Turn Off The Noise: How To Deal With Information Overload

Does your brain hurt at the end of the day? Mine sure does. Constantly consuming information takes a lot out of you. The human brain wasn’t meant to digest so much in such small windows of time.

Just how much are we consuming on a daily basis? According to Robby Walker of Cue, we consume some 63,000 words on an average day. That means you finished a short novel today. Go pat yourself on the back, have a beer and brag to your friends.

Where’s your god now?

Don’t have the sense of accomplishment you thought you would, eh? That’s because it’s very difficult to pull the thread of a narrative or progressive case-building out of that mess of words. Each block of content we consume is related to a different area of interest, stimulating a different portion of your brain, causing a new wave of dysphoria and, in some cases, shutting your thought process down completely.

Where does it all come from?

Imagine that your daily routine is an intricate spiderweb shimmering across two tree branches. Now try to follow the path of a single thread from the center to the edge.

This is especially difficult because the lines run so close together. The spider followed a linear path to create the web, just as your day followed a somewhat linear path of its own. But digging up the tiny details that contributed to each new thread of information is damn hard.

We simply aren’t always aware of where the internet will lead us. You start off reading a scholarly article about inner city sociology and end up perusing pictures of Channing Tatum’s new haircut. Unlike the detail-oriented spider, we weave tangled webs.

How did you get from point A to point B? Ask yourself these questions to become consciously aware of how you process information.

  • What are the sites I visit the moment I lose focus? For many of us, the primary answers may be Facebook, Deadspin, Pinterest or Twitter.
  • How much time do I spend on useless information? The best way to measure this is to focus on how much time you spend processing and creating useful information. The rest of the time is most likely spent screwing around.
  • How organized are my social media channels? If you have a Twitter account, for instance, do you split the accounts you follow into lists? This can be an effective approach to focus your browsing.

Focus on focusing.

I usually lose focus when I haven’t organized or structured my day. Here are a couple of strategies I use to stay focused.

  • Create a to-do list and cross off items as you finish them. Closure on each little task is more satisfying than hours spent on “happy information”, or information your brain is magnetically attracted to.
  • Set short and long term goals. This tactic is intrinsically tied to the to-do list. Longer term goals (weekly, monthly) help you get a bird’s eye view of your productivity.
  • Use software features to stay in the zone. I recently discovered the “focus” setting on my MS Word “View” tab. Presto! Your document now dominates the entire screen. Productivity software like Vitalist, Todoist or RescueTime can help in other ways.
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Embrace Awkwardness — Your Comfort Zone is Too Small

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

You want stuff to happen for you, right? Let down your guard. Pop that bubble around you. Emerge from your cocoon.

Get uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable just knowing Pitbull can leave his home state of Florida.

People are drawn magnetically to their comfort zones. We’re resistant to change and surprises. Your comfort zone is a magical place where nothing happens unless you expect it to. It’s the place where you dwell when you’re happy with the way things are. It’s also the place you sometimes retreat to when you’re unhappy.

When we go to our comfort zones, we wait for something to happen. And as we established before, nothing happens in a vacuum.

Putting yourself outside of your comfort zone is one of the most enriching experiences life has to offer. It’s why we travel — to explore places that don’t offer the familiar comforts of home. New experiences excite and inspire. For writers, nothing is more important than finding that inspiration.

Pick your ass up off the couch and put yourself into an uncomfortable situation. The new ideas will electrify your writing.

Below are a couple of simple ways to leave your comfort zone.

  • Ride public transportation. You can lose yourself in your own thoughts while surrounded by a whole new world of people and inspiration. Back in Chicago, I took the el and buses all the time. I was harassed, coughed on, preached to, glared at, propositioned, rubbed against — and when action didn’t affect me directly, I got to observe a whole world of new awkwardness and discomfort. I consider myself the better for these experience.
  • Write standing up. Both Hemingway and Nabokov preferred to write standing up. And they weren’t the only ones. We could conjecture for hours on why this strategy is effective and probably still never reach a fully comfortable conclusion. But I’m okay with that, because this post isn’t about comfort. One of the positives here is definitely that you can avoid fatigue by standing up. Your brain is much more likely to shut down on you while your body is in a comfortable position.
  • Say yes more often. It can be hard to say yes to certain social activities that don’t gel with your idea of a good time. Maybe you aren’t particularly fond of the people involved. Or you just don’t dig baseball. If your first impulse is to say no, flip that impulse on its head. Say yes. You may find out you enjoy the experience. Or you’ll find some inspiration. At the very least, you’ll be a better person for riding out your discomfort.

Does Listening to Music Make You More or Less Productive?

Four out of 5 scientists agree that music sounds better when you play in the nude.

I’m a music fanatic. I bet a few of you out there share my passion. These days, we’re so obsessed with multi-tasking that I’m not sure anyone ever stops just to listen.

Seriously: people used to just listen. They used to sit down, put a record on and listen. Who does that?

Like many of my friends, I’m usually spinning something on Spotify during the workday. Not everyone can enjoy a harmonious workday. But writing is a job of isolation, and I’ve met plenty of us who like to type in time to the beat.

But is it good for productivity? I’ve heard different opinions on whether they consider music a distraction or a complement to work. According to the science, it’s actually that complicated: some people can function with music in the background, and some can’t. And the “why” is pretty surprising.

Words vs. Words

Writers who listen to music place their brain in the crossfire. It’s a battle of words.

Clearly, words in their own right are good things for writers. Reading the written word has a powerful effect on how strong of a writer you are. But in a medium like music, they can be disastrous if consumed while you try to put original words on the page.

You require all of your faculties when it’s time to create. A lyrical onslaught buzzing insistently in your ear can hinder that. And it isn’t just writers.

According to studies in Taiwan, “listening to music with lyrics was linked to lower scores on tests of concentration in a study of 102 college students.” It isn’t the music competing for that brain-space. It’s your brain subconsciously attempting to decode the words it’s absorbing. And your prefrontal cortex is fighting an uphill battle where it attempts to block out stimuli unrelated to the task at hand.

It can help, too.

Sure, listening to music while you work can be productive, too. But the benefits are just in your head.

In reality, most of the studies attempting to link music and concentration have proven quite the opposite. The biggest question is whether listening to music helps you block out other sounds. Some argue that wearing noise-cancellation helps block out the noise of the office.

If you’re working from home, outside noise is probably less of a factor. What becomes a major factor is how much you enjoy music. Another study in Taiwan showed subjects with strong feelings about the music they were listening to affected concentration negatively. Indifferent listeners tuned it out.

Here are a couple of tips I find useful in my daily writing experience:

  • Listen to songs you’ve heard a lot. It’s easier to use the tried-and-true songs to as a complement to your writing because it’s easier to block out the lyrics.
  • Try to listen to classical music and other songs without lyrics.
  • Turn the volume down so the tunes aren’t overwhelming your brain.

Hey, you! Check out my article over at the Content Marketing Institute today, Should You Curate Content? The Essentials Every Content Marketer Needs to Consider.

7 Unmissable Blogs for Writers and Marketers

The key to strong writing is plenty of reading. Plan to waste some time on the internets today? Make that time productive by checking out some blogs that’ll help you improve your craft.

Copyblogger

Copyblogger is THE go-to blog for copywriting tips, tricks and best practices. Rooted in WordPress, the company features a slew of different tools for content marketing. But the content on the blog features some of the best stuff for writers. It goes beyond copywriting to cover content marketing, blogging, SEO and general communications.

Content Marketing Institute

The brainchild of content marketing expert Joe Pulizzi, the Content Marketing Institute is one of the web’s premiere resources for up-to-date how-to content. Beyond knowing their craft, it’s important for writers to understand the vehicle they’re driving with their writing. CMI does exactly that. BONUS: You may see some of my own writing popping up here in the near future. Stay tuned.

Problogger

Everything you need to know about blogging, organized in one place. Copyblogger is an extremely popular resource for bloggers of all shapes and sizes. It’s all about visibility and making money at Copyblogger, where you’ll find tons of resources on how to do both effectively.

Cracked

Where to start with Cracked. If you need an intellectual, fact-based and hilarious break from work, Cracked never fails to deliver. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the resources on this list simply because it doesn’t offer tips for writers. I think it’s a strong study for writers looking for applicable examples of strong publishing on the web. It’s a great place to find some inspiration and get a good laugh.

Make a Living Writing

Carol Tice is a successful freelance writer who shares tons of great insights on freelancing through Make a Living Writing. Another great feature of this blog is her guest-blogging policy; submissions that get published earn $50 for their work. That’s a breath of fresh air in a world where your guest posts will get you squat.

Men with Pens

Men with Pens is a great resource for freelancers and copywriters alike. It contains similar material to blogs already mentioned on this list, but you’ll find a unique flair here.

The Rant

The Rant is entertaining writing laced with informative content. Not your typical writing blog, John Carlton’s personal vehicle for sharing insights is still a great place to learn from the best.

Why the Hell Are You Blogging?

Have you ever asked yourself this question? Seems like it should answer itself.

The unfortunate reality is that it doesn’t. So I ask again, why the hell are you blogging?

One of the toughest things to do in business (as in life) is to turn an introspective eye. You either understand your own goals and motivations or you don’t. And if you say, “Because everyone else is,” then maybe you should reconsider.

Who am I?

Not one single person in the history of business made a real name for herself by following the crowd. Justifying your actions based on groupthink is inexcusable. How often do we question our own motives?

Primarily, I’m writing this blog to establish my brand as a freelance copywriter, simplifying how I attract new clients. There are tons of secondary motives, including some that are slightly less narcissistic (emphasis on slightly). The main point is that I understand exactly why I’m doing this.

So why are you doing it? Maybe you’re using it to improve your organization’s credibility and visibility. In some cases, you may be trying to make money directly through advertisements.

Identifying your motives is the first step. Don’t forget: it’s also important to understand how your motives align with the goals of your audience.

Some Writers Take Advantage

The internet is rife with misinformation. It’s the era of pageview journalism. Publishers across the web are more concerned with making a quick buck than providing useful, timely and accurate information.

Which side are you on?

If you write for an organization, you’re competing for pageviews too. But you’re writing for a narrow audience. Some people need or want your product or service more than others, and that’s who you’re after. Because you’re looking to (perhaps) form a longer lasting business relationship, you and your audience both benefit from high-quality content.

Unfortunately, pageview journalism doesn’t work quite the same way. I’ve written about why it’s important to be wary of what you read online. Dissected, the reasons for this danger are pretty clear. Writers who make money through advertisements want to draw in any and every eyeball they can get. As a result, you get sensational headlines, coverage that doesn’t fit their format and poorly written or researched articles that no one should be reading.

I ask you again: what are your motives? Which side are you on?

Someone somewhere will read your blog. In my opinion, you have a responsibility to even that one reader to create accurate, helpful content.

It’s time to turn the mirror on ourselves. Figuring out your motives gives you a real opportunity to align them with your audience’s goals and desires.

Attributes of Killer Case Studies

A strong story is one of the best ways to sell your company, service or product. Also known as a “success story”, a case study is one of the simplest and most resonant techniques to build compelling storytelling content.

Case studies are 1-3 page stories of how one of your customers/clients found success with your product or service.

This type of content gives you an opportunity to showcase some lively, descriptive writing as part of your marketing collateral. You can also add SEO, promote the story with a press release, use it to pitch reporters, turn it into a webinar or sales deck and feature it in a brochure.

Why are case studies effective?

A good story draws people in, creates an emotional connection and entertains the reader. Of course, those are only three things a story is capable of. They’re crucial to the success of your marketing.

One of the most important things a case study can do for a marketing program is temporarily take the marketer to an outside perspective. Whenever I write a case study, I make it a priority to talk to the person the story is about, rather than the client the story is for. The interview and resulting copy offer a unique view into the benefits of your products or services.

Case studies:

  • Engage customers/clients with a compelling story
  • Inspire empathy from potential customers
  • Illustrate how others applied your products/services
  • Showcase endorsed validation that your product/service works.

Before you get started, consider the structure.

The typical case study format

Successful case studies vary in terms of how they approach the story. But the basic structure is the same. Even if you plan to create a sequential narrative, you’ll still need to follow the guidelines of strong case studies if you want it to land.

The basic case study structure consists of:

  • Background: Here, you’ll explain who the customer is. This area should be short and sweet. Even a well-crafted boilerplate (if your client is into press releases) should suffice.
  • Problem: In this section, you’ll want to detail exactly what caused the client to seek out your services in the first place. In most cases, it’s usually some sort of business problem. For consumer case studies (and some B2B), perhaps there was no problem. But there’s always a catalyst prior to your business building a relationship with the client. Detail the catalyst if it isn’t technically a “problem”.
  • Solution: Now, it’s time for your brand to swoop in and save the day. If the previous section detailed a problem, how did you solve it? Be sure to dig deep. Ask the right questions to find the features or angles that offered the biggest impact for your client.
  • Benefits: Finally, if you can find ways to quantify the benefits, you can detail them in the last section. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to sprinkle this section with qualifiable benefits as well. But make sure to tie in some hard metrics (even educated guesses) to create a basis in reality.

What else can you do to craft an effective case study?

Tips for creating case studies

Building a strong case study will take a bit of time and energy. Done often for a single client, you’ll get into a groove that’ll greatly speed up the process. (Writing case studies for ecommerce software provider 3dcart has become pretty formulaic for me.)

Here are a couple of bonus tips for writing case studies.

  • Quote often: You’ve interviewed someone who gave you a glowing testimonial! Use that information so the audience knows this is coming from a valid source. (Hint: I usually craft quotes based on my notes and ask for permission from the client before the case study is published.)
  • Find the angle: If you have a narrow audience, writing case studies can get stale. Spice things up a bit by focusing on a different angle every time you write a new one.
  • Be descriptive: Get creative with it. Use saucier language and create a setting. Tell the story almost like you’re writing fiction.
  • Ask and answer questions: Ask the reader a question about what will happen next. Answer the question in the next section. But be careful: this can get cheesy if you take the wrong approach.

6 Techniques for Better Press Releases

Over the past half a decade, there’s been a lot of scrutiny over press releases. Turns out many of the articles going over the wire weren’t saying much of anything at all.

Think about it: how many press releases do you see that call the company “cutting-edge” and the product “innovative”? Meanwhile, the quote starts off with, “We’re really excited…” The boilerplate offers a bunch of useless details or, worse yet, is three paragraphs long, detailing the numerous accolades of the company.

For instance: “We’re so hipster that we typed this press release on an honest-to-god typewriter.”

Keep in mind that press releases were initially intended for members of the press. Unless you’re a major player in the tech space, don’t expect many journalists to find your release and run with a story. No, nowadays, you need to consider your potential customers and clients your target audience. Your press releases are now available online and serve a drastically different purpose than they used to.

Those same five or so years have brought a reanimation of press release writing. They’ve brought about a return to simplicity. Many writers now understand that the shorter you can get in and get out while saying what needs to be said, the better. (The real problem is convincing an older client who thinks he/she knows press releases.)

Press release writing really isn’t an art. Just follow some of the tips below and you’ll immediately start improving your releases.

1. Lead with benefits, differentiators and the timeliness factor. There are three simple rules of thumb for your nut graph (and the following paragraph). I tend to follow this pretty closely for most of the releases I pen. In the opening paragraph, lead with the newsworthy (timely) element of the story. But make sure to weave in the benefits to the audience in that paragraph, even if it’s just a high-level overview. (Why should the reader care? They want to know immediately.) Finally, what makes this news different from what other organizations are doing in your space?

2. Use bulletpoints. A lot. People are busy and don’t like reading something that looks intimidating during the work day. Every chance you have, use bulletpoints to summarize crucial main points. It breaks up the narrative of the release nicely. But more importantly, it attracts the lazy reader. The ‘lazy’ reader may not always be lazy, but when several tasks are attracting her attention at once, she’ll only look if you give her the facts upfront and highlight the most important information.

3. Stay away unprovable claims. Listen, you make think your company is the best at what they do. Still, if you have no quantifiable proof of that claim, why are you labeling your brand the “leading” one of its kind? It sounds pompous. People will see right through it. Journalists will delete your release. Give us the facts only. And don’t tell us your window cleaning solution is ‘unparalleled’ in the field. That’s just silly, and it’s sensationalized. People are much more conditioned to pick that stuff out than you think.

4. Quotes should actually say something. Alright. When you describe your excitement, thank your new partner or tell the audience that something is ‘interesting’, just what in the hell do you expect to accomplish? Of course you love your new partner. That’s why you partnered with them. Don’t insult your reader’s intelligence. Tell us something useful about the announcement — something perhaps that resonates better coming directly from a human.

5. Keep your boilerplate simple. Businesspeople like to talk about their business. Hey, that’s great! You love your work and you feel a sense of kinship with your brand. The problem is that no one loves your business as much as you do. When you write a boilerplate about your company, you don’t have to put every important fact about your organization down. Keep it short and sweet, just the facts, and direct the reader to your website. There they can read up on your brand if they so choose.

6. Tie in keywords. It’s SEO time. You have control of your destiny here. Work in SEO keywords and phrases to get more bang for your buck. Link your most important keyword to your website. But make sure to follow search optimization best practices. You don’t want to get blacklisted for keyword stuffing.