When in Rome …

by Jeff Ebbing
Southeastern Community College
West Burlington, IA


Since we’re just days away from the national conference in Chicago, I thought I’d let you in on a little thing I call the secondary agenda.


Conference agendas are always great. They’re chock-full of excellent speakers, good research and lots of sharing. You meet some real industry pros, and it’s where you get to put a name to a face and make acquaintances.


But when the official agenda ends, attention shifts to the secondary agenda. That’s when you get to stick a face on a memory and make friends.


For years now, a growing handful of us District 5ers have cultivated a tradition. We convene after dinner each night and go explore the city. We have three criteria: no chains, no cover, and no reservations. And like Dr. Seuss says, “Oh the places you’ll go!”


This recipe never disappoints. I’ve sung Jimi Hendrix with a rock-n-roll hobo, hung out with the Irish national rugby team, sucked down oysters at a shady backwater sea shack, and watched an old man with a bad hairpiece disco dance wearing only a bath towel.


These excursions foster a team-building environment infinitely more powerful than some wimpy ropes course. Whenever we bring newbies into the fold, we give them a good ol’ D5 welcome, and before long even the quietest wall flowers crank their inner Freddy Mercury all the way to 11.


[Editor’s note: While evenings are always full of unscripted extracurricular learning, I have NEVER been late to breakfast or missed a morning session.]


So what does this have to do with community college marketing? When in Rome, do as the Romans do.


Writing is one of the hardest things marketers do. Sadly, many of us suck at it. Well, it’s true.


In fact, a lot of the stuff I write is crap. Grade-A, 100 percent garbage that never sees the light of day. That’s why I strive to follow David Ogilvy’s advice, “write the way you talk.” Naturally.


I think he really meant to say write the way our audience talks.


Our audience has been tuning people like us out for years, and I can’t say that I blame them. So why not give them some props and talk their language for once?


I’m going out on a limb here, but I bet 99.99 percent of people you’re trying to reach aren’t AQIP systems portfolio reviewers. So why write like one?


Whenever I write copy, I run it through the Jeff Ebbing Talk Test (patent pending) before it gets my seal of approval. I read it out loud from start to finish, and if it doesn’t flow nicely, I know it needs work.


Careful though. Writing the way people talk may sound easy, but there’s no shortcut past the hard work of understanding what you want to say in the first place. And if you’re not used to writing how you speak, you’re gonna have to spend time unlearning everything you thought you knew and break rules you told yourself were unbreakable.


Good writing should flow like a conversation between friends, so nix the fluff. Drop the pretense. Use contractions. Split infinitives. Keep paragraphs crazy-short. Dangle participles. And never, ever dress up grammar or vocabulary at the expense of rhythm or tone.


Still not convinced? Here’s a timely example of how speaking your audience’s language could actually save your life. http://bit.ly/XaZL52


Jake and Elwood were masters at doing as the Romans do. Those guys could read an audience. And man, could they talk the talk.


When faced with overwhelming adversity (and by adversity, I mean flying beer bottles), the boys recalibrated to relate to their audience. Lesser bands would have choked and gone down in flames, but not Jake and Elwood. They rose to the occasion with style and grace, and the audience responded.


Now it’s your turn.


And while you won’t win points with your English faculty, your president, or even your trustees, reassure them that formal writing still has its place – just not in the marketing department.


See you in Chicago.



Jeff Ebbing is director of marketing and communications (a.k.a. the marketing guy) at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa. He likes music, mustard and a good laugh.

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