My wrap on the Emerging Writers’ Festival Digital Masterclass

The Emerging Writers’ Festival Digital Masterclass was held on Friday 24th May at the City Library.

The full day workshop featured an inspiring range of speakers. The broad theme was creating digital content to support your writing and to build your profile, with a focus on blogs and social media.

The diversity of content and speakers made for an information-packed day. There was plenty to learn and take away, depending on your background and interests. The content ranged from the very practical (how to produce a video, podcast and ebook), to the more strategic (planning and goal setting).

I was impressed by the presenters’ expertise and their passion for their craft. What they all had in common was that they had a good idea, and had a go at executing it, even if they didn’t have the technical skills at first. They tried, they failed, they learned and they got better at it. They sought out advice and collaborated with others. They tapped into their community, or built a new one to support their work. They knew what they wanted to achieve, even if the path wasn’t clear. They found their niche. And the warm and fuzzy part is that they are now sharing what they learnt with others.

I love this video that Mark Welker showed us on the creative process. For me, it really summed up the overarching message I took away from the day. Don’t be scared to try new stuff. At first you won’t be so good at it, but if you keep trying and learning, you will get better at it, maybe even become great at it.

 

Here are a few of my personal highlights from each of the presenters.

Rose Powell (@rosepowell) took us through practical exercises on strategic planning, risk identification, asset mapping and goal setting for establishing a successful website/blog. The take away message from Rose’s presentation was to be strategic about what you want to achieve, make the most of your networks, have clear goals, and find your niche.

Jo Case (@jocaseau) took us through a case study of The Wheeler Centre Dailies site, with a focus on how they both generate and commission content. She included a practical exercise on pitch writing. The content model Jo presented included a wide range of different formats and sources including feature articles, curation of content from other sources, reviews, news, entertainment, events and book extracts. Her model was really useful in thinking about how to keep a website’s content dynamic, interesting, and fresh with limited resources.

Thang Ngo (@ThangNgo) is Australia’s #1 video food blogger. He talked about finding your niche, producing unique content, creating an online community, supporting others, and building your profile. Like Rose, he emphasised the importance of having clear goals.

Johannes Jakob (@jojojakob) gave us the low-down on creating podcasts, based on his experience creating the JOMAD podcast.

Mark Welker (@mwelker) from Commoner Films spoke about moving from one medium (writing) to another (video) and the parallels for story telling in both mediums. He stepped us through the video-making process and shared his tips including: capturing natural light, using a controlled camera, getting up close to your subject, and focussing on texture and detail.

Ash Davies (@PhotoGuides) from Tablo Publishing gave us a crash course on creating, marketing and distributing ebooks. He showed us a demo of his new product Bookmaker. If only every 20 year old had Ash’s creativity, initiative and drive. We would have solved the world’s problems by now.

And so, that wraps up my summary of the digital masterclass. Did you go to the workshop? What did you learn?

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Five tips for compelling and persuasive business writing

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Read any position description for a senior role and you will find written communication skills on the list of key selection criteria. Unless you’ve had tertiary or vocational training in writing, you may find writing for work a chore.

It doesn’t need to be.

Whether you are writing a business case, board paper, blog post or job application, these five tips will help you craft writing that is persuasive and compelling.

Know your audience

You probably wouldn’t wear the same outfit to a job interview as you would on a date. This is because your audience is different. The same goes for writing. You need to understand what interests, motivates and moves your audience when writing for them. You also need clear objectives. Are you trying to influence them to a decision, reassure them about a risk, or prompt them into action? Adjust your “voice” as well as the type of information you present depending on your audience and the medium you are writing for. Whether you are working with 140 characters in a Twitter message, or 140 pages in a discussion paper, always keep it professional. Remember that social media messages can be broadcast way beyond your intended audience.

Tell a story

If it feels boring to write something, it will most likely be boring to read too. If you are looking for ways to liven up your writing and move your audience, try telling a story. In her recent book Power Stories, Valerie Khoo says we absorb stories more easily than lists and data, and points out how stories are fundamental to humans and can inspire, influence and move people. Leave your bullet points behind and summon up the power of storytelling that you enjoy in books and films.

Avoid jargon

You don’t need fancy words to convey fancy ideas. Many of us fall into the trap of writing in corporate speak – using bureaucratic, passive language. The result is dry and inaccessible writing. Whenever you can, use simple, direct and active language. Use short sentences. Avoid jargon. This will help make your writing more engaging. It will be easier to understand. It can take practise and patience to change your writing style after years of writing like an automaton but you can do it.

Use visual information

With the proliferation of information we all encounter via email, social media, advertising, and in our in-trays, it becomes more difficult to grab your readers’ attention. The next time you need to convey complex information consider alternatives to text-based information, such as video. You can shoot and edit a simple video on a smartphone or tablet that is suitable for a presentation or intranet. And it’s fun to experiment with new formats and technologies.

Learn from the experts

Is there a writer whose work you admire? If you know and trust them, ask them for feedback on drafts of your writing. They are likely to be flattered. If you don’t know them, read and analyse their writing. What works, what elements do you like, what tone and language do they use, how do they structure their writing? You can apply what you learn to improve your writing. If you are really interested in developing your writing abilities, learn from the experts by doing a course such as one offered by the Australian Writers’ Centre.

This article originally appeared in Women’s Agenda

Local government use of social media: laggers or leading-edge?

Why aren’t local councils in Australia leading the way in the use of social media to engage with their communities? Does this question keep you awake at night? Read on.

Two recent reports do an excellent job of analysing social media use in the Australian local government sector.

Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, Using Social Media in Local Government: 2011 Survey Report

Dialogue Consulting: Use of Social Media by Local Governments Report

Read these reports and you’ll get a picture of the current use of social media and best practice examples, as well as the perceived (but mostly unrealised) benefits of social media. These benefits include engaging with hard to reach communities, more transparent community governance, increased citizen collaboration, improved 2-way communication and information exchange, and enhanced reputation and relationship management.

The benefits seem pretty compelling for a sector whose core business is engaging with the community. You only need to have a look at the legislation governing the sector to get some pointers. Taking the Local Government Act (Victoria) as an example, you’ll see a slew of areas in the statutory objectives, role and functions of councils that could be enhanced through social media use. These include providing accessible and equitable services, transparent decision-making, fostering community cohesion, encouraging participation in civic life, and planning for and providing services and facilities for the local community.  Take accessibility as an example. A recent report by COTA Victoria showed that social media encourages social participation and reduces the isolation of older people. With an increasingly ageing population, this group is a key focus for local government. Social media could help to reach them more effectively.

According to the above reports, these significant potential benefits are being stymied by barriers such as lack of resources, lack of knowledge, and councils being risk averse. I don’t want to seem to be putting the boot into the sector, but the barriers appear surmountable to me, and are the same tired excuses you hear for any initiative not getting off the ground in any sector – a bit lame really.

To be fair, there are other sectors equally deserving of criticism for their slow uptake of social media, for example, the tertiary sector and publishing. But what sets local government apart is that they already own very visible physical spaces and infrastructure for community building and engagement. They have libraries, community health centres, council shop fronts, pedestrian malls, and public parks. They should be reinforcing these community hubs with digital real estate. It’s an incredibly powerful nexus to have both. Most companies would salivate over this level of ‘brand exposure’.

The reports above are the beginning of steps towards developing a social media index for local government. I think it’s only a matter of time until we see quality of life surveys and city livability indices including some measure of online/ social media citizen engagement to assess a city’s desirability as a place to live. Think about that and what it means to local government…

Don’t despair, there are remedies for the social media ills affecting local councils. The reports I’ve referenced suggest a number of practical and achievable steps to getting on board the social media express. I’ll leave you to explore these for yourself.

I’d like to stir the pot by adding a few of my own suggestions that are slightly more contentious.

•    Give all staff access to all social media platforms for personal and professional use. Currently only around 50% have access. Crazy! Reminds me of the days when email and internet were first around and only the librarians were allowed to have access. Yay for being a librarian.

•    Train ALL local council staff in the use of social media. Not just the communications staff, ALL staff, even the mayor and CEO. That solves your lack of knowledge barrier.

•    Decentralise social media responsibilities across the council. It’s never going to succeed if only 1 or 2 staff have responsibility. That solves your under-resourced barrier.

•    Start evaluating your social media efforts. There’s no point doing social media if you can’t measure its impact.

•    And for my most radical suggestion – reposition the communications team as a front of house service. Strategic communications and community engagement are core business to local government and should be managed as a client service, rather than a support function. Communications should sit alongside libraries in the management structure to reap the joint skills and knowledge of these two groups of staff when it comes to social media.

Food for thought… I’d love to hear your comments.

I’m attending CoM Connect – Melbourne’s Digital Strategy unconference  on the weekend. It will be fascinating to hear what comes out of this innovative event for the world’s most liveable city #comconnect