Issues don’t get much more complex than the migration crisis, but at least there was clarity from the British and French interior ministers in their joint article in The Sunday Telegraph and Le Journal du Dimanche this month.
“We are both clear: tackling this situation is the top priority for the UK and French governments,” proclaimed the second paragraph of the piece by Theresa May and Bernard Cazeneuve.
But if you parse the phrasing, just how clear is the meaning? The part after the colon speaks for itself, but what about the words “We are both clear”? Do they express unambiguous resolve and unity? Or are the ministers saying they fully understand the situation? Or might they perhaps mean they’ve achieved Scientology’s “full glory of the state of Clear”?
OK, that last interpretation is unlikely. Amid the allegations of transnational tensions, powerlessness and panic, we can be reasonably sure the ministers are trying to convey strength of purpose and unity of approach. But if you watch or listen to UK politicians more generally, you’ll be struck how often they preface muddy answers with the rather empty formulation “I’m clear” or even “I’m very clear”.
The “I’m clear” preface is a tried-and-tested technique for politicians dodging sticky questioning from broadcast interviewers. Putting it in print, however, seems to expose the artifice even more brightly.
Even if you sincerely wish to express decisiveness, writing “I’m clear” is redundant at best. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is fundamental to good writing: strive for simple, direct language rather than piling on the adverbs, adjectives and subordinate clauses. Would the May/Cazeneuve piece really have lost impact with this starker sentence? “Tackling this situation is the top priority for the UK and French governments.”
(Not that that’s anywhere near perfect. It’s tempting to start editing it down to a still-imperfect “Tackling this is our governments’ top priority”. Powerful writing almost always entails ruthless revision.)
Like all writers, corporate communicators and especially those drafting for the C-suite are in danger of over-egging their prose, to the detriment of their message. But thankfully, there’s a sure trend towards clearer wording even within large organisations, as the realisation dawns that simple, straightforward writing makes for clear, compelling reading.
Ever read Match! magazine? Noticed anything remarkable about it? Yes! Every sentence in this British kids’ football comic ends with an exclamation mark! ‘September’s Player Of The Month revealed!’ or EURO 2016 – Awesome match previews ahead of the latest qualifiers!’ Know which are the only sentences that don’t end in exclamations? Questions!
Is your pulse racing? Does this fire you up?? Or do you feel as if the magazine – or this text – is shouting at you??? Or maybe you don’t care! Maybe you think it’s all a bit of harmless fun for kids? Nothing for serious, grown-up corporate types to worry about?!
Exclamation inflation – as well as Random Capitalisation – has infected the corporate world too. Internal communications are especially prone. You can’t open an e-mail without being told you’re reading exciting news!
It’s not exciting. It’s exhausting. And just as real-live inflation devalues money, exclamation inflation devalues the power of words. As this New York Times blog so beautifully phrases it, “Weimar-level exclamation inflation” means “you have to raise your voice to a scream merely to be heard, and a sentence without blingy punctuation comes across like a whisper”.
That’s why resistance can seem not just futile but impossible. When the world is exclaiming, using the humble full stop sounds like you’re disagreeably unenthusiastic. Or to quote the NYT blog: An exclamation point is minimally acceptable enthusiasm (“See you there!”). But a period just comes off as sarcastic (“Good job on the dishes.”)
According to a fun website called Excessive Exclamation!! F. Scott Fitzgerald declared an exclamation point to be “like laughing at your own jokes”. If that’s true, we’re all laughing at our own non-jokes, all day long. And what could be less exciting or amusing than that?!
Which brings us to the so-called interrobang, a term coined back in the 1960s by an ad man for the ?! sign. For a time, apparently, interrobang was included in some dictionaries and you could even buy a typewriter with a key dedicated to the mark.
Sixties-era ad men only still exist on Mad Men. The same is more or less true of typewriters. Let’s consign excessive exclamation to the past too.
There you are, sitting at your desk, engrossed in updating your social media profile, when your CEO walks up to you and asks you to write him – or her – a speech.
“They’re only speaking for 10 minutes,” you think as you start tapping out a few lines. “This won’t be hard.”
Wrong. The average person speaks at a rate of about 150-160 words a minute. This slows to 120 words a minute for a non-native speaker. That means a 10-minute speech is a whopping 1,200 to 1,600 words. Words that have to keep an audience engrossed in what you’re saying (well, what your CEO is saying) for the entire time. Suddenly 10 minutes seems very, very long, considering most people don’t even watch a YouTube video for more than two or three minutes.
Tune listeners in, not out
The biggest mistake speechwriters make is to write for a reader, rather than a listener.
Listeners have a short attention span. They can only absorb a certain amount of information. They bore easily and switch off. And, unlike a reader, they can’t go back to the start of a sentence when they lose the gist.
Writing for a reader also makes a speech harder to deliver. Long sentences offer few opportunities for the speaker to catch their breath. The complexity confuses listeners. And unlike easy-flowing conversational language, written language, when spoken out loud, tends to sound formal and stilted.
So a speech requires a totally different writing approach. It needs words we use in everyday conversation, and language shortcuts such as ‘it’s’ rather than ‘it is’. Speak to the audience and draw them in with words like ‘you’, ‘me’, ‘our’.
Keep it simple
Don’t lose the audience in complicated ideas or convoluted sentences. Keep it simple. Use language everyone understands. Avoid acronyms and jargon.
Stick to just one or two messages and reinforce them throughout the speech. Keep returning to them so that everyone hears the message at least once during the speech, even if their attention strays.
Don’t rely on powerpoint. If you must use slides, let them enhance your words, not undermine them. We’ve all done it as listeners ourselves: read the words on the screen and then stopped listening because we know what the speaker is going to say.
Say it out loud
Most importantly, before you present the speech to your CEO, READ IT OUT LOUD. Get a feel for the flow. What does it sound like when you speak it? Which sentences are too long? Where do you need to draw a breath? Which words should be emphasised? Can you phrase it more simply – is this how you would tell it to a friend?
And now, ladies and gentlemen, you’re ready to write that speech.
“You can publish this, but you didn’t hear it from me”.
“I’m only telling you this to help you understand what’s going on; you can’t use any of it.”
“This is how it really is, but I would never say so in public.”
Talking to the press without wanting anything to be published may sound paradoxical ‒ but it happens every day. An ‘off the record’ conversation can provide context, background about a transaction that’s in the works, or help ensure a complex matter is accurately reported.
But it’s a dangerous game. Even with the best will in the world, the journalist can all too easily genuinely mistake what’s being said on the record and what’s not. And why would you want to share confidential information with someone whose job is to sell news?
Malice or misunderstanding?
Journalists have various ways of dealing with ‘off the record’. Some may take care not to publish anything they’re told in confidence. Others won’t want to keep information secret if they think it’s in the public interest to know. Adding a juicy off-the-record tidbit can help a reporter secure the all-important scoop or front-page splash.
Sometimes reporters get pressured by their editor to add information you’d rather not see in print. And often a journalist will get another source to confirm the information on the record (which may have been your strategy in the first place – but that’s another story).
The microphone is always on
How about formal interviews with journalists or press conferences? Even experienced interviewees make the common mistake of thinking that they’re only really on the record once they’re sitting across from the reporter, the notebook comes out, the microphone goes on and the ‘official’ questions begin.
Everyone who’s been a journalist – including all of us at Stampa ‒ have seen that go wrong (or right, in the eyes of the scoop-hungry reporter). The CEO who says too much in the lift on the way up to the press conference, during small talk pre- or post-interview, or at a social event outside working hours. Not to mention the executive who drops his voice during the interview and says “Don’t write this down…”
Never forget: anything and everything you say to a journalist can eventually appear in print – even when (you think) the microphone or recording device is switched off, or they’re not taking written notes. There are legion examples of unguarded comments to friendly journalists becoming headline news.
If you really must…
So make sure everything you say to a journalist is information you don’t mind sharing with the rest of the world. If you still feel it’s absolutely imperative to go off the record, here are a few tips:
- Don’t mention anything that you can’t risk becoming public knowledge
- Ensure the journalist is entirely clear about what can and cannot be published
- Ask to review the article before publication as a condition for speaking off the record.
…but better not to
The bigger picture, though, is that telling a journalist is akin to making a public announcement, even if they don’t use the information right away. The bottom line: there’s no such thing as ‘off the record’. If you really want to keep something out of the news, keep your mouth shut.
Speaking to journalists can be daunting, especially for people not used to the media spotlight. Media training can help, offering tips on how to get your message across clearly and consistently. But some people break all the rules – and get away with it. One is Dutch football coach Louis van Gaal, soon to be taking over the reins at Manchester United, who once remarked to a TV reporter: “Is it me who’s so clever, or you who’s so stupid?”
Such is his reputation among journalists that one Dutch reporter has drawn up a tongue-in cheek list of ground rules for his British brethren on the do’s and don’ts of interviewing Van Gaal.
“You will be patronised, looked at with disdain, and haunted by a constant doubt if Mr. Van Gaal is flat out making fun of you or being deadly serious,” writes Peter Zantingh in Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad.
His tips for British football journalists include not introducing yourself to Van Gaal, “or else he’ll know your name, remember it and use it against you”; not to repeat a question, no matter how cleverly disguised; to keep fact separate from opinion, which is difficult “as only Mr. Van Gaal can determine which are facts and which are opinions… your facts are opinions”; and finally: “It is not Mr. Van Gaal who has trouble speaking English, it is you, for not going along with his obviously much better interpretation of it”.
Van Gaal’s approach is a far cry from the tips and tricks you’ll hear in a Stampa media training. And usually we advise the interviewee rather than the interviewer. But we can only endorse the central message: when it comes to media interviews, forewarned is forearmed.
Click here to read the full article (in English) on NRC.nl.
Back in 1946, author George Orwell wrote that English was in a “bad way”. He was most critical of the use of vague, imprecise language that makes it hard to understand even simple ideas.
“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way,” Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”
He was referring to political texts of that time, which he said “consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” and were “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
Orwell’s argument for clear and honest writing remains as relevant today, not least for contemporary corporate writing.
These are how Orwell’s ‘rules’ for effective writing translate for modern business writers:
- Avoid clichés. If it’s been said before, it’s not effective anymore. This means no ‘out-of-the-box solutions’ ‘leveraged’ for ‘optimal utilisation’.
- Avoid jargon (see the point above). Also stay away from foreign or scientific words or acronyms that are only used within a specific business or industry. Better to use an everyday equivalent that everyone is familiar with. You might know the DNB is the Dutch Central Bank but does your colleague in China?
- Choose short words. Keep sentences concise.
- Cut out unnecessary words. In today’s digital world, time-pressed and information-saturated readers want to get to the point fast.
- Write in the active voice, not the passive. Which do you think readers prefer: ‘We make cars’ or ‘Cars are made by us’?
- Finally, never say never. These rules are guidelines that are there to improve, not impede, your writing. Or, as Orwell puts it: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
When the 2012 US presidential campaigns for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were in full swing, the spotlight suddenly swung onto the cream of the world’s media. News emerged that outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Reuters were allowing campaign officials to censor quotes before publication.
“The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colourful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative,” an NYT article said. “They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.”
The shock element was that such powerful international news outfits had agreed to this practice, which was called ‘quote approval’. In countries like the Netherlands, it’s standard practice for journalists to interview people and then to submit the quotes for approval before the article is published.
That may sound appealing: but it’s a double-edged sword for interviewees.
The upside is that you get the chance to correct any inadvertent mistakes made by journalists before your quotes appear. Friendly reporters may even agree to beautify or even remove things you’d rather have said differently or not at all.
The far steeper downside is that it can lure you into a false sense of security during the interview. Instead of carefully watching your words– censoring yourself, if you like – you become loose-lipped in the belief that you, or more likely your comms department or PR agency, can persuade the reporter to scrap or smarten up your quotes after the event.
Say what you mean
You risk shooting your mouth off and so revealing sensitive information, speculating dangerously, or phrasing things in a way that may harm your company’s reputation. And then getting into a ‘discussion’ with the reporter (with you perhaps uttering the taboo yet oft-heard words “Yes, I know I said that, but it’s not what I meant”).
The reporter may then change their copy to suit your wishes – but your relationship with them may be ruined for good. Or they may refuse to adjust the wording – which is their prerogative. This is not internal communications, where the C-suite gets to micro-manage quotes attributed to them. Submitting quotes for checking is a journalistic courtesy, not your legal right. For journalists it’s about the accuracy of their (repeat their) story. Corporate communicators call it ‘quote check’; reporters call it ‘fact check’.
So remember: you have zero control over what a journalist writes, but you have 100% control over what you say. Even if you know you’ll get the quotes for review, pretend to yourself you won’t. Prepare yourself and your messages fully. Know your story, your facts and figures, your examples and anecdotes. And think hard before the interview about the sticky questions you’re likely to get, and how to field them.
Once the questions start coming, stay calm and think very carefully before you answer. Only say things you are happy to be quoted on. If you think all this is easier said than done, rehearse. Get some media training that grills you with nightmare questions until you’re bathed in sweat. Chances are the real interview will then seem like a breeze, and the only person you’ll want to censor is yourself.
Our recent blog sprayed references to Club Penguin, The Twelve Days of Christmas and Buzzfeed. Even as we posted it, we knew it broke the cardinal rule – core to the corporate writing trainings Stampa teaches – not to use terms that might escape non-native readers.
In my days as a foreign exchange reporter for Reuters, I was on a team that wrote umpteen updates a day on the dollar’s performance. Sometimes we fought the monotony with what you might call over-creativity. Headline imagery, for example, could betray the journalist’s state of mind at a particular time of day – Dollar hungry for more gains was a classic pre-lunch update, while Tiring dollar runs out of steam might signal it was nearly shift’s end.
More serious was when our battle against boredom made us reach for arcane references. Once – and it only happened once – I headlined my update Dollar cocks a snook at US data after the currency failed to react to the release of macroeconomic figures. A stern sub-editor called me to ask sarcastically: “Will they understand cock a snook* in Tokyo?”
He was right. I hadn’t considered that – an inexcusable blunder for a journalist writing for a worldwide audience of primarily non-native English speakers. But it’s a mistake corporate communicators can also easily make if they’re communicating in their native language.
And it’s a sign you’ve broken an even more fundamental rule of communication: identify your audience. Put yourself in their shoes. Know who they are, what they know, what they don’t know and what they need (and don’t need) to know.
For multinational companies, that means only the simplest, clearest language will do if you are to convey your message effectively and compellingly. But it goes far beyond language to the very heart of decisions on what, to whom, where, when, why and how to communicate.
In other words, never cock a snook at your audience.
*To cock a snook: openly show contempt or a lack of respect for something or someone (Oxford English Dictionary)
It’s become the blogger’s bread and butter. Five ways to do this. Seven tips to do that. Eight reasons why you should do the other. Or to quote two recent Buzzfeed headlines: 26 Celebrities Whose Names Should Have A Totally Different Meaning and 14 Times Club Penguin’s Harsh Censorship Ruined Everyone’s Fun (yes, really). It’s true these bite-size chunks are often easy to digest – and so highly spreadable on social media. But here are 6½ reasons why you should consider choosing another format or headline for your content.
1. It’s been done to death. Hardly the way to stand out from the crowd. The X-ways-to-skin-a-cat format certainly has a place – but that place isn’t everywhere.
2. It’s not scientific or authoritative just because you’ve squeezed in some one-digit numbers.
3. It can look lazy. Like those interviews where the questions and answers appear verbatim.
4. It smacks of formulaic writing-by-numbers, which is rarely much fun (or creative).
5. It’s dangerous to assume everyone wants or needs bite-sized content. You risk sounding as if you’re treating your readers like toddlers.
6. It’s all very well to be concise, but some topics just need more explanation to do them justice. Why always choose snacks over a square meal?
6½. It screams ‘arbitrary’ and ‘random’. Why three ways? Seven tips? Nine do’s and don’ts? Think of the 11 lords-a-leaping, three French hens and partridge in a pear tree: they’re only there to fill up the Twelve Days of Christmas.