How (Not) to Communicate Effectively

EPISODE 55 | Guest: Dave Haynes, founding editor for Sixteen:Nine, host of the 16:9 Podcast and digital signage consultant

Dave Haynes began in newspapers but started focusing primarily on digital signage and marketing 15 years ago. His refreshing take on how to keep communications honest has made Sixteen:Nine one of the go-to sources in the industry. In this episode, he shares some tips on how to communicate effectively with an audience and how to screw up your press releases.

Clear, concise communication is essential in all mediums, so you can apply this advice not only to your press releases, but also your digital signage content, social media and other messaging. Get suggestions on how to communicate both efficiently and effectively:

  • Learn what not to do if you want your story published
  • Discover the benefits of hyper-targeting
  • Understand the Five Ws and how they can transform your text
  • Consider how buzzwords and quotes can hurt you
  • Get advice on how to submit images and video
  • Hear about queue management and other trends

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For more insights see Sixteen:Nine: All Digital Signage, Some Snark and the 16:9 Podcast


Derek DeWitt: As we have probably said, I don’t know, a million times on this podcast and elsewhere, digital signage is a communications tool, much more than a technological tool. It is technology, but it’s about communications and communications is a wide area. A lot of people think they’re good at communications writing and marketing, and sometimes they’re right. And sometimes they’re not.

So today I’m going to talk to Dave Haynes, founding editor of Sixteen-Nine, a digital signage blog that’s been out there for 15 years. He also has a podcast also called the 16:9 Podcast. And his tagline is “All digital signage, some snark”. Well, that sounds awfully refreshing Mr. Haynes.

Dave Haynes: And some days there’s more snark than others.

Derek DeWitt: These days, more snark. I’d like to thank Mr. Haynes for talking to me today. And I’d like to thank all of you for listening.

A lot of the way that companies have to advertise themselves and promote themselves, their products and their services, really involves an astonishing amount of content creation these days. And there’s a lot of it out there that isn’t really awesome. What would you say are some of the basics of how to communicate your marketing communications, how you should organize them, what you should say, what are some of the mistakes that different companies make?

Dave Haynes: I think the biggest thing is, think about your audience. Who are you trying to communicate to and what are you trying to tell them? And go in that direction instead of just doing what your predecessor did in the past or what you were taught in your public relations course in 2002 or 1992, whatever it may be. [There’s] one hell of a lot of formulaic stuff out there.

I wanted it to talk about this because I’ve been in journalism for 40 plus years and the last 15 years or so been writing specifically about this industry. And I’m at a point now where I get many hundreds of emails a day and at least a hundred, I would say, are from companies who would like me to write about their stuff, what they’ve done, what they sell, you know, all that sort of thing. And I would say nine out of 10 times, what they send to me is just not very good and I have to pull it apart or, for the most part, I just hit delete and I don’t do anything with it now. Sometimes that’s because I’m just not interested, but there’s other times where I will read what they’ve sent me and I can’t make heads or tails of it.

Derek DeWitt: Of course, the classic thing in journalism is don’t bury the lede.

Dave Haynes: Yeah. That’s a huge one. Part of the problem is formula, again. That so many companies follow a standard PR formula that’s been around for 40 years, kind of ignores the fact that there’s something called the internet now and involves a lot of puffery. They try to wedge in all of these standard, kind of boilerplate, maybe not all that true assertions at the front end of their press release or their marketing material, as opposed to just saying, this is what we’ve done, this is what it is, this is why you should give a crap, and this is when it’s going to be available.

I just don’t see that very often. I see much more of Brand X, the world’s leading provider of this or that, is delighted to announce that we’ve blah-blah-blah, and you’ve lost me already.

So much of business talks about things like elevator pitches. And what’s your elevator pitch, what’s that thing where you’ve got 15 seconds to convince somebody that they should be interested in your company or your product? I don’t see that very often in PR where they’ve kind of thought through what’s that thing that’s going to immediately grab me emotionally connect with me and say, and make people think, oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I need to read more about this? Instead they’re just boring the pants off of people.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think, too, maybe sometimes like with PR releases, you know, press releases and things, the idea is they don’t know who their audience is. It could be anybody. And so we need to get as much information out there as possible in as generalized and standardized and generic a way as possible in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. Whereas if they thought about it, they would probably realize that their audience isn’t as general as they are assuming.

Dave Haynes: You should just really think about who do you really hope reads this. And whether that’s for PR, whether you want an influencer like me to relate it, or you know, there’s a lot of PR that goes out and it gets repurposed by endless, I don’t even know how to describe them, but they’re kind of like sites that don’t really have a center to them. They just repurpose a lot of press releases and you’ll see stuff on digital signage on a concrete website or whatever, because they just scoop up by keywords and it shows up. In those cases, then yeah, maybe it is just an SEO thing where you want this to appear in as many places as possible.

But if you are hyper-targeting a particular audience, say in the case of Visix because you guys sell a lot into enterprise business, to workplace in general and campus and so on, your audience is narrow. So are you trying to reach the business communicators? Is a particular release more skewed to the IT side of a business because it’s about new battery-free displays or something like that? You know, think about who you want to reach, what you want to say, and what’s going to tickle their fancy as opposed to just something that’s going to make the boss happy and would have made your instructor back in 1992 happy.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s for sure. I mean, this is not to denigrate fry cooks, but you know, say if you’re a tech company, you’re probably not thinking, hey, I hope fry cooks read this. And I think one of the things, too, is, it’s not just the audience, but what’s the action item you want your audience to take? What do you want them to do? Do you want them to, like when Visix does stuff, we want people to go to the website and become interested and fill out a form. And so if you’re a bus driver, you’re not our audience. No offense to the bus drivers, but you’re just not.

Dave Haynes: I think one of the other big problems that I see repeatedly is the use of what I call buzzword bingo. Loading things up with all these kind of latest generation phrases that seem to be popular at the moment, as opposed to just saying, this is what it is and this is what it does. And you can get into the technical specifications and everything else further down because the people who are still reading are those who are actually interested, and doing the tell-me-more thing, but up top, just keep it really simple in plain language.

Derek DeWitt: That should be the new standard for these kinds of communications is like boil it down, throw it out there as quickly as possible, engage me or let me know if I care to be engaged and then let me go if I’m not.

Dave Haynes: Yeah, I mean, in a lot of ways, there’s a corollary with the way digital signage content is done. We’ve spent 20 years trying to yell at end users to not load a screen with too much information. And to think in terms of these screens being like billboards on a highway where you’ve got seconds to capture attention and stimulate interest. Same thing applies with how you are, first of all, marketing to the trade media, the press, and to others who might pick up and recirculate your information; but also to the end users who are going to see this. And if it’s just flat out repurposed….

Like I’m different from most writers in this industry in that it’s pretty rare where I’m just going to take a press release, select all copy, paste it in, hit publish, and I’m done. That happens a lot. I don’t do that. I tend to re-edit and pull apart and completely repackage a lot of stories, so that people understand what it is and why you should care. But a lot of people don’t do that. And so what you write, if it’s convoluted, complicated and makes no sense as your press release, how it appears in some other trade publication you’re targeting is going to be like that as well. So you’re going to be no better off

Derek DeWitt: You are actually an expert in this field. And if it’s confusing to you, how the heck is it going to come across to Susie User or even the C-suite or the IT manager who’s maybe shopping around for digital signage? They’re going to be completely at sea.

Dave Haynes: Oh, yeah, 100%. I’ve said this to a number of people saying, you know, I have read this five times now and I can’t make heads or tails of it. And I’m ostensibly an expert in this industry. I’ve been in it for 21 years. So if I don’t get it, how on earth is anybody else ever going to figure this out?

Derek DeWitt: If I really want to screw up my copy, what should I do?

Dave Haynes: Well, get heavily into buzzword bingo, beat your chest about how awesome your company is and make a lot of, I’d say tenuous, assertions about what it is. Like lately, one hell of a lot of the press I get makes some sort of connection to artificial intelligence or machine learning, and that’s the latest version. Prior to that, it was all about blockchain. I can’t tell you the number of digital-out-of-home and other kinds of software companies who would say they’re blockchain driven in some way, and I would read it and go, okay, I don’t possibly see how you are (other than you’ve used the word).

And before that it was IoT, you know? So, there’s always this thing that companies are trying to hitch their wagon to because they think that’s somehow going to stimulate interest in them. And maybe it does, but anybody who’s educated, who’s a serious buyer, is going to look at that and go, first of all, you guys aren’t using blockchain here, and secondly, you’re knuckleheads and I’m not going to deal with you.

Derek DeWitt: Whoever wrote this, literally has no idea what blockchain is. Or I wonder sometimes if they’re not just trying to trick Google. They’re still thinking of Google the way it was say 10 years ago, where you could kind of trick it by just throwing in certain keywords and the algorithm would pick it up and stick it in. But Google has gotten so sophisticated now that that’s actually detrimental to your SEO efforts.

Dave Haynes: I do some writing for third-party companies. And when I started doing that sort of thing, five, six, seven years ago, there was a really rigid structure as to how they wanted you to write a story. And you had to make sure you had certain keywords in there a certain number of times. And there would be an analyses of, is this story effective the way it’s written? And it would make me crazy because yes, maybe it was good for SEO, but in terms of readability, it was terrible. And I’ve noticed in the last two, three years, that that doesn’t seem to be mandated the same way. So, Google and whoever seems to be smarter about it.

Another problem that I see over and over again is (I don’t know whether it’s the CEOs or the VP marketing or whoever writing these things but) there’s this great abiding love of putting in useless quotes. We’re delighted, we’re excited, we’re thrilled, we’re pleased, on and on and on. And the team has been so tremendous in doing this or that. And I’m just reading it and thinking, I don’t care about this. I can’t imagine anybody else cares about this. But you’ve got three paragraphs from three executives from the same company or the three partners from the three partner companies, all saying they’re delighted and excited. As a trade journalist, I just select all on those and delete them. Or I’ll use part of the quotes that have the, you know, the money stuff that actually is meaningful in some way.

So, if you’re going to manufacture quotes (which in most PR they are manufactured, they’re not natural language quotes), you’ve got this finite opportunity to reinforce the features, benefits, value or importance of what you’ve just released or enhanced or whatever it may be. Use it for that. Like you’ve got these fleeting moments to capture people attention. Nobody cares that you’re thrilled or pleased or excited or delighted. Sorry.

The other stuff that can make me crazy (and I suspect it makes a lot of people who are at the receiving end of all this) is the nuts-and-bolts stuff, in terms of formula, format and everything else. I will get press releases and media pitches quite a bit from companies who will go on at considerable length talking about a particular visual display project. And then they don’t send me images.

Here’s 1200 words describing this project. You figure out how it looks, even though it’s a visual display project. So, I will send emails back saying, could you send me photos? And then they will send me a photo that’s an 8MB file saved at 300 DPI and it’s, you know, like 8000 pixels wide or something. So at that point, I’m having to do the edit to reduce it to size, reduce the dot pitch so that it’s web ready and everything else. So there are so many cases where PR people are still thinking the world is driven by print and it’s not. And in really horrendous cases, they’ll send a JPEG of a press release.

Derek DeWitt: Oh no.

Dave Haynes: Yeah.

Derek DeWitt: Nooo!

Dave Haynes: But that’s not terribly common.

Derek DeWitt: What are you supposed to do with that? Retype it?

Dave Haynes: Yeah! Then the next worst case is a PDF, which I guess they do because they’re worried that somebody is going to change the words on it (but they’re going to anyways if they don’t like it.) That means, as a trade press person, I’m going to have to select all, export the text and then usually the exported version has all the carriage returns in the wrong place and everything else. So I’ll spend the next 10 minutes fixing all that. Or there’s a decent chance that I’ll say, oh screw this, and just not even cover it. Because they’ve made it hard for me.

Anything that you can do to make it dead simple for the person at the other end to use this material, and that means (in an ideal case) it’s just a text file with a copy that will paste into any kind of a CMS system and allow you to manipulate it as you need to manipulate it without a lot of hidden coding or anything else. I mean, Visix (you know, because I’m talking to Visix here), you guys have been fabulous when you will do guest author pieces for me, you send it in the HTML. My God! It’s, you know….I’ve had Debbie, your spouse, send me a note saying, my God, that was fast. That’s already up! And I said, well, because you gave it to me ready to go.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. I didn’t have to do a three-day turnaround.

Dave Haynes: Yeah! So then the other things that are important are thinking about the photos that you’re sending. Are they good photos, or are they just the photos that you happen to have handy? I don’t care about grip and grin photos of the CEO of one company shaking the hands of their customer. I don’t know who runs those other than local newspapers still, but they still get sent my way.

Video is really, really important these days. I’ve said many times in the last three, four years that don’t worry so much about a highly polished produced, well lit, everything else piece of video; just send me video that shows what the project looks like. As long as it’s not great grainy or shaking like crazy or whatever. If it’s just shot on an iPhone, that’s totally fine.

But ideally don’t send it to me, send a link to me. There’s this assumption that, because I’m online, I can stream video effectively and no, I can’t. It’s not going to pop up on the screen quickly. It might chug along and everything else. Put it on an industrial-grade free platform like YouTube, or a nominally expensive platform like Vimeo, with all the proper settings and everything, and then I can just take that embed code and drop it right into the blog post that I’m going to do and it’s going to look awesome. And you’ve got control over how it looks.

But a lot of times, even if they are on something like Vimeo, the privacy settings aren’t right. So, I’ll drop it in and then it gives me a notification saying, can’t use it, it’s not going to show here because the privacy settings are wrong. So, just kind of think all those things through. There’s nothing hard about this stuff, but you have to think it through and you have to think about who’s receiving it and who’s going to use it.

Derek DeWitt: A lot of people use SEO companies to create their content. And I get the feeling sometimes when I read some of this stuff, I can tell this was written by someone who is not in this company. It’s written for the company, but it’s not written by someone who is in the company or even understands what the company does.

Dave Haynes: Yeah. I, at one point, three, four years ago, engaged a company (I think they were down in Boston) and they had a stable of writers. They were people who were experienced writers and you could select the ones that interested you based on their technology background and so on. And I thought, there’s the odd piece that I do that I could probably farm out to somebody else just because I’m super busy and it doesn’t cost very much or anything else.

And I tried that, and I sent back notes to the writers, and particularly to their editors, saying, this is just what I call whipped air. It’s just like 800 words about nothing. You’ve put the subject matter in there, but then you’ve just blabbered on about nothing for 800 words. And it’s just pointless.

Derek DeWitt: Do you ever think sometimes you read things and you think, I think they’re lying. I don’t think they’re telling the truth at all.

Dave Haynes: Oh yeah! I don’t want to say all the time, but it happens frequently. And it’s often around the assertions of size and scale of their company, who they work with. Like the classic story that’s been around digital signage since its early days is every software company out there has McDonald’s as its client. Because if you look at the 10K road race logo festival page where they say our partners, our clients, or our portfolio or whatever, you see the golden arches in so many websites. And the reality is there’s a couple of big companies that have McDonald’s and everybody else may have done something with a local franchisee because the franchise owner was their neighbor or something like that.

Derek DeWitt: Right.

Dave Haynes: So, maybe that impresses some people, but I just call bullshit on it, and I don’t write about them.

I think it’s important for anybody who’s crafting this kind of information to really think through what’s good content. And from my perspective, it’s things like new ways of doing something, a genuine technology advance, a kind of look at the future, stuff that explains things. Like right now, it’s very foggy out there in terms of what different LED technologies are. There’s a lot of companies saying what they have is microLED when it’s not. I’ve started referring to it as microLEDish. So that’s problematic. And so, you want to do what you can to explain that clearly.

I don’t see enough about tangible results and outcomes. So much PR is about here’s our stuff, you figure out how to use it versus we did this, it elevated sales by 24%, average purchase size went up by $2.18 or whatever. That’s the sort of thing where you get your readers, they lean in because, oh, this is interesting. So just innovation; fun, interesting stories; great visuals that you look at that and go, holy shit, look at that and that makes you want to read it.

The other thing is I come out of a daily newspaper journalism (great long time ago) originally, and what you learn back then, and maybe they still teach it now but I’m 40 years removed from that, is the Five Ws. And it’s who, what, when, where, why, and also how. But I always in consulting, but also just in writing, if you adhere to those, that principle, it’ll take you a long way.

So, here’s what we just announced and what it does, this is who it’s for, this is why you should care, this is where it’s going to be used and this is when it’s available. If you just use that checklist, that takes you well down the road in terms of having something that’s actually effective.

Derek DeWitt: And not “whipped air”.

Dave Haynes: Yeah.

Derek DeWitt: So, you get a phenomenal amount of content on digital signage and the digital signage industry coming your way. What are some of the trends you’re starting to see, especially now we’re in this COVID time? And I think a lot of companies are changing the way that they use things. What are some of the trends you’re starting to see sort of crop up?

Dave Haynes: Every (I shouldn’t say every) but many, many companies out there somehow are trying to make themselves COVID-relevant. And in some cases that’s been by developing products that somehow address health and safety measures.

I found a hell of a lot of companies were just importing things, gadgets from China that, you know, had a screen but also dispensed hand sanitizer. There’s all these thermal imaging systems that are basically very large smartphones or smallish tablets with a camera on them that’ll do a crappy job of reading your temperature and making people question, is this secure? Why are they doing that or anything else? I don’t think that stuff works or make sense.

I’ve found those companies that are doing interesting stuff are those that are integrating different business systems. So if you think of those access control displays as kind of islands of activity, what’s way more interesting to me are those companies that are starting to work with access control systems so that you already have NFC or RFID readers for badges and things like that. When you walk into an office tower, you tap on this thing that opens a little plexiglass gate and you can go into the elevator lobby and so on. What are those companies that are integrating and building digital signage into that and taking the different data triggers and everything else to make this all cohesive? That’s way, way more interesting, but I’ve not seen a lot of that.

Derek DeWitt: To be fair. I think it is a challenge. And I think a lot of companies are like, well, what the heck can we do besides tell people, wash your hands, don’t cough on each other, wear a mask and don’t come into the office if you don’t need to?

Dave Haynes: Yeah. And I think a lot of smaller solutions companies have had to pivot just to survive. And, you know, I can’t knock them for trying to figure out if we can’t sell our regular stuff, what can we sell right now? And if there’s an interest in this, then great, we’ll sell it. But I don’t think they’ve seen a lot of glory out of going down that particular path.

To me, it’s not really a trend, but the observation is, of the many, many companies that I’ve spoken to over the last 10 months, I’ve been surprised at how many are doing okay. And I think that owes to the simple fact that the nature of retailing and public spaces right now is there’s one hell of a lot more information that needs to be communicated. And if you’re using things like dry erase marker boards or printouts taped to the door of your store or building or whatever, it looks crappy.

Derek DeWitt: It looks amateurish.

Dave Haynes: Yeah. And it’s completely off-brand. So those companies that already had digital signage are very, very happy that they had it. And, while I don’t think there’s been even a hint of a gold rush in the past 10 months, I do think that a lot of companies that were planning on digital transformation in a variety of ways have seen the need to do effective messaging to their staff and to their customers, has come up.

And while there may not be spending a million dollars on an LED video wall in their lobby, they may see the value in having a set of displays in key decision points that say, here’s the rules as they now exist, here’s what you need to do, please take a number, sit over here, we will page you when we’re ready to talk to you, or whatever. So, this whole circumstance has led to a bit of a rethink and probably introduced a lot of new ways of doing things.

Particularly, I’m a fan of something called queue management, which is a sort of thing that you see in Department of Motor Vehicles branches, passport offices, that sort of thing, but you rarely see them outside of those kinds of venues. Now you’re going to start to see queue management in all kinds of places, because it’s going to be like appointment-based shopping and everything else.

And I think a lot of that is going to live beyond the pandemic, just in the way that drive-through had a dirty name about it because everybody was idling their cars and contributing to greenhouse gases, but now it’s a way to keep restaurants in business and get food safely.

Derek DeWitt: Systems such as digital signage are so dynamic and so flexible that they can withstand the pressures of situations like this. Because, and I’m by no means trying to be a scaremonger, but you know, this COVID thing, it might not be the only one to come along in the next 10 years, you know?

And it would be smart of us to use this time wisely and come up with these systems and these processes and these procedures so that (here’s hoping it doesn’t happen) but if another one comes along, and God forbid it’s even worse, we’re ready; we can pivot immediately. We already workshopped this. We already wargamed this. We know how to handle this now. And we can survive and even thrive during a similar crisis.

Dave Haynes: And I think it’s reinforced and elevated the awareness that realtime information is valuable. And you can’t do realtime very easily with print or with manually updated signs or marker boards or whatever it may be. So that right now that realtime information in a big box retailer may be saying that there are no Lysol wipes or Clorox wipes or whatever available. We’re out of paper towels, and this and that. But down the road for all kinds of businesses, it can be realtime information like surge pricing, because we’ve got perishable goods that we’re going to have to throw out, so we’ll sell them at half price right now.

And that’s the sort of thing that, if you could start to marry that with inventory systems and other management systems, it just kinds of happens. And the same thing applies in airports, mass transport hubs of other kinds, on and on and on where tied-together systems, paired with dynamic displays that can change content and shape content based on the information that’s much more easily shared than it used to be between different systems, that’s powerful stuff. So I think in a lot of ways this whole circumstances has really shone a light on what’s possible.

Derek DeWitt: Once the pandemic is over, you’ll keep these systems because they work and that makes sense pandemic or no pandemic.

Dave Haynes: Yeah. Except those little displays that scan for temperature.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Maybe that and the hand sanitizer dispensers, we won’t need.

Dave Haynes: Yeah. I think there’s going to be a lot of these gadgets filling dead storage in companies.

Think about the full life cycle of what you’re investing in. Not only with gadgets, but in the overall network, so that you’re not just thinking about what it’s going to do for me right now. What’s it going to do for me when this ends or as other things develop. And do you see a day, two years out, where you’re going to be using computer vision or other audience analytics information to kind of shape what’s happening on screens? Because that may impact your decisions around a CMS, around the hardware you’re using, the connectivity, everything else.

Derek DeWitt: So essentially, when you’re coming up with your communications and your marketing, don’t lie, know what you’re talking about, think about who your audience is, say what you mean up front, and say it simply and succinctly and quickly in a way just like the digital content that you consume.

Dave Haynes: And don’t make it hard for the recipient of your press material to actually use it.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Also, yeah. Do the person who’s passing on your stuff a favor and make things easy.

Dave Haynes: Yeah. Don’t piss me off.

Derek DeWitt: Don’t piss him off because you will get more than some snark, buddy.

Dave Haynes: Oh yeah.

Derek DeWitt: All right. Super interesting conversation. I’d like to thank you for talking to me today, Mr. Haynes.

Dave Haynes: No problem. I enjoyed it.

Derek DeWitt: I’d to thank everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right.