Monday, April 30, 2007

Speaking --------- like a native

I spent last week in Phoenix, the city where I was raised, and was able to talk with my brother, who owns Northwest Insurance Agency. The agency was started by my parents and has been in business for 33 years. I'm very proud of the legacy my parents left us and proud of my brother's achievements since taking over. (Why aren't I an agent, you might ask? Because my mother warned me never to go into claims, so of course, I did.)

When we moved to Phoenix in 1957, the population, he estimates, was about 100,000. Today the population of Maricopa County only, according to the 2005 census, was 3.9 million. Of that number, 1.3 million are Hispanic. The demographics speak loudly. Mainly in Spanish.

Arizona isn't the only state with this trend. However, working with non-English speaking clients is fraught with liability for any insurance agent. While translators generally, according to linguists, operate on a "good-faith basis" and usually don't carry errors & omissions insurance, agents who work with clients who speak other than the agent's native language must be extremely careful when servicing populations speaking languages other than English.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Topic sentences

Remember the power of topic sentences? Usually the first sentence in a paragraph, the topic sentence tells readers what you are going to tell them.

Here's an example of a topic sentence.

With computers in most homes in America, consumers are much more sophisticated buyers than they were.

The topic sentence should be the skeleton on which hangs your paragraph. The rest of this paragraph, each sentence, should relate back to that topic sentence.

Does the topic sentence always have to be the first sentence in a paragraph? Not necessarily. Take this example.

They crash; errors mysteriously appear and reappear; data is lost; hours are wasted finding bugs for which there are no clear-cut cures. That is why I hate computers.
The topic sentence, of course, is "That is why I hate computers." The balance of the paragraph, at least if I wrote it, would be a gripe session.
You can easily edit your writing by reading each paragraph, ensuring you have a clear topic sentence, then confirming that each sentence in the paragraph relates to that topic sentence. If it doesn't, simply circle it then look for another paragraph that the information in that stray sentence better relates, or delete it.
Good writing takes more than the putting pen to paper. Strong writing takes as much time to edit as it does to write, sometimes more. One good place to start honing your writing is ensuring your topic sentences act like organizers for each paragraph.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Spend a little to make a lot!

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The eye likes white space

With information coming in at warp speed, people often glance at incoming mail and instantly decide whether they'll read more or discard it. Therefore, copy design is as important in good advertising as ad copy, because dense copy overwhelms most readers.

No one likes clutter, even if it's in their own house. The eye likes white space, so don't bury your message. Your copy must be easy to read or you'll quickly lose your readers, and with it your advertising dollars.

There's more to writing copy that sells than the words.
Good advertising thinks big picture, including ad design and knowing when to follow the rules and when you'll get more mileage by breaking them.

White space management is critical in good advertising, whether it's an ad in your local newspaper or a direct mail piece. Why write copy your target audience won't read because it overwhelms the eye?

While it may seem cost prohibitive to hire an agency to produce and lay out your copy, the results will normally be far better than you'll get yourself. In the long run, it will be money well spent.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sell the sizzle, not the steak

You've probably heard the saw, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." What this means is that most consumers buy a product not because of what the product is, but what the product will mean in their lives. People don't buy insurance, they buy its benefits such as freedom from economic ruin and peace of mind.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, like when you're selling to experts.
For example, if you're pitching a commercial auto policy to commercial dry cleaners with a small van fleet, describing trailer interchange coverage may not be necessary. But if you're pitching a trucking firm, experts at switching trailers, the trailer interchange coverage becomes a policy benefit and you'd better be able to talk about "dead-heading," "pigs," and "gross vehicle weight."

Your direct mail attempts to the general public must focus on benefits. There are several ways to do this creatively and good direct mail copywriters can help you through the process. If you aren't specific about what benefits you offer in your copy, you'll end up with "puffery." Puffery is overblown phrases like "We provide the best customer service" or "We offer the fastest claims service." Wikipedia offers a great definition of puffery.

Puffery is a waste of copy space. It's always better to state a specific benefit. "Because of our outstanding customer service, last year, 95 percent of our customers renewed with us," speaks to readers more than phrases like "the best customer service."

Top direct-mail copywriters agree: The best direct mail copy is written by writers familiar with the product you are trying to sell. I'd love to help you with your direct mail projects. Contact me via my website, Insurance Writer.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Generations require different training approaches

When designing and presenting training, it would be great if a one-size-fits-all approach worked every time. In today's drive-through world, cookie-cutter training just won't work. Younger workers often enter the workforce with sophisticated computer skills and a healthy dose of skepticism. Training a forty-year old with two kids and a mortgage is very different from training a young employee who may work only to finance that next trip to South America.

To keep younger trainees' interest, training must be innovative, with less reliance on lecture and more reliance on computer-based approaches and trainee interaction. The younger generations, our Gen Xers (roughly 1965 to 1976) and the Gen Yers (roughly 1977 - 2002) require more interactive learning and the opportunity to shape the direction of the training module. These generations grew up with computer, the Internet and sound bites. They turn you off quickly if you don't catch their interest early.

The more technology used in training for Xers and Yers, the better. Including visuals and letting learners voice their problems to seek solutions will increase the interest of the younger generation. Awards and prizes, even if they're token, increase interest and participation and hence, retention. A break every hour is good advice for any class, but imperative for Xers and Yers.

While one training module may be applicable to all generations, for example in customer service training, it's important the trainer understands his or her audience. Use examples that will reach the target audience. If you refer to Ozzie and Harriet, for example, you'll get a blank look and eye rolls from the under-50 crowd.

Working across generations complicates training. When developing training, make sure you tailor material to the generations you are trying to reach.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

For example

Many writers use the Latin abbreviations "i.e." and "e.g." incorrectly. "I.e." means "that is," and is used when the example you are citing is the only example that will work for what you are describing.

For example (and here you could use "e.g." because there are many examples we could use), if you say "Your dog, i.e., a chow, is specifically excluded from coverage if it bites someone because the company excludes all chows," "i.e." is correct.

Use "e.g." when you could say "for example." For instance, suppose you were describing the types of liability losses a client's homeowners policy covers. "Your homeowners policy covers many types of liability, e.g., if your dog bites someone or if your child breaks the neighbor's window." In this case use "e.g." because there are more than one type of loss excluded under the homeowners policy.

After using "i.e." and "e.g." in writing, use a period after each letter and always use a comma after the final period. If using either "i.e." or "e.g." in the middle of a sentence, use a comma before and after them.

While this sounds like a lot of information to digest, the correct use of "i.e." and "e.g." can add formality to your writing.