’re sending the message that your name in the “From” line is all your recipient should need to make it a top priority. This is arrogant and thoughtless. Take advantage of the opportunity to get your recipient thinking about your message before even opening it.

Over 35% of SPAM is detected from an email’s subject line. The definition of SPAM is irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent to large numbers of users. How much of your email that gets through SPAM filters is SPAM? A lot! How much of daily office email is irrelevant? A lot! Be considerate.

  • Subject Line: Important!  What is important to you may not be important to your reader. Rather than announcing that the secret contents of your message are important, write a headline that communicates the message: “Emergency: Cars in lower lot will be towed in 1 hour.”
  • Subject Line: Quick question  If the question is quick, why not ask it in the subject line?
  • Subject Line: Quick question  Particularly irritating is the email where the sender has left the subject line from an earlier email but the contents now have entirely changed to something new. It doesn’t help anyone to have a subject line that doesn’t relate to the message.
  • Subject Line: Follow up about Friday  Fractionally better—provided that the recipient remembers why a follow-up is necessary.
  • Subject Line: File you requested  If you’re confident that the recipient will recognize your email address and is really expecting a file, this would be fine. But remember, many people get virus-laden spam with titles like this. The more specific you are the more likely a spam-blocker will let your message through.

The general rule of thumb in email marketing is to keep your subject line to 50 characters or less. BUT, what if it’s being read on a smart phone? They get cut off at 20-25 characters. And it could be embarrassing. Test your subject lines.

There are online tools to check your subject lines on various email clients. Your emails and subject lines look different in Outlook on a desktop vs. Gmail vs. Yahoo! Mail, vs. on a Blackberry.

Here’s what the results of a subject line tester look like:subject line tester example

Greetings and Salutations
Email greetings and salutations matter. They are the bookends of what you want to communicate. Start and end your emails professionally. Be polite without being too familiar.

Greetings to avoid:
• Hey there,
• What’s up,
• To whom it may concern,

Better options:
• Dear,
• Greetings,
• Good morning,

Salutations to avoid:
• Cordially,
• Yours truly,
•  xoxo (and all derivatives)
• (none)

Better options:
• Kind regards,
• Sincerely,
• Thanks,

More on email sign-offs and etiquette can be found online, as well.

Email Signatures
Give the recipient information to contact you without having to look it up.
Sometimes a return phone call is warranted—or a visit to your office. Include phone, fax, physical address—whatever would be included on your business card.

Email signatures: Virginia Tech Style
The Virginia Tech Brand Guide specifies a preferred email signature. The font should be Ariel or Franklin Gothic and your title should be in bold.

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