Change Is a Good Thing, Right?

Stray cat  Photo by Vickie Bates

“When are you gonna get me out of this driveway and find me a home? Cuz that’s the kind of change I can embrace.”

When I got back to Hollywood after three months in New Hampshire, a lot had changed.

Streets were blocked off for repairs, changing normal routes into confusing detours, snarling traffic. A wonderful neighbor in my triplex announced he would be moving to the westside in October. And there was a new and insistent change, making immediate demands on all three of us in the building. (Yeah, that guy, up there to the right, batting his baby-blues at you.)

From the timing of his appearance in our driveway, we think he was abandoned when someone moved out of a nearby apartment at the end of August. My soon-to-be-departing neighbor reported that he was so hungry, he tried biting into a lemon that had fallen from a tree. So distraught that he sat on my other neighbor’s doorstep and cried all night. Here was a young cat, used to living indoors, out on the streets, dealing with traffic and, yes, even in central Hollywood, wildlife – the kind that tends to fight with neighborhood pets. This little guy seemed unprepared for all that and dazed and distressed by his new circumstances.

By the time I returned from the east coast, both neighbors were leaving food and water for him. But due to allergies and peripatetic lives, none of us was prepared to adopt him. And so he remained on the street, exposed, which gave me a week’s worth of sleepless nights.

My contribution was lots of cuddles (he was starved for affection, too) and immediate outreach (for some reason, my neighbors hadn’t thought this far ahead). I figured my social media network probably wasn’t wide enough, but I knew two friends – both with extraordinarily kind and generous hearts – who had substantial numbers of friends, acquaintances and followers. I reached out with a kitty profile and photos (hooray for smartphones) and, as it turned out, one of them didn’t need to share across her network – she was looking for a pet.

Now he has a loving home, a hoomin to talk over philosophy and the state of the litter box at 4:30 in the morning, and a new name (Io, after one of Jupiter’s moons).

And I went back to losing sleep over who my new neighbor is going to be and whether he or she will smoke and party every night and leave suspicious things in the laundry area. Y’know, the usual stuff I stress about.

That Darn Cat

I also was left to reflect how far outside of my comfort zone this little fellow’s desperation had placed me.

How, before I got emotionally invested (darn that cuddling!), I could feel myself balking at even acknowledging the existence of a stray cat who’d taken up residence in our driveway.

How annoyed I felt at the intrusion into my work.

How my mind kept racing with questions: What if he got run over? What if a raccoon gave him rabies? What if he was already sick? What if he belonged to someone who was looking for him? What if I took him in and he turned out to have the kitty equivalent of Mr. Hyde lurking inside him?

And how – after he left our driveway for his new home – all three of us confessed to missing him terribly and worrying about him even though we knew he was in a far better place.

You see, usually I’m the one inflicting change on other people. But it reminded me of something we used to say to each other, over and over, on one of the facility-closure change teams I served with: “You never want to get so good at this that you forget what it feels like for the people losing their jobs.”

As professional communicators, we’re dealing with change management 24/7. So it’s probably not a bad thing to take stock, when change hits home, and see – no, feel – what it’s like when our own emotional ball of string gets unwound.

Fear, cynicism, unwillingness to let go, anger, blame, excitement, acceptance, and all the other emotions that experts chart on the change curve, don’t arrive on schedule or follow a neat, sequential line. No, typically they pile up on top of each other, like bad L.A. traffic; they honk our horns and change the pre-sets on our radio dial. They’re the busted car alarms that keep us awake all night.

I’ve learned it’s valuable to remember that we too balk at change, feel uncomfortable in our own skin, and toss and turn all night. It doesn’t mean we’re terrible at change. I think it makes us more effective change managers if we recognize that talking points and trainings and lunch-and-learns often barely scratch the surface of what people are experiencing when their lives are upended and that our feelings about change don’t stop just because we’ve happened to reach that final milestone on a change plan.

What do you think? What important emotional experience – in life or at work – have you learned from?

Related posts:

Just the Facts? How to speak to the emotional concerns of audiences dealing with change
Is It Possible to Speed Up Change Management?

Corp Comm Needs Some Sympathy for the Devil

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer. What I’m convinced of is that every Corporate Communications unit needs a kind of sacred space to challenge the messaging, communications approaches and accepted wisdom created by the department.

If what’s puzzling you is the nature of my assertion, let’s be clear, I’m not a gadfly, contrarian or naysayer.

Please allow me to introduce myself: I’m what’s known as the Devil’s Advocate.

So, if you meet me, have some sympathy, these days I often find myself surrounded by cheerleaders. And, unless you’re one of the teams going to the Superbowl, cheerleading rarely does a profession like corporate communications any good.

But, I hear you saying, it’s our job to enhance the company’s reputation and support leadership with effective communications. It’s our job to develop the best communications strategies, plans and messages to promote and share news with our audiences. It’s our job to help employees understand changes in business direction, policies, procedures, and ways of working by being clear about what’s expected of them.

You’re absolutely right. But, we don’t accomplish this by cheerleading or telling audiences how they’re supposed to feel about the information we deliver, especially when the news may be met with differing opinions. We do it by presenting the facts clearly and by being open, honest and timely in our communications.

Devil’s in the Details

There’s nothing wrong with genuine pride in the company we work for, the way it conducts itself in the world, treats its employees, and rewards its shareholders. But, if “school spirit” interferes with communicating effectively, that’s another story, especially when the news isn’t so cheery.

Remember BP leadership’s repeated insensitivity following the explosion on its Deepwater Horizon oil rig that cost 11 workers their lives and caused an environmental disaster across five states? How about Philip Morris’ spin on smoking deaths? Or when the Big 3 automakers flew private jets to Washington, D.C., to ask the taxpayers for bailout money (an unspoken message that was heard loud and clear)?

It’s Corp Comm’s job to prepare executives and spokespeople and manage reputational issues. How do we protect them from tone deaf talking points that become PR nightmares?

Corp Comm, meet the Devil’s Advocate.

It’s time to shine a sharp, bright light on your communications plans and messages and see whether they hold up to scrutiny. This is an important exercise for any communications plan – whether you’ve got positive or difficult information to share.

Reporters – and many employees – are seasoned skeptics. Journalists are trained to ask the kinds of probing questions that can dismantle messaging if it hasn’t been pressure-tested.

Would you rather have your CEO’s messages fall flat in the privacy of a company conference room or publicly at a press conference?

The Nature of My Game

Here’s how it’s played:

  • You’ll need two teams. The first created the communications plan and messaging; the second is given a situational overview and reads the plan and messaging in advance.
  • Team 2 plays Devil’s Advocate and prepares questions for Team 1 from the point of view of key audiences: media, critical advocacy groups, employees.
  • Set up a physical space, like a conference room, that can serve as the setting for a press conference, a meeting with constituents, and an employee meeting.
  • Role play the scenarios, pressing hard on both sensitive issues and areas that Team 1 might think were unimportant. Make sure Team 2 stays in character; after all, it’s their job to bedevil Team 1 to help them create a better plan and stronger messaging.

The Rules of Devil’s Advocacy

When it’s not so much a crisis, but an annual plan or approach, it’s just as important to do some pressure-testing. Rules apply:

  • Set clear boundaries for the team who’s written the plan and the group playing Devil’s Advocate. You probably can’t rewrite a company policy or the 2012 goals, so don’t solve for world hunger. Focus on pressure-testing the communications at hand (not the new company policy).
  • Agree to keep everything said in the session confidential. After all, these are drafts; the work you do together may change the language, tone or direction significantly in the final, approved version.
  • A good rule of thumb is to focus first on what works in the plan, then on what can be improved. Comments and suggestions should always relate to the plan and its improvements, rather than at individuals.
  • Everyone in the room agrees to participate, providing both positive feedback and recommendations for improvement. Everyone must play Devil’s Advocate at some point. You can’t allow just a few brave souls to put their feet to the fire.

The Deadly Sins (Things to Avoid)

  • Despite the focus on playing Devil’s Advocate, this is not a bashing session. You’re not there to rip the plan apart or shout, “King me!,” at every mistake. One of your colleagues developed these strategies and messages. Someday your communications plan may be center stage. Even devils can play nice.
  • If the rules are followed, there can be no repercussions for Devil’s Advocacy. Remember, the purpose is to ensure the company and its representatives don’t seal their fate in some awful way in front of important audiences. Speaking up to improve communications and protect the company’s reputation can’t burn anyone later. (If it shows up on a review, for example, you’ll never get any productive feedback from that employee again.)

Good leaders will recognize a sub-rule to the last rule, which is that people who step up to help challenge and make messaging better and strategies and plans more successful deserve to be thanked for their forthrightness. This sends its own message to the department about the value of open and honest communication.

Pleased to meet you, Corp Comm. Hope you guessed my name. Feel free to tell me what’s puzzling you in the Comments.

Messaging Layoffs

Since I’ve been discussing messaging and talking points over the last couple of weeks, I wanted to share this chilling story from Marketplace Radio on the jargonizing of layoff language.

A reporter from Financial Times noted that Nokia, when putting 17,000 employees out of work, described the act as “managing them for value.”

Companies have downsized, rightsized, outsourced, delayered, OPEX’ed, and RIF’ed their way through the Great Recession as lawyers, HR and finance tried to spin the news for Wall Street. If communications professionals were involved in the creation of this sort of messaging, then, quite frankly, shame on them. Doublespeak always backfires.

I’ve had the mixed blessing of working for companies faced with the difficult position of laying off employees, yet they had the compassion to insist that the process – and the communications around it – be done with integrity and respect.

All told, I’ve communicated layoffs that affected the lives of more than 25,000 individuals and their families and communities. And I’ve had the job of rallying internal audiences and keeping them focused and productive once layoffs and facility closures were through.

The reason telling Wall Street that managing 17,000 people “for value” always backfires is that Wall Street isn’t the only audience. There are employees. They’re listening and, trust me, they are not impressed with “Up in the Air” glibness. That goes double if two separate departments are handling messaging, one spouting “managing for value” externally, and the other trying to ward off plummeting internal morale with compassion or simply by providing economic facts around a struggling business.

One of the most basic tenets of corporate communications is synching internal and external messages. No amount of compassion and respect in internal communications can combat hearing “managing for value” on TV.

If you do this right, you are hyper-aware throughout that layoffs are about human beings, not numbers. Compassion rules your heart and nothing blurs your vision of how this is done with integrity. Your credibility and your company’s rests on messaging – external and internal – that is respectful and, above all, consistent.

Clearing the Air around Firing

A side note about the misuse of language regarding layoffs: Isn’t it time we all – corporate communicators, reporters and HR people – stopped confusing layoffs with firing?

Firing is something that happens for cause, because an individual violates a policy, rules of conduct, or simply doesn’t perform appropriately in a job. Layoffs typically involve groups of employees and, while one or two might have made the list for cause, no one (especially not HR) will ever admit that.

Confusing or, worse, conflating “layoff” with “firing” does an enormous disservice to those who’ve just lost their jobs (and don’t particularly want to hear on the news that they’ve been “fired”) and the job-seekers who are trying to position themselves for new work (and don’t need the added pressure of having to answer an interview question like, “Why were you fired from your last job?” when in actuality they were laid off).

“Well, do ya, punk?”: Writing It Like They Say It

Friend of the Blog Eric responded to my post on quote-crafting with an interesting question:

“I’m not someone who writes a lot of press releases, but I regularly craft remarks, speeches, and talking points and find it very challenging to capture little nuances that make the language used authentic to the speaker. What other tricks can you share for identifying and then incorporating the phrases and language structure that makes one person’s voice distinct?

There’s enough to the answer that it deserves its own post. So, here goes.

“That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”
~ Neil Armstrong

“You have delighted us long enough.”
~ Jane Austen

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

History-making. Sly putdown. Summoning the future. These lines are memorable and distinctive. They immediately conjure images of their authors – and it’s unlikely we’d confuse Austen for King.

We may not have the chance to craft talking points for an event as memorable as the first moon landing or a speech like the one delivered by Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, but you can bet your client wants his or her words to make some kind of impression on the audience.

Capturing the “voice” of a leader goes a long way toward making his or her remarks remarkable. How do you find those nuances and write them into speeches and talking points?

Know Your Audience

From developing a communications strategy and plan to writing a speech or crafting a tweet, it always starts with the audience.

  • What does your audience need to know?
  • What do they care about?
  • What will keep them focused and what will make them tune out?
  • How deep is their understanding of the subject?
  • Which style of writing (and ultimately speaking) will they find convincing? Will they appreciate erudite language or find it silly?

At Martin Luther King Day celebrations, audiences gathered to honor Dr. King may appreciate nostalgia as much as they do vision. When cutting the ribbon to open a new mall, the crowds probably want speakers to keep it as plain and short as possible, so they can get to the opening day bargains as quickly as possible.

Understand the audience, and you’re off to a good start.


Let’s start with speechwriting. It’s the easiest.

Typically, you’ll have more time to write a speech and at least one opportunity to sit down with the speaker, discuss the topic, specific goals and examples, tone, and whether they want slides or not.

As I mentioned in the last post, bring a digital recorder to this meeting. It may be days or even weeks before you sit down to actually write (having done research in the meantime, presumably), so revisiting your conversation via DTR will give you a good starting point.

Having a digital recorder running also allows you to focus on the conversation with the speaker, rather than taking dictation. Instead of scribbling down everything the speaker says, make notes about things like tone of voice, attitude and vocabulary.

While you’re in the meeting, ask lots of questions. Go beyond the standard questions about the audience and what the speaker wants them to take away.

What you’re aiming for is material – words, phrases, examples, and tone that are specific to the speaker that you can use verbatim when you write the speech.

Notice: How comfortable is the speaker with this topic? Is it a difficult subject? Does it feel like boilerplate – the same speech he gives at every conference?

Drive down to the smallest level of detail when discussing the examples she wants to use. Why this example? Are there others? Is this based on the speaker’s own research or experience? How did she come to learn or understand this? What intrigued her most about this work? Where did she get so frustrated she thought she might quit? Was there a surprise along the way? Or an “a-ha!” moment? Why does she feel this research or example best supports the subject matter? Could there be others? What about opposing points of view?

Now, listen to the vocabulary used to answer these questions. Does the speaker sound bored as he replies? Does his energy level or volume pick up in places? How about yours? Note when he says something that you never knew before or starts to weave a captivating story.

Remember, you’re an audience, too. If you’re interested, the conference attendees may be, as well. (Always good to double-check: Find out from the speaker whether he’s told these stories before and how well-versed the audience is in the material, then select the unexpected or most detailed examples to use in the speech.)

If you’re not hearing what you need, keep probing. Go back to an example the speaker wants to use. Say your speaker is going to address a high school graduation, but they’re used to giving talks at industry conferences. Remind them of the audience and ask them to repeat the example as if they were talking to their own teenager or niece or nephew. What you’re looking for is language that’s relatable to an audience that has yet to select a college major, much less pursue a career. They have dreams about what they want to achieve, but aren’t sure how to get there, so language (and an example) that values those forward-looking visions while providing solid guidance is perfect.

Same thing – in reverse – if the speaker is making the content understandable for you, but not in-depth enough for a group of fellow engineers. This is where you need the vocabulary and subject matter of the insider, someone who’s spent years in the industry.

If, for some reason, a meeting is deemed unnecessary, insist on one – even 30 minutes – before you write. When speakers are unavailable or out of town, ask if you can exchange emails directly with the speaker (not her administrative assistant) to go over key details about the speech. In these cases, observe their writing style. How do they construct sentences? Where do their thoughts take a turn for the lyrical or descriptive? When do they get prescriptive? Do they build to a conclusion or deliver the goods in a summary statement and then provide rationale later?

Transcribe the recording immediately, and then check the transcription as soon as it comes back. If a transcriber has left any blank spaces (because they couldn’t understand the tape), now’s the time to fill them in before you forget what was said and how it was said. Take your notes and mark up the transcript in the places you observed your speaker doing her best or losing interest. Where did she stumble over an explanation? When did she hit a home run?

You’ll want to refer to the recording as you write to capture nuances and for inspiration.

If there’s a chance you’ll be asked to write another speech or talking points for this leader, always save your recording, so you can refer to it the next time you have to put words in his mouth.

Sitting Down to Write

Typically, when writing for the ear – a speech or talking points – you use the Subject – Verb – Object style, so that the audience understands what (noun/subject) the speaker is about to discuss, then the action (verb) the subject undertakes, and who or what (object) is being acted upon.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech follows this style throughout. The simple repetition of S – V – O sentences creates a rhythm of accumulated and highly specific examples:

“…this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…all men are created equal…

“…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…

Then, suddenly, as the speech reaches its crescendo, King drives his message home, starting each sentence with the percussive power of verbs:

“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring…
            Free at last! Free at last!
           Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

In a century of great speech-making (Winston Churchill during WWII, Indira Ghandi, presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in Berlin, Nelson Mandela’s unifying rallies), King’s “I Have A Dream” is considered one of the very best.

It’s his use of repetition to create rhythm and drive home key points, the specificity of detail, and the cadences of a sermon that buoy listeners (even those hearing the speech many decades later on YouTube) and carry them forward, like a wave.

Which of these elements can you make use of? As you listen back to your conversation on the DTR, make note of the following:

Vocabulary – Where does he use the language of the insider and how can you weave this into your speech (and where might you need to include a definition) so that he’s speaking to the audience at their level? Are there words she’s particularly attached to? Does the repetition help the speech or slow it down? Why is this particular language important to her?

Energy level – Where is he interested in the subject matter? Where does his enthusiasm drop off? How can you build on moments of high energy to carry him through topics that might put him and the audience to sleep?

Rhythm – Does she have a natural ability for storytelling? If she tends to use complex sentences every time she speaks, mix it up to create a better rhythm. Vary sentence length and style. Have her ask a question, where a statement sounded rote.

Don’t think you’re up to writing something as eloquent as Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech? Trust me, you’re not alone there. The goal is to learn from it, not copy it.

We remember Dr. King’s speech today for any number of reasons – to honor a civil rights leader, to hold on to a positive vision of the future, to understand a point in time in the history of the United States – but, the reason it’s remembered by so many is pretty basic: the writer understood his audience. Dr. King was doing far more in that speech than “singing to the choir” of people who joined the March on Washington and supported his cause. He understood that his words had to reach into the White House and the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court, that they’d be recorded by television cameras and beamed to places like Mississippi and Alabama, where there was a terrible war on the civil rights movement. And, he wanted his words to mean something to the average American, in the north, the Midwest and the west, who was struggling to understand what was happening in the south.

This is why Dr. King relied on the language of the sermon: it was uplifting and visionary and it built a bridge across the divide. It’s why Dr. King went to the language of Lincoln and the founders of the United States: to place his cause in historical context and to help those who didn’t agree with civil rights understand how the movement fit with the beliefs and values America held most dear.

You don’t have to write like Dr. King to be a good speechwriter; you just need to understand what he was doing and who he was writing for.

That's one simple statement to cut through all the static on the moon.

A far more simple example is astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous line from the first moonwalk. Why was “one small step for man” so simply phrased? Why weren’t the first words uttered from the moon akin to Shakespeare? Because the writer knew his audience.

In this case, the writer understood that more than a nation, a whole world was watching Neil Armstrong. Whatever he wrote for Armstrong had to be simple enough to translate into dozens and dozens of languages as news organizations around the world reported the story. It couldn’t be Shakespeare for another simple reason: The transmission was so static-filled that the message had to be short and clear. A great reminder that you don’t have to be high-falutin’ to write memorable phrases – you just have to understand your audience and the context in which your leader is speaking.

Pointed Remarks

“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots, or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
~ Clint Eastwood, “Dirty Harry”

“Voice” is something every novelist, screenwriter and literary journalist strives to master.

If you’re asked to prepare talking points or remarks for a specific speaker, the most helpful thing you can do is write like they talk. These are the lines you want reporters to take down in their notebooks and include in news articles. They’re the “take-aways” you want the audience to remember after the conference, the fundraising dinner, the employee meeting.

Examine that famous quote from “Dirty Harry” above. What makes it distinctive? Why do we still remember it decades after the movie was in theaters?

Even as it’s written, it sounds like natural human speech – specifically, it sounds like Harry Callahan speaks. With its “kinda” and “well do ya” and the split infinitive of “blow your head clean off,” it doesn’t sound rehearsed or “written.”

Look what’s happening with the phrase “and would blow your head clean off.” It’s the most violent image, the biggest threat, in these lines. Yet, it doesn’t come at the end, and it isn’t even a properly worded sentence, it’s a fragment. He doesn’t say, “I will blow off your head” in perfect S – V – O/no split infinitive style. He doesn’t say, “blow off your head.” The power comes from the double-barrelled action supplied by that split verb: “blow” (verb), “your head” (object) and the vernacular of “clean off” (versus “off” alone). It’s this awkward locution that gives the final line, a question (not a definitive he-man statement) about feeling lucky, its power and threat.

Most likely, your speaker won’t be comfortable if every “you” in his remarks is replaced with “ya,” but to make talking points sound more natural, more heartfelt, more real, remember that it’s okay to break the rules of grammar and use vocabulary that’s distinctive and memorable.

Finally, take your talking points out for a spin. Saying them out loud to colleagues or friends is the perfect way to test if your talking points sound like someone “just talking” or a bad actor doing a Dirty Harry impersonation.

Dialogue that inspired me this week:

Katharine Hepburn (Susan): “Oh, I’m caught on something – David, help me, will you?”
Cary Grant (David): “Oh, no. That’s poison ivy.”
Hepburn: “I bet you wouldn’t treat Miss Swallow [David’s fiancé] this way.”
Grant: “I bet Miss Swallow knows poison ivy when she sees it.”
Hepburn: “Yes, I bet poison ivy runs when it sees her.”
~ “Bringing Up Baby”

Out of the Mouths of Executives: How to Craft Quotes that Get Coverage

Your company has news to share, and you’re writing the press release. Of course, you want pick up, but instead only the lede and fourth graf were squeezed into a space smaller than your iPod Nano.

And those quotes you labored over for the executive leading this important project? They were left on the virtual equivalent of the newsroom floor.

Corporate communicators and PR folks create quotes for press releases. Reporters understand this. Good reporters, who work for the news outlets where you most want coverage, go out of their way to avoid PR. They look for the news, and they call for one-on-one interviews to get their own quotes. If they’re up against deadline, they’ll pull only what they see as “real news” from your press release and ditch the rest as too self-promoting.

Want your quotes to see the light of day? Here are 10 tips for crafting quotes that get play:

Don’t rely on key messages for the quote.
Here’s perhaps the single biggest problem with created quotes: They repeat what’s already been said in the headline (and possibly in the subhead) and in the lede. Why? Because the writer is using the key messages to craft the press release.

Consider the poor journalist who has to read this release. What’s going through his or her mind? “I know that. You’ve said it twice already. Tell me something I don’t know.”

This is why copy gets cut. Reporters want the news, which, by definition, means delivering something new in each sentence.

What? No messages? You can’t believe I’m suggesting this, can you?

Here’s a quick experiment I tried just before writing this: I Googled Fortune 500 companies, clicked on a link to last year’s list, and selected the first one that I didn’t have a vested interest in. The company turned out to be Chevron. I didn’t intend to single out Chevron; I just wanted to see how fast I could put my cursor on an example. Pretty fast, it turned out.

I went to Chevron’s corporate website, clicked on the News link, and opened a recent press release at random:

HEADLINE: Chevron Announces Natural Gas Discovery Offshore Western Australia

SUBHEAD: Vos-1 discovery adds to drilling success and further underpins development of world-class LNG business

LEDE: SAN RAMON, Calif., December 15, 2011Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) today announced a natural gas discovery by its Australian subsidiary in the Exmouth Plateau area of the Carnarvon Basin, offshore Western Australia.

QUOTE: George Kirkland, vice chairman, Chevron Corporation, said, “The find at Vos-1 represents our twelfth offshore discovery in Australia since mid-2009. Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability.”

Barring key messages, what do you include in the quote? My recommendation is details. Why do you think the fourth graf always seems to make it into the newspaper? Because after the lede recaps the headline, and the second graf recaps the subhead, and the obligatory grafs for quotes, press releases often deliver backing documentation in grafs that follow. How about moving some of that business intelligence into the quote? The quotee is supposed to be a senior executive with deep expertise in the subject; this is the place to make them sound like a pro. Let them run with the important details, the numbers, the dollars or yen or euros, the insider’s perspective.

This can feel a bit like burying the lede, but if the quote is well-written, you’ll reap at least two benefits: 1) the quote will run because it contains new information pertinent to the story, enabling you to get more of the press release covered, and 2) if it sparks the reporter’s interest, you’ll get a call for an interview with the executive, and a longer story.

Do study your subject.
The best way to learn how to write convincing quotes is to understand how your subject speaks. To that end, if there’s an executive you’re going to be writing for on a regular basis, attend every employee meeting where she or he is a speaker. Revisit transcripts of old interviews. If you know of speeches he penned himself, read those. Look up articles or editorials she authored. Remember, a senior leader is worthy of quoting because he’s an expert in the industry, not just because of his title. Pinpoint how your executive talks, the insider lingo used, when he or she is deeply engaged in the details of the business.

And, whenever you have the chance, interview your subject and get to know his or her particular turns of phrase. Discover the linguistic nuances that make this person’s speech indelibly his or her own.

Don’t smooth off the rough edges.
Too often, when we create quotes, we polish them to such an extent that they feel manufactured. Like this: “Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability.”

Do you think this is what was said around the drill tower (or the corporate offices) when they discovered their 12th natural gas well off the coast of Australia?

Now, I’m not talking about putting in “ums” and “uhs” to make a quote look like a transcript, but I am suggesting using ordinary, everyday conversation that sounds real because it is real.

Are you trying to put words in the mouth of someone from South Carolina? London? Brussels? Tokyo? Mumbai? What about a doctor? A Ph.D.? An engineer? Or a CEO who worked his way to the C-suite from the manufacturing line?

You’ll likely find an unusual coinage, or two or three, if you talk to someone who hails from the south or once assembled the company’s key product. Even if the executive doesn’t have a regional dialect, you’ll find that no one speaks perfect English (or whichever language is primary for your business). There’s something about the inexactness of spoken language that makes it more believable, more trustworthy, more real.

Do eavesdrop at industry conferences.
Generally, you don’t have the chance to interview senior executives for every bit of news that needs a press release. The assignment arrives with instructions to create a quote that will be approved or changed before the release goes out.

If access is limited, then industry conferences and publications are a natural next best thing. You’ll be hearing the language of your industry as it’s spoken in its natural habitat. Listen, not to the speeches, but to the networking between sessions, over lunch, at coffee. Take copious dictation – this is not the time to leave out conjunctions and clauses – following the twists and turns as carefully as possible.

Likewise, avoid the articles written for industry publications that have lifeless prose. Look for authors who are clearly reporting from the front lines. Underline intelligent, elegant and unusual locutions and save them. You’ll be glad you did next time you’re asked to write a quote.

Don’t succumb to jargon.
Putting detail in quotes doesn’t mean resorting to jargon. Avoid consultant-speak and your company’s unique acronyms and naming conventions. If you mean IT, use IT, not the unusual name (Technical Information Resources & Services) your company has created for its IT function. If your company is drilling off the western shore of Australia, write it like humans talk. Don’t say: “Our successful drilling offshore Western Australia…”

Do know when to fold ‘em.
Really, I meant it when I said I didn’t set out to pick on Chevron. Something I love about this press release is that it’s short and sweet. You get the news, you get a couple of quotes, and you get the Chevron boilerplate. And, they avoid some of the sillier hallmarks of corporate press releases, such as…

Don’t make the CEO say how excited, happy, thrilled or delighted he or she is at the news.
Every press release ever written about good news seems to quote a senior executive saying how excited he or she is with today’s developments. Would you expect the CEO to say he’s unhappy? Because that might be news.

When writing becomes formulaic, it gives readers a happy excuse to skip over standardized phrases. Keep the reporter reading your press release on the edge of his seat. Or at least, keep her guessing. Let her be the one who’s thrilled and delighted that your senior leader has something intelligent and newsworthy to say about today’s developments.

Do individualize quotes if more than one person is being quoted.
You may be asked to create quotes for more than one executive, depending on the news or the size of the effort you’re announcing. If you want the quotes to get coverage, then Quotee #2 must sound different from Quotee #1.

Avoid doing what Chevron did. After their first quoted exec said this – “Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability” – their second executive said this: “Our on-going exploration success continues to add to our Australian resource base, further underpinning our drive to be a leading supplier of liquefied natural gas to world markets and natural gas to Western Australia.”

The substance of these quotes isn’t that different and, more to the point, the words they’re using are exactly the same: discovery offshore Western Australia drilling program success.

This is where knowing each person’s unique style of speaking helps. You can also focus on their different roles in the company. Quote #1 typically belongs to the CEO. But, Quote #2 may be from the person who led the five-year project and understands both the technical aspects and the hard work that went into it. So, the CEO can describe how this news affects the current and longer-term prospects for the company, while the project lead provides the interesting nitty-gritty details.

If the CEO is a well-known company spokesperson, but Quotee #2 is not, it’s wise to introduce her by name and descriptive role (use title on second reference or not at all) to give the reporter some idea why she’s being given airtime. For example: “Jane Smith, who oversaw the 400-member project team from start to finish, said…”

Don’t “further the legacy,” “expand on tradition,” or “continue the success.”
These are phrases that make a reporter’s eyes glaze. Sorry to say, but statements like these are clear indications to a journalist that there’s nothing of import in a press release. Journalists read dozens of releases a day that say exactly the same thing, which is why most press release prose gets the axe.

Many companies are bound by regulations to avoid certain “forward-looking statements,” which is why phrases like these crop up, designed to pretend to say something visionary without saying anything. If your hands are tied, and you really can’t say anything further, then don’t. You’ll make a better impression on reporters than writing stuff like this.

If you are allowed to broach the future, then avoid the clichés and have your senior executive say something meaningful or detailed.

Do bring a recording device – for video and voice.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to schedule time with a senior leader to interview them about the subject of the press release, then you’ll be 3/4 of the way to writing a great quote already.

Remember to bring a good digital voice recorder to capture the nuances of what the executive thinks about this announcement. And a hand-held video camera (if the executive is willing and if the news is important enough to warrant it).

Maybe you’ll only share the video with employees via your intranet. On the other hand, if you’ve got good soundbytes or video, you’ve created the opportunity for radio, TV, news websites, bloggers and podcasts to give you far more coverage than a regular old press release will generate. What you can give them is the real deal – honest-to-goodness quotes directly from a senior executive of your company – in multiple formats that have the potential to reach a much wider audience.

It will show that you understand what reporters need to tell a news story and that you work and think like a reporter. All of that is what makes you a trusted resource, which creates value and interest for the content you create in the future (and the quotes within it).

Just the Facts?

NPR ran an intriguing story this morning that gets to the hearts (and minds) of the people who are the targets of messaging.

The story was about the drought in the southwest United States and why, no matter how long the drought has lasted and how desperate communities have become, what many think of as an obvious solution – recycling waste-water – isn’t even on the table. So to speak.

After a quick synopsis of the drought, the story dives in to the discussion of messaging, and there’s a lot of valuable information for communicators helping their audiences cope with change.

What the advocates of recycled waste-water discovered when they tried to convince communities to adopt this solution is that no amount of scientific information could sway the good citizens. And, this isn’t a case of education level or translating science into plain English. The issue, if I might place myself into the mindset of some of these townsfolk, was: “No way, no how am I going to drink sewage-water or serve it to my family!”

Discussions with psychologists seem to have got to the root of the problem: contagion thinking. This is when one concept is so tightly bonded to another concept that no amount of facts will separate them or dissuade people from their way of thinking.

In this case, it went like this: “You can talk ‘parts per billion’ and ‘filters’ and ‘cleaning chemicals’ all you want, but nothing – and I mean nothing – is going to flush that image of sewage from my mind when I look at a glass of your filthy recycled water.”

Glass Half-Full Thinking

To aid recycling advocates, the psychologists suggested messaging that separated the original sewage water from the clean recycled water that ended up in people’s taps. Instead fresh river water and natural aquifers, rather than sewage, were identified as the source water. Of course, they were able to de-link these concepts because what they were saying was true; they’re not suggesting inventing false scenarios – that just wouldn’t wash when you’re trying to create credibility for your messages.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every audience is coping with contagion thinking. But, listening to this story this morning brought to mind some of the difficult conversations we have to have with our audiences, whether internal or external. How many times have you discovered that science, economic theory and well-researched rationale isn’t always persuasive?

Whether we’re trying to communicate changes in a benefits program or the decommissioning of a facility in a community or asking employees to work in new ways because of recently passed federal laws, our audiences have strong attachments to certain ideas and emotions about each of these actions, and facts alone may not be enough to help them change and adapt.

Internal audiences may have different concerns from external audiences. What we can do as communicators is work not just with the change management teams, senior leaders, line managers and external spokespeople, but with the audience members themselves.

It’s as important to find out what isn’t convincing your audience as it is to know what’s working, and then find new answers and reasons that speak to that emotional core of concern. With internal audiences, what we find is that every aspect of change management runs more smoothly: these concerns interfere with everything from process mapping to training and adapting to new roles. For external stakeholders, you discover that audience members feel the company has “really heard” them, and you see more engaged advocates for the change your company has embraced.

Worth listening to the whole NPR story here.

Writer Be Nimble: Avoiding Clichés and Buzzwords

Nim – ble  adj. 1. Quick, light, or agile in movement or action. Ex: nimble fingers. 2. Quick, clever, and acute in devising and understanding. Ex: nimble wits. SYNONYMS: Brisk, facile, spry. ANTONYMS: Slow, inept, dull-witted.

The business world is unlikely to run out of clichés, euphemisms and buzzwords anytime soon. Sure, your sharp eye spots blatant examples – “rightsizing” – and long before your CEO shows up to the all-employee meeting, you’ve redlined it and penned a more humane way to discuss what today’s economy is doing to your company.

From “reengineering” to “economies of scale” and, my favorite, “delayering,” which sounds like removing excess frosting from a cake, you’ve heard them all, right?

What about “nimble”? Or its cousins “entrepreneurial” and “efficient”?

Now, hold on, I hear you object, nimbleness is a good thing. Why The Economist frequently resorts to these phrases to honor companies that have held their own through the Great Recession: “The firm combines the heft of a big company with the scrappiness of a start-up.”

Okay, they were writing about Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, you continue, but, hey, “nimble” means quick and clever and implies we’re fit to navigate the shark-infested waters of the world economy.

Time to Nimbly Do a Reality Check

“Nimble” has become a trend-word, along with “entrepreneurial,” “efficiency,” and “productivity.” These clichés are now up there with “robust,” which used to apply to rosy-cheeked, bouncing babies, then became a popular descriptor for the tech industry, and now is appended to everything from cupcakes to car engines, though probably not the economy. “Quality” was another that lost its essence from overuse abuse.

The problem with trendy words is that when they become ubiquitous, your message loses all meaning.

Effective communicators understand messaging is a two-way deal – it’s not just what the CEO wants to say (“No matter how big our company gets, we’re going to remain nimble and entrepreneurial.”), but what it means to the audience.

If you’ve been finding yourself writing about how nimble and entrepreneurial your company is these days, here are a few ways to check that your messaging has real meaning:

Is the company nimble?
Face it, not every company can be nimble and entrepreneurial, especially ones with diverse product lines, tens of thousands of employees, and operations that cross state lines and international borders. Because “nimble” is such a buzzword – and impresses Wall Street – almost every company that’s publicly traded is calling itself “nimble and entrepreneurial.” But, is your company really nimble or is it wishful thinking? Remember, there’s nothing wrong with being strategic or cautious in the current economic environment. And companies that are visionary and maverick will do pretty well, too. Perhaps it’s just a matter of stepping spryly away from the cliché and finding a more apt, unique modifier to distinguish your company.

If the company is nimble, how is it nimble?
If you’ve done your reality check and your company passes, then, congratulations. Just know that a lot of companies out there are claiming to have exactly the same brand attributes as you. You can still call yourself nimble, but now it’s time to distinguish yourself from the “nimble” hordes with some specifics. “Nimble” has two definitions, which one are you? Are you both? How are you nimble? How does your nimbleness differentiate your brand from its competitors?

What is the company really trying to communicate?
Be careful to avoid using “nimble” and “entrepreneurial” as euphemisms for something more serious, such as layoffs. As with euphemisms from the recent past – “reorg,” “consolidation” and “streamlining” – the true nature of the company’s actions will become obvious to your audience and the news media. It’s far better to address tough issues head on, share what you can (legally, responsibly and respectfully), and promise to keep your audience informed as soon as you know more.

What does “nimble” mean to employees and investors?
Before letting your CEO message, it’s important to understand how the message will be received by the audience. To some employees, “nimble” may be positive; perhaps they’ve been struggling with too many layers of hierarchy between the people who do the work and the people who make decisions about the work. Being more “efficient” may mean there’s a greater chance they’ll be listened to. Or, on the negative side, it may feel like management is about to lay off more employees, leaving fewer people to cover the workload. As for the pundits on Wall Street and CNBC, they’re more likely to be impressed by a company’s nimbleness if they have specifics: How is the company planning to be more nimble? Why? By when? And how will it measure the improvements?

Reality checks are crucial when messaging. Not only do they help you to know your audience, they steer you away from risky clichés. After all, use a buzzword like “nimble” when no one thinks it’s accurate, and the company may gain a reputation for being quite the opposite.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Nimble thought can jump both sea and land.”
~ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 44