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Shock horror: simple language reaches people

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Academic research shows Donald Trump uses grammar of 11 year olds

The news that a bunch of academics, have shown that Donald Trump, Republican front runner for the nomination as US President, uses the simplest language of all the presidential hopefuls is a gift for mocking headline writers. But it is no surprise to me.

I love the company of intelligent people. I enjoy interesting and diverse conversation. But honestly; do I like it if I feel people are using long words or long sentences that I’m not sure I understand? [My son is very good at this!] I am sure a psychologist would have a fancy term for it, but it makes me feel small. It also makes me feel that the clever person is ‘not one of us’.  In fact, it is clear that sometimes the clever person is deliberately using language to make the point that he or she is not one of us but in fact much cleverer!

Why do I draw attention to this? Because the 101 of media and presentation training is to speak in layman’s language as much as possible (I often say colloquial language but don’t want to fall foul of my own rules).

[In crisis media communications, we teach that being colloquial, not sounding like you have just swallowed some procedural handbook, is pretty essential to winning the sympathy of your audience.]

Usually, when we point out that jargon, acronyms and conceptual language (think access, product, solution) should be replaced by more down-to-earth phrases, people get the point quite quickly. But one in ten, on my reckoning, will push back with one of three resistance lines:  perhaps ‘ I want to speak to the FT not the Sun’, or ‘What will my colleagues think’ or ‘Isn’t this just dumbing down?’

The reality is that if you want to speak to a non-specialist audience, and I would include here most external stakeholders, they will hear you, understand you, and feel more sympathetic towards your argument, if you make the message simple. It needs to be instantly understandable. You do not need to add arrogance, aggression or rudeness (à la Trump).  You just need to talk the way you would talk to your Mum or an intelligent 14-year-old. It is fine to introduce some technical terms in, say, a business presentation or interview, but just make sure you explain them.

Being able to tell a story simply is an amazing gift. The world would be a better place if more people could do it.

Simple language is far from the whole story. Donald Trump is not a good guy, or fit for President, because he uses simple language. But those of us scratching our heads and asking why he is still in the race, should try and learn what we can from his extraordinary and rather frightening success.

Photo credit: Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Writing

Top writing tips for new communicators

With changeover in the European Commission and Parliament well under way, this year’s Brussels rentree (‘return to school’) has almost certainly been busier than usual. If you are one of the many people moving out of the EU institutions or between communications roles, then chances are you will soon be doing a lot of writing for external audiences.

However, writing well is not something that comes naturally to many people performing these jobs. Despite being important, it’s one of the skills that is often neglected; both at the initial recruitment stage but also later on when it may be easier for time-pushed managers to re-write a junior’s work rather than sit down with them, explain what was missing and then get them to re-do it.

Here a few tips for writers and editors working both in the Brussels Bubble and beyond:

1. Good writing starts with good judgment

This means that you or your team need to be able to recognise what it is that you like and admire about other people’s writing. This is easy to do when it comes to talking about a favourite film or book. Less so when it comes to looking at a position paper or op-ed. However, taking the time to deconstruct someone else’s work – whether it’s that of a journalist or a colleague working in a similar organisation – will help you to identify what makes it compelling. You need to be quite tough here – when scrutinising something’s merits you need to be specific i.e. it’s not enough to know that something was good, you need to be able to say why.

2. Do a style guide

If you want your team to write in a certain way then you need to adopt a house style. This may seem

Writing

Writing is an essential but often neglected skill

unnecessary if you are a two -person outfit. But even if you are a small trade association or member organisation a style guide can still be a useful reminder that your writing needs to stand up to outside scrutiny – and not just be a lacklustre statement about the compromise you have had to put out because your internal audience can’t agree. More and more writing gets put out on different platforms now. Some basic house rules are essential. But keep them short and to the point. No one will respect your authority as a good judge of pithy writing if your style guide is two hundred pages.

3. Audience driven

Before writing anything, your audience has to be your priority. Who will read your work and why? How much do they know, and how much time will they give your text before they get bored and turn to something else? These are questions you should have at the forefront of your mind before you write (and sometimes they will determine whether or not you should write at all). When writing for the larger Brussels audience you shouldn’t assume that anyone has expert knowledge of the issue in question. Very few people are that niche and, if they are, you will almost certainly be sending them something specialist privately. For the general audience, keep it general. Which means tell the bigger story.

4. Make it interesting

Good writing is often about the subject but more often it’s about style. This means it needs to be both interesting and easy to read. To take the latter first: good writing uses active verbs, mixes up sentence length and uses jargon-free and compelling language to tell a story. Meaningful numbers and examples (particularly ones which show the impact or benefit of a particular policy at a Member State level) are also very helpful for making writing concrete and real.

5. Make it easy

You can do a lot to make your writing easy on the reader’s eye. Structuring it with clear messages before you start is an important starting point. And key points should be broken up with text boxes, bullet points or other aids that make it easier for the reader to absorb what’s important. Don’t overuse any of these tools: otherwise your final text will look shouty and messy, which is almost certainly not your desired effect.

These are just a few of things I notice people often struggle with. Good luck – and tell me what’s worked for you.

Rawls

Want to keep your skills up after media training? Watch The Wire

A lot of clients ask me how they can keep their new skills up to speed following our media training sessions.

Obviously, the answer I want to give is that they should buy more training and do so on a regular basis! But I appreciate that budgets and circumstances don’t always allow for this, which is part of the reason we write coaching notes and set up this blog.

But a blog can only go so far in helping to reinforce learning because media training is about providing a practical toolkit, which can go rusty quickly if it isn’t used.

So here are some tips for PRs who want to keep their team’s skills fresh between trainings.

1. Sizzle sessions

Get colleagues together for lunch or coffee and ask them to bring news stories with quotes in. Ask them to analyse the language and explain what works and what doesn’t. Depending on

Rawls

The Wire has some great speeches

their enthusiasm, these discussions could also be extended to include poetry, group viewings of speeches and Ted Talks or even monologues from TV (The Wire has some of my favourite speeches in it). There is also team-building value to this exercise but I appreciate that all organisations are different and that time is a factor.

2. News judgment clinics

As a PR you could pull together two or three pieces of coverage of the same story  (preferably one which isn’t related to your organisation).  Get colleagues to analyse the differences in tone and angle to help develop judgment. You could also ask them to rank different stories for their news value as a way of understanding how journalists put stories together and what is and isn’t a story. This may also be helpful for training junior communications staff or for getting excited non-comms colleagues to stop turning up at your desk with ‘stories’ which are actually turkeys.

3. Jargon checklists

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Keep a jargon checklist: or picture your trainer looking angry

During formal sessions, most trainers will get hot under the collar about how much jargon delegates use in their practice interviews. PRs can build on this by pulling together a jargon checklist with the top ten words, which should be banished from all encounters with journalists. This could be done for all delegates as well as the organisation as a whole. Pin these checklists in prominent places so that you drum it into colleagues that jargon is a dirty word with journalists. I often tell spokespeople to picture me looking angry (which isn’t hard) before their interviews as a reminder.

 4. Practise on camera

This is blindingly obvious but make sure you do it.  A lot of PRs have cameras but don’t institute regular practice sessions. The camera won’t get itself out of the box and your team won’t improve on their own. Use it.

Here are some tips for what I think could help between sessions.

I’d love to hear from PRs: what’s worked for you?