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Getting your message right

Blame email and social media. They're making it easier than ever to say exactly the wrong thing

For farmers today, the ability to write clearly is more important than ever. Whether it’s writing Facebook posts to attract customers, blog posts to educate the public, a business proposal for potential partners, or position statements on behalf of a board of directors, being able to express your ideas coherently is an invaluable tool.

And it can be even more than that, especially since emails and other e-posts are so notoriously easy to misinterpret.

Recently I read a post on Facebook, written by a dairy farmer who wanted to share the realities of modern farm life with a group whose members are interested in food. In this post, the farmer explained that he’d had to dump the morning’s milking because milk from a cow being treated with antibiotics had accidentally gone into the bulk tank.

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The farmer thought he was helping consumers see how today’s dairy producers bend over backwards to only ship the very best and very safest milk.

Some readers, however, thought they detected an angry tone in his email, which meant that they were taking away the very different message that farmers think food safety is getting in the way of their profitability.

Today, such miscommunication can go from bad to absolutely horrible in an instant. A few clicks of the “share” button is all it takes for your post to be read by people around the world.

And yet, farmers can’t sit on the sidelines, stopping their communication efforts because of the potential dangers. Getting your point across via effective communication is essential these days.

So the question is: Is your writing hitting its mark?

And the answer to that question starts by asking two others: Do you know your target audience? And do you know what you want to accomplish?

For advice on how to write effectively and to ensure that our writing is on target, I turned to Susan Crossman, a Toronto writing coach and professional writer with 30 years experience.

First off, Crossman dispels the myth that not everyone can write, although some people do find the writing process intimidating. “They may have been told by their fourth grade teacher that they weren’t good at writing and that has stuck with them. The truth,” she says, “is that there is always more to learn. We are all on a continuum.”

Next, Crossman emphasizes the importance of being authentic in your writing. “Honesty is key,” she says.

To make the writing process go more smoothly, Crossman suggests you follow these steps before your fingers touch the keyboard.

Start by setting your goals, she says. “You need to have a clear idea of what you want this piece to do for you.” Do you want it to confirm your standing as an expert, influence readers to take action, inform people about something important, promote a product, or simply give yourself a chance to vent?

By clarifying the purpose of your document, you’ll stay focused. This in turn will give your writing more impact, she continues. “You’ll avoid wandering into irrelevant territory that might confuse or bore your audience.”

Next, think about your target audience. Your audience will determine the complexity of the language you should use, the level of detail required, and the voice you use to connect. Learn everything you can about your target audience beforehand, she says. How old are they? Are they married? Do they have kids? What are their interests? What are their greatest joys and biggest challenges?

Knowing your audience will help you choose the best words, metaphors and imagery that will resonate with your readers, adds Crossman. For example, when writing for the general public, it’s important to avoid the use of farming jargon or other words that are not common knowledge.

Likewise, if you are writing for a school group, gear your writing to the age level and interests of kids.

If you are writing marketing materials, what problem keeps your customers up at night and how does your product solve it?

Once you have a clear grasp of what you want to accomplish, and who your target audience is, you can begin your research. Crossman says that when people experience writer’s block it’s often a sign that they haven’t done enough research. It’s better to have more information than you need and then filter out the excess, she says. “It gives you the luxury of being selective about the information you include.”

Before you begin writing, it’s crucial to organize your research. Crossman shares a template that she uses for almost every writing project. She slots the information into one of four categories:

  1. Why is the topic important?
  2. What it involves.
  3. How it works.
  4. What are the future implications?

This system was developed by Dr. Bernice McCarthy, a leading expert on learning who studied how people process and retain information. By answering these four questions, you will appeal to everyone, says Crossman.

“I add an introduction and a conclusion, and I’m good to go,” she says. “This is very powerful.”

The last step before writing is to check for what’s missing. Take a step back from your research and ask yourself what you’ve left out.

Once you have all the information you need, and it’s all nicely organized, you can start crafting sentences to tie it all together, says Crossman, adding, “If you follow these steps, your document practically writes itself.”

While adopting Crossman’s strategy can make the writing flow more easily, however, she cautions against expecting the job to be painless.

For some people grammar is a challenge. They may never have been taught the rules or perhaps English isn’t their native tongue, says Crossman. “A lot of brilliant people struggle with grammar but unfortunately poor grammar will detract from your message.”

For those who want to improve their knowledge of grammar, Crossman recommends going to a website geared towards those who are learning English as a Second Language (ESL). On these sites you can start with the basics and work your way up from there, she says.

Creating linkages that connect one idea to another is also important for cohesive writing. Crossman likens them to “virtual bridges that readers can easily cross.” Use conjunctions like “although,” “as soon as,” “unless,” “until,” “however,” and “since.”

Another important strategy for keeping people engaged in your writing is to inject lively words. Use a thesaurus to avoid reusing the same words over and over again. “A little variety will keep people reading,” says Crossman. Avoid the passive voice by using active verbs, and use analogies, metaphors and questions selectively, to add depth to your writing.

While writing, many instructors recommend turning off your internal editor. Writing and editing use two different parts of the brain so try not to go back and forth between the two modes of operation. Focus, instead, on getting a draft completed.

When editing, look for flow, spelling, grammar, overall organization and audience appeal. Does it meet the intended goals? Recognize that no piece will ever be perfect, and sometimes you have to say “enough is enough,” says Crossman.

If you find this stage overwhelming, Crossman recommends asking a supportive colleague or friend to review it for you or seek the guidance of a professional editor, if needed.


Susan Crossman: Pointers for creating an online presence

Think of your online presence as “cultivating a community, an online neighbourhood.”

Then plan how to create multiple ways for people to find you and form a positive opinion about your farm business.

All of your social media should funnel back to your website. You will “Google better” if you are active on social media.

Blogs are a beautiful way to demonstrate how you do business. You can address the issues that are important to you and your customers in a professional way.

Instagram is a good tool for farmers to use since it is very visual.

With the Internet, you can influence people around the world. “Food supply is a global business. This is a very exciting opportunity.”

Resources

You will find tips and information on writing on Crossman’s website.

Crossman has authored two books on writing, available through Amazon:

For grammar help, Crossman recommends:

If you want to expand your vocabulary, sign up for:

  • Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Day at oed.com

Free writing resources on the Internet are available at:

About the author

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Helen Lammers-Helps

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