Category “Meerkat Communications”

“So what do you actually do?”

Wednesday, 17 June, 2015

WriterIt’s funny (though sadly not surprising) how much we tend to define ourselves and be defined by our jobs and job titles. I find that to be true even more so in South Africa where I’m from, but also here in Canada. It’s often occurred to me that few people understand what I mean by copywriting, technical writing, or even business communication. In many ways this is a big plus. I can define my job without anyone make assumptions about what I can and can’t do. It does also mean, however, that I have to spend quite a bit of time clarifying what I can offer clients and justifying what I do with my day!

Friends and family often don’t ‘get it’ either, and although that can be annoying sometimes, it’s actually really useful too.  Having to explain what I do to others means I have to be very clear on what it all means to me. When I left full-time teaching to figure out what I wanted to do as my next career step, I had to think deeply about what my values and goals were and what’s important to me on the job, and so Meerkat Communications was born.

As I was muddling through the process of starting a business, I also knew I wanted some financial stability and more importantly, I didn’t want to stop teaching, so I had to figure out how to keep doing that at the same time.

So what do I actually do?

Writing

Because I love writing and had some experience  working as an online writer and editor, I decided to focus primarily on writing web content, as well as other forms of marketing writing. Although copywriting is traditionally a term for writing for advertising, as Wikipedia explains, it actually refers to any writing/content “conveyed through online media and print materials”. My focus is on writing the text you read on a website, a brochure, a rack card or any other marketing materials or content you might need. Because of my academic and research background, I’ve also worked on research reports and white papers, as well as other types of documents.

Whether it’s writing or editing, for me, the best part is about helping clients clarify their ideas, understand their audiences, and expand their businesses. It’s always super exciting to see a website or brochure or thesis take shape and to be able to reflect the client’s vision in the written form. As the Internet has changed and we’ve become so much more search engine focused, I’ve started to work more and more in Search Engine Optimization as well. After all, you can have amazing content, but if no one finds you, he or she can’t read it!

I’ve also been blogging for a looooong time, and as social media content has expanded, so has my work in that area. It’s an interesting challenge having to learn to express ideas in 140 characters without sacrificing quality, and I love setting up and managing social media campaigns too. To me, if you don’t have good content, then any social media strategy is a waste of time, so it’s about adding value for your followers through content marketing.

I mostly take on small to medium business clients, but have also worked for larger organisations and subcontract to other writers or graphic designers who want to offer a more full-service experience. I update websites, write newsletters, and am about to embark on hosting a podcast, too.

Teaching

Since I was a child, I wanted to be a teacher. I was privileged to start in grad school at the University of Cape Town, and I was able to take that experience and get my full-time-turned-part-time teaching gig at BCIT, albeit in a slightly different field. I had to switch from English Lit and academic writing to Business and Technical Communication. So what does that mean?

Business and Technical communication focus on the essential skills needed to communicate in any job: using clear, concise language; correct formatting, and a reader-focused structure and tone (in short). Some of the courses I teach include grammar and language support for non-English speakers, but overall the focus is on learning to write and present business and technical information to all audiences. Technical Writing  or Technical Communication (as it is now being called) focuses specifically on more technical communication and document design. At BCIT, I teach a course that instructs students on how to write for the web.

I’m currently only teaching regular courses online, which has its pros and cons, but overall, I love the experience of working with students to improve their skills and teaching them something I know they’ll actually use on the job.

Corporate Training

What’s great about running your own business is being able to define your focus. Through my business, but also through BCIT’s corporate training department, I’m able to deliver workshops and courses to people already on the job but who need to improve or upgrade their communication skills. I love being able to talk to people about the challenges they face at work,and help them overcome these through better business and technical communication. I do short sessions, all day workshops, and full courses – all of these are rewarding, tiring, and exciting!

 So am I my job?

Above all, what I love about my job (jobs?) is the diversity. My days are never the same. There’s no 9-to-5 schedule, there’s no set tasks, and I have pretty flexible holidays too. It takes discipline and sometimes setting boundaries (when you work from home, you have to ensure the rest of the household understands you aren’t just farting around on the computer, but actually working!).

And yes, I would say that I do define myself as a teacher and writer, but above all, I believe in living a good, balanced life, doing what you love and encouraging others to do the same!

Geraldine

Do You Know Your Audience & Purpose?

Tuesday, 5 May, 2015

I know I’ve written about this topic before and probably talk about it just as much to anyone and everyone (students, friends, clients), but when I think about what is most important in communication, for me it always comes down to two central elements:

  • do you know who your audience is ?
  • are you clear on your main purpose?

Without in-depth knowledge of these two elements, you can’t formulate any form of coherent, well organized communication, nor can you succeed with that communication. To me, this applies in a business context as well as  a personal context.

3D Movie AudienceFirstly, you need to think carefully about your audience and conduct an audience analysis, whether in your head, on paper, in a mind map or scribble. You can do this in a very formal way, using demographics and psychographics, but a lot of it is common sense and putting yourself in that person’s shoes.

See if you can answer these types of questions:

  • what does my audience already know and not know about this issue?
  • what does she expect from me in terms of tone, formality, language?
  • what are her information preferences (e.g. does she prefer a phone call to an email?)
  • what are her biases? likes and dislikes?

The more you can pin down exactly who you’re communicating with and what they need and like, the easier your job will be. Sometimes, though, we have no clue who our audience is. In that case, do the best you can with making an educated guess based on the person’s job title (and don’t forget that a sometimes a simple Googling or a quick look on LinkedIn can yield a lot of information).

Once you have some clarity on who your message is for, you then need assess the point of your message. Ask yourself:

  • what is the main idea I need to get across to my reader? what do I need her to know/do/think?
  • what type of detail supports that main idea? what doesn’t?
  • will it make sense to the reader as is or do I need to include more background?
  • will anything change if I send this message?
  • is there a specific action I need her to complete?
  • is the timing right?
  • what can I take out to keep the message concise but clear?

When you can start to make a habit of this type of process, I can guarantee you’ll find that it makes creating the message so much easier, and you are more likely to get the response you want because you’ve anticipated objections or questions. You’ve also packaged the message in a way that takes your audience into account in all aspects (from information to organization to language and tone).

When you have absolute clarity on what you’re trying to achieve, your audience will too.

(and you’ll be surprised how often it can get you out of doing the dishes 😉 )

Geraldine

 

 

The Art of Research and Critical Thinking

Saturday, 30 August, 2014

Children's Dream LibraryI remember when I was studying, I had to battle many sneering remarks from Business Science students asking me what I’d do with my B.A. And then my Honours degree. And then my MA… I got all the ‘oh you’re getting a “Bugger All” degree’ and then the  ‘oh so now you’re the “Master of Bugger All”‘ type reactions, followed by the quizzical and somewhat sceptical  ‘so what can you actually do with that?’

When I started studying, I had a general idea of what I’d like to focus on (writing, teaching, English) but didn’t have a ‘career’ job in mind. And as I carried on studying, more and more what I realised was that I was learning some of the most important skills I would use in all aspects of my life: critical thinking and research skills. Literary analysis may seem pointless to many, but it teaches you to dig deeper, think wider, look at subtext and context, and examine your own reactions. It teaches you to think about the meaning of what the author is saying. It teaches you to love the complexity of language and increases your vocabulary. And while I was studying, I also learned how to do proper research and to really think about the information I found. It made me realise the importance of not just believing the first thing you come across, and it also taught me that there can be many interpretations and opinions, as well as theory to understand information.

Improving Your Research Skills

One of the first things to do when researching a topic is to consider the purpose for the research, as well as who it’s for. You can then start to narrow your research by creating a research question. So what exactly does that mean? A research question is a clear, focused, arguable question that you can centre your research around.  This allows you to

  • save time
  • focus your research and analysis
  • create the  main problem/issue that your thesis will resolve

Think about what makes the most sense in terms of your topic. For example, if you’re trying to find out how to reduce absenteeism due to repetitive stess injury in your workplace, your research question might be “how do we reduce RSIs in an office environment?” or “what equipment will help reduce RSIs?” Once you have your question, do some preliminary research (case studies, examples, terminology). Next, collect and consult a variety of sources (don’t just use Google – talk to people, go the library, etc.). Next, start reading your sources and take notes. Record your sources as you go. And then hypothesize. Where do you think your research will lead? What is your planned argument? What will you do if your research doesn’t support that planned argument?

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

When you’re gathering your sources, look at how reputable they are. If, for example, you’re researching a company, don’t just look at the company website, but try to find independent information about that company. Look for publication dates to see if the information is up to date. And when you’re looking at the sources, see if you can find clues as to what else to look for/what other sources to consult. Sometimes even the URL of a website can show you whether it’s a credible looking source or not. Then, as you go through the information you’ve gathered, look for coherent data to support your argument (or contradict it). If you have to put together written documentation to support your argument, then look for quality quotes you might be able to use. Take more notes. Research the authors. Keep asking questions. And don’t just look at the first page. Dig deeper. Then, take a step back, and try to see the bigger picture. What have you learned? What is still missing? And finally to quote Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

It may seem extremely elementary (pardon the pun), but if you’re going to be an effective researcher, you must  go beyond Google. Be curious. Think. Ask. Question. Reason. And follow your instincts. If it doesn’t seem right, it may not be. By having to write and research papers, I learned how to sift and how to select. I learned how to create well reasoned arguments and how to put together information. I think it’s also helped me read people better and has vastly contributed to my communication skills.  It made me a better writer, a better teacher, and, I hope, a better thinker.

 

Confession: I am a writer

Friday, 8 August, 2014

Here’s my big, dark secret: I am a writer. There. I confessed.

Writing and ReadingIt’s funny how often I don’t tell people this when they ask what I do. I say things like “Oh, I teach business communication and technical writing, and I run a copywriting and editing business.” And yes, it’s not like I’m claiming I’m an astronaut or elephant wrangler… or an axe murderer. It’s  pretty much the same thing, but I never straight up say I WRITE. I am a writer. I hide behind “instructor” or “entrepreneur”. I never make the shameful, out-loud proclamation that I am actually a writer of (fledgling) novels and poetry (published), along with websites and brochures and pretty much anything you need words for. It’s like I’m ashamed to say it out loud because isn’t everyone writing  a novel? Don’t only angsty 16 year olds and angsty 16th century people write poetry?

In my heart and soul, I am writer and a teacher. It doesn’t matter what I teach or what I write, this is who I am and what I am. I love words. I love their music. I love their ability to sting (not when aimed at me though, of course). I love that they can make one smile, laugh, cry, fume… Words! Black scrawls on a white page. Sticks tracing in the dirt. Finger paint on a cave wall. WORDS. I don’t know what drives me to write. I don’t write enough. I sometimes write too much. Often I write crap. But when I look at when I’m really, truly happy, writing is a big part of that.

I recently wrote about the anxiety of writing and did in a less direct way confess that I’m writing stories, but I’ve realised I need to be far bolder. I changed my LinkedIn profile description to Writer.  I’ve done the same on Twitter. I’ve also started talking about my writing plans more. And I’ve actually started doing more writing. I am currently working on three things: a manual for my web writing class (this is more academic but no less interesting; just a little easier in a lot of ways because it’s not quite the same as creative writing), a children’s story, and a full novel. I don’t want to share the plots of the latter two, mainly because I’m not entirely sure where they’re heading, and I’m still shy about it, but I AM at least telling people more. I’ve also started making time for these projects (not as much as I’d like, but still, it’s better than nothing) and have deliberately lightened my teaching and project load to do so. Writing a novel

I’ve realised that a lot of it boils down to anxiety. What does it mean if I really put myself out there and do something I feel I was born to do? And then – GASP – I fail? or (even worse?) succeed? The horror! But if not now, then when? My soul needs the nourishment. Creativity is just a part of who I am, and I’m starting to be okay with that…

Speaking of creativity, something else I’m really enjoying that is helping my creative juices is a drawing class. It’s been a wonderful way to do more drawing, but I find it also sparks my imagination and is helping me think more about my writing work. Of course I’m also working on client projects and trying to blog more (failing miserably but hey, this is better than nothing)… so it’s words, words, words but also shapes and light and shadow – helping me think more about my ideas, looking at the world in different ways, as well as working on positive habit building.

So, yes, I am a writer. And I’m okay with that.

Less is Definitely More When Writing Web Content

Tuesday, 10 June, 2014

Man surrounded by paperwork

I wrote the following post on the new LinkedIn publishing tool, and I know I’ve written similar topics before, but I thought it was worth reproducing here:

The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously stated that “less is more” when it comes to good design. The same applies to many things in life such as asking for favours, applying make up, McDonald’s, and above all, web content.

The challenge all web writers have is not only how to write engaging content but also how to keep visitors on a website long enough to actually read that content so they’ll do what you want them to do (e.g. buy your product, hire your company, etc.). One of the recommended rules of writing is that you should take what you’ve written, halve it, and then halve it again – leaving you with the core of the message.

It’s definitely something I’ve found hard, as a lover of words and coming from an academic background, but there is a certain satisfaction in knowing you’ve picked the most precise language, used one word instead of five (what’s wrong with using “because” instead of “due to the fact that”?), and kept it simple but eloquent.

So when you’re considering writing web content, remember the following tips:

  • lists and headings/sub-headings can often replace a chunk of text (but make these count – engage the reader and focus on your main ideas and calls to action)
  • images really can be worth 1000 words
  • paragraphs should be short and start or end with the main idea (think about how seldom we read everything on the page)
  • nouns and verbs should be concrete and precise
  • language should be easy to understand, concise, and conversational
  • meaning should be very clear – don’t make the reader search for key information (hint: they won’t!)
  • links and sub-pages can divide up long chunks of text and add value for the reader (remember we don’t read web content in a linear way like a book)

So, focus on what you want the reader to do on your page, help them navigate the information and the website as a whole with logical ideas and design, and make sure that whatever content you include answers all the reader’s potential questions.

Finally, Van der Rohe also said “God is in the details,” so don’t forget to do a thorough proofread, spell check, and fact check before you publish. Heaven forbid you include an incorrect phone number or broken link.

PS – If this sounds like your worst nightmare, despite my tips, then why not hire me to do it for you?

The Anxiety of Writing

Tuesday, 20 May, 2014

“Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: 

“Fool!” said my muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

 – Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella

It’s a strange thing that to writers, writing can be utterly terrifying. One would assume that given this is the person’s chosen profession, he or she would be happy to write! begging to write! willing, able, and eager to write!  but sometimes that really isn’t the case. In fact. sometimes it feels like utter madness choosing to do this for a career. In any creative profession, it’s very hard to go “Okay, 1-2-3, create!” but at the same time, there is no right time to create – one has to be diligent and disciplined and actually create a writing habit.

There are books, courses, quotes, blog posts, dedicated to creating a writing habit. And yet it is all still easier said than done. I have been trying to make time for my own writing, something I’ve promised myself I will concentrate more on this summer in particular as I have a lighter teaching load near the end of the term and yet the thought of it (doing something I love and that brings me immense satisfaction) completely paralyses me.

Isn’t it funny? Writing is what I feel compelled to do with my life (in fact, I started Meerkat in order to be able to do it as part of my career). Writing is what I dream about. Perhaps it’s that I fear really, really putting it all out there and confessing that I’m working on a novel. Then  a) I’ll actually have to do it b) people will want to know what it’s about and actually want to read it (gasp!) and c) I’ll actually have to do it!

I’m trying to combine some ideas from Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Gilbert (check out some of her thoughts on writing)- though I have a suspicion I’m stalling on Idea 1 to avoid Idea 2. Rubin suggests de-cluttering to aid in happiness and productivity, and my office is a total disaster. It doesn’t help that it’s also our music room (this includes an antique organ, guitars, and amps) or that as the term goes on, I end up with piles of extra handouts, papers, etc. from teaching, or that I really need a new desk… At the same time, it’s not as if I have to write in my office or that I have to have a pristine space in which to write (though it certainly helps, I do often do my best work while at a coffee shop/some public sphere – I’m writing this as my students write their midterm). Gilbert suggests setting a timer and writing for 30 minutes; making manageable blocks of time and getting things done. Whenever, wherever. Again, this would mean I actually have to do it!

Baby steps, baby steps. At least I’ve taken some time to update my blogs. Next step, more tidying, but also MORE DISCIPLINE, LESS FEAR!

“Discipline allows magic. To be a writer is to be the very best of assassins. You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of that bitch.”  – Lilia St. Crow

“What Happens in an Internet Minute?”

Sunday, 3 November, 2013

I often think about the sheer volume of the Internet. I remember clearly the first time I saw “the Internet” (yes, I remember life before it…) and the person who showed me asked me for something to search for and we decided on “macaroni cheese recipes”. I wish I could remember the amount of hits, but must have been in the hundreds or possibly low thousands, which at the time seemed staggering. Now, that’s a drop in the ocean of data.

With the steady increase in mobiles and the ability to access the web on the go, the amount of money exchanged, videos downloaded, photos uploaded, interactions, emails, etc. is astounding. At the Plain Language Conference 2013 that I attended a few weeks ago, I was interested but not surprised to see the stats on mobile web usage growth between this year and last, as presented by Dr. Neil James of the Plain Language Foundation (see infographic below).

Global Web Usage on Mobile Phones

I also recently came across a fascinating article on the Intel website that ties into this. The article (by Krystal Temple) discusses what happens in just 60 seconds on the Internet. Besides the really useful and somewhat frightening infographic below, one quote leaped out at me: “By 2015, the number of networked devices is expected to be double the world’s population. And by the time we reach 2015, it would take five years to view all the video content crossing IP networks each second.” (Temple).

What Happens in an Internet Minute infographicSo on we hurtle. And if today, there are roughly 8,850,000 Google results for “macaroni cheese recipes”, what will that number be in just a few years time?

Geraldine

Monday, 28 October, 2013

“High-quality web content that’s useful, usable, and enjoyable is one of the greatest competitive advantages you can create for yourself online.”

― Kristina Halvorson, Content Strategy for the Web

Finding Inspiration When Blogging

Tuesday, 17 September, 2013

It’s often really hard to just launch into writing a blog. Beyond the possible technical challenges, there’s also the inevitable questions like “what do I write about?”, “what should I sound like?”, “will anyone even read this junk?”…. I find one of the best ways to get inspiration, ideas, and hopefully peace of mind, is to start by reading other blogs. Don’t copy them, but pick out what you like and don’t like about them. What works? What doesn’t work? What makes you want to keep reading?

Once you have built up some ideas, then start writing. Ensure you use your own voice in your blog and focus on writing something that you could imagine yourself reading. Start a list of topics so you don’t run out of steam and keep practicing.

For some ideas, you can take a look at this list of blogs that a colleague at BCIT and I developed for a recent Tech Writing Alumni Lunch:

For Business/Writing:

For Pleasure:

Whether you learn from good blogs or bad, don’t let anything stop you from just going for it!

Geraldine

 

Using Operators to Determine Keyword Popularity

Tuesday, 6 August, 2013

An alternative or perhaps companion to keyword research tools, operators can help you identify the popularity of certain keywords and keyword phrases when you are optimizing a site. Although very limited in the level of information you receive, I find them a quick way to check for popularity, as you simply type in a word before your search term/keyword phrase into Google and hit ‘search’ to get your results.

There are three main types of operators you can use:

1) Allintitle This operator tells you how many web pages globally have the same keywords listed in their title tags.

E.g.  “Allintitle: thai restaurants” is typed into the search field. The SERP then reports back that 744,000 web pages on the web contain both these words in their title tag.

Using Operators for Keyword Popularity

2) Intitle: This works the same way as Allintitle, but shows all web pages that list any of the keywords. So in the example above, if you used “intitle:” instead of “allintitle:” the SERP would reflect all websites that contained either the keyword “thai” OR the keyword “restaurants” in their title tags.

3) Allinanchor: This operator allows you to see how many links on the web are using the specific keywords.

If you’d like to know more about using keyword research tools for SEO, I recently wrote a post on the new Google Keyword Planner and how it differs from the Keyword Tool.