In our time-poor, text-response world, it often feels like writing skills are in decline.
By Brian Johnson
This should act as both a warning and an opportunity for your business because getting your words right, and being able to communicate and motivate, are central to success.
Here are my “Super 6 Kick-Starters”, so that you and your team can make the most of your messages.
1. Accept that words matter
Words matter. From the words on your website to the copy in your advertisement, your latest media release, customer blog, newsletter to stakeholders or annual report to shareholders, they really matter.
Words define who you are and what you stand for.
They can determine whether you gain the PR profile you’re after, or are left to correct media coverage you didn’t want.
Done right, they ensure you are not only heard but are understood, and have quite possibly shifted perceptions and opinions in the process.
Words define who you are and what you stand for.
Not convinced? Take a quick look at these great words from history:
- “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” – JFK
- “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
- “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
- “If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill.
- “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Dr Seuss
Now, no-one expects you to deliver these masterly gems every time you hit the keyboard, make a speech, phone a friend or have a chat in the kitchen.
But understand that words can stick. They can stay with people and they can change things. They can even change people themselves.
And so it is with your organisation and its prospects. The right words have real power.
2. The full stop is your friend
Look at a brick wall. It is strong and effective, yet it is only the sum of its parts. Effective storytelling is the same. One clean sentence at a time. Each adds to the other.
Writing effectively can be a wonderful thing, especially when the words are flowing. But that flow-of-consciousness channelling can also lead some people up hill and down dale, with sentences struggling to find an end and – comma after comma – a long way from where they started.
Remember, the full stop is your friend. Use it more than the semi-pause or catch breath of a comma. Get into the habit of using full stops and they will reward you.
If you need to go back and fancy up some sentences later, that’s fine. But start with full stops. Make them your default option.
Your ideas will become more defined and well-explained. Not just to you, but to your recipient. It’s the quickest way to ensure clarity of thought and of message.
3. Don’t get smart – use words we all know
How do you feel when someone uses a word you don’t understand? How does that make you feel – not just about yourself – but the person who injected the word into the conversation to start with?
Using deliberately unusual words reflects more on the person wheeling them out.
What’s more, they are a lousy form of communication because there may be no communication at all if the word is central to the message.
And so it is with jargon. Even if you are talking to your sector, don’t assume that everyone knows every bit of jargon you’re machine-gunning around.
That’s not to dumb down your delivery, but jargon is quite often more than a shortcut. It’s a cop out.
Write your report, speech or media release jargon-free. Give it a go. To start with you might feel a little naked shedding your protective layers of shoptalk, but you will actually be lifting yourself to a far higher level by doing so.
Not sure you can do it? Here’s a different way to think about it. We’ve all tuned in to the radio traffic report to hear something like “that accident at King Road is still causing problems …”
This is incomplete information that assumes you were listening to the original detail on “that” accident, possibly broadcast hours ago. Each message should be self-contained and properly explained.
Business writing skills value pack: designed to assist you in developing your business writing skills
4. You can’t handle the proof
The human brain is a curious thing.
Reviewing what you’ve just written for mistakes, only by yourself, is a mistake in itself. Your eyes will skip across misspelling, missing words, words that shouldn’t be there and sentences that sound clever to you but make no sense to anyone else.
Rather than just skimming on your screen, print it out and read the hard copy. Mark changes with a pen or pencil, to make the words and their impact more real.
Sloppy prose and assorted errors can leap out at you. Hold them in your hands and take responsibility for them, then update the version on your screen.
Read, re-read, and then get your material proofed by someone else. You’ll be amazed and embarrassed by what gets through if you don’t.
Reviewing what you’ve just written for mistakes, only by yourself, is a mistake in itself.
Think you’re above such scrutiny? Consider the case of one-time US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney who was harpooned for a headline horror during his election campaign.
An Apple app for his campaign turned “America” into the new country of “Amercia”.
Imagine how many of his red-faced staffers failed to spot that blunder before it went online?
But it certainly got their attention when it instantly went viral, making a laughing stock of the aspiring Commander-in-Chief.
5. Being newsworthy/stay out of it
When it comes to seeking media coverage, there is a common writing mistake that can be applied to many other forms of communication.
The media (and people in general) want a story; it’s how we’ve wrapped up information since caveman days. So how can you turn yourself into a great storyteller?
One key technique involves something that might go against your whole notion of doing PR.
Don’t mention yourself.
Yes, you heard right.
Don’t mention yourself (name, organisation, event, etc.) in the first paragraph of your media release or message. This is possibly the key discipline you need to grasp for shaping a story.
There might be a story hiding in there. But if you can’t present it, the media haven’t got time to find it for you. They’ve got real stories they’re already pursuing.
As a general rule of writing for the media, don’t plug until the second paragraph.
Use the headline and the hook (opening paragraph) to flag your exciting, compelling story. The pretext, the precedence, the development, the reason, the call to action, the point of interest, the point of difference, the point of conflict … whatever it might be.
Then tie yourself (name, organisation, event, etc.) as the source of that information in the second paragraph.
Now you’re telling stories, not writing self-advertisements. This is also a great technique for deciding how strong your angle really is.
It is the story that takes your name with it, and by “pulling the plug” you are actually writing news copy the way a journalist or producer would.
6. Know your tribe
Have you ever had someone blurt out their phone number at lightning speed, requiring three further attempts to capture the right information? They know their number automatically, and seemingly can’t comprehend that you wouldn’t either. But they have failed to consider their audience, and it’s a lesson worth heeding when it comes to sending out your own messages.
From desktop and laptop to tablet and smartphone, each platform requires different formatting. The same applies to communications.
The same message may not fit in the same form for relevant but different audiences. It needs to be delivered thoughtfully and appropriately to each and every key audience.
The way your information is delivered in a 15-minute speech to industry colleagues may indeed have the same core detail you provide to customers on your website but no-one wants to wade through 15 minutes of sector speak. It should be just a few key paragraphs, with a link to more information that appeals to individual customers, not your industry cohorts.
From desktop and laptop to tablet and smartphone, each platform requires different formatting.
It sounds obvious, but too many people don’t make the distinction to “talk the talk” with their respective tribes.
A classic example of this is social media. It’s a wonderful thing, but its biggest failing may be that it has the word “media” in it. And that’s where many people come unstuck. It should actually be known as DAN (Direct Audience Networking) which might save many a commercial outfit from getting themselves into a major mess of their own making.
Every week we see stories of big corporations getting smacked down in the court of public opinion, because they got greedy and saw social media as a cheap way to pitch and profiteer, as opposed to sharing useful information. Like oil and water, greed and publicity don’t really mix.
Know your tribe and respect your tribe. At that point you can think about talking to your tribe.
Walkley Award-winning journalist and professional writing trainer Brian Johnson has provided editorial and PR training and support to a diverse range of organisations over a sustained period of time. He can be found here www.lighthousemedia.com.au/write
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