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Is there a Perfect Sentence Length?

August 25, 2014

Henry_James_by_John_Singer_SargentIn a word, no.

I read with some bemusement an article on the Inside GOV.UK blog that you shouldn’t write sentences of more than 25 words in length.

(Inside GOV.UK describes itself as ‘a product blog about developing and iterating the GOV.UK website. For the people who publish content to the site and anyone else who is interested.’)

Inside GOV.UK is, of course, providing guidance primarily for government information websites. That means it is applying its rules to the specific context of a broad base of constituents who are trying to find information as quickly as possible.

Apparently, sentences that are longer in length than 25 words are very difficult to read, and the optimum length of a sentence is just 14 words. (That last sentence just broke the rule of 25 words, so most readers didn’t undertand what I just wrote.)

The problem is that these sorts of pronouncements are often conflated to apply to broader contexts, such as business to business communications, and that’s not always helpful. Government websites with the primary goal for users to skim read and find the information they need as quickly as possible is a totally proposition to content that needs to engage business stakeholders, clients and partners.

In fact, the problem may be even worse.

I remember studying Henry James at university and being struck by the length of his sentences yet how his prose was very ‘readable’. In doing a search online for “Henry James sentence length” I found this in the Washington Post:

Several English department chairs from around the country have e-mailed her to say their students are having trouble reading the classics.

“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

Wolf points out that she’s no Luddite. She sends e-mails from her iPhone as often as one of her students. She’s involved with programs to send tablets to developing countries to help children learn to read. But just look, she said, at Twitter and its brisk 140-character declarative sentences.

“How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?” she said. “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

- Washington Post, ‘Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say‘, b, 6 April 2014

I sometimes receive feedback that the sentences in my case studies are “too long”; but the most important thing is to engage the reader and convey meaning, which is often best achieved with a conversational tone – and we don’t tend to speak in staccato, 14-word sentences. In fact, variability is always my numer one priority, particularly with the long form case study.

To put it to the test, I ran the latest draft of a case study I am currently working on through an online word counter and text analyser. Here are the results:

  • 1357 words, with 557 unique words used
  • An average length of 27 words per sentence, with the shortest sentence at 10 words and the longest at 61 words
  • No common word sequences apart from “of the” and “in the”

I think that with the simplification of content, we are in danger of not just losing reader engagement, but also meaning. In a blog post that refers to the Washington Post article above (‘Social media more complex than great literature‘), there is a great infographic included entitled ‘Tweets are harder to read than great literature‘. The blog post also provides a great conclusion that works just as well for this post:

Henry James despised sentences that were a “mere seated mass of information”.  Without syntax, words would just sit there like lumps. It’s syntax that gives them backbone. There’s meaning in the way they come together.

 (Pictured above: “Henry James by John Singer Sargent cleaned”, Public Domain, sourced from Wikipedia)

 

 

Free Advice

July 29, 2014

131500 trainsIt’s always good to see your free advice acted on. However, I’m not sure if I can claim direct credit for this one. More than likely it was one of the recommendations made during a number of projects costing CityRail more than $1 million in consultancy and design fees, market research and testing (see “Bouncing ball branding cost transport $1m-plus” by Jacob Saulwick, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2013).

Headlining the consultancy project was a rebrand from CityRail to Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink, which I think has worked really well for the organisation.

The free advice I gave to what was then CityRail was in a post back in 2011, “131500 trains: Too Much of a Bad Thing?” (image left from the original post). At the time, CityRail was channelling all the updates on the status of the network through one Twitter account, @131500trains, but the constant deluge of bad news about delayed services and breakdowns was having a massively detrimental effect on the organisation’s brand and reputation. My recommendation was:

A better approach would be to provide more targeted and specific information to those that need it. For example, I’m generally only interested in what’s going on the Southern Highlands and Airport & East Hills lines – so it would make more sense to have a separate Twitter account for each line for me to follow.

In February 2014, Transport NSW set up seven separate Twitter accounts for each of the seven major Sydney Trains lines, and three accounts for NSW TrainLink – North, South and West – see http://www.transportnsw.info/en/travelling-with-us/keep-updated/social.page. (My local line, @TrainLinkSouth first tweeted on the 14th of February: https://twitter.com/TrainLinkSouth/statuses/434173242686050304.)

The key point to make here is that you need to balance up the public service that you are providing via social media – in this case a really important one to keep public transport users informed on the status of the network – with the reputational damage that can be caused by the aggregation of ‘bad news’. If the end result is that fewer passengers are choosing to ride on NSW trains, you need to change your approach.

‘Half of writing history is hiding the search results.’

July 16, 2014

SerenityI’m not the company’s biggest fan, but after the recent ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling in Europe, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Google.

The case concerned a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, who wanted Google to remove a link to a 1998 newspaper auction notice for his repossessed home – after he had unsuccessfully tried to have the auction notice itself deleted.

The ruling by the European Union’s court of justice has not only compelled Google to remove the link to the notice, but also to delete ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant’ search results when a member of the public requests it. According to Google, in less than two months since the ruling it had received over 250,000 requests from more than 70,000 people.

Some commentators have argued that the Internet has fundamentally changed how we should view privacy, even suggesting that the Declaration of Rights be changed to state:

Every citizen has the right to remove their own words, images and videos from all digital records
(see ‘The right to be forgotten is fundamental in the digital age’, 14 July 2014)

I agree that each of us now has a much more extensive public record of our personal history than we have ever had before, but why should we be treated any differently to the ‘great men’ of the past? (As in Thomas Carlyle: ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’) Now, we all have a part to play in the world’s history. Twenty years ago, we would have been looking up old newspaper articles in the library on microfiche – just because it is so much easier to search for information in the digital age, should that change how we limit the availability of that content?

The generation of kids today know only too well that anything they do or say online is there permanently – it’s only us in the older generations that see privacy in the digital age in a different light.

Also, who is comfortable with the fact that Google – a commercial enterprise – has been given the onus of determining what is in the public interest when evaluating each of the ‘right to be forgotten’ requests it receives?

The line from Joss Whedon’s movie Serenity ‘Half of writing history is hiding the truth.’ could now be re-phrased as ‘Half of writing history is hiding the search results.’

(Pictured above: ‘Still of Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion from Serenity (2005)’, © 2005 Universal Pictures via IMDB.com)

SEM Snake Oil

June 18, 2014

SEODo you remember when online advertising first started?

I was chatting to an industry colleague this week about social media experts (SMEs) and the recent news from eBay’s own research that advertising in search engines has “no measurable benefits”. We both agreed that there is a lot of snake oil being sold in the market today, especially in the area of SEM – search engine marketing – and that the complex data that is often presented by SMEs to show how your business is performing on social media and in search engines may not be all that it seems.

The conversation reminded me a lot of the early days of online advertising – which is it not that long ago. The first clickable web ad was published in 1993 by Global Network Navigator and the first banner ad by HotWire in 1994. The first ad server was released in mid-1995, with this FocaLink press release claiming to use proprietary technology to be the “first firm to focus exclusively on Web advertising brokerage services.” Online advertising was certainly around in Australia in 1996 when I started out in marketing and, at the time, we were excited by the promise of real measurement and visibility on reader engagement, even though overall online audience numbers were still relatively low compared to print. Unlike the print world, now we could see real data in terms of page impressions and click-throughs. However, what puzzled me at the time was why media companies largely operated separate sales teams – one for print and one for online – and why the sales pitch they gave was so different.

The online advertising reps were all about transactional benefits – how often they’d report on the stats, what sort of click-through percentages to expect, and the frequency of your ads appearing across different pages on their site. It sounded like a sophisticated sales pitch, but it was largely self-referential, without any connection to real business outcomes. I saw a lot of people falling into the trap of measuring success just by the click-through rates achieved from a campaign.

The print ad guys had a more mature approach. While it was still founded on audience statistics (as most advertising is), there was a lot more thought put into how that advertising would support the brand and the client’s go-to-market strategy, and how it would align to editorial subject matter and target audiences.

The pitch for online advertising has evolved considerably since then. Now, we are seeing more integrated campaigns, which might be a package of online and print advertising, or a combination of banner advertising, an email blast to a targeted list, a whitepaper to download and even some telemarketing to qualify leads. Now it’s all about real outcomes for the client.

That said, it’s arguable as to whether or not Google AdWords has evolved a great deal since its launch in October 2000 (I remember battling with Google and competitors’ trademark violations on AdWords for most of the Noughties). If anything has changed, it’s just sheer volume.

It all seems very one-dimensional. A case in point is another story that caught my attention last week – a piece in the SMH’s small business section “What’s the nasty new Internet trend?”. In the article, a small business owner (funnily enough, in the web marketing space) described how negative SEO (search engine optimisation) resulted in the company’s website link, which was on the front page of Google, “disappearing completely” after the attack, costing the company thousands of dollars in lost revenue. What worries me is that these companies seem to be so intent on getting to the top of the Google search listings, that they are forgetting that there might be more effective ways to achieve their marketing objectives – and ones that are not so easily torpedoed by competitors.

The SMH article also points out that “big Australian brands can spend upwards of $20,000 a month on SEO”. I wonder how many are seeing a return on their investment.

(Pictured above: “Search-Engine-Marketing”, By Danard Vincente, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.)

 

“It’s Like MySpace” (I Hope Not)

April 30, 2014

TwitterWith Twitter recently announcing its latest financial results, the prediction I made back in 2011 (before the company listed on the NYSE) looks like coming true:

“the greater pressure there is on Twitter to monetise its product, the greater the likelihood that the beauty and simplicity of the platform will be lost for good”

Twitter has had a great run since its IPO in November 2013, but in its latest results Twitter’s advertising revenue per 1000 views has dropped (to $1.44 from $1.49 the previous quarter), even though its revenues beat the market’s expectations and its user base continues to climb. A good summary and graph of the situation can be found on Quartz.

The really unfortunate aspect to Twitter’s future is that, with the company’s reliance on advertising revenue, it’s now at the mercy of the marketers. It’s a worry when you hear marketing directors say stuff like “It’s like MySpace – it’s just kind of had its heyday.” as they move onto the next bright shiny thing.

I just wish the UN did buy Twitter back in 2011.

 

Where are the Custom Tablets?

April 28, 2014

HP TouchPad AdIt has now been 18 months since I last blogged about tablets becoming a vehicle for publishers, and having no intrinsic value of their own.

That post was in part prompted by a piece from NZ journalist Bill Bennett, and another post from Bill today has highlighted the fact that we don’t seem to have made much progression in this space at all over the past 18 months.

There have been glimpses of innovation – but not strictly from the publishing industry. Qantas’ own locked-down iPads are a great example of how tablets can be harnessed for specific, dedicated use. Australian State police forces have also been trialling dedicated tablets.

To Bill’s point, “the cost and effort of producing a great looking iPad magazine wouldn’t pay off for a New Zealand publisher”, but I can’t see what’s stopping a big Australian or international magazine or newspaper with a large and loyal readership creating its own dedicated tablet device.

Tone and Conflict on Twitter

March 28, 2014

angry_girlIt’s an accepted fact that tone is very difficult to convey in an email. And it’s where we can lay the blame for the invention of emoticons.

This lack of tone is why, in many situations, email is a very ineffective means of communication. At least with email, we have plenty of scope to explain ourselves – with Twitter, we only have 140 characters and, when we are replying to someone, even fewer.

It means that if you are at all worried about the reaction you will get to a tweet, you have to be a lot more careful when composing it. Consider how the words could be interpreted – both by people who know you and also those who don’t. If there is any ambiguity in tone or meaning, be more obvious. (And, whatever you do, avoid the use of emoticons!)

So why is tone such an issue? With the written word, it’s largely left to the reader to interpret. What’s really key is that we take our cues about tone from what we know about the writer. Here’s a great analysis by Diana Hsieh about the problems with email:

“The core problem is that tone is a hugely important element of communication, such that readers will infer tone from whatever information they have available to them. With email, that means that tone is largely inferred from background knowledge about and judgments of the writer.”

And that inference of tone is often the source of conflict. A case in point is Malcolm Turnbull’s recent tweet in response to Julia Keady’s complaint about lack of broadband access in her new house.

@SaysJuliaKeady just curious:- if connectivity was so vital to you why did you buy a house where there was no broadband available?

— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) March 20, 2014

It created an immediate and angry response, both from Julia Keady directly, and also others on Twitter. It is also started the often very funny hashtag #turnbulllogic.

Equally, the reaction from the mainstream media was largely negative:

There are some today suggesting that Mr Turnbull could spend less time sending snarky comments on Twitter and more time living up to his promises.
(News.com.au, ‘Malcolm Turnbull suggests resident move house for decent broadband’, 22 March 2014)

If we go back to the point made by Diana Hsieh that we infer tone from what we know about the person, the public persona of Malcolm Turnbull is the multi-millionaire politician we have seen cutting opponents down to size in Federal Parliament and in the media on shows like the ABC’s QandA. That immediately creates a context for anything Turnbull tweets.

So what should Turnbull have done differently? For a start, he should have shown more empathy. Funnily enough, empathy was a topic of conversation reported today from a meeting between Pope Francis and US President Barack Obama.

Mr Obama recalled the meeting as an elevated discussion about the role of empathy in public and private life.
“It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge to wars,” he said.
(The Australian, ‘The Pope and Obama, lost in translation?’, 28 March 2014)

Turnbull should also have been more open in his question – after all, by replying to Keady, he was inviting a conversation. Instead, his question was interpreted by most as a rhetorical one.

So here goes an attempted re-write of Turnbull’s tweet:

@SaysJuliaKeady I’m sorry to hear that:– what exactly is the issue for you with broadband connectivity in Ocean Grove?

What do you think?

(Pictured above: “Angry Girl“, by jasonippolito licensed for re-use by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

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