Research: How Do You Find Out About Things?

Ask any kid from the age of four (maybe younger if he or she is really precocious), and that youngster will tell you, “On the Internet!”

Couple searchingINternetIt’s true. Probably the handiest, and easiest place to “find out about things” is on the Internet – on your computer, your phone, your tablet. The key? Discretion. What you “find out about things” may not always be useful. Unfortunately, much of what you find on the Internet may not be true (oh, but it makes a great story), may be highly biased, or may only be possible under limited circumstances. And many Internet researchers may not yet have the experience or background to evaluate what they are reading. Here are some tips:

1. Who wrote it, and where did you find it? Another way to say, “consider the source.” Look beyond what was said. What was the purpose of the material you found? What was the writer trying to do with it? What does the writer want you to do with it? Why did he or she write it?

2. Compare Sources. If various “reliable” sources provide the same information, ask yourself whether these sources share a particular persuasion, or whether they represent a variety of points of view. Compare sources representing a variety of points of view. If they say pretty much the same thing, it’s more likely to be accurate. Check it out.

3. What was the original source? Who said it first, thought it first, or wrote about it first? Are you getting the information “firsthand,” or are you getting what someone said, thought, or wrote about it, later?

4. Finally, ask. Ask a trusted authority in the field. Ask a teacher, librarian, or researcher. Ask yourself. Is this information reasonable, reliable, believable? Is the information accurate, current, complete? Does it make sense?

 

Let’s shift gears for a minute.

Before the Internet, we still had homework assignments, questions about how the world worked, and the need for specialized information. Where did we go? To the library. Remember your trips to the library? Remember what that library looked like, how it sounded, and the wonderful scent of years’ worth of books, magazines, and newspapers? Maybe you even had a carrel where you could hide away, and quietly bury yourself in your studies.

Or maybe you were in a main room, sharing a long table with other readers. And the research librarian was just over there. Anything you couldn’t find, he or she could.

To keep up, libraries have had to change gears too. If you haven’t been to your local branch lately, go. You’ll find that treasure of yesteryear, the research librarian, still in place, and still an invaluable resource.

Some libraries offer a live chat with a librarian 24/7. Others offer homework centers, a variety of research tools, and live one-to-one help in a variety of languages. You may also find academic support in most major subjects, real-time writing help, online tutoring, guidance for GED and citizenship tests, adult literacy programs, and back-to-school prep for adults. There are social activities, room rentals, and “meet the author” meetings. Tours, special events, and free admissions to local and regional points of historic and artistic interest.

Your library doesn’t have the material you need? No problem. Most libraries borrow back and forth from others. In some cases worldwide. If they don’t have it, they can get it for you. Many libraries offer books that can be downloaded on your mobile device, or transferred from your computer to your e-book reader or MP3 player. There are special programs and activities for hobbyists, and for children, teens, and senior citizens. Outreach services for special populations – homebound, jails, non-English speakers.

So, how do you find out about things? The Internet, of course. And the public library.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Important Trend: Storytelling for Business Writing

It was almost buried in the speaker’s content. In fact, I wasn’t sure I had even heard it: what Shane Show, Chief Creative Officer for Contently, calls “The Biggest Business Skill of the Next Five Years.” Here’s what the speaker said,

“To explain the abstract, or complex, we need to use stories.”

StorytellerAnd it hit me. That’s what we do with business writing all the time – we try to explain the abstract, or complex! But how often do we think about using a story to do it? Oh sure, we talk about telling stories, using testimonials, and getting quotes for marketing, sales, and advertising materials. And it works! Of course, that is business writing too – but for “regular” business writing? “Regular” business writing, like memos, instructions, reports?

I don’t think so – or at least not very often, if at all. Hardly ever. But why not?

And where to begin?

Where to begin? Have you ever had this experience: You are thinking very intensely about something – It could be an on-the-job challenge, a new software program, or even a paint color for your house. As you are thinking about it, you run into thoughts, ideas and comments about that “something” just about everywhere? Well that happened to me this morning. I flipped on the radio for the news, just to hear the tail end of an interview on who-knows-what subject. And the sentence I heard just before the sign-off was, “A story begins where you think it does.”

This will likely be best accomplished by tying into your reader’s needs, problems, or interests. And that will be the point where he or she starts to “hear” your story. The sooner you get to that point, the sooner you’ll pick up your reader, or your listener.

There has been quite a bit written about using stories in oral presentations, and for sales and marketing pieces. These longer three-part stories (setup/conflict/resolution, with your product, service, candidate, cause as hero) are frequently far more sophisticated than using a simple story in an instruction, a memo, or some other “regular” piece of business writing. But they are similar, in that each has a job. Each has a specific purpose to fulfill; a specific job to do. It may be the greatest story in the world. It may be your favorite party gambit. But in the business situation, it won’t fly unless it strongly and obviously supports the point you want to drive home.

So, day-to-day, how might you use stories in your regular business writing? Stories can be used for team building, to improve morale, to make an instruction clear, to get “buy-in” for a policy or process change, to gain trust, to enhance credibility, to relate with a customer issue, to connect in a positive way with the variety of contacts you have daily – the list goes on. Stories create a “tone” that can establish, or reinforce a relationship.

Here are four more specific story tactics you can use for your “regular” business writing.

Politicians use stories of people who have benefitted from their ideas, processes, or policies to gain votes. Sometimes these folks will tell their own stories, but more often, the politician tells the story – carefully crafted, of course! – for them. So can you.

You can let the reader “tell his or her own story” by starting a sentence with, “Has this ever happened to you…” or, “Do you remember a time when…” and letting the reader fill in the blanks, which is also effective to bring your point home.

Provide informal testimonials, or anecdotes, demonstrating a problem that was solved by the new policy, or maybe a process change, or by the new product, equipment, or software.

Tell a story about another employee, or perhaps better yet, your “reader as hero.” For example, for an instruction setup, or trouble-shooting section, this could be as simple as “You’re (describe process) when (describe problem – what happens) so you (describe action to take) and (describe result of their action).

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Taking Good Notes

Business note takingThis week let’s talk about taking good notes in the business situation. Perhaps you’ll be making notes on an assignment you’re being given; you may be taking meeting minutes; or perhaps you’re learning a new process and want to be sure you get it right. You may be using your tablet, a laptop, or – yes, people still do this – even a piece of paper!

For a simple assignment, maybe just a piece of paper to remind you will be enough. For more detailed information, there will be two parts to taking notes: listening, and developing a good note-taking process.

1. Here are some ideas on listening:

• Listening – really listening – requires concentration, and yes, some work! So start with the idea of what you will do with the information you receive. How will you use it? What is the end result you need? Listen for, and note especially the information you need in these areas.

• There are two kinds of listening. Listen for the factual content, and then listen for the “between the lines” content. This implied content may be the most important part of the communication. Clues include the speaker’s volume, tone, gestures, and facial expressions, all of which can help you determine what the speaker actually means by what he or she says.

• As you are listening, ask yourself who (will do what); when; where; why; and how they will do it. Be sure you know your part in the whole matter. What are you expected to do, if anything? You will need answers to each of these questions to be clear on what is being said. The speaker may not include all of these elements, so be sure you are clear in your own mind about the answers to these questions.

• Much of what you will hear will be a combination of fact and opinion. Learn to separate the two. Fact is important and useful, and opinion gives you the strategic guidelines for working with this person.

• Identify the critical parts, and pay particular attention to the details in these parts. It may be embarrassing, but if you have forgotten, or didn’t quite understand some parts of the conversation, ask.

• As you review your notes, see if you can re-phrase them, as though you were explaining what you have heard to someone who was not involved.

2. As for your note-taking process:

You’ll want to think about two things – how to “format” your notes, and your own personal “shorthand” to speed the note-taking process.

We talked about how to “format” your notes when you will use them to write meeting minutes: (a) Have an agenda for the meeting; (b) have a separate piece of paper for each agenda item; (c) take notes on the appropriate agenda item page. This gathers and organizes your content for you at the same time, and eliminates the need to search every page of your notes to get this done. So think about ways you can simultaneously gather and organize your notes for the piece you will write.

If you’ve learned it, regular shorthand will work fine if you’re taking your notes on paper. If not, you can develop your own personal shorthand system. For example, you might omit articles like “a,” “an,” or “the.”

You might use abbreviations that mean something to you, like “prev,” “lbs,” “etc,” “psbl,” “s/b,” “reg,” “lg,” and so on. Perhaps your personal “shorthand” will involve the elimination of vowels. Maybe you will be using the first parts of words, like “intro.” You will want to develop abbreviations for the words you use frequently.

Hope you’ll find these tips and tactics helpful, and we’ll look for you next week – right here!

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Are You Getting the Most from Your Marketing Materials?

Materials GirlWhile we usually talk about writing strategies and techniques each week, this week let’s do a quick eyeball analysis of your online, print, and digital materials, and what else we might do with them.

In today’s tech-savvy world, there are many ways to evaluate – to get numbers showing what is working, and what isn’t. Extremely useful information, and readily available for online activity. Here’s another way to look at your materials to get the most from what you have.

Let’s say you’ve been in business for a while, or maybe you’re just starting out. In either case, you’ve produced some promotional materials online and off. Most likely a website to begin with, maybe an online newsletter, or blog site. Perhaps a brochure – online or in print – and certainly letterhead, also online or in print, or both. Envelopes, business cards, mailers, “one-sheets,” flyers, sales letters. All need to be reviewed regularly to make sure they are consistently working together, and that they will continue to do the job for you. But before we begin, here’s something you really need to know about penny-pinching marketing:

If the only thing wrong with your materials is that you’re getting tired of using the same old stuff, you cannot justify dumping it and starting over. Not if you’re a savvy penny-pinching marketer.

It could well be that the same old material you are tired of really is doing its job for you. And besides, it’s quite likely that this is the first time your prospects have seen at least some of it.

So print out your materials, and gather everything you have. Here’s what to look for:

  1. Do they have a “family look”? Are you using a consistent visual theme? Each piece should carry a unifying element – perhaps your logo, a photo, a slogan, a positioning statement – along with a consistent color scheme.
  2. Is the “look” of your pieces consistent with who you are? If you’re building an upscale position for your product or service, you’ll probably want to look upscale. On the other hand, some clients, who position themselves as a low-cost option, have told me they work against themselves by looking too high class
  3. Is the message consistent from one piece to the next? Will your readers, viewers, or listeners get the same message from each piece, or will they be confused about who you are, what you do, why they need what you offer, and what action they should take to secure the benefits you promise? Being consistent multiplies the effectiveness of your materials.
  4. Remember that it’s not about us – it’s about those individuals, or those organizations you have identified as your prospects. Consider, and write down the way you want them to think about you. Share this desired impression with everyone involved in producing your materials to consistently reinforce, and thereby multiply, the effectiveness of your every single effort.

Now that you’ve completed your first scan, let’s dig a little deeper. Which pieces are working best? What could you do to help the less successful pieces do better? What could you add or leave out? Which pieces is it cost-effective to keep, which should be eliminated? Are there pieces you really need, but don’t have?

Does each piece spell out strong benefits that really matter to your prospect – or have you focused more on how great you are. Each one of us – prospects included – acts from enlightened self-interest. How enlightening are your materials – for your prospects? Have you made it easy for your prospect to find you? To do business with you? Include a “call to action” in each piece, asking for their business, and making it easy for them to do what you are asking.

We invite you to subscribe to our blog, and to our newsletter.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Hello 2014 – Fare Well, 2013!

Over last weekend, I’ll bet many of you, like me, were busy packing away ornaments, deciding which candles can be used again, and trying to find a youth organization to give our retired trees to for recycling. Or at least, again, like me – thinking about it!

And now it’s serious back-to-work time. Time to try something new. I’m not quite ready for 2014 yet – what happened to 2010, anyway? So, with a final salute, let’s wrap up 2013 with the Best of the Blog – a short collection of my top nineteen posts of that year, as judged by the number of “likes” each garnered. An “e-book” for want of a better name, and the first e-book I’ve ever done.

I’d like to give this compilation to you as a thought-starter. A new way of thinking about your writing. Or maybe as a way to address a New Year’s resolution to strengthen your on-the-job writing, making it faster, easier, and more effective. Totally free. Please email me (gail@gailtycer.com), and I’ll send you the free link.

We’ll talk about:

1. If You’ve Ever Said, “I Wasn’t Good at English in School…” Read This!

2. How to Say It When You Can’t Think of What to Say

3. Shorter, Fewer Emails

4. Strategic Email

5. Meeting Minutes

6. Writing a Successful Instruction

7. Writing a Powerful Presentation – Getting Started

8. Writing a Powerful Presentation – Finishing Strong

9. How to Write a Business Thank You Note

10. Nine Places to Find Ideas for Your Blog Post

11. “Spin”

12. Hide, Hedge, Mask, and Cloud?

13. How to Offend, Anger, or Frustrate Without Realizing It

14. How Many Common Writing Errors Do You Make?

15. Stronger, More Powerful Sentences

16. What Was That Again?

17. Words That Create Mix-Ups

18. Words, Words, Words…

19. Fatigue-Reducing, Confidence-Building Phrases

We’ll also include a few of our weekly Quick Tips, answering some of those pesky grammar questions.

So here’s to 2013, wrapped up with a bow – and on to a great new year: 2014. Let me know how I can help you to achieve your business writing goals this year. I’m totally committed to helping you write less, say more – and get results in 2014.

If you like what you’re reading, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com

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The Write Gift – Beyond Price, Yet It Costs Nothing

youngBoyWriting200

This week, I’m feeling that old holiday nostalgia, and would like to digress, and talk a bit about some of the best gifts I’ve ever received. They would not be for everyone, but it may be they’ll spark some ideas for you, and perhaps some wonderful memories for someone special to you.

As a young lieutenant’s family, we lived by the motto, “If the Air Force had wanted you to have children, they’d have issued them to you!” So, if we bought new school coats, or shoes, or sweaters in the fall, we really had a struggle to get them paid for by Christmas.

Enter The Poem!

We wrote poems describing each of the “early Christmas gifts” the children had already received. Much to our astonishment, they loved the poems, and the small gifts and stocking surprises they got on Christmas Day. Of course, that was then, and this is now. Then, most of their friends and classmates were in much the same situation. So it all worked out then.

Now they get regular presents, but the poem tradition remains a high point of our gift giving, closely followed by the stocking free-for-all!

I look at my office wall. There hang three treasures: Grandma’s Garden, a beautiful poem describing Sarah’s thoughts while weeding, planting, and just “being”; Tony’s short descriptive essay starting with a small seed and its nurture, and ending with an emerald green bowl of Garlic Butter Broccoli on the dinner table; and Marilyn’s cherished Picasso-style ink rendering of watering the garden, bringing it all to vibrant life. Treasures indeed.

And then there is Madison’s work. As a third grader, she was assigned to interview a neighbor, and then write his or her biography. I was the fortunate neighbor to be interviewed. Madison received an excellent grade for her fine work, and I received a dear gift in the form of an illustrated biography she had hand written and illustrated for me.

The spoken word can be powerful. Texting is clearly useful, and generally gets a quick response. And we all enjoy Pinterest and YouTube.

But the written word is just as powerful, more durable, and infinitely more memorable.

To receive your Business Writing Trends automatically every week, please subscribe to our blog, or to our newsletter.

We’ll be happy to bring a Gail Tycer workshop to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, give us a call at 503/292-9681, or email us at gail@gailtycer.com

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Get Local With Your SEO

This week’s blog entry is provided by guest blogger Alan Taylor, owner of Alpine Technical Group

There are many, many ways to make sure your website is visible and attractive to Google – meaning that when Google takes a look at your website, it sees information that is relevant and useful to potential visitors to your site. From keywords to citations, meta tags to site indexes, there’s enough to keep a person pretty busy. Even more so, there are tools and features outside of your website that can have a big impact on its visibility. One of those features that is especially important for local and regional businesses is Google Places.

When you perform a search in Google, say “Wallpaper near Walla Walla, Washington,” you get the search results shown below. The Google Places listings in this image are the ones denoted by the teardrop-shaped pointers.

wallpaperSearch

By ensuring your Google Places listing is accurate, you too can be a red point on the map and a listing at the top of the search results (of course not for “wallpaper” but for your own business and location). The process in short:

  • Go to the Google Places page. Either search for “Google Places” or use the URL here: http://www.google.com/business/placesforbusiness/.
  • Sign into Google (or create a new account).
  • Find your business (usually by providing a telephone number).
  • Claim your business and provide information about your business (hours, specials, etc.)
  • Verify your business listing via telephone or postcard.

This process is usually fairly straightforward. If you are one location in a large business office or have an auto answer with a phone tree for your main phone number, your only choice for verification is to have a letter/postcard sent to your mailing address. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. If you haven’t received a card in 10 days you can go back into Google Places and request another card. Eventually one will get to you and you can verify your listing.

Also important is to edit your Google Places listing on a regular basis – once every other month or so. Add more information, list a current special or similar. This gives Google new information on your business and helps keep you at the top of the heap.

Our guest blogger, Alan Taylor of Alpine Technical Group, has been providing web presence and marketing consulting for longer than he cares to admit. He loves his job, enjoys his clients and happily keeps abreast of the ever-changing world of web marketing.

Subscribe to our blog – and we’ll see you next week!

To receive your Business Writing Trends automatically every week, please subscribe to our blog, or to our newsletter.

We’ll be happy to come to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, email us at gail@gailtycer.com or give us a call at 503/292-9681. 

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Thanksgiving “Thank You’s”

Thank You Card

This is traditionally the week when the traditional Thanksgiving thank you letters and notes are carefully addressed, and – hopefully – postal mailed to our favorite customers and clients. A good idea?  How are they most likely to be received?

The idea of a Thanksgiving “thank you” is indeed a good one if you are really sincere. If you really mean it to be just that – a genuine thank you to the people who make our businesses possible. Thanksgiving is the time we set aside yearly for each of us to be thankful for the many gifts we enjoy every day. Thanksgiving is indeed the appropriate time to say thank you.

So what can go wrong with that?

To begin with, most readers seem to have an incredible “phony detector.” They can tell.

The first two things that come to mind are, to begin with, those smarmy sales letters, and next, Thanksgiving Sale letters, each carefully disguised as letters of appreciation. These kinds of letters are not worth your time to write, nor the postage to mail them.

To be effective, a sales letter should be just that: a carefully-constructed sales letter, sent to a carefully-selected list of readers, and specifically designed to show those readers how a product or service can solve a knotty problem common to many, if not most of the people on the list.

The function of a Thanksgiving Sale letter is to let an appropriate list of readers know about special pricing, terms, or bonuses available only during this holiday period.

These kinds of letters are often sent as the email equivalent of non-personalized bulk mail. When they are sent by postal mail, they frequently are sent bulk mail, and usually come across that way.

A far cry from a sincere thank you.

This is not to say that a “Happy Thanksgiving” added to an email is not a good idea. It definitely is, so do it. But these kinds of good wishes are quite different from a specific “thank you” message.

A sincere, appreciative thank you should be personalized to each individual reader as much as possible, and certainly should never look like a bulk mail promotion. A card or a letter sent by first-class postal mail, hand addressed, and with a personal hand-written added note will help. This will take a bit of extra time, of course, but if you really mean it, do it!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Subscribe to our blog – and we’ll see you next week!

To receive your Business Writing Trends automatically every week, please subscribe to our blog, or to our newsletter.

We’ll be happy to come to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, email us at gail@gailtycer.com or give us a call at 503/292-9681. 

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How to Write Comfortably About Yourself

Among the top challenges in business writing is how to be comfortable writing about yourself. Especially good – no, excellent – no, superlative! things about yourself for that promotional piece, certain portions of that resume (many, these days, are fill-out-the-form), or that requesting-an-interview letter, on paper, or online. Here’s the secret: Don’t focus on yourself. You are only incidental to focusing on the reader, and what you can do to help that reader.

So, as the saying goes, “get over yourself.” And as a client told me years ago, “If I’m not for me, who is? And if not now, when?” But the focus is on your reader!

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Business Writing Tip of the Week: How to Say It When You Can’t Think of What to Say

How many times have you or I sat, staring at a blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration to strike? How many times have we wished there were such a thing as a business writing fairy godmother – or at the very least, a ghostwriter, who could come along and give us a fill-in-the-blanks draft to get us started?

Soon it becomes apparent that inspiration is on vacation, and we’re going to have to handle it on our own.womanTyping250

Let’s say that your email is the type of email you write all the time. And the question becomes just how many ways can you say the same thing? So it can often be helpful to use a sort of template for the same sorts of pieces, and many companies and organizations do just that.

The downside of course is that these form letters tend to sound much the same, and are usually, of necessity, quite impersonal.

Especially from a tonal point of view, these impersonal form letters can be quite destructive to a relationship that we have worked so hard to develop with each individual reader. Obviously, it is far preferable to write most of our correspondence directly for that specific individual reader. Templates, or “form letters” are not for everyone, nor are they for every situation.

On the other hand, when carefully crafted, and especially when they are of the “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” type, they can be quite useful. Just “save as,” fill in the blanks, and you’re done!

Let’s see, for example, how this might look for a very simple standard meeting announcement:

“The (date/topic) meeting of the (name) committee will be held (at/in the) (location) (at/from) (time) on (day and date). Please see attached agenda for details.”

This simple “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” template might become something like:

“The April meeting of the waste reduction committee will be held in the third-floor conference room from 4 to 5 PM on Thursday, April 24, 2013. Please see attached agenda for details.”

The RSVP request will be your second paragraph, which could also be a “saafitb” paragraph.

Be sure that the attached agenda details include who will be responsible for each report, or presentation agenda item, so the responsible person will be prepared.  It’s also a good idea to send a quick reminder email to each of these individuals. You may even have a system that does this automatically.

You probably have a number of standard emails you create on a regular basis. Try developing your own “save as and fill-in-the-blanks” templates for these sorts of emails, and see if it makes the process easier and faster.

More complex repetitious communications will require a more complex format, but the principle is the same: You want to avoid as much repetitious key stroking as you reasonably can, using the “blanks-to-be-filled-in” to provide both the specific information for the piece you are writing, and to personalize this information for your specific reader. This will go a long way toward avoiding the impersonal “form letter” tone, while speeding up the process.

For example, a persuasive proposal should begin with a persuasive “lead” paragraph clearly summarizing exactly what the proposal is, and stressing the benefit to the reader, or to his or her company or organization. Quick tip: Increase the effectiveness of your proposal by starting with the benefit.

As appropriate, other sections of the persuasive proposal could include, for example:

• Significance of your proposal. Why do? Why need? Why now?

• Proposed time schedule.

• Resources required/Resources available.

• Changes that will be needed.

• Similar programs/activities. Review and evaluate how, and how well they worked. How were they the same, and how did they differ?

• Projected positive results, with time frame and evaluation criteria.

• Anything else your reader needs to know to decide in your favor.

And finally, you will have a very strong, very clear, very persuasive conclusion to the material covered, in benefits-to-the-reader terms.

 

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