The 300-Word Opus (or Why Brief Isn’t Always Better)

I’m trying to fit a post into 300 words today. This is the word count a Corp Comm department recently placed on intranet news items (features receive an expansive 500), and I wanted to learn what’s possible in finite space.

Some things aren’t better in small doses. When have you ever said, “I wish there was less of that,” about a delectable dessert, your favorite film (this is, in fact, why sequels and film-franchise reboots exist), the first sunny afternoon after a hard winter, or a great book (“Yes, Miss Austen, I know it’s difficult to develop two characters plus their circle of family and friends, play out their misguided stubbornness, help them overcome their worst qualities so they can find their best and fall in love, but, really, don’t you think the headline ‘Pride and Prejudice’ says it all? Three hundred words should suffice.”)?

At the same time this department was asked to slice and dice content, they were informed it needed to incorporate more compelling storytelling, real-life examples, a vision for the future, and humor. (Presumably because humor is so frequently welcomed by corporate leaders and content reviewers, and especially appropriate when introducing new HR policies, but I digress and, at 203 words and counting, I can’t afford asides.)

I’m all for pithy. For three decades, I’ve counseled writers to be specific, edit closely, trust the exact meaning of a word to do the work and apply its bearing to a sentence. But, brevity for brevity’s sake doesn’t give employees weighty material – it can’t convey the detailed information that informs their work and improves understanding of the business environment or the direction of the company. And when have employees ever wanted less explanation about changes critical to their departments, pay or responsibilities?

Normally, I prefer to offer at least three practical tips that readers can use in their own work if they find them valuable. At 300 words, dear reader, that’s impossible, which means I leave out the How, as well as the Why.

Yikes, I’m at 340 Words! Time to Bring it on Home

Online and social media writing isn’t as different from the old print world as it’s made out to be. Word limits are a trend – we’ve seen this one before, it’ll surface from the swamp of bad advice when the next new channel is invented. It comes up because communications departments want to provide value, but struggle when employees don’t read internal communications (more on that here).

But, employees aren’t tuning out because content is long or because social media like Twitter are somehow training them for shorter content. Employees will take the time if content is of value to them and can be directly utilized in the context of their work – and when it makes them feel better about the company.

We do no great service to employees, or any reader, when we make arbitrary rules that reduce subject matter to headlines, limit the ability to provide sources (plural, because facts should be verified and readers need to know how much authority to grant sources), force us to skimp on explanations (in a tumultuous business environment, one of the most valuable things writers can do for employees is build the foundation and case for change while underscoring the culture’s values). Try doing that in 300 or 500 words.

Write clear. Write well. But, write the story whole.

(P.S. This blog post is 564 words. My point exactly.)

The 4 Essentials of Employee Communications

Yesterday’s post looked at examples of leadership communications gone wrong. Today, we’ll look at four essentials that can help writers avoid unfortunate miscommunications with a company’s most valuable resource: employees.

Step Away from the Desk
Good writing doesn’t start and end at a desk, tethered to a computer. Before you can get to the place where you “know your audience,” it’s important to learn your audience. And the way to do that effectively is by getting in there like a beat reporter.

Just as cities are made up of neighborhoods, companies have their “villages,” and to some degree each has a culture, language and even norms that vary from the collective corporate entity. The trick is not to “vacation” – visiting a few times, picking up some of the lingo and a contact here and there, and then working over the phone, relying on those few contacts from then on. A quick phone call may be easier with the workloads we’re shouldering these days, but cultural reporting requires immersion – it means developing a deep understanding of what’s meaningful in these worlds, however small and finite they might be. You want to be Margaret Mead in this world, not a discount traveler.

It’ll sound silly, but it also means going to lunch (not away from the office, but having lunch “in the village”), where the casual atmosphere allows employees to be more reflective about their work in the larger context of the company, what their constraints are, where they feel they’re supported in their work – and where not.

We become better writers – and communications counselors for our leaders – when we have a deeper understanding of what matters to specific audiences in our companies, when we go beyond a few examples of jargon and really know how to speak the language because we not only understand the work, we’ve seen first-hand what it takes to do the work.

I truly believe no one sets out to use an example, like “rocket science,” to purposely hurt an audience’s feelings. But real understanding of the culture within some of the technical organizations within our company goes a long way to avoiding accidentally slipping in something that does.

Test It Before You Deliver It
Developing strong ties to a client group or department can help communications in other ways, as well. It allows you to share messages and even entire pieces of work (articles, memos, speeches) beforehand across a range of roles within the department (rather than just with leaders or the same contacts over and over).

Of course, we’re talking about sharing non-confidential information here, but it helps to cultivate a process of sharing more. We in the corporate communications culture are innate hoarders of information, we hold it close. I had a journalism professor, way back in the day when it was the epitome of journalistic integrity never to share a story with a source before it had been printed. He told his flabbergasted class that he shared every story with every source. “Why wouldn’t you want to get it right?” he wanted to know. This professor was a seasoned cultural reporter, and it was his philosophy that interpretation can shade meaning while the source of the information can shed light on it.

Testing out messages may need a more formal process, like an editorial board (and here, having a range of pay grades represented or a rotating group to reflect diversity of opinion, is even more effective than the same small group every time) or it can be as simple as sharing a story over lunch.

“Write Up” to Employees
I’m with the party that endorses clear, concise writing, but that doesn’t have to mean writing in simplistic ways.

With the advent of online communications and the further reduction of messages to 140 characters on Twitter, there’s been a move away from – and even a bit of fear around – using language an audience might not understand. It’s the worry many speakers have, our corporate leaders among them, that what they’re saying might go over the heads of the people in their audience.

This is where time spent in the trenches is invaluable. It’s where we learn to trust the audience – actually, more often it’s where we learn that our audience is far more sophisticated in the detailed work of the business than we might ever hope to be – these are smart people or they wouldn’t be doing the work they do. Trust that they not only get it, but want to hear something substantial from senior leaders. They don’t want discussions that remain at the surface, they want the deep dive, and if they don’t understand a word or a concept, they’ll figure it out from the context or ask a question at the end of the speech.

This last one is going to make you cringe, but here goes…

If You Dare – Tell the Emperor He Has No Clothes
Leaders need their communications counsels to be honest coaches. Those “rocket science” analogies I wrote about yesterday? That was a worn-out cliché. On that basis alone, it would have been better not to use it and to wave off the CEO from returning to it over and over again.

Be prepared for uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to be overruled sometimes. But, be prepared with concrete examples – not merely of better wording, but with videos of world-class speakers, news stories, statistics, and any other kind of proof you can present of their impact on the target audience.

It’s going to mean coming up with wording and new directions on the spot. But, if your senior leader sees the depth of your understanding of the subject and the audience, she or he will rely on you for that expertise because it will make the CEO a stronger communicator and create real engagement in the organization.

I’d love to hear about the practices you’ve used to support senior leadership. I’ve left out the entire area of feedback, so suggestions would be very helpful.

A great resource on the topic of effective speechwriting is this article by John Watkis, “41 reasons why good speakers give bad speeches.”

How to Avoid “Writing Down” to Employees by Applying Rocket Science

Photo by Vickie Bates.

I awoke this morning to a soundbyte of U.S. President Barack Obama using this phrase: “…those American people out there.”

While the president wasn’t addressing employees, he is trying to reach out to key audiences (those who’ll help to fund his campaign for re-election), and so, before I’d had a chance to brew my morning tea, I was provided with a perfect example of accidentally “writing down” to an audience.

We’ll leave President Obama to his fund raising for a moment to look at how writing can unintentionally go wrong when leaders talk to staff. I’m being deliberate about the use of “unintentional” here because professional communicators do a great deal of thinking before, during and after they write, and it seems like an extremely rare occasion when a pro intentionally crafts something to make a senior leader look bad or make the audience feel worse.

Rocket Science that Backfired

A number of years ago, a corporate leader was trying to rally a large engineering organization around a massive project that could make or break the business. There were many employee meetings, designed to give engineers a sense that the CEO was taking an active interest in their work, listening to their comments, available to answer questions – basically, that he understood the demands of all their effort. Except every time, he told them, “This isn’t rocket science.”

Engineers may be linear thinkers, but they’re not that linear. Like most people, they have a sense of pride and ownership about the skills and knowledge of their profession. They know they’re not literally doing rocket science, but their work is equally technical and they care just as much about the outcome. Without knowing it, the CEO and his writer were repeatedly insulting the audience they wanted to rally.

A few years later, while on a consulting job, I watched a leader use the phrase in exactly the opposite way, yet have the same effect. Again, a highly technical employee audience, whose work was the essential core of the business, and they were told that it was so much like rocket science that the CEO didn’t understand what they did.

This talking point was meant as a compliment, but it went over with this audience like a lead balloon. Most employees want to believe that the CEO understands the business they’re all engaged in. It opened a credibility gap that continued to grow until the CEO left the company and was replaced by someone who’d worked his way up to the C-suite from this technical department.

This is unfortunate in so many ways. My motto is “there’s no bad language, only unfortunate choices.” This isn’t about assigning blame to the writer for an unfortunate choice of words, or the CEO (who, in the second case, may have been going off-script at the time; in the first case, it was written into the script and meant as a sobering reality check – like I said, unfortunate). Both the writers and the CEOs probably had genuine intentions of rallying the troops (CEO #1) and patting them on the back (CEO #2), but the end result was unfortunate for the employees.

What’s happening with President Obama’s turn of phrase above? It’s distinctly different from his campaign speeches of three years ago, when the then-senator positioned himself as an average American citizen, “one of us.” There is no camaraderie to be found in “those American people out there.”

Out where? Beyond the gates of the White House?

This phrase places an unfortunate divide between the president and the American people. I hope his speechwriter realizes it soon.

“Writing Up” to Employees

In each of these cases, this is writing that’s being done from behind a desk. Behind a desk, you say? Isn’t that where most writing is done? Isn’t that where our computers live?

Yes, it is, and that is exactly the problem.

I’m going to leave you with that conundrum since this post is getting long. Tomorrow, we’ll look at four ways to avoid the unintentional gaffe, find and try out the messages that resonate, and write in ways that have fortunate results for leaders and employees.

In the meantime, if you have examples of your own, please feel free to share (though you may want to apply some creative writing to disguise the innocent).

What to Do When Employees Aren’t Reading Our Communications

One of the downsides to the recent recession is that a lot of excellent employee communications have gone unread.

After rounds of layoffs, with fewer people left to do more work, companies have been pushing employees to greater and greater levels of what economic whizzes call “productivity.” A good number of corporate communications departments did the right thing, developing stories to help employees make sense of the tough new business environment and the leaner, more efficient ways in which we were all working.

No surprise, then, that it pains communicators when readership flattens on the corporate intranet or the company e-newsletter remains unopened in employee Inboxes or no one comments on a story that took a week to report, write, edit, run through approvals, and design as a photo essay.

How do you communicate when employees aren’t even on your communications channels?

We all know of employees who are working 17-hour days and barely have time to eat lunch or take bathroom breaks. When a colleague tells you he missed his daughter’s 4th birthday party because he spent Saturday at the office dealing with the latest fire drill, you can be sure he didn’t sneak a few minutes to read an intranet news story.

So, this post isn’t about how a catchy headline or a video interview is going to bring that employee back into the fold. It’s about using our skills as communicators to reach employees where they’re engaged in the essential work of the company and help them achieve business goals.

Here are three suggestions:

Take the Focus off Management Communication Skill-building
Not altogether, of course. Helping managers communicate is critical. But, it’s also important to help employees build these skills. We can improve efficiency in our organizations by teaching employees how to use new tools – like internal wikis and instant messaging – or by supporting an employee who’s a pro at these things, but has been too shy to tell anyone about it. You’d be surprised – sometimes all it takes is a little coaching, encouraging the employee to outline the skills he or she wants to teach, and letting them practice with you.

Improve Communications at the Workgroup Level
There’s a huge emphasis on cross-functional collaboration in companies these days and a lot of confusion about what that actually means and how to achieve it. Getting two functions to work together as a team demands highly effective communications. When you start talking to team members from different functional groups, you often find baffling divisions between work vocabulary and work styles.

There are many tools out there that support greater connection across teams, from a simple wiki (“when the brand says line break, we mean our new designs for spring are out in stores, but when IT says line break, it means somewhere a fiber-optic cable has snapped, which is why your email isn’t working this morning”) to shared team sites to micro-blogs. It also never hurts to encourage efficiency in team communications: help the team move toward common practices, so everyone knows what to expect when working together: when someone sends an email, the response needs to come back using an email; a voicemail begets a return phone call; if someone needs a report that’s gathering dust on a credenza and isn’t in electronic form, scan it in for the entire team to utilize.

Work with HR to Identify Rewards
Ideally, this generates new rewards programs that tie directly to the newer aspects of work or more recent corporate objectives. Employees have been working lean-and-mean for a long time now, bonuses have slimmed or disappeared, flex-time options can’t be utilized because of longer hours on the job, the old perks have been taken away or just don’t hold as much meaning. This isn’t about large sums of money or handing an associate free passes to a movie for staying late to ship out an RFP, but about identifying excellence and innovation tied to objectives – reward it and share the ideas across the company, and you’ll find employees are happier about working there.

Do It as a Strikeforce Scenario
Corporate communicators have a lot on their plates these days, too, so I’m not suggesting these ideas become an entire FTE’s responsibility. Identify where communications skills are most needed, jump in and move on. If what you bring to the team is about helping the team (and you’ve resisted the temptation to include a little pitch about the company’s email newsletter), they’ll remember who to call if they have questions or need another workshop and they might even start reading your stories on the intranet now that you’ve made a personal connection.

Listen for Opportunities
Working with employees on effective communications, whether the support is focused on skills or tools, will inevitably reveal opportunities where company communications can fit in. Perhaps it starts with sharing the duties of blog-posting occasionally, maybe you use your micro-blog post one week to explain why Corp Comms provides company news and information, and in return possibly a news gadget streaming company news updates earns a small chunk of real estate on a workgroup site – even better if it becomes the next must-have app and interest in it grows organically. And, then, you have reached your audience where they’re working while adding value.

It’s my personal belief about the profession – and your mileage may vary – that we excel at communications when we help employees do their jobs more effectively. That includes creating communications that focus on the company and its business objectives, but it also means supporting employee-originated communication where they eat, breathe and sweat, and that’s doing their jobs.

So, if you’re feeling down because employees aren’t acknowledging your hard work, applying your skills and expertise in a new way can be incredibly rewarding – for you, for employees, and the company.

I Will If You Will, Part 2

A quick reminder that the I Will If You Will online book club over at NPR is holding its first meeting this week, on Thursday, April 21.

If the selection (Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman: Dream Country), a love of reading, a desire to chat about books – or all of the above – appeal to you, details about the time of Thursday’s live (my bad: updating to add: not a live chat this time; rather a blog post plus lots of great commenting in the “Monkey See” Comments section) discussion will be available here. I’ve updated the link above to the discussion, which started today (4/21).

The Sandman is actually four short stories, in graphic format, exploring the nature of dreams. The reading that’s due Thursday is the first story, “Calliope.” For readers who find this selection gritty, grim or graphic, note that a later section actually sent me back to re-read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Low art meets high art in a social media book club!

For those who can’t wait for Thursday, here’s a “Monkey See” blog post for all you voracious book-lovers to sigh over: “The Sad, Beautiful Fact that We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything.”

Writing that inspired me this week:

“I am that merry wanderer of the night.”
~ William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Boom for Real

There’s a reason I’ve been focusing on practice writing all week.

No matter what kind of professional writing we do – corporate, marketing, journalism, PR – when we’re working on an assignment and it’s time to get our fingers on the keyboard, typically two things are going on at once while we’re trying to craft great sentences:

  1. We’re on deadline, and
  2. We’re trying to find unique, meaningful ways to put words together to connect with our readers

Even if we’re used to turning out solid work on deadline, the combination of these two things can be deadly for interesting writing that resonates with our audience. It’s why practice writing is so important, because it helps take the pressure off the deadline (we’ve done this before and learned to do it well) and allows us to concentrate deeply on writing that connects.

I saw a beautiful documentary recently, called “Radiant Child,” about the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Whenever I watch documentaries about artists – of the written word or the visual art variety – I’m always fascinated with the “How.” How they developed their style, how they get down to work every day, how they translate ideas into the solid three-dimensional world.

A number of people who knew Basquiat spoke about the confidence with which he wielded a brush, the speed, steadiness and directness of the brushstroke. Basquiat, who died at the very young age of  27, leaving behind more than 1,000 paintings and even more drawings, apparently had an expression for what was happening when he was creating.

“Boom for Real!” he called it.

What “Boom for Real” meant to Basquiat only he knew. But, the phrase resonates for me because those of us who write for a living are so frequently called upon to produce with speed, accuracy and brilliance each and every time content is needed.

It’s not so much about the rote repetition, the “Practice Makes Perfect” approach. It’s more about the confidence that all those practice sessions instills. It takes confidence to pound a keyboard under deadline pressure and make meaning of a story or messages in such a way that an audience feels the writing is real and relevant.

It’s why we practice so hard, so when the time comes, we’re ready to Boom for Real!

The Greatest Stories Ever Told – All Available at Your Local Library

Photo by Vickie Bates.

No secret, I’m a big fan of public libraries.

This week is National Library Week and, while there’s still time to celebrate, the terrific thing about public libraries is that you can take advantage of all the great things they have to offer – from a vast collection of free books for every age and interest and in a wide range of formats to CDs, DVDs, electronic resources, Internet connections, wise and professionally trained reference desk experts, and free heat in the winter and air conditioning in summer.

I happened to visit my local branch this afternoon and found a charming tyke ahead of me in line, picture books, children’s encyclopedia and DVDs piled high in his arms. Seeing him reminded me of how frequently I visited libraries as a child, how they helped me develop a love of reading that became a love of writing.

I’ve lived in large metropolitan areas and spent time as a small child in the remote woods of New Hampshire, and I’ve had a library membership in every corner of the world. My little town in the Granite State is the kind of place where, when I moved back in 2000 and began using the library again, I was handed the library card I’d first used when I was six with the goofy, loopy pencil signature of my six-year-old self. They’d hung on to it for me, as if certain I’d be back – once a library lover, always one.

I was also reminded of how vital libraries can be in helping kids dream (in the first place) and achieve those dreams (in the second). And how they help adults with things like job search and the background research needed to ace an interview.

Whatever stage of life, the library can serve a purpose.

You can celebrate National Library Week tomorrow by visiting your local library with family or friends. Check out what NPR’s Linda Holmes discovered when she went back to her local library here.

What great books or discoveries have you made in libraries?

If it’s been a while since you’ve been, you may be amazed what you find there – and isn’t it pretty cool to still be amazed?

Craft Clever Headlines, Lure Huge Audiences, Earn Millions of Dollars & Love of Nation

The subject, as you’ve surely guessed, is practice writing for headlines. The crafting of great press release- and news article-toppers was a long, lost art until Twitter showed up and everyone started thinking like a headline-writer.

Since headlines are supposed to be short, sweet and to-the-point, I won’t belabor the discussion here, especially when this wonderful article by Jessica Levco, “5 tips for writing the sexiest, most stimulating headlines EVER!,” is available here.

The only thing I’ll add to Ms. Levco’s piece is that the best headlines aren’t necessarily the funniest or most clever – what’s key is capturing the essence of the content (news story, press release, tweet) that follows. In an oversaturated world of information, this is the best service you’ll provide your potential audiences. Help them, and refrain from annoying them by wasting their time, and even your headlines can define you as a valuable resource.

Around my office, we’re in awe of The Economist’s headers and captions. Smart, observant, funny, brief-but-encapsulating, they rarely put a foot wrong. Between pages 58 and 83 of one issue, I found a half-dozen great headlines and captions, including “Guttbye Guttenberg” over a story on the resignation of Germany’s defense minister because of allegations of plagiarism – the photo caption read “Copy, alt, delete.”

In the meantime, those of us who suffer from headline-writer’s-block (yes, that’s me), can practice on our Twitter accounts.

What Velveeta – and Ann Wylie – Can Teach You about Practice Writing

An interesting article by Ann Wylie illustrates the practice writing I’ve been talking about this week. She shows how you can take great sentences or grafs – something that really stood out for you when you read it – and use them as templates for what you’re trying to say.

It works for brand marketing, PR, journalism, fiction or blog post!

You can check out the article “Want to write better? Break down – and rebuild – your favorite prose in 3 steps” here.

Gate-crashing: Writing PR that Reads Like Reporting

Yesterday’s post about practice writing was weighted toward creative writing (not that professional communications can’t be creative, but, in this case, I was talking about fictional creative writing). Today, let’s look at it in the context of PR and corporate writers.

On the first day of work as a young PR professional, I was handed a clipboard with a three-inch stack of press releases penned by my predecessor. They were a helpful starting place: a guide to the way the institution positioned itself, branding language, boilerplate, the annual cycle of announcements, events and new hires.

BTW, in those days, that clipboard was the official storage file for press releases, so I wound up retyping things that I found useful, like boilerplate, into a computer for safe keeping – practice writing of the organization’s best practices.

Today, you’ll find company press releases on almost every corporate website, which makes it easy to see – and practice – your competitors’ best practices, especially those examples of releases that you know earned those other guys valuable media coverage.

But, if you’re going to be a great PR writer, learning the ins and outs of press release-writing doesn’t come solely from practice writing of press releases. The best practice is to study and copy the kind of writing done by the media outlets where you’re hoping to secure coverage. So, if that’s the industry trades, you’re going to be writing in a completely different, and more highly technical, style than a press release going to network and cable broadcast news organizations. Just like pitch letters, you may want to think about writing more than one press release per subject, each with its own targeted type of writing.

Study – and copy – your target media outlets’ writing for:

  • Style – is it newsy, technical, folksy, humorous, stodgy? Do columnists or bloggers have writing styles that vary from the rest of the publication or website?
  • Language – the nuances, catch phrases, technical terminology of the industry.
  • Substance – what facts or new information are revealed in stories, how are trends and thought pieces backed up by data? What is the publication’s commitment to reporting, digging for details?
  • Length – how long is the typical story about the subject of your press release? If their coverage of new business leaders runs to two grafs, how much of your two-page release will they be using?
  • Color – do they typically use quotes, statistics, sidebars? If you can provide similar items that match theirs, you may pick up additional coverage.

Keep on reading and copying your target media. It’s where you’ll pick up story ideas, learn who covers what subjects, discover which reporters have pet peeves and interests, and develop a style that reads less like PR and more like the story about your company or organization that you want to see online, on TV and in print.