In this world of always-on, 24-hour, information-overloaded, stress-inducing communication, the last thing you want to do is add to the madness.
So if you're trying to persistently (but politely) get your audience's attention, you want to break through in a way that results in appreciation, not gritted teeth.
The answer? It's simple, really: provide information that will help any audience--customers, constituents, employees, neighbors, suppliers--solve a problem or do something more easily, quickly or effectively.
The two magic words for this are "how to." Everyone wants to improve something: our diet, our décor, our presentation skills, our ability to create strategic plans. So figure out what audience members want to do, and provide information to help them do it.
Luckily, inspiration for how to create how-tos is as close as your nearest newsstand. Here are five publications to emulate. Spoiler alert: Some of them may surprise you!
My co-author Jane Shannon, who also wrote 73 Ways to Improve Your Employee Communication Program, is a big fan of Real Simple. The magazine, she writes, "should be a model for all communicators. Real Simple takes big topics and breaks them down into smaller, interesting stories:
- Instead of "How to Organize Everything in Your Life," there's a "Your Inner Garage" article that tells you how to organize your garage (with obvious and memorable life lessons).
- Rather than "Financial Advice for the Millennium," there's a "Hell to Pay" item about the benefits of paying bills on time, plus techniques and tools on how to do just that.
"In short," Shannon explains, "take the next big story or topic you come across and break into lots and lots of interesting stories that will help people do the right thing."
I was reading this magazine while eating lunch in our firm's kitchen the other day, and someone walking by said, "Family Circle? I didn't know that magazine even existed." Sure it does, and its brilliance is that the magazine is dedicated to giving its readers fundamental advice. The idea is not to make assumptions about what readers know, but instead to explain things very completely. For instance, a recent issue had an article on how to make a bed.
Here's how it began: "First things first: Why make the bed every day? You know the theory--it sets the tone for the day, it's linked to productivity. Plus, who doesn't want to come home to a put-together bed?"
I was in. I kept reading to learn:
- How to Make Hospital Corners
- To Top Sheet or Not to Top Sheet?
- Fitted-Sheet Fixes
- Getting the Comforter into the Duvet Cover--And Keeping It There
I've been making a bed a long time, so I knew a lot of this. But I still learned some useful tips.
People are always amused when I include Cosmo in my must-read list of publications, but there's a very important reason I do so: brilliant cover lines, those short headlines (on the cover, of course) that promote what's in each issue. Like other consumer magazines, Cosmopolitan not only offers subscriptions, it also relies on sales of individual copies at newsstands, supermarket racks, and in airport shops. And it's a jungle out there--magazines only have a few seconds to catch a potential buyer's attention, convincing her to pick up the magazine, look at it more closely, and decide to buy it.
Cosmo is a master of cover lines like:
- "How to snag the man you want"
- "50 fun ways to get close to him"
- "5 relationship rules you gotta break"
- "10 times it's okay to be a bitch"
What makes these great? They're short, snappy, easy to read. They're helpful. And they're fun. Cosmo doesn't take itself too seriously. You can sense the smile and the wink behind the words.
The Wall Street Journal
This respected business publication has quietly become a powerhouse of helpful information. Read the Journal every day and you'll find a story or two with advice, but pick it up on the weekend and you'll find a whole section with articles on fashion, cars, wine--even recipes. For example, a few Saturdays ago I came across an article called "Here comes the sun" with instructions on how to make Seville orange marmalade and a regular feature called "Slow Food Fast" with a recipe for pork chops with candied apples and green bean amandine.
But my favorite recent how-to piece in the Journal is an article sharing five tips on "How to Build a Snow Fort." The Journal found an expert (Who knew?), Jeff Benton, senior instructor at the Colorado Mountain Club, who shared his five essential steps (with detailed instructions for each):
- Step 1: Select a site.
- Step 2: Pile your snow.
- Step 3: Do nothing.
- Step 4: Set the wall depth.
- Step 5: Dig!
The New York Times
Like the Journal, the Times has quietly ramped up its advice quotient. Why? Such content meets the needs of readers and leads to clicks and subscriptions (which leads to advertising revenue). In fact, the Times has created the Smarter Living newsletter, a "weekly roundup of the best advice from The Times on living a better, smarter, more fulfilling life." Here are five of the most popular articles of last year:
- Only answer email once or twice a day
- Quit being the flaky friend; it's not cute
- Can't make the party? Don't apologize
- Order a cocktail without annoying the bartender
- Just be a better listener
Got the picture? Advice is, well, nice.