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PRODUCING NEWSLETTERS: BEWARE OF THE BIRDCAGE

Posted by Tim Bryce on July 9, 2012

– Writing newsletters that will be read as opposed to discarded.

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As I have been involved with a variety of nonprofit organizations over the years, I am often saddled with the task of producing the group’s newsletter. Maybe it’s because I know how to string a few words together and have worked with computers for more years than I care to remember. Nonetheless, I have probably produced over a thousand newsletters over the years for management groups, technology associations, homeowner groups, and fraternal organizations. Because of this, I like to believe I have learned a thing or two over the years about these publications, the first being they should never be taken for granted. Too often I see newsletters prepared frivolously where the same verbiage is spewed out month after month thereby become very predictable and quite boring. I know of newsletters where the same copy is used year after year and nothing changes except the names of the club’s officers. Surprisingly nobody notices. There is nothing wrong with devising a standard format, which readers tend to adapt to, but if there is no “news” in the newsletter, in all likelihood it will only be used to line the bottom of a birdcage. However, if they are meaningful, not only will they be read, they’ll also be kept for future reference.

When writing copy for the newsletter, keep it simple and to the point. Do not ramble as most readers of newsletters have the attention span of a gnat and become easily bored. You have less than thirty seconds to grab a person’s attention with a newsletter, after which they will decide to either read it or discard it. I tend to see the newsletter as a working tool which is why people should discuss more about what is on the horizon and less about what happened in the past. Your column should be positive and upbeat, not negative and depressing. In other words, keep the glass half full as opposed to half empty. We write to communicate, not to put people to sleep. People will likely follow you if you are more optimistic. If you’ve got bad news though, do not try to sugarcoat it, give it to your members straight so you get their attention and encourage participation if necessary.

Other than news, a schedule of upcoming events should be included, along with a listing of club officers and their contact information (e.g., telephone, e-mail). These two items are what most people are looking for, everything else is secondary. In terms of “filler,” there is a lot you can add, but do not overdo it as you should be mindful of the birdcage liner phenomenon. I have seen a variety of things used, such as a welcome of new members, a listing of past presidents, this day in history, cartoons, some useful tips and techniques, educational trivia, and a listing of sponsors.

As I begin editing the newsletter, I collect all of the notes and columns from contributors and place them into a plain text file (ASCII) suitable for use with any text processor, e.g., MS Notepad. People always wonder why I do this. The answer is simple, in this format I can migrate it to any other computer file format, be it a word processor, desktop publishing, HTML (web page), E-Mail, PDF, etc. Whereas these other formats are limited in terms of migrating to other file formats, plain ASCII text can go anywhere. In one association I am involved with, I produce multiple versions of the same newsletter: using desktop publishing, I produce a paper copy to be printed and mailed and a PDF version to be e-mailed; I also produce an HTML version for our web page. This is all simple to do, but not possible without first preparing the plain ASCII text version. As an aside, I am a big proponent of Adobe’s PDF file format as it is more universally applicable than word processors like MS Word.

Since your files are now on the computer, be sure to run spell checkers and grammar checkers on the text. In this day and age, there is no excuse for not doing so.

I tend to name computer files in a specific manner so I can easily sort through them and find what I want, as well as to easily backup files. For example, I put the publication date into the name; to illustrate:

NEWS0612.TXT – Representing the June 2012 edition (MMYY) – my personal preference
NEWS1206.TXT – the same thing backwards (YYMM)
NEWS200612.TXT – Representing the June 20th, 2012 edition (DDMMYY) if so inclined

I have seen other people name them based on Volume and Edition number; for example:

Vol06Ed10.TXT – Volume 06, Edition 10

How you name your files is your business but I encourage you to devise a standard format thereby simplifying the storage and maintenance of the files. This is also useful for setting up a new edition of the newsletter. Instead of inventing an entirely new edition of each newsletter, I copy and rename a past issue and use it as a template to build the next edition, thereby saving considerable time.

In terms of layout, devise a clean and simple approach that you can standardize on, thereby inviting readership as opposed to discouraging people. Most desktop publishing tools have standard templates for such purposes. Always be cognizant of your readership and try to accommodate people. For example, do not use a tiny font or strange type style that nobody can read. Break your text into multiple columns on a page, two or three, and leave a sufficient amount of white space between columns, thereby making it easy to read. Underline or highlight key words you want to draw attention to but do not do so excessively as people will start to ignore it.

Again, I warn publishers of newsletters, regardless of how graphically appealing your publication looks, it it doesn’t say anything of substance it will inevitably end up in the birdcage. Before you release it though, try to get a second set of eyes to review the publication. Another person might be able to spot something you have overlooked.

Although most publications today are distributed via e-mail and web pages, there are still people who do not have access to a computer, particularly elderly members who prefer printed copies instead. This means you need an address book that can produce both mailing labels as well as a listing of e-mail addresses. Electronic versions of the newsletter have no restrictions in terms of number of pages. However, printed versions do, as dictated by postage costs. I have seen many organizations struggle with the issue of discontinuing the printed version of the newsletter. Electronic versions are cheaper to produce, and you can do more with them, but if a sizeable portion of your membership cannot access it, you will inevitably alienate them. Then again, this may become a moot point if the economics of the group cannot justify the continuation of a printed version.

The question remains though, can a simple newsletter truly impact a nonprofit organization? You betcha. First, it reflects the personality of the group (tired versus stimulating; lethargic versus ambitious). Second, it gets the word out as to the plans and activities of the group. I would wager you this: those groups without a newsletter or offer nothing more than a “birdcage liner” are probably the same groups suffering from apathy, lack of attendance, and a decline in membership.

All that is needed is someone who can string a few words together and feels comfortable around computers. Oh oh, now I know how I get trapped into doing this.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim’s columns, see:
timbryce.com

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Copyright © 2012 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.


NEXT UP: 
REBUILDING THE MIDDLE CLASS – Two distinctly approaches for putting the country back to work.

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8 Responses to “PRODUCING NEWSLETTERS: BEWARE OF THE BIRDCAGE”

  1. Jenn said

    LOL– I don’t have a bird, or a bird cage–so most publications do not end up there in this house…but eventually everything gets recycled. I will tell you some of the most boring publications I ever subscribed to came from genealogical societies. It seems there would be perhaps one maybe two articles on someone’s genealogy line–but they would never make that tie into the historical part of the town my ancestors lived in and they never featured my ancestors. That said–the rest were usually “meetings notes” *yawn*, and once in awhile some blurb about an upcoming event. Needless to say– I stopped subscribing to them!!

    Cheers, Jenn

    Like

  2. Tim Bryce said

    A U.V. of Largo, Florida wrote…

    “Excellent as always. In my working years, my problem was always with spell check because it does recognize misspelled words, but does not catch “wrong” words in context. Such as the difference between “there” and “their”. Working in the legal field these differences were very important. I always “eye read” my text too. And not to be nitpicky, you have an error in paragraph 12, beginning with “Again, I warn publishers…”. Can’t help it. After all these years, my “trained eyes” just pick these things up.”

    Like

  3. Tim Bryce said

    An S.S. of New York City wrote…

    “This is really interesting stuff. Thanks for adding me to your distribution list.”

    Like

  4. Tim Bryce said

    An O.B. of Macon, Georgia wrote…

    “Effectively, you have laid out some ground rules for newsletters, however, I believe that you left out one very important piece of information. That is the editor needs to know his audience or subscribers. Over the years, I have produced several newsletters. Model airplane clubs, Masonic lodges, Trade groups and a few others. People in general want to know about people. A page full of genuine facts will not produce the readership that a simple single column about what John Brown is doing in his garage.

    A good newsletter editor needs two things, time to work and good resources. He has to be not only versed in language usage but in common courtesies and customs of his readership. Very correct English and properly formatted pages mean nothing to a red neck hunting club. While proper wording and doting all the “i”s mean everything to a Social or business club. One of the things I tried to do was to print some history or story about a subscriber in every edition, that required some investigative reporting. My format was simple: A header naming the publication,. date issue and volume number ( if applicable), a wee corner for contact information, then the items that needed to be seen by the membership, followed by Human interest stories, and offerings if any. I was not educated enough to be real editor but my readership really missed me when I moved on and I had several letter and calls thanking me for the job I did and would I consider writing from a distance if they sent me the information. Which I declined.

    While I did very much enjoy writing the newsletter, it got old after a while doing all the work myself and I know folks got tired of my brand of jargon. Getting other folks to submit articles for the publication was like pulling teeth.

    Doing a really good job meant giving up a part of my family life and at the time I had a young family and truly wanted to spend time with them. So I turned it over to others and within a year the newsletters stopped and the clubs all said it was just too much trouble.

    Alas, like our current situation in our current financial and political crisis, no body want to step up to the bat to take a swing. All want the glory of a home run but few are willing to take the bat to achieve it,

    Not being critical just giving you the benefit of my experience.

    In college, I learned to use some: 50 cent, $1.00 and $2.00 words but I discovered that I was losing half or better of my audience for lack of their understanding of what I was talking about. So I changed my language to simple words that everyone could understand. (Every one knows the word “janitor” but substitute “Sanitation engineer” and you lose them. But then that comes from knowing the folks to whom you are trying to get to read your work!”

    Like

  5. Tim Bryce said

    A J.S. of Skidway Lake, Michigan wrote…

    “Call me a geek, but writing newsletters is one task I’ve really enjoyed. I had a whole collection of clip art to draw attention or break up/enhance the layout. I, too, used a template and kept to a simple font and short, digestible paragraphs. Bullets, numbers, charts and graphs help readers absorb, too. For me, it was always a creative endeavor.

    I did a Mothers’ Club newsletter for my daughter’s school for about seven years. Its purpose was to inform parents of upcoming events, deadlines, schedules, etc., but some folks remained clueless. One mother told me she pulled out all the paper from her kids’ backpacks and discarded it without looking. That would explain a lot, including why her kids showed up for school on a Teachers’ Conference day when the building was closed. Maybe their birds enjoyed my work;)”

    Like

  6. Your style is really unique compared to other folks I’ve read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you’ve got
    the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this site.

    Like

  7. […] Related article:PRODUCING NEWSLETTERS: BEWARE OF THE BIRDCAGE […]

    Like

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