What They Teach You at Harvard Business Review

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For someone who makes their living largely from writing, I spend a lot of time reading…

… Books. Websites. Papers. And magazines.

Why do I read so much? Two reasons, really.

First, I enjoy reading. I’ve always loved books and been excited by them. I remember as a child being taken to a small library where instead of the plastic bar-coded cards of today, you were given four green tickets. This allowed you to borrow up to four books at a time.

My mum would take my brother and I down to the library and leave us to explore the children’s section. I recall one novel about space cadets passing their course and flying into space. This was also the time of my introduction to Biggles, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and other adventure stories.

It’s where I picked up books about photography, a subject which would later inspire my entry to the world of newspaper journalism and reporting.

My childhood wasn’t all plain sailing. At times reading was a refuge. It got me excited about fictional worlds, storytelling and adventure.

By the time I’d reached grammar school, I was already a very strong reader. I enjoyed the English lessons where we took turns to read passages from a set text as the rest of the class listened. I even entered a public speaking contest and, to my astonishment and delight, delivered second place. I lost to a boy who’d obviously had a posher upbringing than me.

And that brings me to the second reason why I read.

It helps me with my writing.

This is no secret. It’s not rocket science. It’s commonsense, really.

Returning to school for a moment, did you study a language – maybe French, German or Spanish? If so, do you remember how reading passages in that language helped you to learn the language? Helped you to understand the grammar, the sentence structures? Helped you to write in that language?

When I was learning shorthand, one of the things which helped me to understand the system and write faster was reading a shorthand magazine. It was full of exercises to test how well you could read back the lines, curves and bold strokes.

Shorthand was only effective if you could read back what you had written. Otherwise it was pointless. And in the exams you were only allowed something like three or five errors in the entire two-minute passage. At 120 words per minute that was some pressure on accuracy.

Had it not been for the regular reading of shorthand, I would not have passed the test.

It’s no different now in my role as a strategic copywriter and direct marketing consultant.

To write better, I read.

Not so much books on copywriting, marketing or advertising. More time is spent reading novels, biographies or magazines. Even plays. For inspiration, information and relaxation.

I’ve read widely over the years. From The Hobbit to Harry Potter, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series to Dickens, Thomas Hardy to Tom Stoppard, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to Gone Girl, Chris Evans to Winston Churchill.

It’s all been fed into my mind. Creating, shaping and sharpening my thinking.

I love picking up books in a book store and seeing what they are about. I also enjoy standing in Smith’s and browsing the magazine racks.

One of the titles I dip into is Harvard Business Review. In fact, I took out an annual subscription to check it out in more depth.

This is what Harvard (Business Review) can teach you.

The front cover of the magazine is minimalist in design compared to many of the publications on the newsagents’ shelves. Yet it follows sound marketing principles.

The title is in a consistent font, size, colour and location on the cover. That’s branding. Above the title in tiny font is the website address (HBR.ORG). That’s a gentle hint towards the online version. In the top right, you’ll find a heraldic logo, the issue date and three tasters – letting you know what’s inside. Each taster has a snappy sub-heading designed to appeal to your interest and curiosity.

The main feature is promoted across the rest of the cover below, about 70 per cent of the page. The design is usually very simple, sometimes with an image, sometimes just with a headline. As with the tasters above, there is usually a page reference, to encourage you to dive inside and jump to that page.

The structure of the magazine follows a formula. You are given a consistent content. Once a regular, you’ll know you’re going to get a contents page, features listing, a word from the Editor, a profile of the contributors, feedback on articles in the previous issue, the main feature, other articles and a quick-view summary of the main articles’ ideas.

You’ll also find at least one in-set reply card to take up the offer of a subscription to Harvard Business Review (or HBR). There’s even an option to send a subscription as a gift. Usually with BIG savings on the standard price.

Once you’re subscribed to the full works (print and online versions), you’ll not only receive the magazine in the post. You’ll be able to view the latest edition on your iPad, laptop or tablet and access ┬áthe archive online.

You can also choose to receive email marketing and information from HBR, including the Stat of The Day.

The publishers use this to give you content and market their other products and services, including a range of business books. You’ll notice when your magazine arrives in the post that the cover sheet always includes a promotion or an offer.

And it’s not that Harvard Business Review is unique in promoting and marketing this way. Many other magazines do the same. If you’re subscribed to one or more, it’s worth taking a look at how they’re engaging with customers and keeping the brand, products and services in front of them.

Remember to look at the front cover and the inside pages. You’ll notice what drives everything – the copy and how it’s presented.

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