The 2017 integrated annual reports of telecoms company KPN and electricity transmission system operator TenneT, with writing and editing provided by Stampa, have been shortlisted for the prestigious FD Henri Sijthoff prize for outstanding financial reporting.
KPN is one of three nominees in the blue-chip AEX category, alongside ABN AMRO and DSM. TenneT is shortlisted in the non-quoted category along with Schiphol and public transport operator GVB.
The 64-year-old Sijthoff prize is the highest recognition of financial reporting excellence in the Netherlands. It judges areas such as clarity of writing, transparency of information about the company, its strategy, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility.
Last year the KPN integrated annual report 2016, which Stampa also worked on, won a European Excellence Award for the best integrated annual report & CSR report. It is the second consecutive year that TenneT has been shortlisted for the Sijthoff prize.
A hashtag #Also wouldn’t have quite the same ring as #MeToo, but the word ‘also’ is certainly trending at this time of year when annual report projects are in full swing.
We at Stampa write and edit many annual reports for corporate clients, and the word ‘also’ has a habit of getting hugely over-used in texts. Sometimes it seems as if someone in the process – be they writer, editor or approver – sullies nearly every sentence or paragraph with the A-word.
Why is this? I suspect it might be because many annual report sections are really glorified lists of things a company has done over a year. And sometimes those developments are so disparate that their only apparent connection is that they all ‘also’ happened in the same year.
The trouble is, when you overdo the ‘also’, you end up with a text that reads like a dull, directionless run-down, rather than a coherent strategic story.
So what’s the remedy?
First the quick-win practical tip: do a Ctrl+F to find every ‘also’ in your text and then try deleting as many as you can. You’ll find most can be scrapped – they’re usually implicit and therefore redundant.
Secondly (and this one takes more effort) – think longer and more creatively about how to group or link disparate items thematically, so your text becomes a compelling story rather than a shopping list.
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.
“I wish we could do a press release like this,” our colleague Jim commented wistfully when he saw Netflix’s masterful press release announcing, in Dr. Seuss style, that it’s making a TV show of children’s verse classic ‘Green Eggs and Ham’.
The originality of the rhyming release grabs you right from the start…
Issued from Netflix headquarters.
Delivered straight to all reporters.
…And keeps you reading all the way through to the Sam-I-am-style climax:
You can stream it on a phone.
You can stream it on your own.
You can stream it on TV.
You can stream it globally.
Sense of fun
Most striking of all, though, is the sense of fun. For once, you feel a PR department thoroughly enjoyed creating a press release. Unlike the frustrating writing-by-committee chore that all too often sends journalists lunging for the delete button before they’ve even finished reading the email subject line. (Which is the worst possible outcome for a text spawned by the usual tedious, time-consuming content creation process within most companies.)
So why can’t we all do press releases like the Dr Seuss one? Of course, most companies aren’t Netflix. Most corporate announcements aren’t about the filming of light-hearted children’s classics. Few press releases lend themselves to poems and fun. But almost all of them could do with loosening up a little.
They are all people
The golden rule is one that applies across the communications spectrum: whoever your target readers are, whatever their role, their seniority, their knowledge or interest levels, they are all people. People likely to be sick of dry-as-dust, formulaic press releases that bludgeon them senseless with the usual ragbag of corporate speak and the seemingly compulsory CEO quote starting “I’m excited” or “I’m delighted”.
Stampa’s recent very concise, factual announcement on the promotion of Heleen de Graaf received widespread pick-up. It was probably our most popular press release yet. It wasn’t in rhyme and it wasn’t what you’d call fun, admittedly. But we did opt to omit the ‘delighted and excited’ quotes and just tell it straight.
Maybe that is why it scored?
It didn’t leave the media bored.
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.
Oscar Wilde wrote that “the only thing in the world worse than being talked about, is not being talked about”. Or as we might say today, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But is it really immaterial what others say about you? Or the words you actually use?
US label Abercrombie and Fitch gained notoriety for only wanting “cool, good-looking people” to wear its clothes. It once even offered to pay a Jersey Shore cast member to not wear its clothing while filming the MTV reality show because they did not fit the ‘cool kid’ profile. Yet hipsters and the not-so-hip alike continue to flock to its stores. For this brand, there is indeed no such thing as bad publicity.
Closer to Stampa’s home, a brand that also seems to thrive on negative publicity is Dutch high street clothing retailer CoolCat. It regularly makes headlines for the explicit and often misspelt English obscenities on its T-shirts – aimed at six to 18-year-olds.
CoolCat says it “is always looking to push the limits”, and criticism of its T-shirt slogans hasn’t hurt sales. Most of its young clientele don’t seem to mind the crude language – perhaps they have no idea how offensive it actually is. But recently CoolCat overstepped the mark.
A special-edition T-shirt for the football World Cup, showing the Brazilian flag under the word ‘merda’ – a crude Portuguese insult of the players’ prowess – had to be withdrawn from sale after outraged Brazilians took to the streets in neighbouring Luxembourg to protest.
The negative headlines don’t seem to be hurting the brand – and are perhaps even enhancing its edgy image. What could damage it in the long run, however, is if its Dutch-speaking customers improve their understanding of English and realise what their T-shirts actually say.
While most Dutch people are relatively fluent in English, understanding the nuances of the language is a different story. Each culture has its own taboos and these aren’t always obvious to outsiders. In the Netherlands, where curses often relate to illnesses, it might be rare to see a Dutch person sporting anything emblazoned with the word ‘cancer’ but the English ‘f-word’ hardly raises an eyebrow.
That’s why it’s crucial for corporate communicators to involve native speakers when creating messages for an international audience. Non-native speakers often think their level of English is high enough; but only a native writer can produce a flawless text that takes account of the cultural subtleties and leaves no room for misunderstanding.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about, is not understanding what you are saying.
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.”
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.