In our last newsletter, we linked to Harvard Business Review’s discussion with The Washington Post economist Jim Tankersley about the merits of framing data with narrative. In this newsletter, we’ll explain why data without a story falls flat.
As evidenced by the cleverly reflexive “In One Chart” graphic, “big data is suddenly everywhere.” Readers want complex information condensed—ideally—“in one chart.”

Consequently, “analytics,” “visualizations,” and “data stories” (a new narrative genre, according to Stanford researchers) represent our hyperlinked future.

But data has its limits. While its abundance is magnificent, data does not necessarily resonate with readers’ experiences. Data certainly educates, but it seldom motivates.

At MWS, we agree with analytics marketer Daniel Waisberg: people need narrative to synthesize data. Accordingly, we find that simple storytelling is crucial to connecting organizations with their audiences.

However, simple storytelling is not easy to create. This is particularly the case today, as readers are urged to “be suspicious of stories” and are increasingly skeptical of the overt branding storytelling can clumsily deliver.

An organization (whether or not it identifies as brand-driven) can contextualize its data by first explicitly identifying its audience and by then determining the golden ratio between data and narrative appropriate to that audience.

We augment the approach described by Jim Stikeleather (chief innovation officer at Dell). To do this, we consider an audience’s level of expertise on the subject matter and the level of detail with which they’ll likely engage.

For a business report to funders, we might identify our audience as managerial and use accessible success stories to frame data. For internal marketing campaigns, we might identify our audience as expert and create copy from historical research and internal interviews.

While readers want accessible information “in one chart,” our experience and research suggests that big data cannot communicate as compellingly nor motivate as meaningfully as a well-written story. It’s the difference between conveying this point with a chart and telling the story about why data benefits from narrative.

Whether toiling over a white paper, an internal report, or a client-facing publication, most communications professionals reap radical rewards from using a style sheet.
A style sheet is a quick-reference document that ensures consistent and error-free work. Although generally created by editors to record a publisher and an author’s preferences on spelling, punctuation, number usage, terminology usage, and other elements of style, style sheets offer an invaluable tool for efficiently correlating corporate communications.

This is partly due to the team-written nature of corporate documents. When work is brainstormed, planned, drafted, edited, revised, and posted or published by different writers, errors and simple inconsistencies occur. Rectifying such errors is time-consuming but necessary: most readers equate consistency with polish, professionalism, and ultimately, effective branding.

However, a style sheet is not just a reflection of a single document; instead, it’s an easy-to-follow template for all future writing. The style sheet can be transferred across departments so that a writer adding concluding remarks to a drafted client report need only consult the style sheet to determine whether “basis points” should be spelled out or abbreviated as plural.

With assiduous updating, a comprehensive style sheet constitutes an in-house style guide for departments.

If you’ve already decided to dedicate your summer to finishing your dissertation, revising and resubmitting an academic article, or polishing an original manuscript for publication, make the most of your limited time by adopting a trick of the editor’s trade. A style sheet offers a time-saving reference that streamlines the revision process and ensures polished work. …
Style sheets, often created by editors to record the preferences of the publisher and author on spelling, punctuation, special terminology, and other style elements, can also be used to correlate usage in large, complex, and team-written projects. Style sheets help writers adhere to a target publication’s in-house style rules, but they also help writers correlate their own usage.

When we create style sheets here at MWS, we begin with a concise repository of the APA, MLA, Chicago, or target publication’s in-house style rules most pertinent to your manuscript. We follow with an alphabetized list of relevant terminology and usage. Everything from preferred font for headers, to appropriate number usage, to correct deployment of capitalization and acronyms will find a place on the sheet.

The style sheet is not, however, a static reflection of a manuscript; instead, it offers a dynamic template to guide future work. A style sheet is thus especially useful for complex projects, for team-written manuscripts, or for manuscripts affected by a lag between initial drafting and final revision and publication.

Although creating a style sheet necessitates an initial time investment, it saves time when it really matters: rather than tracking down a copy of APA 6 in the hours before submission (only to realize you can only find APA 5), you can simply consult your style sheet and its reference to the heading levels pertinent to your paper.

With the academic year coming to a close and summer’s expanse of unstructured time looming, scholars face the perennial question of how to sustain their work, organize their writing activities, and ensure a productive season—all while relaxing and rejuvenating for the upcoming year. These tasks can be anxiety provoking, but here at MWS, our experience with academic writers and researchers has enabled us to identify ways for scholars to get the most out of summer without feeling overwhelmed. Read on for best practices for summer writing. …

  • Write every day. Maintaining a regular practice may well be the most important factor for a writer’s productivity (Gray, 2005). Research (Boice, 2000) suggests that prolific output depends on setting aside time every single day to write. Even 15 to 30 minutes a day suffices; what matters is that you jealously guard the time you’ve consigned to writing.
  • Redefine what it means to “write every day.”Tasked with the effort of creating a fresh argument, embarking on deep research, or polishing an edited piece for submission, scholars may become overwhelmed and give up on the idea of daily writing. To maintain momentum, redefine what it means to “write.” Consider: freewriting, or taking a blank page and free-associating to generate ideas; outlining a new projects; summarizing research relevant to a future project; editing an existing piece; pulling from or restructuring an older document to create a conference panel; finding or creating relevant visuals for an existing piece; formatting notes and references; creating a plan for revision and resubmission.
  • Keep a record of writing time and share it. Perhaps surprisingly, holding yourself accountable by simply sharing your writing habits with others (be it with colleagues or with a coach) can be a boon to your productivity. According to oft-cited research by Boice (1989), writers who write every day and who hold themselves accountable stand to increase their productivity ninefold over writers who do not change their writing habits nor hold themselves accountable. 
  • Create a calendar to structure large projects.The accountability engendered by a calendar can also serve as excellent motivation. When working with writers, we at MWS create interactive calendars detailing writing time, dates for editorial submission, editorial turnaround, revision, and defense or final submission. The long-term plan helps to alleviate the anxiety often provoked by large projects or long stretches of unstructured time.

Summer is around the corner, and with some advanced planning, it can be reinvigorating and productive.

References

Boice, R. (1989). Procrastination, busyness and bingeing. Behavior Research Therapy. 27(6), 605-611.

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Gray, T. (2010). Publish and flourish: Become a prolific scholar. New Mexico: New Mexico State University

A white paper is a supremely powerful marketing strategy, but it can throw down some tricky obstacles. A strong white paper generates leads, positions a company as an industry expert and stands as an effective marketing legacy, but a weak white paper wastes time and money and may ding a company’s reputation. Is your team equipped to write strong white papers?
Effective white papers analyze a problem, offer expert analysis, and give an objective assessment of solutions. When successful, a white paper helps readers identify the authoring company as the solution’s source—not because of a direct pitch but because the paper positions the company as an industry leader with a balanced perspective.

Ineffective white papers usually fail because they don’t grab an audience’s attention or they slip into sales-speak. The title and first sentences must signal that a white paper is interesting, applicable, and offers a significant return on investment. A white paper must also maintain a balanced, informative tone: salesman-like posturing discredits content and alienates readers.

  1. Know the audience. A finance manager has a different set of needs and interests than an operations officer or an engineer. Effective white papers are explicitly pitched to key decision-makers.
  2. Accept that looks matter. Every reader skims and skips before committing to a focused read. Effective white papers deploy graphics to demonstrate key processes, use type and layout to strategically highlight key ideas, and keep branding to a minimum. 
  3. Strike a balance. A balanced tone communicates credibility, but balance must be struck with content. Effective white papers offer detailed information and concise analysis, often with key case studies and explanations of technical terms. 
  4. Give it legs. To reach a customer base, white papers should be sent to prospective customers, partner companies, relevant media outlets; handed out at trade shows or conferences; and used to organize webinars. Think broadly to maximize benefits.
  5. Hire a professional. Subject-matter experts play a crucial role in identifying topics and ensuring technical accuracy, but white papers take time, and their writers must be experienced and able to maintain a clear—and clearly interesting—voice.