March 18

Copywriting, editorial and consulting


Writing Consultant
In brief

Good writing makes business sense. It’s shorter. It’s quicker. It’s unambiguous. And it can be learned, provided we first unlearn the bad habits acquired from old-fashioned bosses or ill-trained bloggers.

Sydney-based writing coach Stephanie Oley offers several tried and tested frameworks designed to lift your writing techniques. Workshops range from in-house to public and motivational.

Drawing on her background in magazine journalism, radio and copywriting, Stephanie’s original courses include marketing, business, media and presentation writing, complete with original workbook.

Any course can be customised. All come with rigorous upfront client consultation and post-workshop feedback.

Did we mention?

When not consulting, Stephanie is creative partner at The Offices, where you’ll find her latest copywriting across a range of media. Offline, Stephanie stays busy exploring her passion for design, culture and community, and rambling about Sydney with her young family. She has several fiction manuscripts in progress.


Scribbles from Stephanie's notepad 


Stephanie offers a mix of in-house and public writing workshops, all replete with her original textbooks. Talk to her about customised writing, speaking and editing gigs too.


1. In-house workshops

Got six or so people in need of training? Or a very specific brand voice, project or goal to develop? Ask about the bespoke workshops, where Stephanie’s core presentations are adapted to carry examples from your organisation or industry.

Email moc.yeloeinahpetsnull@olleh to request a brochure on copywriting for marketers, writing for business, writing for the media and delivering a presentation. Rates are shown for full-day, half-day and hourly training.

2. Public workshops

Since 2006, Stephanie has presented several full-day writing workshops at The University of Sydney’s Centre for Continuing Education. Click on the links below for course descriptions, rates and upcoming dates.

Persuasive Marketing Materials

Effective Business Reports

Write and Promote a Media Release

3. Speaking

Whether you need a presentation for humour, hype or help, Stephanie’s extensive public speaking experience places her comfortably in front of any audience. Perhaps you want your people to get excited about writing better, or need a workshop on effective emails or better online bios? Just ask about the possibilities.

4. Writing

Long and short, content and catch-lines, websites and wobblers: Stephanie’s writing folio spans various formats and styles. See a selection of work here. Visit The Offices to browse her latest work, or download her portfolio below.


Stephanie Oley






To cc, or not to cc? How to manage group emailing


Few workplace matters cause collective groans like emailing – especially when entire teams are looped in. From cc’ing to avoidance, are some thoughts on managing group email scenarios.


Damned if you do; damned if you don’t – emails must be the bane of the modern professional. A senior executive in one of my recent workshops told of having to respond to over 200 emails daily, all of high importance to business operations. That’s not including the various spam messages she might have to delete in between.

Compounding this problem is that different people have different styles. For every keyboard warrior who likes to craft long, scrolling emails, there are 10 who resent anything more than a three-line request. While some managers want to be looped in throughout a project, most resent being cc’d every time.

Four skills are emerging as being important to those at the frontline of all that emailing.

  1. The group message

The general rule is that when you are copied into a group email, you don’t need to respond. Problems arise when the sender silently expects you to read the whole piece, along with the 87 others you receive that day. Oh, and it contains important requests you had to action before a particular time.

For those receiving light to moderate email loads each day, it’s perfectly OK to just scan the email quickly and then file or delete.  So, no response needed. For those receiving heavy loads, consider creating an auto-response message noting that you might not respond. For example: ‘This is a courtesy note to let you know that I can’t always respond to group emails. If the matter is important, please email me directly on [email protected] or call.’

If you do have to send a group email, personalise where you can. Instead of sending one email to hundreds of colleagues, break up the email and send to individual teams. Write clear project names and your required action in the subject line, and open the email with a request aimed right at the reader.

  1. The summarised chain

I’m often asked for tips on how to summarise email chains. This need typically emerges when a younger professional, having managed an issue via dozens of back-and-forth emails, now needs to hand the whole matter over to a more senior person.

Will that manager want to browse the whole 20-part email chain, with a casual ‘FYI’ written in the subject line? In most cases, no .They’ll want you to send the chain as an attachment, but with the key parts summarised. Try either of the following grouping techniques to create your summaries:

  • Chronology – recreate a neutral sequence of events, such as ‘background’, ‘present concerns’, ‘next steps’ and so on.
  • Relationship – group the points in terms of who did what and the significance this has, such as ‘original client brief unclear’, ‘lack of resources causes delay’ and so on. Using analytical headings (like these ones here) will help clarify these impacts.

Apart from summarising the key facts, you’ll sometimes need to correctly interpret the tone or nuances on both sides, along with any legal angles. It’s often worth getting a second opinion here, before sending to that busy senior manager.

  1. The minimal response

Every now and then, in almost every organisation, we’ll get that one individual who loves to craft long, long, lo-o-o-o-o-ng emails that cover every single detail of their subject.

A solution is to write a short return email with the words ‘see below for my responses.’ Then, next to each paragraph of their original letter, write a one-word comment or response. If the person is senior, consider meeting them instead to discuss.

A word of caution to junior staffers who send encyclopedia-sized emails to senior management: expect to be ignored. No manager will read this.

  1. The email report

Just like the PowerPoint report (ugh), the email report seems increasingly commonplace. After all, a lot of reports are just short project summaries, no longer than a standard page of 400 words in length.

First, use the standard ‘purpose – context – call to action’ structure to quickly let your reader know why they are receiving this note. Then, a few return spaces below, write a clear report heading and short summary paragraph followed by four or five sub-categories. Make sure to use bolding and other formatting so your reader can quickly scan the piece for an overview.


Of course, project management tools such as Google Drive, Jira or Slack are helping to minimise emailing. Team members can logon and quickly scan project dashboards to understand what has and hasn’t been done, without any emailing.

It also goes without saying that you should go chat with someone in person whenever you can, and avoid starting open-ended email discussions. There’s also the option of retiring young, becoming a hermit and going off-grid.

Outside of those options, sadly, I haven’t yet come across another way of avoiding emails.

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The rise of the storyteller


Storyteller's maskWrote a story that didn’t win recognition, and gloomily wondering how it’ll ever relate to real life? Here are five things for you to know.


Late last year, I immersed myself in the world of storytelling for a month when I agreed to help a team of English teachers review their school’s annual literary journal. From the trenches of World War One to the complexities of teen relationships and the deepest Australian outback, the settings of these high school students’ poems, short stories and essays were vast and varied.

Reading the pieces brought back floods of my own high school memories. Of course, I was a certified bookworm and relished every chance to write. My more science-minded classmates were less than happy with that part of school.

However, now that I help clients daily in communicating complex messages, I can honestly say that no matter your career plans, good storytelling skills will set you apart from your peers.

So, in no particular order, here are five ways you might do that.


Rhythm, rhyme, word play and alliteration all gave life to the students’ thoughts, and those efforts never go unnoticed on the reader’s senses. Same goes for sophisticated sentence links that enhance logic and build momentum. And let’s not forget the basics: punctuation. How would colleagues respond to a workplace memo that introduced their new teammate as: ‘Danny, who likes cooking his family and his dog’? Just one little comma, and all would be saved.

If you’ve ever read illogical instructions or puzzling policies, you’ll know that writing craft isn’t just important for sectors such as law or the creative industries. It’s equally important in manufacturing, engineering, hospitality, services and finance.


Planning, pace, dialogue, tension, resolution: the Seven Steps to Writing Success are being taken to heart at schools across Australia, primary and high school alike. The strongest stories in this particular anthology displayed narrative skills that were well beyond the students’ years. If you didn’t already know that storytelling is a full-time occupation at trailblazing firms such as Atlassian and Apple, then take a look around the worlds of law, marketing, business, stakeholder engagement, government and other persuasion-heavy sectors. You’ll agree that this art is more relevant than ever.


Writer’s block? There’s no such thing, when you’ve done your research. Historical episodes, personal dramas, the backstory of an artwork, or the engineering smarts of a submarine: such details are the fuel of a good story. Research skills include listening, summarising and organising. They’re essential to almost every career, whether it’s customer service, finance, business, market research, health sciences or anything else.


The poets among you can take concepts rich in meaning – darkness, certain animals, heartbeats – and push them to the very edges of the metaphors they suggest. While in reality few of us will go on to become working poets, written nuance is something you’ll see in most professional sectors, from advertising to corporate coaching. And no HR practitioner can be blind to the connotations of a sentence like, ‘we need to talk about your future’. See what I mean about nuance?


As all TED fans will know, a close exploration of someone’s fears, passions, past and future is compelling stuff. Thanks to the questions these students had already asked and conversations they’d already had in their lives, their stories presented highly plausible characters: dementia patients, fearful refugees, lonely teens, brazen adventurers and more. Having an ability to gauge different personalities is also what sets apart standout scientists, psychologists, doctors and all the other professions I’ve mentioned so far.

If you’ve ever done creative writing and it didn’t get published, awarded or shared, then take heart. Keep trying. Good writing craft takes time to develop. The stronger writers out there probably write or tell stories more often than you realise – they are the diarists, Facebookers, jokers and talkers among you.

So start small, practice often, and never stop learning how to write better.


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Business email shockers from the customer coalface

Sign saying No Way

If these business emails are anything to go by, then written communications is at an all-time low in Australia.

As a writing coach, I’m often asked whether I think writing standards are slipping

After all, technology makes it increasingly easy for us to evade real writing skill.

Wrote a sloppy sentence that might sound harsh? Just compensate with a goofy-faced emoji. Spelling a little off-key? Just keep going; auto-correct will do your job. Words lacking cut-through on social media? Add a cute puppy photo and you’re sorted.

Since I wasn’t around in the 1950s – or the 1650s, for that matter – I can’t speculate on what the average person was writing at the time. I can only go by the literature of the day.

And frankly, I do prefer the lucid style of Steinbeck to the florid style of Shakespeare. Equally, the writing style of academia at any point in history is nothing to yearn for.

However, something I see emerging in people’s writing now is an erosion of respect for others. Sure, sometimes we need to say things as they are. But in an era of ‘fake it til’ you make it’, people forget they still need to bow to hierarchy, protocol, systems or priorities that exclude sweet little them, the senders of a demanding or outraged message.


5 most common business email assassins

So, in no particular order, here are some absolute charmers I’ve come across through the hundreds of workshop participants I’ve trained in recent years.


  1. The Potty-mouth Princess

“I have no idea what you f**king people have done with my f**king transfer application and as you f**king won’t answer my emails, have no f**king idea what to do about getting the f**king credit I deserve for the f**king studies I’ve done so far.

“I’m sorry I had to be so forceful here, but have no other way to make my point.” – Undergraduate, emailing to the admin staff at a major university (curse-words not bleeped out in original email)

If you find yourself swearing at anyone, ever, in a professional situation, just don’t expect to get a particularly helpful response. Instead, expect the email to land straight in their junk mail settings (workplace filters look for things like swearing). Or wait to get a call from their lawyer. That’s all.


  1. The Matey Maaaaate  

“Hey, when you’re done with the install just buzz me to come back and check, cause I’m just gonna take a lunch break now.” – Junior carpenter, emailing the CEO of an office fitout specialist during a project

Such a profound sense of entitlement here. If you’re not going to make yourself indispensable, by actually doing your job for the boss, at least use a brilliantly perceptive tone in justifying your reasons why.


  1. The All-cap Empress

!!!!!!!!! URGENT !!!!!!!!! When can you process the application for Client 123456 – Email subject line from an immigration agent, writing to government department

So, you think your message is the most important of 173 ‘urgent’ items in your recipient’s in-box? Well then, we suggest you sit back, relax and re-read the organisation’s Ts and Cs about response times. Once the addressee has stopped howling with laughter, gasping in outrage or sharing your rudeness with 20 others, they might just write you back – next month. Long after they’ve written back to the other 172 others before you.


  1. The Carbon-copy Clown

“I’m guessing [client] wants his stupid logo extra big as always, so I’ve gone and done that already.” – Graphic designer to content manager, before the whole email chain was forwarded to the client

Those email chains that grow and grow, then get cc’d and forwarded to at least 10 other teams? Yep, they’re potentially rife with relationship-breakers like this one, lurking way down at the bottom of 27 emails. Never add to a chain. Whenever you can, start a fresh email log instead.


  1. The Sweeping Generalist

“The company has a dictatorial management style, with most staff excluded from decision-making. – Newbie in a board report submission to her boss

Okay, so sometimes we have to deliver bad news. But when that’s done in public (and yes, a report is public), word choice becomes extra important. Does that business leader really want their best people to see them linked to terms like tyranny, bullying, failure or harassment? Choose more diplomatic words – ‘top-down management style’ rather than ‘dictatorial’, for example – and devote your word-count to talking more about the solutions, not the problems.


I’d love to hear about any more pearlers from your organisation. Feel free to comment below, or flick us a friendly email. And if you want to learn more, try one of our business writing courses at CCE, The University of Sydney.

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How to give jargon-creep the flick



Bored of benchmarks? Sick of stakeholders, solutions and drinking the Kool-Aid? Well, you should be, because jargon is no way to express the uniqueness of your business.


In a news story I watched recently, a small business owner proudly touted the value of her cooking program (or maybe it was art?) for children.

“It empowers children to create their own dishes,” she gushed. Since when did normal everyday survival tasks like cooking cease to be just that? Growing instead into egotistical monsters that bleat for praise every time they’re performed?

A Forbes article recently described ‘empowerment’ as the “most condescending transitive verb ever invented.” Amusing articles like these abound, so there’s no excuse for not knowing the worst fluff in your industry’s vocab.

Top on my list, in the education-creative agency-business spheres, are these five seemingly harmless linguistic truncheons.

  • Benchmark – Your business benchmark relates to, er, what? Not all benchmarks are necessarily high. Add some context, puh-leeze. Benchmark is also interchangeable with ‘best practice’. Best practice for whom? The industry’s best? Or just all the other copycat hacks out there?
  • Stakeholder – Crazy person wielding a weapon-like stick with a point at the end. Is that really who you do business with? Surely you deal with communities, women aged over 30, local councils, senior teachers, shareholders, small businesses or other similarly plausible folk?
  • Journey – Creative industry heads love this word. “We want to take brand fans on a jouuuuuurney,” they effuse during the concepting phase. I love journeys, especially through rolling hills and country towns with lots of bakeries. But I’m going to break it to you. No matter how well ordered or even delicious your catalogue or credentials look, flipping through their pages is not a journey.
  • Story – All businesses want to tell their story. It’s just a shame they don’t realise that business missions and goals are just that. Missions and goals. Stories have unlikely heroes, dramatic twists, comical interludes and surprise endings. You can find plenty of stories in your customer experience. You just can’t slap the word ‘story’ onto any materials outside your data charts.
  • Solution – This one comes in so many shapes and sizes it’s hilarious. Scalable solutions, end-to-end solutions, outcome-orientated solutions and more solutions. Admittedly it’s a handy word. Client problems plus our solutions equals happy ending, right? It’s just that it’s so over-used. So go find a more specific synonym.

For all my rants, many people in your industry will expect you to use jargon. So while I’d love to say you should omit it altogether, the best way to deal with jargon is to halve its use. Here’s an example.

Instead of this: “Going forward, I think we can leverage these options and drill down to the next level for our stakeholders.”

Try this: “I think we can draw on these options to give our clients and partners a better product.”

Read the following articles and lists to start thinking about what redundant fluff to weed out of your company’s messaging. Then go to to explore other options. It’s fun. Promise!


Inc –

Wikipedia –

The Guardian –

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Tone of voice, so much choice


Establishing your brand’s tone of voice is hard work. Once the basics are in place, you can follow these steps to dial the formality up and down for different audiences.

I’ve become a tad obsessed with brand tone of voice. It’s because maintaining a consistent tone is so hard to do – a bit like mastering foreign accents. (No wonder Cate Blanchett is so lauded for her skills, from Manhattan socialite to Elizabethan queen and much in between, while your regular voice-over Joe has a Jamaican accent only a few clicks away from his Italian or Chinese).

Anyway, back to written tone of voice. In this post, we’ll look at the adjustments you can make to brand tone of voice across the dual axis of personality and formality.

The decisions you make across personality axis will establish the right and wrong brand personality, while adjustments to the formality axis will help you tailor the messaging to different audiences.

  1. The personality axis

First off, take the time to explore your brand values and how to express these. Sentence styles, technical language, outside audience participation and word choice are all important considerations.

See my related post on establishing a word bank for more details on this last area, or the basics of corporate voice for an overview of tone essentials. And see the video on the left to see what happens when everyone chooses the same words.

Got a brand that wants to be seen as dynamic, tech-savvy and personable all at once? You’ll probably want to use short sentences wherever possible, a mix of technical terms with everyday speak, some punchy user testimonials, lots of energetic verbs and adverbs, and generous use of the word ‘you’.

Got a high-end product or service that you want to present as premium, luxurious and crafted? You’ll probably choose longer, lingering complex sentences, more adjectives, fewer rushing verbs and much reference to craft terms.

  1. Tone of voice axisThe formality axis

With the brand language established, you can now dial the formality up and down depending on whether your target readers are students or senior execs. Here are five simple areas to focus on:

  • Active vs passive – the active voice always sounds friendlier than the passive. For example, compare ‘apply before December 1 to be in the running’ against: ‘applications not received before December 1 will be considered not valid.’
  • Short sentences vs long – sentences of around 10 words in length sound closest to the spoken word, so stick to these if your audience wants an informal tone. A standard sentence is 25 words; a complex sentence is 40 words and over.
  • Simple words vs complex – as for sentences, shorter words sound friendlier. Read your copy aloud and you’ll get an immediate sense for the complexity of your word choice, even without using the Flesch-Kincaid index.
  • Colloquialisms and contractions – write words out in full for a more formal effect; use their short form for a more informal effect. For example, ‘we’ll contact you’, instead of ‘we will contact you’ or ‘our head people’ instead of ‘the management.’
  • Inclusive words – using words like ‘you’, ‘they’, ‘please’ and ‘welcome’ are inclusive; omitting them will create a more formal style.

You can now tailor the same message to a different audience, while keeping the same brand personality. For example, the following snippets about Sydney University’s newest dining spot use different sentence lengths, an abbreviated venue name, and different ways of talking about the menu, but retain the personality of approachability and enthusiasm:

As posted on Facebook:

Courtyard is the perfect place to enjoy afternoon coffee and delicious sweets! Open till 8pm today

As posted in University of Sydney Union News:

Holme Building is set to become Camperdown campus’ new favourite place to eat and socialise with the opening of the latest food and beverage offering, Courtyard Restaurant and Bar.

So that’s our overview on adjusting tone across the two axes. Big subject. There’s a book in there somewhere, I’m sure of it…

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Clauses, phrases and grammar mazes: Part 2

Grammar-check for a road sign, online at Flickr: drive slowly.

Grammar-check for a road sign, online at Flickr: drive slowly.

Get a tighter grip on your sentence grammar with a look at phrases: hardworking groups of words that you can move around to control which information your reader finds first.


Sentence grammar is fun. No, really – I mean it. Understanding the basics of how a sentence works is not that hard, and once you have the basics in place, you can start adding more layers. True empowerment.


This is how it works. As we saw in Part 1 of this post, grammar works on four levels – sentences, clauses, phrases and words.


Sentences come in different shapes and sizes, from the aptly named simple sentence, with just one clause, to styles like cumulative sentences: complex sentences that have longer internal phrases and several different kinds of clauses. You can read more about sentence patterns here.


Break down a clause into its components, and you get phrases – subject phrases, object phrases, verb phrases and more.


Subjects and verbs

The two most important phrases are the subject and verb: the main ‘doer’ and the action it is doing. It’s important to know they are phrases and not just single words, because if your grammar education ended in around Year 2, like mine did, you’ll find it hard to spot the sentence subject if you’re looking for a single word. The underlined subjects in the following examples show what I mean:

Cats hate dogs.

The people in our department will attend the forum.


Objects, complements and adverbials

With your subject and verb phrases established, you can complete the sentence with an object phrase (recipient of the subject’s action), adverbial phrase (set of words that show how, when, why or where the action happened) or complement (adjectival phrase that describes the subject). For example:


Subject phrase – Verb phrase – Object phrase

Two officers – went to – Gundagai.

Subject phrase – Verb phrase – Complement

The results – appeared – favourable.

Subject phrase – Verb phrase – Complement

This date next month – will be – our fifth anniversary.


What does it all mean?

Once you can name the individual phrases, you can see how writers move the different parts around to emphasise different points. Phrases used at the front of the sentence tend to grab more attention, and are better indexed with search engines. For example:


Adverbial – Subject phrase – Verb phrase – Object phrase

January is when – we – will audit – Big Corporation.


Subject phrase – Verb phrase – Object phrase – Adverbial

We – will audit – Big Corporation – in January.

Subject phrase – Verb phrase – Adverbial

Big Corporation – will be audited – in January.


Notice how the last example is a passive sentence, with an object phrase in the position where the subject should normally be. This means there is no clear doer of the action now. However, if the sentence appeared in context, and if ‘Big Corporation’ was an important keyword for online searches, it would be the more effective choice.


Over to you. What changes did you achieve in your writing by moving the phrases around?

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Clauses, phrases and grammar mazes: Part 1

By Michelle du Pray via Flickr.

By Michelle du Pray via Flickr.

To improve sentence grammar, start with clauses and phrases. This post explains how to unravel dense logic in writing by looking at its core chunks first. 

At a recent inhouse writing workshop I ran, a sore-headed participant looked at me in exasperation one hour into the grammar session. “But why does any of this matter in the workplace, anyway?”

I should say, straight off, that we can solve a lot of grammar problems just by chopping long sentences down into two or three shorter ones. Main subject and verb are instantly clarified, and your natural intuition for logic and language will do the rest. Easy.

But my full answer to that workshop question is twofold.

Firstly, understanding grammar helps you resolve workplace disagreements more effectively. Grammar is like the science of words and their relation to each other. So being able to explain that a main clause is buried in the middle of a bunch of other clauses, or that subject X takes verb form Y when it’s plural, is handy.

Secondly, understanding the logic behind grammar helps you make quicker decisions on the go. When someone flicks you a sentence like, “There is much fragmentation in Sydney’s consumer legal market,” your built-in grammar detective immediately spots a dud subject. Revise the sentence so the subject is clearer, and you get the more useful: “Sydney’s consumer legal market is greatly fragmented.”

So, where to start?

First off, take a deep breath and be prepared for the basics to take a while to sink in. (Confession: I spent a full two days getting my head around grammar so I could present it in this one-hour training session).

If you’re teaching yourself, make sure to use resources with built-in tests so you can practice your newfound skills on the go. is useful, as is the grammar chapter in John Seely’s 2005 Oxford Guide to Effective Writing and Speaking.

Then start with an overview of grammar, from big-picture to small-picture. Grammar operates at four essential levels: sentences, clauses, phrases and words. In this post I’m going to focus on clauses, because this is where most of the potential disagreements lie. We’ll talk about phrases in the next post.  

Anatomy of sentence clauses

A clause is a group of words that generally contain a subject phrase and a verb phrase; some also have an object phrase. A correct clause can stand on its own: for example, “He ran” or “She told me.” A simple sentence has just one clause, while more complex sentences may have coordinating, subordinate or relative clauses – or a combination of several.

Coordinating clauses (underlined): The forum is in November and registrations close in October.

Main clause (not underlined) and subordinating clause (underlined): The forum is in November, when many top delegates are already in town.

Main clause (not underlined) and relative clause (underlined): The forum is held the same month that many top delegates are already in town.


  • Coordinating clauses are linked with conjunctions including: and, but, or, nor, then, yet, after, as, before, until, so.
  • Subordinating clauses are linked to the main clause with conjunctions including: while, when, because, as, since.
  • Relative clauses are linked to the main clause with relative pronouns: who, whom, which, that, where, when.

When writers use several kinds of clauses in one sentence, they end up with a complex compounding sentence where the logic sometimes becomes hard to follow. The following sentence uses the following clauses: [1] main; [2] subordinating; [3] relative; and [4a] and [4b] coordinating clauses.

[1] The forum is in November, [2] which is the same month [3] that many top delegates are already in town, [4a] so we can guarantee great speakers and a large turnout, and [4b] ensure we meet our sales targets.

So uh, why does this matter?

You’ll want to know the different kinds of clauses, and the conjunctions you’ll need to combine them, so you can check whether the main point is at the start of the sentence, or at the end or somewhere in the middle.

Compare this (subordinating clause + main clause):

In the 50 years since founding, ABC Accounting has helped thousands of Australians with their tax issues.

With this (main clause + subordinating clause):

ABC Accounting has helped thousands of Australians with their tax issues since its founding 50 years ago.

By moving the main clause to the front of the sentence, you help busy readers get to the main point more quickly. If your writing is for any online format, you will help search engines find your article more quickly. You can read more about clauses, and how to combine them, here: and here

Our post on grammar continues here with a look at the phrases that make up clauses.

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PowerPoint love: Divide your messaging, conquer your audience

Slide background by ClickSassy, online at

Slide background by ClickSassy, online at

Lately I’m seeing a lot of massive PowerPoints – especially in data-heavy industries, or when presenters think audiences want the slide deck after a presentation. But it’s much kinder to separate a presentation from its follow-up report.  

I had an epiphany earlier this year. We all know the rules around effective PowerPoint presentations – start with a clear storyline, use minimal slides, include cool photos and quotes.

But professionals everywhere create massive decks, with between 60 and 100 slides, all weighed down with data, facts, projections, milestones, comparisons, arrows and charts.

And I’ve only just realised why this phenomenon of PowerPoint overload happens: it’s when presenters think their audiences want a copy of the presentation afterwards. In other words, they try to make one slide deck fit two purposes – live presenting and solo reading.

Yet the last thing anyone would want after a presentation is a cumbersome PowerPoint, taking up to two minutes to open, and with all the key messages buried somewhere inside all that data. So here is my ultra-simple three-step guide to using PowerPoints.

  1. Plan for the live presentation to be short: around 10 slides per 20 minutes of talk, with your main points designed to support a clear call to action.
  2. Create a few backup slides for the live question-and-answer session, which should always follow the presentation.
  3. Give your audience a written handout afterwards. In other words, write a short report.

I won’t devote space in this blog to the first two points. There are countless worthy resources out there to help professionals create better PowerPoints, from people like Garth Reynolds, Eric Bergman, Lawrence Lessig and my personal favourite, Nancy Duarte. I can also offer you a short five-step overview here: Fastest ever PowerPoint checklist, by Stephanie Oley.

So here’s a short summary of the classic report writing technique I present in my report writing course at Sydney Uni’s Centre for Continuing Education. And if your industry is data-heavy by nature, this advice still applies to you. Charts, graphs, projections and other visual representations of information work superbly well in reports – they just need a paragraph of written explanation to accompany them. You can even use some SmartArt graphics, to illustrate relationships, processes, hierarchies and more. Truly!

The 7 steps to writing a report

  1. Analyse your objectives and audience needs, and write down your response to questions like the ones in the Melb Uni guide below.
  2. Grab a notebook or a stack of Post-It notes, because your first step is mindmapping away from your desk – planning should never start on a screen.
  3. Write a strong message statement in the middle of the mindmap.
  4. Write a handful of arguments to support your main proposition – three or four is a good number, just like in your spoken presentation.
  5. Step away from the mindmap now and turn to your screen, writing your report with a summary first before guiding your readers to each subsequent point.
  6. Make sure to use those juicy PowerPoint graphs, charts and projections as necessary to support your key points.
  7. Wrap up each section with a statement summarising its main points or segueing to the next section, and have a ‘Next steps’ section at the very end. There is no conclusion as such, because you have ideally given the reader the main takeaways and recommendations in the first half-page of the report.

This report-writing guide produced by Melbourne University and used by Sydney University is good, although it doesn’t teach you to start with a message statement and set up a hierarchy of ideas supporting this statement. Get an overview of that technique here, or go to the original author of this principle, Barbara Minto.

I’m happy to say the advice in this blog post is supported by lots of other communications experts, but I would love to hear your thoughts. Send ’em through.

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Why your numbers don’t tell the full story

Using numbers to support business happenings.

Using numbers to support business happenings (Flickr).

Interpreting data is a balance of science and art – of knowing when to question the figures, and when to let them speak for themselves.


At an in-house training workshop recently, I found myself grappling with a participant’s question on how to tell the ‘story’ of numbers. I’ve been mulling the question ever since.

It’s simple when the numbers say good things – sales are up, business leads have multiplied, productivity has grown. It’s also easy when the increments are big – 20 per cent, double, three-fold.

But when the numbers deliver news that might mislead, befuddle or disappoint executives or business partners, it’s time to get creative. You could group several categories if they are weak individually, to imply a trend. Or you could search for numbers that illustrate the flip side of an occurrence.

What you’re realising by now is this: numbers alone don’t tell stories. Circumstances do. When asked to interpret any data, your first task should be to find the reasons, people, trends, beliefs and other circumstances surrounding those numbers.

Draw on different kinds of research to do this, such as qualitative, applied and conceptual, either to flesh out a hypothesis or to find relationships between different groups of data. Here’s a closer look.


Scenario #1: You have a hypothesis.

Starting with a hypothesis gives you some direction. Say you’ve been tasked with proving that a beleaguered TV network does offer commercial merit for potential advertisers. You know that audience numbers for the network are down overall, but you’ve heard anecdotally that some of their new shows are faring well.

You could use your analytical research skills to break the numbers down further – to uncover what demographic is tuning in, which shows are doing well, and which ones are flat-lining. You could then harness your qualitative research skills, perhaps designing a field study or interviewing a focus group to uncover why those shows are popular, and how their success compares with similar programming at rival networks. You could broaden the research field further to include correlational research (see P5 of this SlideShare presentation), and try to identify a social trend that mirrors what’s happening in your business.

With these facts in hand, edit your hypothesis and you’ll see you  have something to talk about – a newly female-centric audience, an evolving program lineup that’s ditching the old and embracing the new, a new breed of celebrity that’s drawing a cult following. That’s your story.


Scenario #2: No hypothesis, all loose ends.

When there’s no hypothesis and only raw numbers, your foremost task is to find comparisons, groups, likenesses. For example, you might be writing an annual report that seeks to explain why sales volumes are up, but corporate revenue is down.

You could start by going back to your quantitative figures, and see what insights you gain from grouping categories differently. Do you get  more pronounced highs or lows in the data when looking at only new-release product sales, or at product lines that invested in marketing? Next, you could use empirical research to compare different fields over one year or several years – to identify which divisions did well, which ones underperformed and which increased expenses have led to the revenue decline. You might then use analytical research to find out why those numbers are up or down – for example, the managerial issues that caused one division to use extra contractors for the year, the R&D expenses that went over budget (but are forecast to bring profits back in line soon), the skills shortages that affected productivity that year.

You now have a hypothesis – which you should re-test, of course – and a story emerging of a trend happening in your business that might otherwise have remained hidden.



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Cut your writing time with these 5 planning tools

Building blocks of SEO by bourndesign,

Building blocks by bourndesign

Use the right tools to plan a piece of writing, whether it’s a business report or a marketing soundbite, and you’ll cut drastic amounts of writing time.


One of the biggest ‘ah-ha’ moments I see among clients taking my writing workshops is when they get the value of planning.

It’s so tempting to get stuck into the brief straight away – especially when you know your subject matter and write regularly on a subject. But it’s so much more effective to work through some planning tools first.

Plan the impact you’ll have on your reader. Plan the actions they’ll take after reading. Plan the length and shape of your writing. (By ‘shape’, I mean how many headings, subheads, breakouts, leads and so on you’ll use). Plan the voice you’ll write in. Plan the structure you’ll use. You get the idea.

In my copywriting workshop at CCE, I offer nine planning tools that can be used as needed. Here are my five all-time favourites, which I use again and again in my client copywriting and business writing work.

  1. The 6-point strategy snapshot

    Can you sum up the personality of your brand or product in a handful of words? If not, this one’s for you. While strategy is a serious field that brands invest in heavily, you can complete this snapshot in less than 30 minutes to give your marketing materials a snappier focus. Simply write your answers to the following: marketing objective, primary benefit to customer, secondary benefit, description of customer, personality of your campaign, and call to action. Then write your copy so it meets those criteria.

  2. Language register

    It can be hard to speak in your customer’s voice. This tool helps writers formalise the language of their customers, by showing the many variations of any particular word and why you’ll have to choose some and reject others. Write down five on-brand language terms, then write several off-brand language choices next to each one. Use the on-brand words in your copy and you’ll gradually get a sense for this new voice you’ve adopted. (See ‘Authentic voice found at my local bar’ for more on the subject of voice).

  3. Hierarchy structure

    This is a top-heavy structure where chapters, sections and paragraphs start with a summary statement. You start by writing out the main themes you’ll be discussing, then putting these in order and expanding on them in the order promised at each opening statement. It’s a structure best suited to longer marketing and business pieces, and I’ll write more about this in my next post.

  4. Narrative structure

    The most intuitive and timeless way of relaying a set of facts, the narrative is bottom-heavy, with conclusions and resolutions at the end. The narrative starts with a generally accepted premise, then builds on this before reaching a turning-point and the outcomes. Think the classic fairy tale: boy plants bean seed, boy climbs beanstalk, boy encounters giant, boy nearly gets eaten by giant, boy escapes with his life intact (along with a rather handy goose that lays golden eggs).

  5. Mindmap

    After deciding whether you’ll write along a hierarchy or pyramid structure, jot down all the topics you’re planning to include. The best way to do this is by sketching out a mindmap on paper, showing the main branches of thought and then the sub-branches off each one. Number all the parts in the order you’ll address them. Then start writing. This tool is a phenomenal time-saver.

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