Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

The Top Misused Words in PR

Ragan’s PR Daily published a post yesterday listing their top 10 words often misused in press releases.

Their list:

  • Quality
  • Unique
  • Innovation
  • Official
  • Exclusive
  • Breaking
  • Never/ever
  • Revolutionary
  • Literally
  • Social
I’d have to agree with most of those. It feels like every new product that is launched claims to be “revolutionary” or “innovative”, and “social” is without doubt one of the most abused terms right now. No, adding a “share” button to your site doesn’t make your product “social.”
Why stop at ten words, though? Here are a couple more words that PR people seem to butcher on a daily basis:
  • Leading – It feels like every company claims to be the “leading” company in its industry. Most of the time the claim just isn’t true. Other times, they define their industry so narrowly that it’s accurate while still being meaningless. Once in a blue moon it’s realistic.I’m the leading red-haired digital PR guy sitting on my side of the Edelman Toronto office. It’s true. Also, no-one cares (sob).
  • Ultimate – This one’s a personal peeve. If your new product is the ultimate product for the market,  that means you’ll never need to release a follow-up, right? Oh, wait, you will? Guess it’s not so “ultimate” then. Sheesh.
What would you add to the list?

Book Review: Accidental Genius, by Mark Levy

When I first received an email from Beth Harte, asking if I’d be interested in checking out a book on writing, I have to say I hesitated. However, having now finished Mark Levy‘s Accidental Genius, I have to say it’s proven to be one of the most compelling reads so far this year.

Accidental Genius focuses on the art of free-writing – freeing your writing by letting your mind run rampant while you’re writing whatever it is you’re working on. Free-writing is effectively focused around removing the roadblocks you have to your writing by forcing you to write continuously, wherever your mind takes you.
I’m actually using a lot of the lessons from reading Levy’s book while writing this review – as I write, I’m letting my mind wander over the book, what I learned from it and the reasons you might want to check it out (of course, I’m also going back over it later – now – and editing). So, as I write this my fingers can barely keep up with my thoughts and I’m going all over the place, while Toronto’s municipal election results blare on in the background.

Levy’s book walks the reader through a series of incremental steps as it introduces you to the concept of freewriting. Each chapter is relatively short – just a few pages, and the book itself is only just over 160 pages, so it’s a relatively quick read.

The book is divided roughly into thirds in terms of content focus – the first third introduces you to the basic concept of freewriting – how to go about it, why it’s useful and what you may be able to get out of it. The middle portion of the book focuses on additional tools to help you make use of the skill – things like prompts, games to play to free your mind from barriers and so on. The final section looks more at putting the skills into practice, and helping others to benefit from them.

To my surprise, Levy’s focus isn’t just on improving your writing, although that’s certainly a large part of it. Accidental Genius also shows how you can apply this skill to reveal more creative solutions to problems, and how businesses may take advantage of freewriting exercises to reveal creative ideas.

I mentioned that this is one of the more compelling reads I’ve had recently, and it’s frankly the only one I already find myself putting into practice. Instead of censoring myself as I write, I now allow my thoughts to wander a bit and then go back and edit later. It’s made writing much less stressful for me, and has resulted in blog posts and presentations taking far less time to prepare.

I find myself consciously turning to the lessons I’ve learned from the book, and that’s something that I can’t say about many other books I’ve read this year.

(Thanks to Beth Harte for the connection, and to Mark for providing the review copy)

Writing – Critical For Communicators, But It’s Not Everything

Liam Fitzpatrick wrote a  controversial post earlier this month, saying that he thought writing skills are over-rated for communicators:

“To be honest I don’t think being a good writer matters – I’ve met plenty of great comms people who couldn’t write to save their lives and I know a few fantastic writers who I’d never trust to give communications advice.”

Shel Holtz,  David Murray and Reuben Bronee took Fitzpatrick to task, leading to two follow-up posts where he clarified and reasserted his view that other skills are more important for professional communicators. As Shel wrote:

I would never hire someone to manage communication who can’t write, nor would I hire anyone into a front-line communication job who couldn’t tell a story in words.”

This back-and-forth (which continued in the comments on those posts) got me thinking over the last few days.

So, what’s my take?

Writing is CRITICAL

Writing is an absolutely central skill for communicators. From my perspective, this applies from entry-level communicators right through to senior, experienced professionals. Frankly, it’s an important skill in many jobs  - many people outside the communications function need to communicate their ideas simply and persuasively – but for communicators, it’s critical.

At the entry level, there are few skill deficiencies that will hold you back more surely than good writing. Later on, while the type of writing you undertake may change as you rise through the ranks (more reports and proposals, and fewer news releases, for example), the importance remains throughout. What’s more, at a senior level you need to be able to review other peoples’ writing and help them to improve. That’s hard to do if your own writing skills are lacking.

Other skills are critical, too

If you’ve ever studied management theory, you may be familiar with Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory – essentially, it states that certain factors (“hygiene factors”) need to be present in jobs for people to be motivated, without actually motivating people themselves. So, without a good salary (for example) people will be de-motivated; however a good salary won’t actually motivate people more – it just needs to be present to allow other motivators to work.

Good writing skills are the equivalent of a “hygiene factor” in communicators’ careers. Without them, people are much less likely to succeed. However, they don’t make a successful communicator by themselves – there are many other important skills that are required – strategic planning, time management, inter-personal communications, math (sorry – it’s true), media relations and others come to mind, for example.

So, my perspective can be boiled down to this:

Writing is an essential skill for communicators. However, they also require skills far above and beyond this to be truly successful in the long term.

What do you think? Where does writing rank on your list of communications skills?

When Editing No Longer Helps

Error Whether you work in communications in a corporation, an agency, a not-for-profit or the public sector, you’ve probably encountered people who don’t know when to stop editing.

Editing is one of the most important stages of the writing process. With even one round of editing you can see drastic improvements in quality. You can see your writing improve from being average to being good. From just another release on the wire to something that’s worth writing about. From the delete button to the ‘I’d like an interview’ email.

With each subsequent round of editing, the return on your time investment will likely get incrementally smaller. At some point you need to make the call to stop; to accept that it’s just not worth making more edits. Ideally, that’s the point where the improvement will be worth less than the investment in time.

Working in the public sector, time was of little object. The focus was on producing the best product while balancing all of the competing interests. I would frequently see materials on version 20 or higher, half way through the approvals process.

On the agency side, it’s a different story. Consultants typically bill by the hour, which means you need to make a call on when additional investment simply isn’t worth it for the minimal benefit. Sometimes that means telling your client that their best course of action is for them to stop making changes, which isn’t always easy.

How do you know when that’s the time? There’s no hard and fast rule, but these are useful indicators:

  • When you see the piece beginning to revert to previous versions
  • When you see changes that could be produced with a thesaurus
  • When you see people tinkering with minor wording deep in the release
  • When you see the work increasing in length unnecessarily
  • When you see information irrelevant to the topic being added

If you start to see any of these signs, think – are they improving the release, or are they just changes for the sake of it? It might be time to put the writing to bed and move on.

What other signs do you look for?

Are You A Buffler?

A few weeks ago I posted a list of my top ten most irritating PR phrases. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Melanie Seasons (@mseasons on Twitter) from the UK online PR agency onlinefire

Melanie introduced me to a new verb:

Buffle – a contraction of business and waffle.

Apparently nearly half of the respondents to a survey they conducted thought that “buffling” was on the rise outside the office. She passed along a couple of videos they’d created for hotel chain Ramada Encore to demonstrate… (if you’re reading this via RSS, click through to see the videos)

</chuckle>

Top 10 Most Irritating Phrases In PR

Confused guyOxford University recently compiled its list of “top ten irritating phrases,” as reported by The Telegraph (side note: 2703 comments at time of writing!):

  1. At the end of the day
  2. Fairly unique
  3. I personally
  4. At this moment in time
  5. With all due respect
  6. Absolutely
  7. It’s a nightmare
  8. Shouldn’t of
  9. 24/7
  10. It’s not rocket science

It’s true – every one of those phrases is over-used and irritating.

I’d like to add my own top ten from the world of horrendous PR (this is separate, though related, to my little rant about clear writing a little while back). Many of these are just unnecessary adjectives that serve no real function. They’re often used in conjunction with each other for extra horrendousness:

  1. Moving forward
  2. Cutting-edge
  3. Leverage (it’s not a verb, people!)
  4. Viral video/marketing
  5. Utilize
  6. Cost-effective
  7. Innovative
  8. Value-added
  9. Forward-thinking
  10. [insert word here] 2.0

What would you add to the list?

Quality Matters

When you finish a piece of work, are you willing to put your reputation on the line for it?

I hope so, because that’s what happens.

Every time you finish a piece of work, your reputation is on the line. Hand over exceptional work and your reputation will improve. Hand over sloppy work and it will worsen.

errorIt’s like the old line about trust: it takes a long time to build trust, but just one moment to lose it all.

No-one is perfect – we all make mistakes. Still, every time you produce sub-standard work, your reputation suffers. If you produce something that requires additional work from the recipient because you didn’t pay attention to detail, your reputation suffers even more.

This goes for work you pass-on to your manager, as well as to clients.

Proof-read your own writing. Double-check those media contacts. Play devil’s advocate with your strategy.

Don’t expect other people to fix your work for you. Fix it yourself. Make the quality of your work an asset, not a liability. Excel and your reputation will get better, not worse.

Are you willing to stand behind the work you produce?

10 Easy-To-Avoid Grammar Mistakes

I’m going to get all Grammar Girl on you here. Bear with me.

I’m not a grammar saint, but I’m nerdy enough to both laugh and nod my head at Eats, Shoots and Leaves. As a communications guy, it helps.

A few basic grammar mistakes have started to really bug me. I’ve see them more and more recently, especially on micro-blogging platforms like Twitter.

I know, I know, you’re perfect. Feel free to skip this post if that’s the case. For the record, I’m not perfect. I make mistakes too. There, I said it.

Still here? Ok, I’ll begin. Here are 10 easy-to-avoid errors that I keep seeing:

  • You Don’t Need To Capitalize Something Just Because You Think It’s Important.
  • You’re/your: “You’re” is a contraction of you are. “Your” is possessive (it belongs to you).
  • We’re/were: “We’re” is a contraction of we are. “Were” is the past tense of the word “be.”
  • Fewer/less: If you can count it, use “fewer.” If you can’t, use “less.”
  • It’s/its: “It’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” “Its” is possessive.
  • Accept/except: I’ll make it simple. The "x" in "except" excludes things. Make sense? Accept it.
  • "Action" is not a verb. Don’t tell me you’re going to "action" something.
  • You were not "plurking" or "identing" or "powncing." You were making up new words (yes, I’m guilty of this one too).
  • A lot/alot: "A lot" is English. "Alot" isn’t.
  • Hear/here: A hint: "hear" has "ear" in it.

Those are my current pet peeves. What are yours?

Update: I just found three more in one post on a very well-read blog. I won’t link to it because, well, I’m not an ass:

  • “…don’t have a strong platform to stand from.”
    • You stand on a platform, not from it.
  • “[xxx] is not in a web professional.”
    • He is neither a web professional nor in the web profession.
  • “Companies should already have a crises plan ready…”
    • Companies should already have a crisis plan for when crises occur. Singular/plural.

Proofreading, people!

Could SEO Devalue News Releases Even More?

On a recent episode of Marketing Over Coffee, Christopher Penn and John Wall mentioned something that made me stop and think – the idea of people issuing news releases for the Google juice.

Too much jargon

Beware of jargon That idea worried me. To be more specific, the possibility of too much search engine optimization (SEO) in news releases further devaluing the tactic worried me.

The problem: I often hear that we should be inserting keywords into our news releases so that they rank highly in search engines for those keywords.

That sounds great in principle, right?

Right up front: I like the concept of the social media release. I’ve issued them, I worked on moving government news releases towards that format, and I’m a member of the Social Media Release Working Group (although that seems to have gone quiet recently… Bueller?).

SEO sheep

My problem with this, as with many SEO principles in general, is that people will take it to an extreme. They’ll follow the advice like sheep and will force inappropriate keywords (read: jargon) into their writing, and their products (and clients) will suffer.

Sure, these releases may rank highly for some words but so what? People arrive, see a poorly written release or page, fail to find what they want and leave. It’s a cheap tactic – one that’s no better than spamming people with emails. That’s why I heard a well-known marketing personality refer to a recent  SEO conference as “the underbelly of marketing.”

Just write well

Why not just make sure that your release is relevant, well-written and on-topic? A well written release will have plenty of the important words in there as a natural result. With a little extra attention you can optimize your release without compromising its quality.

I don’t want to read a news release front-loaded with every possible keyword under the sun. I want to read about the news.

The problem is bad enough for regular websites, but it’s doubly serious for news releases. News releases as a tactic already have a bad rap after years of abuse by poorly trained or lazy public relations practitioners. We don’t need yet another reason for people to hate them.

Too cynical?

Am I being overly cynical in thinking that people will jump on the extreme SEO bandwagon with news releases? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Look at the trends:

I don’t see the trend changing. As online news releases take off (even more likely given the recent SEC decision), I expect to see even more releases full of jargon. I expect those of us working at more enlightened firms to watch in dismay as the trend continues.

Are SEO-optimized releases a bad thing? No. Of course not. You want people to find your announcements. That’s half of the benefit of online news releases. I appreciate the benefits of genuine, well implemented SEO.

My fear is that, as in the past, poorly trained or careless people will take a good idea way too far. We’ll see even more releases loaded-up with popular keywords and we’ll all get dragged through the muck as a result.

The only solution I see (apart from the trend reversing, of course) is for agencies and corporations to train their PR people well so they don’t think this is a good idea. Will that happen? Again, history shows mixed results.

What do you think?

I’m Done With Social Media

“Social media” is out. So is “microblogging.” No more “social bookmarking” either.

What am I talking about? Clear writing. Plain language.

I’m not pulling the plug on all this stuff. However, I am going to start to write about it in terms that the average person on the street can understand.

Out with the old, in with the new

Huh? What are you talking about?I often hear people say we should write so our grandparents can understand what we’re writing. Well, my grandad certainly wouldn’t have a clue about blogging, vlogging or unconferences.

So, next time I chat to someone about the stuff I’m up to, I won’t throw out the latest jargon that we’ve conjured up. I’ll use short, simple words to describe these complex ideas.

Will I dumb down the way I communicate? No. Far from it.

I’ll open up my conversations to people who don’t live in our little bubble and who don’t know our terminology, but who want to know about this stuff.

It’s not easy to cut out these words and phrases, but I guarantee to you that far more people will understand you.

This is the kind of thing that visitors to the Social Media Training Wiki need. Simple, direct language.

Here are a few simple starters:

  • Out: my blog
  • In: my website
  • Out: social media
  • In: online tools that let you have two-way conversations
  • Out: URL
  • In: website address
  • Out: RSS feed
  • In: website content you can subscribe to

What web jargon would you like to eliminate? What would you say instead?

(photo credit: ~k~)