ICology: 7 ways to sharpen your comms copy

Ep #48, Caroline Roodhouse with Alive With Ideas

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There are few in internal communications (if any) who are as creative as the team at Alive With Ideas. Their consistent ability to take, at times, mundane communications topics and make them both helpful and visual is unparalleled. One of these forces at Alive goes by the name of Caroline Roodhouse. 

In this episode of ICology, Caroline, content manager at Alive With Ideas, shares how communicators provides both reminders and advice to communicators about how to give the written word more meaning and impact. 

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Caroline provides seven ways to sharpen your comms copy. These tips were initially provided in an infographic but in the podcast she's able to provide some depth and counsel to each. Caroline is quick to point out that for many these seven should be reminders. But since we are creatures of habit, we all fall into bad routines. The seven ways are:

  1. Sort out a logical structure
  2. Start with a powerful opening line
  3. Get to the point
  4. Stick to short words and sentences
  5. Drop the jargon
  6. Break it up
  7. Proofread

You'll want to listen to the podcast or read the episode transcription to hear her full advice. 

Resources
7 ways to sharpen your comms copy infographic
Hemingway app


Episode Transcript

Chuck Gose: This is another selfish episode on my part. I love seeing creativity in internal communications. Right now, few are as creative, if any, really, as a team at Alive With Ideas. They have a magical way of making everything visual. This is something that more communicators should focus on. Whether they realize it or not, Alive With Ideas is expanding the boundaries of what great content can look like for internal communication and should look like for internal communication. At the core of all these visuals is great content and great messaging.

It's this great content that drives the message home. They recently created an infographic that I think can really help refocus communicators on the core elements of great content, and today's guest was at the heart of its creation. I want to welcome to the show Caroline Roodhouse with Alive With Ideas. Caroline, welcome to ICology.

Caroline Roodhouse: Hi, Chuck. I'm really happy to be here.

Chuck: Here's what I do know about you, Caroline. You are the Content Manager at Alive With Ideas. You have two kids and have recently returned to work from maternity leave, so welcome back. You broke your back on your honeymoon.

Caroline: I did, I did.

Chuck: Caroline, tell me something I don't know about you.

Caroline: Okay. This is definitely something you won't know because I only found out recently myself, actually, so it's hot off the press information. Recently everyone at Alive With Ideas completed a Strengthscope assessment to determine our own distinctive strengths. I'm fascinated by the subject of positive psychology, so I was really excited to do it. I was quite surprised by some of the results, which I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

It turns out my top three strengths are compassion, courage, and common sense. Common sense I was quite happy with, 'cause I think I'm quite good with that sort of thing. The other two I was quite surprised by. I never thought of myself as an overly compassionate or courageous person, but the report doesn't really lie. It's based on a series of hundreds of different exploratory questions.

It's given me a massive boost on this journey of discovery. I am Caroline the courageous, oozing with compassion, apparently.

Chuck: Something you did not know about me, Caroline, is that compassion is one of the things that I'm now intrigued by in 2017. There was an article that I read recently. I can't remember if it was in ... It might have been in "Forbes," that talked about that honesty without compassion is cruelty.

Caroline: Really?

Chuck: That's an element that I think communicators need to start thinking about, especially with a lot of leadership communication is employees say they want honest and open communication, but without compassion, that message might not really ring home to employees.

Caroline: Absolutely, yeah. I'll have to look it up.

Chuck: For listeners who aren't familiar with Alive With Ideas, who are you guys? Just kind of describe some of the work you do.

Caroline: Okay. We're a creative comms agency and we work with internal comms teams around the world to bring communications to life. We basically bring fresh ideas when they're needed most. Some of the projects we're working on at the moment, the creation of a manager's toolkit, something called the leader's agreement, where we're communicating what it means to be a leader with workshops and videos. Obviously infographics we do all the time to distill complex information. We're working on a project to find creative ways to explore desired behaviors in large organizations. Creating animations to liven up dry subjects like cybersecurity or regulations. Monthly online magazines for a global workforce, that sort of thing.

Chuck: For those that want to learn more, you can go to alivewithideas.com. I've always been intrigued by your website, because it has some very unique imagery on it. I'm really curious about it and I've never asked. I want to know. What's up with the Mexican wrestling masks on the site? What's the story behind that?

Caroline: I think it was about seven years ago that Alive was actually born. Our two directors, Allen and Alex, who have been best mates since they were kids, both had day jobs at the time. They had to keep their identities secret until they'd made the leap officially. They thought that the masks were strangely appropriate. I think they're kinda cool, so we stuck with them.

Chuck: No, I think it's always stuck out to me and shame on me for never asking. That definitely does make a lot of sense. As you talked about some of the work that you're doing with your clients, it's one of those situations where you and the team do practice what you preach. You touch on this a bit, where you take a lot of content that would normally stay as text for other organizations and convert it into visuals. I know that you're not the designer in this case, but your words are easily designed. They're easily turned into these visuals. How do you work together with the design team to create these infographics and animations and other visuals?

Caroline: Lots of different ways, really. For a start, we're a relatively small and close team, so we're all really good friends, which allows us to be open and honest with each other. We always have fun when we're doing this sort of thing. I think that that brings a unique quality to a piece of work, because you can feel the energy and the enthusiasm, hopefully you can, behind the visuals that we produce.

We also collect stuff, so if we see something interesting we might share it on Slack conversations or lightboxes on image sites that we use. Printed material that we keep and just sift through it when we need some inspiration. I think often the best ideas are the ones that have a metaphor for the subject matter, or they help to tell a story, or they have a specific theme. Whenever I write something that I know is likely to be turned into a visual, I'll start with a specific theme to make it easier in the long run. It really does make our life so much easier to then design something.

We've created infographics with a fruity detox theme, a wrestling theme, a magic theme, sweet shops, circus, runaway train, anything that's a bit different. I'll use words and phrases that lend themselves to strong visuals like that. When we're talking about our infographics and from a design perspective, it's about being bold, doing something a bit wacky that'll cut through the noisy and get noticed. We really don't like doing normal. I'd say the biggest thing is about having a theme behind it and then using language that suits that theme.

Chuck: That's a wonderful piece of advice for communicators, to think about the theme when they're writing content. You shared that makes the design that much easier. As you shared, being creative in that allows communicators to cut through their own clutter if they've got a kitschy theme or something that's very creative for them. They're able to cut through that noise and employees and maybe finally reach that employee who's sort of tuned them out because they've caught onto a theme.

Maybe it is wrestling, like you talked about, or the detox. Something like that is going to resonate with someone in a unique way where other content hasn't in the past.

Caroline: Absolutely. It might be seasonal, it might be something to do with the organization itself, but other times it's just completely random and it's just something different. That's what, like you say, cuts through the noise.

Chuck: There's a recent infographic you created called "7 ways to sharpen your comms copy" that you helped create, that I think has some very helpful advice/reminders for communicators. We are still doing a lot of written copy, whether that's going to appear on an intranet, whether that's going to even be then used in the spoken word or appear in a mobile app.

Let's roll through your seven piece of advice to sharpen your comms copy. Your first piece of advice is to sort out a logical structure. What would be some logical structures? What's your advice here with this one?

Caroline: Just before we go on to that, I just wanted to make the point that as you say, it's a reminder. I'm not teaching people to suck eggs here. I know that people know how to write, but it is a reminder. I wanted to touch on that because writing's one of those fundamental skills that we have to practice every day. It's so easy to fall into bad habits when it comes to copy. Take this as a checklist, something you already know but it's a reminder.

The first point, sort out a logical structure. I actually wrote a whole other article about, which you can find on my LinkedIn profile. It's all about having a clear start, middle, and an end. It really helps focus the mind to ensure that you include the important stuff. Many people decide to read a full article based on the intro or the sign-off. If you don't get those two right, you've probably lost already.

On the point of structure, as well, templates are an absolute godsend. They can save an enormous amount of time. If you can create a reliable structure with a set template that suits you, you're onto a winner.

Chuck: Then your next piece of advice was to start with a powerful opening line. I see that here in the States, it could be the same in the UK. I see a lot of former journalists getting into internal communications. This is an area they seem to understand just given the business of journalism, that you want to grab that reader at the beginning. What's your advice around starting with a powerful opening line.

Caroline: Absolutely. This is where you want to draw them in. Every word you write should be designed to entice your reader to move on to the next one. This is vital with the opening line, obviously. My advice would be to spend more time than you think you should on it. Keep refining it, ask a colleague if they could have a read and if it makes them feel compelled to read on. If it's boring then, again, you've just lost. The language that you use here is crucial. It's got to be interesting. My biggest tip here is to keep it to one line only.

When I see a piece of writing with a big, heavy intro or a chunky first paragraph, I just switch off. I know that sounds a bit shallow, but it's true. I just don't have time to read it. I want something to draw me in. That one-liner, I think, works very well.

Chuck: That's great. It's almost like a bit of an appetizer into the story, because it's something people can very quickly get a sense of "This is what it's going to be about" and then continue reading if they are interested.

Caroline: Absolutely, like an invitation, yeah.

Chuck: The third point, which follows along with that, was to get to the point. I think this is something that Twitter has taught a lot of us around trying. You have to really get down to your core message and get focused on there. What's some of your advice you have around helping communicators get to the point in their copy?

Caroline: Definitely. It is an obvious point, again, but so often it's completely forgotten. I'm not even sure why people just tend to ramble on. I guess it goes back to that fact that it's so much harder to write concise piece like on Twitter, for example, as you say. It reminds me of that quote by Mark Twain, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

Chuck: Mm-hmm.

Caroline: For this point, it's all about the fact that your audience just doesn't have time to read surplus waffle that we get tempted to include. Again, be brutal, someone actually highlighted this in comment on LinkedIn as their favorite point on this infographic. To keep your content logical, don't leave them trawling through, searching for a point that you're trying to make, because they just won't. They haven't got time. When you're communicating important news or essential updates or whatever it might be, just get on with it and raise your point as early as possible.

Chuck: I think that's a key message right there, of raising the point early, getting to the call to action, getting to the piece of information that people need to know and then have the supporting information follow.

Caroline: Yeah, they can choose to read the rest of it if they want to, but you've got your message across.

Chuck: You shared that that last point was some that people really liked. I would say the next two are the areas that would be the greatest reminders for especially a lot of people that are in those large corporate and bureaucratic organizations. Number four is "stick to short words and sentences." What's your advice there?

Caroline: My advice, it would be don't say it in 20 words when five will do. Again, it's about keeping it brief and being concise. No sentence should be longer than 25 words. Most should be well under this. Keep paragraphs to three or four sentences at the most. Three commas in one sentence is one too many. If you're in any doubt about it, run it through an online tool like the Hemingway app. Tools like these measure the readability of your writing by setting things like the number of long words or sentences.

They color-code different areas of improvement so that you can easily click on and it suggests different alternatives for words, if you've missed things out, it helps you spot areas. They can also estimate the years of formal education needed to grasp the text upon a first read, which I think is fascinating, because you may end up needed to be a genius to read something that you've written just because of the way you've written it.

These tools help to strip it back. Unless you've got your writing content for a specific audience who understands all the heavy ins and outs, cut it back. Cut back all the complex words and the long sentences, and make it easy to read.

Chuck: Yeah. I'm going to check out that tool. In fact, for those listening, I'll link to it in the show notes for others if they want to check out that Hemingway tool. What I like to share with people, sometimes, is the more intelligent you think you sound, sometimes that's not always the case if you're sentences are sort of running long and you're throwing in all these words that really don't add value, in fact, if anything, detract from the message.

Speaking of detracting from the message, the next piece of advice that I really like, which I know is a challenge in large organization is to please drop the jargon. I assume along with jargon there's the buzzwords. This is an area that so often communicators get hung up in. They don't even realize that it's jargon. They don't even realize that others might not understand.

What's some of your advice around this?

Caroline: It's second nature to use jargon, isn't it? You're using it all day in your speech. I think you have to remember that different departments won't necessarily understand specific terminology. Just don't use it. It's not an opportunity to show off your impressive vocabulary. It's time to get your message across to everyone. You don't want to dumb it down too much, but you do need to remove complex words that not everybody will understand.

Copy for an internal comms audience should focus on simplicity, accuracy, and brevity. Once you've written it, scan it through for, like you say, buzzwords or lengthy, complex terms, and replace them with simpler alternatives. Again, tools like the Hemingway app can help you do that. If you can't spot them, run it through a tool like that and it will spot them for you.

Chuck: Tip number six is to break it up.

Caroline: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, this one harks back to my original point about how your writing actually looks. Would your reader want to read it? Would you want to read it? Every day I still come across articles presented as a series of long paragraphs and big chunks. I just look at it and think, "I haven't got the energy to read that." I'm surprised that many of these popular publications still produce stuff like that. It looks so heavy-going, and it's off-putting. Unless I have a seriously good reason for reading it, I just choose not to.

My advice here is to segment your text. Include catchy one-liners. Use bullet points instead of long lists. Keep your content engaging by featuring key facts, pull them out, pop them in a little visuals. Make interesting visuals for the audience. Pull out captions that will draw the eye and things that will be remembered, actually highlight them. Make the experience enjoyable and make it effortless.

Chuck: Your final piece of advice, which is a great reminder for everyone before you publish anything, is it's the ultimate pound-your-head-on-the-desk moment, is to proofread. It's one of those situations where we are all our own worst editors. I would imagine this is one of those areas where it is great to have another set of eyes look at it. What other advice do you have here around proofreading?

Caroline: Absolutely. We all proofread, don't we? We rely on spell checker, maybe a bit too heavily. My advice here is to read it out loud. That helps to spot errors or omissions or silly mistakes. Don't worry about feeling conscious. If you do it self-conscious, you're going to read it out loud, 'cause you'll get used to it.

I recently heard about a guy who talks to a rubber duck when he needs to work through problems. It's called "rubber duck debugging." It's all about this chap who was a coding programmer and he talked to the rubber duck to work through his coding issues. If you're not comfortable just sitting in a room reading to no one, then find a favorite toy and select your victim, cuddly bear or something like that, and just read it to them. Just the act of reading it out yourself, you'll hear yourself miss words out or hear yourself say something that doesn't make sense.

That's the best advice. Then edit like crazy. Just be unbelievably brutal with it. I can't stress this enough, really. If you're in any doubt about whether it should be there, just cross it out. I find it really liberating, actually, to go through my writing with this determined approach at the end, just slashing bits out that I don't need and leaving it shorter, simpler, and sharper.

Chuck: All of that is great advice, as you shared. Even if it is just reminders for a lot of communicators. You showed a lot of great advice. As I was preparing for this show and working through the infographic and thinking about questions, another thought crossed my mind. So often, communicators, they're not the only ones communicating. I wondered, should communicators be out there actively working with other managers and other leaders in their organization, providing them some of the same advice around getting to the point, dropping the jargon?

Do you think that this is an opportunity for communicators to just step out of the role of being the day-to-day communicator, but also step into the role of being a bit of an educator and helping others communicate by providing tips like this?

Caroline: Definitely. Definitely. We talk a lot about coaching and coaching being part of an internal comms prose job. Coaching other people on areas like this is vital. There are workshops out there where people go into great depth, and I think that's brilliant, but I think sharing things like this infographic make it easier to digest. I like the idea of snackable content, like one of your recent guests talked about. Having small, sharp bits of content that you can just share. Important points like this without getting into heavy ins and outs.

On that note, as well, I want to stress that I'm not part of this grammar police brigade. I really don't like people that go 'round looking for errors and shouting about them just to show people up. I don't think it's very nice, actually. I do think that people shouldn't worry about getting things perfect. It's great to pass on information like this and to share it and to gradually improve your skills. Practice will help, so just keep writing, would be my advice. Keep practicing and keep reminding about the basics.

Reminds me of one of Rachel Miller's articles about wonky comms. I think that was actually the title. Google it if you've not read it, it's brilliant. It's all about encouraging others to write and creating content, and not being too worried about it being absolutely perfect. Just getting on with it.

Infographics like this one should help people to do that, to get the basics right.

Chuck: Caroline, I want to thank you for coming on ICology and sharing, again, this very helpful advice. It is that type of advice that is a great reminder, great for people to rethink, maybe, some of their habits when it comes to creating content, whether that be written content, whether that be a speech that you're writing for someone, whether it be video content, even possibly. There's all ways to improve that copy to make it resonate with your employees more.

Caroline: Mm-hmm, definitely.

Lightning round... 

Chuck: Now we're move on to the lightning round with the chance for listeners to learn a little bit more about you, Caroline. Are you ready?

Caroline: I'm ready.

Chuck: What is your number one traveling pet peeve?

Caroline: That would have to be airplanes. We mentioned at the start I broke my back on my honeymoon. We were in Australia at the time and I had to have a flying ambulance flight, which was in the middle of the night in a terrible storm, and I was laid out on a stretcher. I'm really not too keen on flying anymore. I love traveling so much. If you didn't have the plane part, it would be great.

Chuck: What's a book that you recommend every communicator should read?

Caroline: Definitely "The Chimp Paradox" by Steve Peters. Again, I wrote a post about it recently. I think it's essential reading for anyone, whether they're in comms or not. It's about mind management tool that makes us happy and more contented people. Ultimately I think that makes us better communicators.

Chuck: What's a tool that you rely on to make sense of your world? This could be an app, or possibly the Hemingway app like you talked about. This could be a website. This could be a hammer. What's something you use?

Caroline: Definitely my brain. I wouldn't be anywhere without that.

Chuck: What's the best piece of advice you've ever received and do you remember who gave it to you?

Caroline: Yeah. I think it's "Be brave enough to be yourself." I know the term "be authentic" is a bit overused and I've heard you talk about it. It's a fine line, really, between how much you talk about it. It's being yourself. It was from a very good friend of mine, Emma Lloyd, who is a coach, a management trainer. She runs a really successful Twitter camp called "Create the Ripple." She's always talking authenticity, positivity, being yourself. I've learnt a lot from her and from that, in general, about just being me.

Chuck: What's a piece of advice you want to share with listeners? This includes, obviously, communicators are listeners to this podcast, but also just people in business who want to get better at communicating. What's something you want to share with them?

Caroline: I kind of mentioned it earlier. It's the fact that perfection is overrated. I think good is good enough. You can spend hours, days, weeks, tweaking a piece of writing. Sometimes it doesn't even get out there in the end because you're not happy with it. You've got to draw the line somewhere and say, "Yes, this is good enough." If there's something you've written that you're not sure about, just get it out there and share it. Don't sweat over it anymore. People will let you know what they think. It will help you improve, regardless.

Chuck: Courageous and compassionate Caroline, I want to thank you for coming on ICology again. I'm a fan of the work that Alive With Ideas does, and I know you're a part of that machine that makes that happen. It's been an honor having you on the podcast.

Caroline: You're very welcome. Thank you for asking me.

Chuck: You can visit learnicology.com to catch up on old episodes, get to know guests better, read blog posts, check out events. Also, all episode transcriptions are available. Please check out the periodic table of internal communication at elementsofic.com. This was the project that I worked alongside with the Alive With Ideas team to help create. You can download the periodic table, check out elements, add resources, as well as submit your own element to the table.

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If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening.