Why bad writing can harm a business brand

Almost everyone writes emails for work and many companies encourage employees to use social media as part of promotions.

But are you and your staff members doing a good job?

A badly-written email or other business correspondence can be the deciding factor that turns away a potential customer.

Keep it Simple words written or drawn on a chalkboard to illustrate the need to aim for simplicity t
Research shows that when average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they’re reading. At 43 words that understanding falls to less than 10%.

Use of simple, plain English cuts reading times significantly. What better way of communicating with customers in a time-hungry world?

Righting writing wrongs

You don’t need to be a great wordsmith to write a decent work email or letter.

All you need is to write in a straight-forward style and to be aware of the common grammatical errors that cause so much harm to business reputations.

Mistakes are so easy to avoid if you know what to look out for. In no particular order, here’s a list of the most common:

Incorrect use Of capital Letters

Sign showing incorrect use of capital lettersIn the corporate world incorrect use of capital letters is widespread.

This is often because of people’s insecurities. When unsure, they hit Caps Lock.

Workplace politics also mean many words end up capitalised when they don’t need to be.

I was once told to capitalise a list of industries in a press release. I argued this would make our organisation look silly.

My boss said we may ‘upset stakeholders’ if they saw their specific industry written in lower case. So our publicity material would often look like this:

  • The economic downturn has affected the Retail Sector badly.
  • Training courses for staff in Manufacturing are expensive.

Which is wrong.

Use of capital letters with job titles

Most people write job titles in upper and lower case (capitals and non-capitals).

This is unnecessary unless the title comes immediately before someone’s name. If the title comes after, it should be in lower case.

  • The Chief Executive Michael Davis suffers severe narcissistic personality disorder.
  • Michael Davis, chief executive, suffers severe narcissistic personality disorder.

With grammar, do sweat the small stuff

Tiny things like apostrophes, commas and colons can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

Consider this: An English teacher wrote, “A woman without her man is nothing” on the whiteboard and asked students to punctuate it correctly.

All the males in the class wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”

All the females wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

Sign for DVDs with in incorrect apostrophe
Incorrect use of apostrophes

This little dash must be the most misunderstood and misused piece of punctuation in the English language.

A frequent mistake is where the apostrophe is inserted before the letter s completely unnecessarily in plural words or signs like that in the picture. Eg,

  • The house’s along that row are very old
  • They all have big garden’s
  • The boy’s love swimming

Sign for avocados with an incorrect apostrophe

In normal plurals that end in an s an apostrophe is not needed. Let plurals be plurals.

This error is so common there’s a phrase for it: ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’.

Whoever could have known apostrophe misuse could tarnish a whole profession in such a way?

Apostrophes are only used with plural words when indicating possession.

Apostrophes indicating possession

Apostrophes are most usually used to indicate ‘possession’ – that is someone or something is owned (possessed) by someone or something else.

Eg, This is Sandy’s house (the house is owned/possessed by Sandy)

Singular possession: When only one person possesses it the apostrophe comes before the letter s.

Eg, The clown’s nose was red (the clown possesses the nose)

Plural possession: When two or more people possess something, the apostrophe comes after the letter s.

Eg, The clowns’ noses were red (the clowns – a group of them – possess the noses)

To complicate matters further – this is the English language after all – if the plural version of a word doesn’t end with the letter s as in the word children you should treat it as if it’s a singular word.

Eg, This is the children’s room. (The room belongs to the children.)

Apostrophes are also used when two words are shortened (contracted).

In this case the apostrophe goes between the two words and makes them shorter by omitting letters.

  • do not = don’t
  • could not = couldn’t
  • I will = I’ll
  • I am = I’m

In formal business correspondence it’s better not to use contractions. It’s grammatically correct to stick to the more formal use of two words.

But they can be used in less formal communications and some publicity material. They make the writing appear more friendly and accessible.

Its vs. It's words on paper

It’s and its: incorrect use of apostrophes with ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ is widespread. Here’s the rule.

It’s (with apostrophe) = is short for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.

Eg, ‘it’s Anna’s house’ or ‘it’s been snowing’

Its (with no apostrophe) is a possessive word. It means something belongs to something that’s neutral (not a person).

Eg, Anna’s house (possessed by Anna) has its roof covered by scaffolding (the roof is possessed by the house).

And remember, if you’re unsure, ask – rather than risk making a mistake.

What does a professional copywriter do?

The fact this question is so often asked is bizarre given professional copywriters are in the business of making things clear.

We’re plainly not doing a good enough job with our own job description.

What copywriters do is write. What they write is called ‘copy’.

Every time I tell people this is what I do for my job, they look puzzled.

When asked if they know what a copywriter is, they usually say: ‘Is it to do with copyright?’

Hand writing 'It's wrong'Copywriters have nothing to do with ‘copyright’ unless they work for a copyright firm.

Copyright, without the w, is the intellectual property of an organisation or a person.

What exactly does a copywriter write?

A copywriter writes the words you see on adverts on billboards and magazines or those you hear on the TV, radio or internet.

The people who do this are called advertising copywriters.

Copywriters also write the words you read in brochures and company annual reports, like much of the work I do.

The double-page feature in a trade journal promoting a particular business has probably been written by a copywriter, paid for by the company being featured.

In the corporate world there’s plenty of material that needs to be written like press releases, newsletters, leaflets, presentations, speeches, website copy and blogs.

If there’s no capacity in-house to write it, a freelance copywriter will be brought in.

The people called on for this type of work are marketing or publicity copywriters.

Marketing and PR firms often employ a staff copywriter. If they don’t, they usually hire freelance copywriters.

The 21st century copywriter

Along with the spread of technology, the copywriter’s role has grown.

Big corporations need words to communicate to customers. In order to be able to do that they need writers who understand how to sell a message.

Copywriters can be generalists and work across several areas. Or they specialise in one area, eg, health or science.

Digital copywriters are not only expected to know how to write, they also need SEO skills (search engine optimisation) and other online marketing know-how.

Generalist copywriters enjoy a great deal of variety. It’s like news journalism where every day is different.

Brief history of the copywriter

In 1923, ad man Claude Hopkins wrote a book called Scientific Advertising and introduced the concept of writing ‘copy’ to sell things.

His advice is as relevant now as it was then. It applies equally to people writing copy for publicity as it does to those writing adverts.

In a nutshell, he advises

  • Understanding the subject
  • Writing as you speak (as if selling something)
  • Keeping it simple
  • Using short sentences and short words
  • Avoiding cliches or superlatives
  • Producing an excellent headline
  • Remembering the ‘what’s in it for me?’ (WIIFM) rule.

This last bit of advice reminds us that readers are hungry only for what benefits them – what is ‘meaningful’ to them.

In my post on writing like a journalist I explain the concept of the ‘killer top line’. This same principle applies to the WIIFM rule.

Writing saying less is more

If you’re a marketing copywriter, especially one who works digitally, you’ll know that in an age of information overload most people scan.

Online audiences need reeling in within 2-3 seconds. Blink and they’re gone.

How does a copywriter get work?

Depending on the type of copywriting you’re doing, freelance work comes through a number of sources:

  • Word of mouth
  • Contacts
  • Online marketing
  • PR and marketing agencies
  • Advertising
  • Recruitment agencies
  • Social networks
Why use the word ‘copywriter’?

So why don’t we use the word ‘writer’ if that’s what we’re paid to do?

It’s because that word is usually taken to mean ‘novelist’ and that glamorous job is way out of our humble league.

The words ‘professional copywriter’ are more authentic and in an age where everyone’s a ‘writer’, it’s important to be clear.

 

 

Quoting people in press releases

Hearing the opinions of a person in their words through a quote in a press release, article or newsletter helps add a human dimension to a story.

It also helps break up a monotonous read.

Yet many press releases contain stilted, incomprehensible quotes, written in a style that’s nothing like the way someone speaks.

When there’s more than one organisation involved in a publicity campaign, deciding on quotes often gets political.

Man in suit looking angry

Who do you put first? Second? Third? Fourth? Fifth? Why’s his quote longer than mine? Please add to mine to make it equal. 

The communications process can drag on for weeks, sometimes months.

A well-run company trusts the communications team to do the job they know best. At the approvals stage, most executives will only suggest minor changes.

But in smaller organisations, or those with insecure environments, everyone wants to make their mark.

They demand changes. Very often, completely inconsequential ones.

If you’re in charge of the communications on a project involving four organisations who’ve each submitted half-page quotations from their senior people, good luck retaining any professional pride.

Who do you quote in a press release?

No one would quote the boss’s secretary in external publicity no matter how much of a backbone to the business she is.

Businessman laughing on phone

Quotes for publicity should usually come from the head of the company that’s putting out the press release, or someone else with authority.

That could be the chief executive, operations director or the ‘head of’ a department.

No communications material warrants more than four quotes unless each person is saying something radically different.

This is highly unlikely. Publicity and press releases usually only peddle one line.

Limiting the number of quotations

I’ve been instructed to quote five people in press releases before. This is ridiculous and a waste of everyone’s time.

No journalist is going to be interested in so many people’s opinions with the same message.

The only reason you’d distribute such a release is because your boss tells you to.

It would be a decision based on politics alone and keeping senior people in other organisations happy.

The best way of quote-gathering

If you send your draft press release to each of the organisations involved and ask them to fill in the gaps with their quotations you will:

  1. wait five weeks before being told they’ve forgotten, and
  2. be sent flowery waffle that will hammer the last nail into the coffin containing your once thriving professional self-respect.

The best method is to reach the end of your skeleton press release and then look at which sections work best written as someone speaking.

Quotation marks icon

Put a couple of quote marks around those sections and insert a ‘so-and-so said’.

NB: ‘Said’ is 1,000 times better than ‘commented’ or ‘explained’. It’s no nonsense and more conversational.

Edit the words you’ve sectioned off (if necessary) to make them sound less formal.

Then send the release to the other organisations for approval. Busy executives love this method. It involves far less effort for them.

Punctuation for press release quotes

The following example is an accurately punctuated quotation:

“Open a quote with a quote mark and insert a comma or full-stop before the closing quote mark like this,” said Let’s Be Clear founder Jess Watson. “Then continue the rest of the quote immediately after the attribution. If the quote is long, like this one and you need to roll onto another paragraph, finish off the last sentence of the first paragraph by adding a full-stop but not a closing quotation mark. Like this.

“At the start of the new paragraph insert another open quote mark and continue with the quotation.

“Don’t ask the logic here, just keep going until you reach the end.

“Then add the relevant closing punctuation mark – in this example it will be a question mark – and insert the end quote mark immediately after.

“Are you still here?”

Cartoon of woman asleep on desk

NB: depending on font being used, opening and closing quote marks are often the same sign.

If you attribute the name of the person speaking before the quote begins, write it like this with a comma or colon after ‘said’.

Let’s Be Clear founder Jess Watson said: “There are accepted practices in journalism about how to set out quotations.

“The method outlined in this post follows the standard NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) rule.

“It is of course best to check your organisation’s particular house style.”

If this post has you bashing your head against your keyboard, or just fast asleep on it, you have my sympathy.

It was painful writing it. Can’t imagine what it must be like reading it so bravo if you got here!

Why complicate things?

You’ve been asked to write the publicity for a new report.

You read through the executive summary which, as the title suggests, is a summary of the whole thing.

Man yawning at desk

You’re confused and read it again. You read the following sentence three times, then yawn deeply.

“A principal aim of public health interventions for reducing morbidity and mortality due to elevated plasma protein in the blood should be to encourage a healthy lifestyle among the general population irrespective of individual blood protein levels.”

You wonder why it can’t be written in a more simple way, one that won’t require more than one read through.

Why do so many people write this way when they don’t speak this way?

Why complex writing is unnecessary 

You rub your eyes and read it again. You think it means:

“Encouraging a healthy lifestyle should be the main aim of public health programmes to cut illness and death from high plasma protein in the blood”.  But you’re not entirely sure.

Cartoon of couple talking with speech bubbleYou picture the report’s author at home that evening saying to their spouse: 

“My elevated blood plasma protein is increasing my morbidity tonight my dear. I could do with a public health intervention.”

You read on. Your eyelids droop:

“The total risk factor approach integrates the contribution of major risk factors to determine absolute risk of stomach cancer and is a more efficient approach for identifying those at highest multi-factorial risk and preventing the disease in developing countries.”

It’s one of those time-consuming, unintelligible-to-anyone-not-in-a-specialist-community monsters.

You have no choice other than to put on your translator cap and dismantle it.

Paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, word by word.

The painful process of keeping it simple

Man asleep under newspaperLet’s try and do this without falling asleep.

So, the beginning: The total risk factor approach

Straight-forward enough – it’s the object of the sentence, the thing they want to explain to the reader with the words that follow.

But because it’s not part of everyday English, it’s best to put phrases like this into quotation marks: ‘The total risk factor approach’.

Still here?

Let’s move onto: …integrates the contribution of major risk factors…

What does ‘integrates‘ mean in this sense? Takes account of? Considers? Looks at? Includes?

Put the two amendments together and you get: ‘The total risk factor approach’  takes account of ….

This is much better than ‘integrates the contribution…’

And then …the contribution of major risk factors… What does this mean? Is the word ‘contribution’  even necessary?

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far.

Businessman holding his head in frustrationWhen bad writing creates frustration: am I the only one who doesn’t get it?

I’m persevering because if your job is to present clear information to the public, you need to understand how to deconstruct babble.

So many press and communication officers give up and leave words like ‘integrates’ , thinking it’s just them who doesn’t get it.

It’s why there are so many poorly-written press releases and other communications material in circulation.

Try imagining you’re telling a child or a friend in the pub about the subject as an aid to shift brain-block.

If you were writing it to your friend you might replace:

…integrates the contribution of major risk factors to determine absolute risk of stomach cancer …

with:

takes account of the major risks that increase the chance of developing stomach cancer.

Now the last bit:

“…and is a more efficient approach for identifying those at highest multi-factorial risk and preventing the disease in developing countries.”

Doesn’t this just mean: “It is a more efficient way of identifying people who are most at risk and preventing the disease in developing countries”?

Eyes propped open with matchsticks

Here’s the original sentence, if you can bear it:

“The total risk factor approach integrates the contribution of major risk factors to determine absolute risk of stomach cancer and is a more efficient approach for identifying those at highest multi-factorial risk and preventing the disease in developing countries.”

And my translated version:

“The ‘total risk factor approach’ takes account of the risks that increase the chance of developing stomach cancer. It is a more efficient way of identifying those most at risk and preventing the disease in developing countries.”

Isn’t this cleaner? By taking each phrase and translating it in a micro fashion, you can avoid changing the meaning.

Once you’ve finished translating the report and have written your publicity material, always check with your seniors that your version is accurate.

If they want to keep the original words you can only offer advice on targeting journalists and leave it at that.

How to write like a journalist and structure press releases

Hand writing helpful tips for good writing

Do you want to work in journalism, press, marketing or public relations?

If you can learn to write succinctly you’ll have a much better chance of success.

Writing like a journalist can also help those wanting to work as content and copywriters, or business writers.

A journalistic style means short words and short sentences using the fewest words possible.

Here are some handy tips…

  1. Understand the information
  2. Order it
  3. Keep it simple.

1. Understand the information

This sounds obvious but it’s surprising how many ‘don’t knows’ you hear in corporate communications if you ask the meaning of something.

In order to write clearly, you need to fully understand the information.

Pampered dog in tutu and princess crownImagine you’re writing about how to look after your dog.

You’d know the subject well. You’d have no trouble writing about it.

You’d start with the most obvious like where the gourmet tuna is kept.

Then move to the next. And then the next.

Speak out against jargon

Consider this: you’re a communications officer and your boss asks for a press release on a report written by someone in the company.

You read it. Do you understand it? Is there a top line? If yes, great. If no, read it again. Do you get it now?

Only with a thorough understanding will you be able to write about it in plain English.

Perhaps it’s so technical or written in jargon that only your boss and the author understand. In which case you’ll need a healthy dose of confidence to convince them of your argument.

A number of communications staff are afraid they’ll be seen as ignorant or stupid if they query something.

Often a journalistic-type phone call is what’s required with the person who wrote the report or who has responsibility for the project.

Or use your judgement and deconstruct the thing. 

Ask questions

As a journalist you work on different subjects each day. Sometimes two or three.

You’re often new to an area, unless you’re a specialist.

The only way to tackle this is to ask questions. Really basic ones like

  • What’s the story/report/event about?
  • Why are people going to be interested?
  • What’s the most important information you want publicised?

So many people get irritated at being asked questions especially members of the scientific or medical community or those who’ve bothered to join Mensa.

Silly businessman in red bow tie

But if you don’t really understand it, it’s unlikely anyone reading your copy will either. Develop a thick skin, a child-like curiosity and ask away.

2. Order information well

Having taken the above steps, you finally begin to understand the subject. So now, the fun part. Translating into plain English.

First, weed out unnecessary information (see below for advice on how to do this).

When you lack confidence, for instance at the start of a career, you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.

You worry about weeding in case something’s important so you keep too much in. Then you produce a thesis, not a press release.

So many press releases cover two or three pages before the Notes to Editor and Background sections even start.

Toddler twins asking whyTo avoid cloudy thinking, it can help to imagine you’re explaining it to children who are, by nature, excellent jargon cops.

Nothing gets past them. Visualise them asking, Why?

Why are you writing in this incomprehensible style?

Why are you confusing us with all this excess information? Just get to the point.

If something repeats itself it’s usually fine to edit the second mention out.

If your boss asks for a particular message to be replicated, try weaving it into someone’s quote instead.

Thoughts on screen – a personal brain dump: write out your understanding as one mammoth brain dump on the screen – for your eyes only.

Keep the words simple and sentences short. Two things help:

  • Write for a child
  • Write as you speak (imagine you’re telling your friends in the pub and use that language.)

Keep it loose and informal. Do the buttoning up later when you consider the audience.

Put the long words to one side. You may need to reinsert them.

Who, what, where, when, why: following this rule ensures your brain dump retains the essential information.

You need to explain these five things as close to the top of your press release as possible.

But don’t cram them into one paragraph.

Too much information: Consider this so-called “top line”: Via a school-led astronomy project that took place on Tuesday the 16th of March at the London Space Centre, London, England, six people with no formal training in astrophysics helped to discover what could be a thrilling and productive new place to search for planets outside our solar system, a large disk of gas and dust encircling a star known as a circumstellar disk.

Sadly this sentence is representative of how many press releases start.

In this case, the story is strong so gaining coverage probably wouldn’t be a problem.

But let’s use it as an example of long-windedness to illustrate how the editing process takes place.

By pulling the sentence apart word by word, you can achieve a far more simple way of writing that’s kinder on the person reading your material.

Keyboard with button for information overload

*** WARNING – WHAT FOLLOWS MAY HURT YOUR BRAIN ***

Using the who, what, where, when, why checklist, you can divide it up like so:

  • Who: Six people with no formal training in astrophysics.
  • What: Helped discover a new place to search for planets outside the solar system.
  • Where: The London Space Centre, London, England.
  • When: 16 March 2017 (you don’t need to list the specific day of the week)
  • Why: Part of an initiative that aims to make space exploration more accessible to young people (this info you find later in the report comes later and is not outlined above).

Here’s how you might explain it to your flatmate:

Six people with no formal training in astrophysics (the who) have found a new place to search for planets outside the solar system (the what).

It was part of a school astronomy programme (more of the what) at the London Space Centre in England (the where).

That’s got the who, what and where. The first paragraph should contain the ‘killer top line’ that’s in your heading (the new place to search for planets).

The killer top line draws in your reader and makes them want more. The second paragraph expands on this and explains more.

The when comes next.

The project, which took place on 16 March, identified a large disk of gas and dust encircling a star known as a circumstellar disk (more of the what).

And then onto the why (for the purposes of this post I haven’t included the entire press release. The ‘why’ information isn’t in this selected example.)

The scheme aims to make exploration of the universe more accessible to young people. The six participants were among 50 schoolchildren who took part (the why).

Structuring a news story – the inverted pyramid

To be in with the best chance of getting your press release noticed by journalists in busy newsrooms, you should treat it like a news story.

Structuring news to fit an inverted pyramidAll news stories are structured around an upside-down pyramid, the so-called ‘inverted pyramid’.

As mentioned, the top two or three paragraphs will contain the most important information – the who, what, where, when and why and sometimes the how.

The tapering lower parts of the pyramid show that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance.

The middle section can contain pertinent but not essential information, alongside the quotations from the main people involved.

The bottom is where you put periphery stuff like dates, location and contact details.

(NB: the pyramid above breaks all the rules on correct use of capital letters!)

3. Keep the language simple

Catch yourself when you get flowery and bring your style back to short and snappy.

Why write in a different way to how you speak when the words are forming in the same brain?

Heading: The main message should leap out in your heading and the tight top paragraph.

Try to keep the heading on one line only as a condensed version of the opening paragraph.

Overuse of superlatives

Avoid superlatives like ‘groundbreaking’, ‘applauding’ and ‘pioneering’.

Most press releases with headlines containing the word ‘groundbreaking’ are anything but.

And how can an organisation ‘applaud’ something?

Two-line paragraphs: Try to keep each paragraph on two lines only, if possible, especially the first.

(NB: This rule regularly gets broken especially if the client’s name, report title or product is lengthy. But it’s a great exercise in achieving brevity.)

Aim for one side only: Try and keep the bulk of your press release on one page with the Notes to Editor and background stuff at the top of page 2.

(NB: This rule regularly gets broken especially if there’s more than one organisation that needs to be included in the press release.)

A hefty medical or legal journal is unlikely to be bothered by a press release spanning two, three or even four pages. But if it’s a newsroom you’re targeting it’s best to remember how journalists are notoriously busy … or lazy.

Lazy man at desk

Unless your story is dynamite they’ll not read past the first two or three paragraphs.

Press release skeleton – after structuring your brain dump around the inverted news pyramid, writing short sentences in easy language and using the ‘who, what, where, when, why’ checklist, you should now have a good skeleton press release.

Now it’s time to edit, amend and formalise.

Inserting quotations is a good way of creating flow. 

One is ideal. Two are ok but any more, when the message is effectively the same, is tedious.

If the press release is about a new report or study, you’d quote the author and perhaps an expert.

If it’s about a scheme or product, you’d quote the chief executive or another senior person.

Try to remember the ‘write as you speak’ rule when drafting quotations.

Target audience

It’s also time to consider your target audience.

If you’re writing for a consumer magazine and are confident the journalists will understand the technical terms you stripped out at the start, you can reinsert them if you think they’ll add anything.

Audience in someone's hand

This applies to all forms of publicity writing. Is your audience a youth market, the over-50s or people with specialist knowledge?

Whoever you’re targeting, you can’t go wrong if you stick to plain English as most content writers and journalists do.

Why bad workplace writing demotivates staff

There’s nothing quite like bad writing to demotivate a workforce.

Most senior-level people can write clearly but so often this doesn’t filter down through an organisation.

Staff at mid and lower levels can regularly be found scratching their heads in confusion at emails and other missives sent by co-workers.

In most cases they think it’s just them who doesn’t get it. So they stay quiet.

Clear writing in the workplace – the antidote to apathy

But staying quiet creates bewilderment which, if allowed to continue, can affect staff enthusiasm.

Clear writing is a part of good management. You can’t have one without the other.

How can people be enthusiastic about anything if they don’t understand?

They can pretend but how does that inspire motivation?

They think they might know what something means but are afraid to ask.

They hope it’ll become clear in time but it rarely does.

And by then it’s been going on too long. They’ll look like fools if they ask now.

Information overload and the need for plain English

Man shoutingInformation is pumped out every second to satisfy the digital appetite.

Emails intended for one person will often copy in 20 others, most of whom ‘reply to all’ with one-word answers.

Everyone becomes indoctrinated by jargon-infested nonsense and no one even recognises it as such.

The new staff member with professional fervour and unfamiliarity with corporate waffle, squints at the screen long into the evening reading lengthy email trails of gibberish in a desperate attempt to understand.

They don’t know it yet but they’ve started the slow descent into quiet despair.

In today’s ‘always on’ corporate culture people work long after normal office hours.

Scientists talk about a time when we’ll have computer chips implanted into our brains to enable us to process vast amounts of information in seconds.

That day isn’t here yet. Our brains are not wired to cope with the consequences of the 24-hour digital workplace.

Simplifying or dumbing down?

Shouldn’t anything that simplifies communication between humans be a priority?

It doesn’t mean dumbing down. There’s enough of that on social media.

It means cutting out the silly, made-up, business-speak used so frequently in the workplace.

How many times have you had to read something twice or several times to figure out its meaning? What a waste of brain energy.

Corporate waffle

It’s the afternoon of the new employee’s second day. The following email is sent from the Head of Corporate Affairs:

Dear all

We are launching a strategic review to scope collaborative productivity opportunities. The output of our analysis of the potential collaborative productivity deliverables show they work as end-to-end solutions.

We are at the stage of needing to hear the narrative to inform the collective headline workstreams, an opportunity that also enables business critical dependency. If we can bottom out a resolution it will have the added benefit of assisting the firm in articulating all delivery options.

We would like to hear from individuals with a proficiency in the footprint’s digital maturity to support with scoping and horizon scanning implementations so we achieve maximum pull in articulating in the matrix deliverable.

Kind regards

Sach Drivelle – Head of Corporate Affairs

This letter is a fabricated example drawn from a list of phrases (below) included in an email sent to a group of people by a manager in the National Health Service.

  • End to end solutions
  • Bottom out
  • Footprint
  • Scoping
  • Hear the narrative
  • Headline collaborative work streams
  • Potential collaborative productivity deliverables
  • Scope collaborative productivity opportunities
  • Digital maturity
  • Critical dependency
  • Articulating delivery options
  • Can articulate in the paper the deliverable

When the person who sent this email was asked to clarify the phrases, she was genuinely puzzled.

Businessman in despair

Colleagues had never questioned the language before. Instead they’d spawned more of it.

So what? If she and her colleagues understand it, what’s the problem?

The point is, why risk alienating that new staff member who’s clueless about your particular department’s style and jargon?

Why make their first day even more tiring and stressful than is necessary? Isn’t life too complicated already?

Aren’t we deciphering Too Much Information anyway? There’s even an acronym for this now – TMI.

The write-as-you-speak rule doesn’t operate here because most people who write this way also speak this way.

Plain English is always the winner. Simplify. Cut the waffle. Get your message understood.

How to get free publicity on the news

Do you run a small business and think the world should know about it?

Your staff are always praising your product. It’s time word was spread.

Getting free publicity is easy right?

It’s just a case of being noticed by the right people. The people who’ll put it on the news.

The art of selling a story

Getting free publicity in the media is difficult. Journalists are fussy.

Just because you and your staff think something is exciting doesn’t mean news journalists will.

Here’s a list of ‘dos and don’ts’:

DO

  1. Appreciate the value of news coverage – local, regional and national. Good publicity is worth more in terms of authority than any 30-second advert costing £40,000.
  2. Know your target media’s audience/readership.
  3. Learn what makes a good news story (see below).
  4. Understand the importance of case studies.
  5. Work on your “pitch” – how best to sell your story in the fewest words.
  6. Make it as easy as possible for the journalists (offer interviewees/case studies; filming opportunities and background research).
  7. Know when’s best to contact that particular newsroom (not just before a deadline or programme).
  8. Know the right method to approach the journalists. Some prefer phone calls – others emails.
  9. Register with a forward-planning news agency.

DON’T

  1. Instruct your marketing person to take a box of cream cakes (your product) around the headquarters of a national news broadcaster.Man in suit devouring a cream cake
  2. Build your communications strategy around the building’s floor plan as in cakes to be offered first to radio staff in the basement; then regional TV journalists on the lower-ground floor; then national news presenters on the first floor and international teams on the second.
  3. Be baffled when no one’s interested in mentioning your cakes on the news.
  4. Expect to be called in for an interview.
    Be impressed when told that the journalists enjoyed eating them.
  5. Berate the messenger – she was following your terrible advice.

Egos in corporate kingdoms

There are big fish in large and small corporate ponds with an emperor’s new clothes scenario playing out in many boardrooms.

People are afraid of honesty.

Instead they say ‘great idea’ when the boss mentions schemes like the cream cakes.

When delusion meets the brutally honest world of the newsroom, big egos take a bashing. The purpose of this isn’t to shield big egos.

It’s to highlight the waste of time and money spent on ill-thought out attempts at gaining publicity. And to suggest more fruitful methods to try.

The above-mentioned cream cake tour was a high street bakery’s ill-fated attempt at targeting journalists.

It was also conducted around the headquarters of several major UK newspapers.

The publicity officer was eventually asked by her boss why the company didn’t get mentioned on the front page of The Times.

A little understanding of how the media operates could have saved him so much time and money. And false hope.

The value of publicity

Appearing in the news – broadcast, internet or print – is a fantastic way of raising awareness of messages or products.

It’s also free and more powerful than a paid-for advert.

The only cost is in the time and manpower of your staff or, if you have the money, the services of a PR agency.

What makes a good news story?

In order to sell a story you need to know what makes something “newsworthy”. A cream cake doesn’t.

Unless it’s been made by Lady Gaga who’s ditching pop fame for catering and wants to tell the world why.

A good news story must be about something new or different.

Ideally there’ll be a strong human element. You’re not trying to attract the attention of guinea pigs.

By making it meaningful to people, you’ll stand a much better chance of it being featured.

How do you humanise a cake?

Some topics are simply non-newsworthy, like cakes.

Other than hope a celebrity may announce something similar to the Lady Gaga example above, you could try and peg it to an existing story in the press.

Perhaps a report’s been published extolling the virtues of cream cakes as a new super-food.

If there’s a surprise element to it the journalists will definitely want to report it – cream cakes, the new superfood!

Now’s your chance to leap on the bandwagon – to ‘peg’ your product or expertise to it. Newsrooms will be eager for people to comment.

Seize the news opportunity

You could suggest your publicity person contacts media outlets you think might run the story.

Or writes a press release or email pitch outlining the newly-discovered health qualities of your particular cakes.

The pitch could sell you, as the head of a successful high street bakery, as an expert in the area of cream cakes and offer you for interview.

If a press release also contains a written quote from you that’s a big part of a newspaper or internet journalist’s job done too.

Cutting and pasting have never had such important roles as those they play in today’s austerity newsroom.

Register with forward-planning agencies

Another effective way of securing publicity is to keep up-to-date with events in your industry by registering with a forward-planning listings service.

These companies send details of forthcoming events and other related issues linked to specific areas.

Once you’ve got that list your communications staff can draw up a look-ahead strategy.

Having months to plan allows time to investigate good, strong case studies and gives room for creative and lateral thinking.

Surveys and polls

Perhaps your company could commission a YouGov poll or survey of customers which you could issue as a press release on the day of the big industry event.

The more related information journalists get in one day enables them to produce a much beefier news item.

Forward-planning requires thought, graft and understanding. That can be done so much more efficiently with the luxury of time.

How best to get noticed by journalists

I’ve written here about how to write like a journalist in order to increase the chance your press release will be noticed.

A press officer for a recruitment firm was asked to write a release about the shortage of health workers in a busy part of England.

His company had some findings to share. It had researched the cost to hospitals of patients who were ready to be discharged but were having to wait until suitable community care could be arranged.

Watch your language

The widely-used term for this situation in the media is ‘bed blocking’.

The more formal description used in the public sector is ‘delayed transfer of care and discharge of patients with undiagnosed problems’.

The press officer wrote the following headline:

More community health staff needed to help cut the £3 million cost of bed-blocking to [the region’s] hospitals

His bosses were anxious. They didn’t want to use the term ‘bed-blocking’ saying it was offensive to patients.

They may have had a point but the release was not intended for patients.

Its only objective was to catch the attention of busy news teams in order to gain publicity and raise awareness.

The headline was changed to:

New report calls for more community health staff to help reduce the £3 million cost of delayed transfers of care and discharge of patients with undiagnosed problems

The press officer warned his bosses if they sent the PR with the new headline it would very likely be overlooked because it wasn’t in a language recognisable to journalists.

He was overruled and had to send the amended version.

On getting no response from newsrooms, he phoned them. The following is representative of several conversations he had that afternoon:

Press officer: “Hello, it’s Luke from [recruitment agency]. Did you get our press release about bed-blocking and the need for more community health workers?”

Journalist: “No. When did you send it?”

Press officer: “Two hours ago. It was titled ‘delayed transfer of care and discharge of patients.”

Journalist: “Oh that. I didn’t realise that was about bed-blocking and deleted it. Can you re-send it please?”

Don’t waste staff resources

There are many instances where the language used in a press release must of course be chosen cautiously.

But a report aiming to attract staff to an area is probably going to require more layman’s language in order to be noticed.

When you’re targeting busy news teams you need to use the right approach.

And that’s the mix outlined in this post – knowing their deadline, how they prefer to be approached and then writing material in their language.

Otherwise it’s as much a waste of time and money as offering cream cakes.

Getting ahead in 21st century news

Woman filming dog

To impress today’s TV news boss, there are a few things to remember. First, try to be under 22. Second, hone your shouting as well as shooting skills.

The modern day TV reporter

Good advice would be to take the term ‘multi-tasking’ to a new level wherever possible.

You’ll be a standalone news soldier, combining what used to be six jobs into one. You’ll be expected to

  1. Identify and verify your news story (news editing);
  2. Get the facts (researching);
  3. Organise interviews (planning);
  4. Find a camera (crewing);
  5. Check everything works (technical);
  6. Get ‘on the road’ to conduct interviews and film (reporting/camera and sound operating);
  7. Write script, record voice and edit film (video editing).

Do-it-yourself video journalism

Cartoon of TV reporter with microphone

At your location, set up the camera on its tripod.

Ask your interviewees to address their answers to thin air either to the left or right of your camera.

You’ll be behind the lens and it will look silly to the viewer at home seeing interviewees contained within your report (package/VT) looking directly at them (this only happens if the interview is live with a presenter in the studio).

After recording interviews, it’s time to film general views (GVs). These are the background pictures you’ll use to cover (paint) your report while the viewer hears your voice (voiceover) telling them the story.

So if your piece is about a court case, you’ll need to film the police van bringing the defendant to court and the arrival of the victim’s family and lawyers.

Networked city image

Stop to scratch your nose or change battery pack and you might miss the arrivals shot. This will spell trouble.

With so much syndication, networking and media partnerships, it’s likely 12 other TV and online news outlets will be depending on your images too.

The “piece to camera”

You probably went into television news with a desire to see yourself on screen, so next you’ll need to film yourself saying something relevant about the story (piece to camera or PTC – pron: ‘the peestee’).

For the one man news soldier, this will probably require several attempts (takes) so you can check how you look after each one.

Man taking film with selfie stickShut your mind to how absurd you’ll look to bystanders although this may no longer be a consideration in the age of the selfie.

Once you have filmed enough material, head back to the newsroom by cheapest means possible – preferably walking, while balancing camera and tripod on your back.

Next, feed your raw material (rushes) into the computer’s digital editing system.

Take a notepad and pen and watch your recorded film. Make a note (log) of the details and timecodes that appear on screen when you

  1. find the best picture (money shot)
  2. hear the most succinct interviewee answers (soundbites).

Now you are ready to write your script, remembering to keep words to a minimum and allow the pictures to tell the story.

When your script is ready, put on your headset with attached microphone.

Hit the ‘record’ button on your computer’s editing system and start reading your script out loud into the microphone (voicing).

Ignore the loud crunching of crisps from the overweight sports presenter sitting next to you. He’s had no lunch either and the viewer will most likely think it’s a sound effect anyway.

The glamour of TV news

Once you have your voiceover track, your soundbites and raw material, it is time to get out the video sewing box and patch it together.

Usually there will be about five minutes in which to carry out this once prized craft.

It takes most TV newshounds at least ten years to get this fast, so expect to miss your deadline and be bellowed at for doing so.

Insert your soundbites in the relevant slots and paint the images in the space where your voice track can be heard.

Don’t forget to start the piece with your money shot.

If all’s gone smoothly, the viewer at home should only detect a small amount of the shouting match your colleagues had behind you while you were voicing.

When your report is ready, inform the programme editor. No doubt the programme will have started by now, and he/she (usually a he) will be sitting hunched and frowning over a computer in a dark room full of TV screens and people screaming, swearing and being rude to each other (the gallery). Wait for a gap in the frown and jump in.

After the programme the head of news will hold a meeting (debrief) during which you will be criticised by three or four people for your squeaky voice, wobbly camera work and missing your deadline.

Finally, take off your armour, go home and tell your flatmates all about your glamorous job in television.

What is news planning?

Demotivated man rubbing eyes at deskI’ve yet to meet a news planner who enjoys their job.

Yet it’s one of the most fundamental roles of the newsroom.

News planners look ahead to find upcoming stories they can work on in advance to fill airtime or newspaper space.

Without them, the cogs in the news engine stop.

The essential role of news planners

If a press officer wants publicity for an event taking place tomorrow, in a week or six months, it is to the planning desk they must turn.

Planning was the only shift where I was allowed to reduce my hours from 8-6 to 10-6 (with accompanying pay cut).

This was an unusual move in the days of non-flexible working and soon most of the colleagues working alongside me were journalists with children.

Other than the “family friendly” hours, it was a soul-destroying encounter.

My days involved staring at a screen reading badly-written press releases about topics that defied understanding.

Why would someone think a new ramp outside a supermarket might interest a national newsroom?

The emails described events that weren’t events, pioneering schemes that weren’t pioneering and groundbreaking research that was anything but.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

It was not what I’d gone into journalism for which was to boldly go or go boldly after the truth.

The truth of this was dismal.

Older hacks reminisced about the glory days of big news budgets when reporters had grand pianos shipped to Moscow if posted there on long assignments.

They were the days of plentiful resources, when planning desks were able to dig deep and investigate stories with the luxury of time.

When I landed the scaling back of news teams and the introduction of the multi-skiller had begun.

Stress, pressure and messed-up deadlines occurred daily. It was a miracle to reach 4pm without internally combusting.

The sinking mud of waffle

Most of the calls to the planning desk about forthcoming ‘stories’ were a waste of time.

Image of man overheating at emailsLikewise, most of what pinged into the inbox was incomprehensible.

My forefinger and delete key grew intimate.

And yet someone somewhere had taken the time to craft this waffle.

And had been paid to do so!

Probably far more than me, sitting there boldly going after the truth.

Looking ahead – how ‘news’ isn’t always new

There is a bright side.

Planners are very often the gate-keepers to the news. If a press release catches their attention they can nurture and develop it and perhaps weave a human into it – if one doesn’t exist already (which, by the way, it ought to – read more here on what makes a good news story).

Cartoon of breaking newsThey’ll go out of their way to find potential in press releases because they too are desperate.

At forward-planning meetings the pressure is on to produce news lists bursting with hot stories.

Talking up a ramp outside a supermarket would most probably get them fired.

A whiff of something resembling a story and they’ll work with you to make it happen in order to have something to sell their news editor (the person in charge).

I’d receive around 200 emails a day from communications offices.

Most fell victim to my ruthless finger/delete key relationship but occasionally something jumped out.

And this was usually the well-written email.

As I drowned in a dark sea of waffle, it appeared like a luminous lifeboat bobbing towards me, arms outstretched ready to restore hope.