Archive for category Writing

More than ever, short and simple is better

Ever feel like you’re on a treadmill that’s going faster and faster? That seems to be the new norm, with less downtime to just sit and relax for a moment.

As people feel the constant tug for their time and attention, the importance of clear, concise communications becomes more important.

So how do you reach someone who is reading your message while making dinner, helping the kids with homework, and answering an after-hours text message from her boss?

Some thoughts:

  • Begin with your most important message.
  • Use bullets. They help break up copy and make reading easier.
  • Opt for simple words and avoid jargon, acronyms, and words that readers may not understand.
  • Use examples to illustrate complicated points.
  • Offer a contrast or comparison to create an image in your readers’ mind (“The ship is the length of two football fields.”)
  • Stay away from too many fine details.

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16 Tips for hopeful PR practitioners

I was recently interviewed by a budding PR practitioner for a college class. The conversation made me think about the pros and cons of the business, and what I wish someone had told me in the early years.

Thumbs Up

  • A great variety of tasks ensures you’ll never be bored — from writing to photography to media relations.
  • You get to do a lot of fun things. Top of my list? Taking courtside photos at a Boston Celtics game. I’ve also done aerial photography and handled media relations for an event that featured former Secretary of State George Mitchell as the keynote speaker.
  • You learn a lot. About a lot of things.
  • And get to hang with interesting people — celebrities, authors, elected officials, company leaders, and national media. One of my favorites was working at a Leon Redbone concert, and being in the Green Room after the show.
  • The CEO knows your name and returns your emails.
  • PR people have a seat at the table, whether in a leadership meeting or a crisis response.

Thumbs Down

  • Along with the variety comes a high degree of unpredictability. Issues and projects have an interesting way of popping up at the wrong time.
  • You’ll run across people who think they know your job and — often well-intentioned — tell you how to do it.
  • Pressure. PR has been listed among the most stressful jobs.
  • Lack of control – you can do everything correct and still not have the outcome you desire: rain washes out your outdoor event; a significant event bounces your story off the news, etc.
  • 24/7 – Lots of things happen off work hours, from customer events to a middle-of-the-night crisis.
    Your mistakes are often public.

Doing the Job

  • Ask questions – If something confuses you, it likely has the same effect on your audience.
  • Show common sense – Be the person who says, “This doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”
  • Know numbers – A good business sense helps you understand your organization and boosts your credibility.
  • Be quick – The clock is often ticking, so learn to write and think quickly.
  • Act with integrity – It’s the right thing to do and you’re asking for trouble if you veer off course.

Your turn, PR people. What advice would you share with a hopeful practitioner?

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Being humble makes you a better communicator

During a live shot on the news this week, a local reporter caught my attention when she used the word “I” three times in a sentence. Sure, it’s conversational and brings the reporter into the story, but at the same time, use of that pronoun takes away from the subject of the story.

Know your audience
Communicators often talk about identifying your audience. If you’re selling fishing flies, you want to target people who fish. Manufacturing a new soda? Aim for kids and teens.

That’s pretty basic stuff, but writing to your target audience is where many messages fall short.

My favorite example is the typical, annual benefits enrollment announcement that you see at many companies: “Benefit enrollment packets will be mailed to eligible employees beginning November 1.”
In this message, you’re talking at employees, not to them. Contrast the above example with, “Look for your benefits enrollment packets, coming in the mail in early November.”

The second version rises above the first because it 1) carries a friendly, more conversational tone; and 2) speaks to the reader, not from the company.  It’s a subtle adjustment, but a very effective technique to improve your writing.

What’s the secret? Be humble, and put readers ahead of you and your organization.  Think about what they want to read. It’s human nature to be proud of your accomplishments or your company, but remember that you’re writing for your readers, and the message should focus on them.

Another example
Company focused: XYZ Company, the nation’s leading developer of pain-relieving medications, announced a new, over-the-counter medication that extensive studies show significantly reduce pain caused by arthritis.”

Audience focused: Relief is on the way for arthritis sufferers, thanks to a new over-the-counter medication that studies show significantly reduces joint pain. The medication, Pain Away, was developed by researchers at XYZ Company, the nation’s leading …”

While the company was bumped from the first sentence to the second, your message is more likely to be read and remembered because it addresses an issues many readers have (arthritis pain). And that’s what matters.

Being humble does pay off.

 

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5 ways to beat writer’s block

You sit, ready to craft an important memo, but find yourself struggling to begin. Staring at the blinking cursor doesn’t help, so you do the next best thing — go for coffee.

Overcoming writer’s block can be difficult. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years:

Just write it
Early in my career, I was working with a veteran PR person on an important memo. As I noodled what to say for the opening, he interrupted, “Type something … Just start writing.”

He was right. If I’m struggling with a lead sentence, I’ll skip it and start with the second paragraph. It helps establish a rhythm and prevents me from over thinking.

Make a list
If I’m stuck, or have a lot to cover, I’ll jump to the end of the document and list key points. It substitutes as a primitive outline of sorts, and lets me focus on how I want to say something, rather than what I should include.

For example, if I’m working on a flu vaccine story for a newsletter, my list might include:

  • Free for employees
  • Protect yourself and your family
  • Evergreen Conference Room
  • M-F, 8 – 9 a.m.
  • Nov 1 – 15
  • Painless
  • Employee Health, ext. 1234
  • Remember hand hygiene too

Jump around
Once I’ve made the list above, I’ll pick a point or two and write a sentence or paragraph. For example:

“Public health experts say a vaccine, combined with good hand hygiene, is the best way to protect you and your loved ones from catching the flu. Best of all, flu vaccines are free for employees.”

You can order the segments later, and once you start writing, you’ll likely see things falling into place.

Talk it out
Good writing is conversational, so think of how you’d tell the news to someone who knows nothing about the situation. For example, work is being done on the plumbing in your office building, and during that time, the facility will be close due to lack of water. So what do you want to tell staff?

“The office will be closed next Friday while crews work to repair a damaged pipe.”

You’ve got your start, now fill in the details.

Walk away (but not far away)
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when struggling to come up with something, try walking away for a couple of minutes. Grab a drink of water, pop a letter in the mail, anything to clear your head.

Your turn. What do you do to overcome writer’s block?

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Times change, but skills remain key

Think about the changes an 80-year-old has seen. Growing up, the family’s primary sources of news and events were likely the daily newspaper and word-of-mouth from family and friends. Then came the telephone, radio, and television. That generation witnessed a shift in the methods and speed of communication greater than any group prior.

Now we have the internet, email, social media, smart phones, tablets, and apps that will do everything from paying bills to creating a talking Santa cartoon.

Staying in touch has never been easier — while being an effective communicator has become increasingly difficult.

The following tips will help increase the odds your audience will pay attention to your message:

Be clear and concise
Regardless of your field or message, your writing (or speaking) should be direct and to-the-point. If your readers have to look for key message, you’ve likely lost them. Make your point without lengthy introductions, then follow-up with details.

This is particularly critical when targeting younger generations that are accustomed to more direct communication.

Consider your audience
A NASA engineer speaking to her peers would likely use very different language than when addressing a group of high school students on the same topic. Ask yourself what you audience knows about the topic, how much detail is appropriate, and if they’ll understand terminology associated with the subject. If’ I’m chatting with another photographer, I might mention shooting an image with my 135mm at f2. However, if speaking my aunt, I’d simply say I adjusted the camera to blur the background out of focus.

Be objective
Passion is a double-edge sword. It’s what makes you good at your job, but also makes effectively communicating about it much more challenging.

I’ll explain. You want to tell people about a project, and assume they’ll share your excitement. You begin to tell them the specifics of your work, and before you can know it, they’ve lost interest, either because they can’t follow the details or the story ran too long.

A programmer friend once told me a story about a project she was working on. As much as I tried to follow along, I was lost within 3 minutes. The story continued, with me struggling to keep up. It’s became jokingly known as the “Flat File Story.”

Be timely and time sensitive
Readers are incredibly busy, so you have to reach them where they want to hear the news, and then present it in a way that they’ll want to read/hear.

In my early years, we often drafted newsletter articles or messages from executives that were fairly long, and people seemed to read them. Now there’s great competition for readers’ attention, and you run the risk of losing them with a message that’s too jam-packed. And given the speed at which news travels, by the time you craft your detailed message, it might be old or outdated.

Follow Twitter’s lead
Twitter, with its 140 character limit, provides a great exercise in good writing. It forces you to be direct, clear, and concise. Give it a try.

Your turn. How do you reach your audience?

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3 things to ask before you begin typing

You’re sitting at your computer (or on the couch with your iPad), ready to start work on a long overdue memo, upcoming speech, or new Facebook post. You’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want to say, and start to type the first letter …

Like the song says, Stop right there

Before you begin, ask yourself the following questions. Your end product will be better for the extra 2 – 3 minute you take to ponder:

Who is your audience?
What do they already know — and need to know? Is the topic important to them? Are they friendly, hostile, or neutral?  In an earlier blog I stressed the importance of speaking to your audience, not at them. While you may be passionate about the topic, it’s wise to consider potential disinterest, perhaps resistance. Let’s say, for example, you have an update of a new, unpopular policy. Remember to show empathy for staff, acknowledging that the change may be difficult.

What is the best vehicle to reach your audience?
Too often we put the cart before the horse and choose a vehicle before deciding on the message or defining the audience. Before settling on a vehicle, look at your options — email, video, team meetings, posters, face-to-face conversations, etc. — and then decide which will be the most effective, given your audience and the message. Remember, the best option is often a combination of vehicles.

What are your key messages?
Your message should be clear, concise, and obvious. Too often, important messages are buried in the fourth paragraph (or closing remarks), and skimmed past by busy or distracted readers. I generally advise people to make their most important points upfront, then support or build on them. Think back to the terrible bombings at the Boston Marathon. Nearly every communication started the same way: Two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Simple, direct, and clear. Details and background followed.

Your turn. What do you think about before beginining a communication?

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Write for your electronic reader

Readers of webpages or emails — or pretty much anything that’s read on a screen— differ greatly from those perusing the newspaper or other printed materials, and a few simple changes to your style can greatly increase the effectiveness of your message.

Get to the point — quickly
While a magazine or book reader may enjoy a leisurely jaunt through the pages, people reading email, web copy, etc., want their information quickly, without having to search for the key messages:

Incorrect
It’s March, and that means it’s time for Main Street Clothing to put our winter apparel away and bring out the springwear. But before we do, we’re holding our annual March Sale, with savings of 20 percent on winter clothing.

Correct
Save 20 percent on winter clothing during our annual March Sale.

Use bullets
Electronic readers skim copy, and bullets catch the eye.

Incorrect
Our Memorial Day menu features hamburgers, hot dogs, barbeque chicken, ribs, corn on the cob, and cold slaw.

Correct
Our Memorial Day menu:

  • Hamburgers
  • Hot dogs
  • Barbeque chicken
  • Ribs
  • Corn on the cob
  • Cold slaw

Use more headlines
Headlines and subheads, like bullets, draw the wandering eye back to your copy. Remember how it felt when a page of you school book was a sea of text? Headlines, subheads, bullets, and graphic elements make the story or message more inviting.

Be brief
We’re too wordy, and it seems the more important a message, the longer we feel it should be. But some of the best remembered communications in our history were short:

Advertisers understand the importance of brevity better than most. A few memorable advertising slogans:

  • Just Do It
  • The Real Thing
  • Breakfast of Champions
  • Got Milk?
  • I want my MTV

Relax
Finally, remember you’re writing to someone. Use clear language, keep it simple, and leave out the fluff. You’ll be fine.

Your thoughts?

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Communication lessons from FDR

I recently watched a show on the History Channel about the hours following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was taken by how brilliantly President Franklin Roosevelt responded, particularly in the delivery of his legendary speech to Congress:  “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy …”

With those words, the President began the most important remarks of his presidency, concluding with a request that Congress declare a state of war against Japan.

Interestingly, the speech, hailed as a success by historians, was an uphill battle for Mr. Roosevelt. His Cabinet unanimously panned the draft, arguing that it needed more details and background.

President Roosevelt, born 131 years ago next week, held firm, following two principles that hold true today:

Brevity
The President wanted the speech to be short enough that everyone would listen in its entirety. He knew that even the best speech wouldn’t be effective if he lost his audience. Additionally, if you give too much information, you risk diluting your key points.The “Infamy Speech” was less than 4 minutes long.

Simplicity  
Mr. Roosevelt felt the speech should be clear and understood by all. This was especially critical, given the huge number of immigrants the country had welcomed in recent decades. It was a call for action, simple and direct.

Congress declared war, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sidebar: Trivia
Due to concerns about a possible assassination attempt, the FBI wanted the President to ride in a bulletproof car. The only one available — and the car that brought Mr. Roosevelt to Congress that day — had been seized from gangster Al Capone.

 

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Good communication no laughing matter for Seinfeld

Seinfeld may have been a show about nothing, but its well-polished writing offers many lessons to help us improve our communications:

Create an image
Jerry compared the “man hands” of his blind date to the paws of wrestler George “The Animal” Steele. The reference to Mr. Steele made the segment even funnier by drawing this bizarre — but specific — reference.  Our lesson: precision and details in communications help get your message across.

Tell a story
When Jerry’s pal George Costanza rescued a whale by freeing a golf ball from its blow hole, his recollection painted a vivid picture for viewers: “The sea was angry that day, my friends. Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.” Much more powerful than simply saying, “The water was rough.”

Keep it simple
Each plot revolved around a specific theme or two, ranging from marble rye bread and a gassy horse, to an overzealous auto mechanic and President Kennedy’s golf clubs. This is an especially good reminder to limit the number of key points in a message, else you risk losing readers’ attention.

Be an everyman (or woman)
Seinfeld’s character was, in many respects, an average Joe. He played softball, cheered for the Mets, ate cereal while watching late night television, and sported a wardrobe primarily consisting of jeans and sneakers. The audience related to that character more than had he been, for example, an architect.

Leave your comfort zone
One of the show’s funniest episodes, “The  Contest,”  took viewers down a path that ventured far beyond a typical sitcom plot, as the four wagered who could go the longest without … yada yada yada. Kramer, of course, was the first eliminated— seduced by the vision of a naked woman in the apartment across the street.  We later saw Jerry, who was in a relationship with Marla the virgin, singing children’s songs to keep his focus off the naked neighbor. Clever, funny, and out of the box.

Be memorable
Seinfeld featured a unique glossary of terms. Millions of people, young and old, completely understand references such as Library Cop, serenity now, and of course, “No soup for you!”  Colorful phrases catch people’s attention, and are particularly helpful during presentations or media interviews.

Unpredictable? Giddy-up
Viewers never really knew what to expect each week, particularly given the odd behavior of the show’s characters. George learns his fiancée has died and immediately suggests getting a bit to eat. The four watch a robbery and poke fun of the victim. And Elaine showed us dance moves unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Look beyond your walls
Seinfeld regularly connected to an event or newsworthy item beyond its set, such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the magic bullet scene from the movie JFK, bathroom hygiene, and The J. Peterman Company.  Good communicators know their audience has interests outside of the topic at hand.

Brevity is better
Some of the show’s most memorable lines were short, catchy phrases. For example, Jerry advised Elaine to “Look to the cookie,” for the path to racial harmony. Those four words were much more effective than a formal delivery, such as: “The black and white cookie symbolizes the synergy between people of different races, creeds, and background, and will serve as a foundation for our future …”
Other short, but effective phrases: “I choose not to run,” “Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” and “Bosco.” The lesson: don’t use 10 words when four will do.

Your turn
What do you think the writers of Seinfeld did particularly well?  If you can’t come up with anything, you’re clearly not Pensky material…

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7 ways that social media has changed our lives

Author and educator Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1967 that we should look at how the introduction of communication mediums, such as radio and television, impact our world. His work focused on how television, for example, changed our lives, rather the programs that aired on your TV.

McLuhan’s words ring even more true 45 years later, as we look at how social media has changed our lives:

Faster than a speeding bullet
Information reaches us faster than ever. When US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in January 2009, witnesses shared their observations via Twitter and other social networks. The world knew the story within minutes of the landing.

Short and sweet
By design, social media communications are short and to the point, a practice most writing experts suggest we must now adopt to stay relevant.

Connect
LinkedIn has become the new Rolodex, a depository of contact names, job titles, addresses, and phone numbers. Even better than its paper predecessor, your contacts update their profile and you have the most current information at your fingertips. Simple and easy.

Reconnect
Haven’t seen a classmate in years? No problem. Thanks to Facebook, you can keep in touch with your entire class from the comfort of your computer. No need to pick up the phone. Type in a status update and dozens or hundreds of friends know where you took the kids today.

Everyone has a voice
Gone are the days when you needed contacts or access to media to share your thoughts with the masses. Anyone can start a blog, Tweet, pin photos, etc. If you’re good, and a little creative, you’ll find a following.

Advice at your fingertips
Can’t decide which wine to serve with dinner? Post a question to your friends and followers. LinkedIn, for example, has user groups that can answer questions from where to travel in France to which lens is best for photographing sports.

We won’t be ignored
Big brother may be watching, but he’s not in charge. The introduction of the web and social media has taken ownership of communications away from those traditionally in positions of authority. Gone are the days when a company can issue a statement without fear of repercussions. Every half-truth, every misstep can bring a barrage of tweets and posts from angry followers. Bottom line, social media is going a long way to encourage honesty, integrity, and transparency.

Marshall McLuhan died in 1980, but I’m sure the impact of social media would bring a smile to his face, knowing he was right when he penned the phrase, The medium is the message.

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