Flash Fiction:
a complete story in one thousand words
or fewer.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Machete, Not a Scalpel

A marketing brochure just came across my desk. When you open the brochure's cover, there's a left-hand page (cover two) that contains a diagram and a few quotes, and a right-hand page that contains text. Here's the top of the opening page:
As federal agencies continue to struggle to increase service levels in the face of shrinking budgets, they also find themselves under more intense scrutiny than ever before -- from the public, as well as other departments and executive branches of government. In order to maintain peak levels of productivity and cost-efficiency, while meeting growing demands for transparency, accountability, and performance, they must re-invent the way they operate.

Business intelligence and enterprise integration solutions from Information Builders have empowered many federal government institutions to overcome their greatest challenges and reach their most important goals. By enabling the creation of a single, fully unified technology infrastructure; making complete and timely data readily accessible to employees, regulatory bodies, and constituents; and automating key processes and workflows, Information Builders technologies are helping federal agencies to transform themselves into more efficient, agile, and responsive organizations.

With Information Builders’ solutions, federal agencies can:
  • Increase visibility across the entire organization

  • Improve performance and productivity

  • Reduce operating costs

  • Better manage important programs and initiatives

  • Eliminate fraud, abuse, and waste

  • Share critical information with other agencies

  • Enhance service to and communication with the public

The problem is, there's almost double this amount of text following this, and all of this is supposed to fit on the first page.

Here was my recommendation back to the people creating the text:
Start by eliminating the entire first paragraph; we’re telling them things they already know instead of telling them our value. Then cut fluff and passive voice from the second paragraph to read:

Business intelligence and enterprise integration solutions from Information Builders help federal agencies transform themselves into more efficient, agile, and responsive organizations. They enable the creation of a single, fully unified technology infrastructure; make complete and timely data readily accessible to employees, regulatory bodies, and constituents; and automate key processes and workflows.

Shazam: 139 words just became 51. That, along with some less-intense hacking, the rest of the copy should fit.

This was clearly using a machete instead of a scalpel, but sometimes that's what you need.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Marketing Copy: Condensing An Intro Into An Ad

A task at my day job seemed perfectly suited to creating a new blog post: create a newsletter ad for a white paper download. The white paper in question is “Leveraging Integration to Weather the Economic Storm”, which you can find here (registration required).

The specs for the advertisement called for 75 or fewer words. I figured that I should distill the paper’s message into 75 words by copying the introduction, which is itself a distillation of the paper. Here it is:

Even the toughest of times comes with a silver lining. Economic slowdowns and other business challenges force us to refocus our efforts on our core business practices. They shift our attention to the things we tend to ignore during periods of growth – like improving efficiency, cutting costs, and enhancing strategies.

But, fear and pessimism are not the answer. Planning and decision-making based on reason, rather than dread and apprehension, are the keys to weathering the storm.

Remember, tough times don’t last forever. A little advance planning now could pay off when the economy begins its inevitable upswing. That’s where integration comes in. While corporations are implementing rigid cost-cutting measures across the board, many are actually increasing their spending on integration projects and related technologies. And, with good reason.

This white paper highlights four primary ways to use integration to make your business better during a down economy. You’ll discover how, with the right integration plan and supporting software in place, your company can increase efficiency, minimize expenses, and streamline and accelerate core processes. You’ll also learn about iWay Software, and what makes it the ideal suite of solutions for any integration project. And, as a bonus, we’ll tell you about two innovative ways to leverage your results to put yourself in the best possible position when the expansion begins.

[Yes, I hate the construction “Conjunction, blah blah blah” at the beginning of a sentence, too. The editorial staff has promised me that they’ll eventually fix that.]

So I’m starting with 219 words, over 1400 characters. I need to cut this thing by 66%.

I could start by rewriting, but that’s tough. Instead, I decided to get rid of all of the fat.
Even the toughest of times comes with a silver lining. Economic slowdowns and other business challenges force us to refocus our efforts on our core business practices. They shift our attention to the things we tend to ignore during periods of growth – like improving efficiency, cutting costs, and enhancing strategies.

Why “and other business challenges”? This is a paper about the economy, not about other business challenges.

“Force us to refocus our efforts on” is seven words where “make us focus on” will do.

Combining sentences can be effective, as long as they don’t get unwieldy. In this case, instead of starting a new sentence with “They shift our attention”, I can use “, shifting our attention”. It’s only one word, but it sets a style that I can use later.

Prepositional phrases trigger my cutting instinct: “periods of growth” are “growth periods”.
Even the toughest of times comes with a silver lining. Economic slowdowns make us refocus on core business practices, shifting our attention to the things we ignore during growth periods: improving efficiency, cutting costs, and enhancing strategies.

37 words from 50: a 26% cut.
But, fear and pessimism are not the answer. Planning and decision-making based on reason, rather than dread and apprehension, are the keys to weathering the storm.

I want to axe this whole sentence just because it begins with But-comma. But I won’t. I’ll axe it because I’m pretty sure that I won’t get the chance to keep this, and it really only adds to the mood without adding any specific information. Away it goes.
Remember, tough times don’t last forever. A little advance planning now could pay off when the economy begins its inevitable upswing. That’s where integration comes in. While corporations are implementing rigid cost-cutting measures across the board, many are actually increasing their spending on integration projects and related technologies. And, with good reason.

I’m looking for the contrast between “Tough times” and “But there’s more to think about” that I had in the last version, so I’ll change “Remember” to “But”.

In the second sentence, “now” is redundant (when else are you going to do advance planning?), while “begins its inevitable upswing” just takes too long.

The next sentence is trying to strike a balance in the original: even though people are spending less, they’re careful to fund integration (“and related technologies” – I should have cut them, but didn’t notice it when I was iterating through this process. Don’t worry, though, they don’t really matter, so they’ll be cut soon). I can change the tone slightly by making it sound like some companies are rigid in their cost-cutting efforts (which is true) while others are increasing their integration spend (also true).
But tough times don’t last forever. A little advance planning could pay off when the economy swings upwards. While some corporations implement rigid cost-cutting measures, others are increasing their spending on integration projects and related technologies. And with good reason.

That’s 42 words, down from 50 in this paragraph plus the entire 26 words from the previous one: 45% cut.
This white paper highlights four primary ways to use integration to make your business better during a down economy. You’ll discover how, with the right integration plan and supporting software in place, your company can increase efficiency, minimize expenses, and streamline and accelerate core processes. You’ll also learn about iWay Software, and what makes it the ideal suite of solutions for any integration project. And, as a bonus, we’ll tell you about two innovative ways to leverage your results to put yourself in the best possible position when the expansion begins.

This is the selling point, so I don’t want to cut too heavily. Just trim the fat first. “primary” goes away; “to use integration to make” becomes “integration can make”; “You’ll discover how, with the right integration plan and supporting software in place, your company can” becomes “You’ll discover how integration can help your company”; “we’ll tell you about” becomes “we’ll discuss”; “to put yourself in the best possible position when” becomes “to position yourself well for when”. (That last one isn’t a perfect map, but I think it’s close enough.)
This white paper highlights four ways integration can make your business better during a down economy. You’ll discover how integration can help your company increase efficiency, minimize expenses, and streamline and accelerate core processes. You’ll also learn about iWay Software, and what makes it the ideal suite of solutions for any integration project. As a bonus, we’ll discuss two innovative ways to use your current results to position yourself well for when the expansion begins.

91 words down to 75: an 18% cut.

Okay, that’s all nice, but we still need major surgery. We’re still at just over 150 words, which means we need to cut this in half. I’m running out of time on the post, so here is a rush-through of the next two iterations:

* “Even the toughest of times comes with a silver lining” is trying too hard to get the metaphor in there. Cut it to “Even tough times bring some good results.”

* “Economic slowdowns make us refocus on core business practices, shifting our attention to the things we ignore during growth periods” really means “Economic slowdowns shift our attention to core processes we ignore during good times”.

* The “advance planning” section is too much. What’s the point? That you need a plan. So come out and say that: “But tough times don’t last forever. A little advance planning could pay off when the economy swings upwards” becomes “But you also need a plan for when the tough times end.”

* Stop talking about “some corporations”, which is wordy and distant, and talk about what you need to do, person-who-should-download-my-white-paper. Something like “Instead of implementing across-the-board cost-cutting measures, you may need to shift spending to integration projects.” But is that the point? Not really: the point is that you need to download my white paper to see why you should focus on these four specific integration projects. The latter implies the former. So cut that whole line.

* For the last paragraph, eliminate the repetition (now glaring because of its proximity) of improving efficiency, cutting costs, and enhancing strategies. What are we really doing in the white paper? Well, the four projects improve efficiencies and cut costs, while the forward-looking stuff is strategic. So say that: “This white paper shows four ways integration can make your business more efficient and less costly, and discusses two innovative ways to use these results for strategic advantage in the coming expansion.”

* Finally, what about iWay Software branding? People who download the paper expect some iWay discussion in the paper, and the logo is already on the download page, so it’s really redundant and may even put people off just a little bit. What’s important is that we prove that the things we’re talking about aren’t pipe dreams, that they’re things people have actually done. If we show that our customers have done the work, prospects will naturally think that we can do it for them. “Better still, you’ll see case studies that prove it can be done.”

Here’s the final:
Even tough times have some good results. They force us to focus on improving efficiency, cutting costs, and enhancing strategies.

But we also need plans for when tough times end. This white paper shows four ways integration can make your business more efficient and less costly, and discusses two innovative ways to use these results for strategic advantage in the coming expansion. Better still, you’ll see case studies that prove it can be done.

74 words, and right on deadline.

I wouldn’t use exactly this for the introductory copy, but going through the iterations here made me wish we’d done more cutting on the paper itself. But the paper’s not bad. If integration is interesting to you, go download it. If not, then I hope you got something out of the discussion of the cutting process.

What do you think?

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Introductory Letter for Conference

I work for a Business Intelligence software company named Information Builders. In preparing for Summit, our annual user conference, we created a letter from our CEO to the attendees. I think the process by which we shaped it provides a pretty good example of how cutting matters even for relatively small tasks.

Our writer was playing off the Las Vegas venue and our "no barriers" theme, while trying to generate excitement about the learning opportunities at Summit.

Here's the original, 283 words:

Welcome to Summit 2007 and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas! I am excited to share with you five action-packed days of experience, collaboration, and innovation.

This year’s conference will focus on showing you how Information Builders’ solutions can eliminate the barriers to your organization’s success. Featuring over 160 sessions, including new presentations and perennial favorites, there will be unlimited opportunities for intense discussions, networking, and information gathering. This is the prefect learning opportunity for those who have just started using Information Builders’ products as well as those who have relied on our technologies for more than 30 years.

Responding to our customers’ requests has always been a primary focus for Information Builders. This philosophy is evident in the agenda that we have assembled for Summit 2007. One of this year’s new features is a full day dedicated to exploring topics specific to major industries. By focusing on how our technologies can be applied to resolve your unique issues, you are sure to bring added value to your organization.

We are also excited to introduce our improved education track – aptly named Basic Training. Our most requested educational, expert, and technical courses have been compiled here for a win-win conference experience. While we’ve changed some things to meet the demands of our customers – many of the favorites are back, including tracks that highlight each of our product lines and give you a glimpse at of what lies ahead, lots of labs showing you the nitty-gritty product features and techniques, and plenty of opportunities for you to meet with experts in a one on one.

Summit 2007 will be the only place in the city known for risk where you are guaranteed to hit the jackpot.


That's not bad, and I wouldn't have been upset if it went out exactly as written. That said, it could be better.

First, consider the form. This has the form of a personal letter, which lets us use a colloquial tone. (Also, our CEO isn't stuffy, so I wouldn't want his letter to seem too formal.) It's also likely to be skipped if we don't do something fast, relevant, and punchy; we needed a relatively small and impactful page.

Next, consider what we could do to improve it: eliminate the passive voice (and even non-passive forms of "to be"), use fewer words to say the same thing to make it read more quickly.

Here's what we came up with, 223 words (a 21% cut):

Welcome to Summit 2007 and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas!

Get ready for five action-packed days of experience, collaboration, and innovation, showing you how Information Builders' solutions eliminate the barriers to your organization's success. Over 160 sessions, including new presentations and perennial favorites, will provide unlimited opportunities for intense discussions, networking, and information gathering -- the perfect learning opportunity for new users as well as those who have relied on Information Builders technologies for more than 30 years.

Our primary focus -- responding to our customers' requests -- shines through in the Summit 2007 agenda. For example, we have dedicated a full day to exploring topics specific to major industries. You'll learn how to add value to your organization by applying our technologies to your [industry's?] unique issues.

We are also excited to introduce our improved education track - aptly named Basic Training. We've compiled our most requested educational, expert, and technical courses for a win-win conference experience. While we've changed some things to meet customer demand, many favorites are back -- including tracks that highlight each of our product lines and give you a glimpse of what lies ahead, lots of labs showing you nitty-gritty product features and techniques, and plenty of opportunities to meet with experts one-on-one.

In the city known for risk, Summit 2007 guarantees that you'll hit the jackpot.


It's tough to make education exciting, but I think this comes off pretty well.

I still wasn't sure what "win-win conference experience" was, so the writer changed it to "winning conference experience". (She made a few other good smallish changes, too, but those weren't my work so I won't post them here.)

There may be a little more that could be excised. But the cuts so far have achieved something more important than just a 21% reduction: they gave every action an actor. It's not just that "there will be" unlimited opportunities, it's that we've planned 160 sessions to provide them to you. It's not just that Summit will be a place where you are guaranteed a jackpot, Summit itself guarantees you the jackpot. In other words, we're actively doing all of this for you, dear Mr. / Ms. Customer, and you should be thrilled with how well we're going to pull it off.

That's the beauty of eliminating the passive voice. It's more efficient and it makes everything clearer and more expressive, even more emotional. It helps you connect with the person for whom you're writing. Good stuff.

Summit is taking place right now, by the way -- which is why I'm willing to publish this post -- and it has been a great experience so far. If you're a customer of ours and you're not here, you should really check it out next year.

Good writing!

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Press Release Boilerplate

This is my first marketing-oriented post, but I think it's a pretty good example of how important cutting principles can be in my day-to-day work.

Press release text is notoriously dull. Cutting excess or redundant verbiage can help.

Here's a boilerplate -- the stuff about the company that ends every press release -- suggested for my company's releases. It's 218 words.

Information Builders, an innovator for more than 30 years, provides a unique combination of software solutions for business intelligence and enterprise integration. WebFOCUS, the world's most widely deployed and utilized business intelligence platform, provides organizations with a comprehensive and fully integrated platform whose architecture, integration, and simplicity permeate every level of the global organization -- executive, analytical, and operational. WebFOCUS is the most scalable, secure, and flexible solution in the market and helps organizations build applications that have no barriers, meeting all the reporting needs of the extended enterprise, ranging from a dozen users to millions of users. iWay Software is the company's multi-purpose integration software, comprised of the industry's leading adapters and state-of-the-art engines for integrating and managing all enterprise information assets. iWay Software addresses all SOA, application, data, and information management integration requirements and has been adopted by the leading software platform providers. Together, these products give Information Builders' customers the ability to access information from any data source and uniquely solve complex problems for today’s real-time business.

Information Builders' award-winning technology has successfully provided quality software and superior services to more than 12,000 customers, including most of the Fortune 100 and U.S. federal government agencies. Headquartered in New York City with 90 offices worldwide, the company employs 1,600 people and has more than 350 business partners.
There are several things to notice here.

Redundant words. We used "platform" twice here: "WebFOCUS, the world's most widely deployed and utilized business intelligence platform, provides organizations with a comprehensive and fully integrated platform..." And "ranging from a dozen users to millions of users" is a little clunky; there's no reason we can't say "dozens to millions of users." "iWay Software is the company's multi-purpose integration software," also sounds a little off, since "iWay Software" is actually the name of a subsidiary company (although it's sometimes, confusingly, used to refer to the software itself).

Too many adjectives. There's little benefit to saying that WebFOCUS is the world's most widely deployed and most widely utilized BI platform. Now, unlike some forms of writing, in marketing conciseness isn't everything. You really do want to say a lot of those positive words, even though they're somewhat redundant, because the text looks bald without them. But where there are opportunities to pull things out, you should.

Cramming. There are a lot of things we want to convey quickly here, but unfortunately the sentence structure can become too convoluted to handle the semantic load. "Scalable, secure, flexible," "executive, analytical, and operational", and a few specific highlights for our company: "simple" and "no barriers" are ideas in this boilerplate. I tried to make the sentence structure cleaner, even though it meant breaking up the sentences somewhat.

Notice the structure of the boilerplate:
  • We're an innovator of software solutions that involve BI and integration.
  • WebFOCUS is the BI product, with the following characteristics.
  • iWay Software is the integration product, with the following characteristics.
  • We have lots of customers and credibility.
It's a decent structure, so I kept it and reshaped the text inside it. Note, however, is that the first and fourth bullets are about the company rather than the products; it's reasonable to move text between those two to emphasize key points.

Here are some of the ways I changed the text.
  • I wanted the reader to see "award-winning", the number of customers we have, and our longevity early on. My company is privately held and doesn't do a lot of awareness marketing (e.g., advertising), so people might not know who we are. These three facts prove that we're no fly-by-night.
  • I thought that calling us an "innovator" wasn't strong enough: an innovator of what? I wanted to say what we do first (BI and integration software), and then differentiate us from all the other people who do the same thing. Well, the combination of world-class BI and world-class integration is unique in this market, and we're well-known for both, so I highlighted the combination.
  • We've been pushing how innovative we are, so I wanted to keep the word in the boilerplate. "Innovative solutions" isn't much stronger than "innovator", to be honest, but it has the merit of pointing out that we provide customized solutions rather than just shrink-wrapped software. I acknowledge that we're bordering on the subliminal, but I guarantee you that, if nothing else, the phrase will help get the darned thing approved.
  • I cut a few things. (Remember cutting? It's a blog about cutting.) The "global organizations" we refer to are also the "extended enterprises" we support, so I refer once to "global extended enterprises". I omitted the word "architecture" because the architecture is what provides the security, scalability, and flexibility that our users need; in other words, I followed the conventional marketing wisdom that the benefit is more important than the feature that gives it. (If there's one cut that our Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) will want to put back in, though, it's probably "architecture". Our architecture really is superior, and we compete based on it all the time.) I cut the "for integrating and managing all enterprise information assets" from the iWay Software description because that's encompassed by "addresses all SOA, application, data, and information management integration requirements".
  • The last paragraph is a little messy. It has "successfully provided quality software" is either redundant or pedantic. The subject of the first sentence is "technology", and it has apparently "provided quality software and superior services" -- but really it's the company that provides software and services. (Plus the parallel structure of "quality software and superior services" got to be a little much for me.) Restructuring and cutting helps.
  • Instead of paraphrasing our "No Barriers" slogan, I stated it, taking it on as a rallying cry or an elliptical mission statement -- and in the process added to it, as my CMO and I have been discussing for a little while. It's "Your business, no barriers" now.

Here's the final version, which clocks in at 154 words, a 29% cut.

Information Builders' award-winning combination of business intelligence and enterprise integration software has been providing innovative solutions for more than 12,000 customers for the past 30 years.

WebFOCUS is the world's most widely utilized business intelligence platform. It provides the security, scalability, and flexibility needed at every level of global extended enterprises. Its simplicity helps create executive, analytical, and operational applications that reach dozens to millions of users.

Information Builders subsidiary iWay Software provides state-of-the-art, multi-purpose integration engines that address all SOA, application, data, and information management requirements. Its integration adapters have been adopted by the leading software platform providers.

Together, these products give Information Builders' customers the ability to live up to the company motto: "Your Business, No Barriers."

Information Builders' customers include most of the Fortune 100 and U.S. federal government agencies. Headquartered in New York City with 90 offices worldwide, the company employs 1,600 people and has more than 350 business partners.
There are other temptations, too. For example, the "has been providing" in the first sentence screams for a re-write: it could be "Information Builders' award-winning combination of business intelligence and enterprise integration software has delivered innovative solutions to more than 12,000 customers for the past 30 years." I honestly like that better except that it feels over, like this track record has been completed. "Has been providing" is less definite, and thus -- unusually -- better. But I think this is good enough.

Happy writing!

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