Posts

The Art of the Quote: Sizzle with Care

The art of the quote and the power of a good one is something we at the Media Coach think about every day. But last week in Europe we had another example of someone being a bit more quotable than perhaps the man himself had predicted. Many people outside Brussels or Holland haven’t heard of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Finance Minister who is currently President of the Eurogroup of Eurozone countries. But he got himself into hot water this week after comments he made in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper offended politicians from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

The Art of the Quote: Dutch Finance Minister in hot water 

The Art of the Quote

Dutch Finance Minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, was perhaps a bit more quotable than he had realised.

The offending quotes relate to this particular passage of the interview:

In an attempt to emphasise that being in a currency union carries responsibilities, Mr Dijsselbloem said that northern Europe had shown “solidarity” with the south during the crisis, but that solidarity comes with “duties”. “I cannot spend all my money on liqueur and women and beg for help afterwards.”

He then qualified his remarks by adding that this applies equally at a personal, national and European level.

Despite this, the response from politicians from southern European countries was swift and predictable with accusations of stereotyping, calls for Dijsselbloem’s resignation as head of the Eurogroup and the Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa going so far as to call the remarks ‘racist, xenophobic and sexist’.

The Art of the Quote: Best to avoid cultural stereotypes

If we’re dealing in cultural stereotypes then Dijsselbloem’s quote is an absolute belter, folding characteristic Dutch bluntness into a purse-lipped, highly quotable metaphor loaded with puritanical disapproval of feckless behaviour.

But it was actually out of character.  Mr Dijsselbloem has built a reputation as a calm and authoritative euro-dealmaker, who has been instrumental in the Greek debt talks and is seen as a reassuring media spokesperson who doesn’t resort to flashy imagery.  He’s due to lose his position as Dutch Finance Minister anyway (his Socialist Party recently got thumped into fifth place in the Dutch elections) but, it would be a shame to see his term as Eurogroup President (which is due to end in 2018) prematurely cut short because of one misguided quote. 

The Art of the Quote: qualifying your words after the event rarely helps

If there are any media training lessons to be drawn from this it’s that spokespeople not only need to plan and test their sizzle (deliberate quotes) in advance but also be judicious in their choice of words. Qualifying provocative comments afterwards won’t help either. It doesn’t matter that Mr Dijsselbloem’s defence was that his remarks were equally directed at himself, the point still stands that sensitive people will always react badly to comments that they perceive as primarily directed at them and this will be more likely to happen if the words play to cultural stereotypes. 

Of course we would also say that being dull and overly cautious also has its drawbacks. Namely, nobody notices what you are saying. So sizzle but sizzle with care, forethought and judgement. If you or your organisation need help crafting quotes as part of prepared messages, we at the Media Coach would be delighted to help. 

 

Photograph of Jeroen Dijsselbloem used under Creative Comms licence. 

PR Basics

PR Basics: Don’t overpromise  

PR basics include a rule that you don’t promise something you may not be able to deliver. If there was one outstanding headline from last week’s UK budget it was that the Tories had broken a promise not to raise National Insurance. Chancellor, Philip Hammond announced in the budget on Wednesday measures that included a tax rise for the self-employed despite the previous manifesto promise not to do so.

PR Basics, Philip Hammond

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have broken a manifesto promise not to increase National Insurance

According to the Guardian newspaper: ‘The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto was unequivocal, promising four times that a Tory government would not increase National Insurance. It did not mention the self-employed and offered future chancellors no wriggle room.’

PR Basics: Avoid public U-turns if possible

For us, the PR Rule broken here is don’t say something that you might later have to backtrack on.

If we want another hugely damaging example from politics we have only to remember the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees. This was an election promise made before they found themselves in a coalition with a Tory party.  Personally, I feel that makes a material difference but the electorate is much less forgiving and the tuition fees broken promise seems to have ruined the career of Nick Clegg, one of the most able politicians of his generation. Not to mention wiping out the LibDem presence in the House of Commons. 

PR Basics

Even incorrect forecasting can be damaging. During the Brexit debate in the UK, those who argued the markets would ‘punish’ the UK if Vote Leave were to win, have since been publically lambasted because their predictions did not (fully) materialise. The public often does not make the distinction between a forecast – a best guess about the future – and a firm warning of what might happen. (My mother constantly rails against the weather forecast, which she says is ‘always wrong’. No amount of me pointing out it is a ‘forecast’ and not a promise makes any difference. These people are ‘misleading’ her.)

PR Basics: Avoid any ‘hostage to fortune’ 

Businesses too can fall foul of overpromising. Way back when, I clearly remember the, to me, avoidable pressure on the Chief Executive (later Chairman) of Rentokil who had overpromised. Sir Clive Thompson was always described as the ‘self-styled Mr. 20%’. I am not sure who used the phrase first but Sir Clive was certainly not unhappy with it. He delivered something like 20% growth in Rentokil profits every year for 13 years! But when in 1999 he moved to lower the target investors took their revenge. Even as a journalist I thought Sir Clive crazy to set this near impossible target for himself. He was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Chairman and finally ousted in 2004, apparently for ‘being too obsessed with meeting short-term targets’.  It seemed he could not detach himself from the Mr. 20% label.

It is something we come across often in training. Enthusiastic executives of course have a vision they are working toward. But while talking in broad brush strokes is fine, often it does not do to share the detail of that vision with journalists. The media just love to write that people or companies have ‘missed’ their target, done a U-turn or a flip-flop.

PR Basics

Executives are often tempted to overpromise in an interview

 PR Basics: Highfalutin promises can cause negative headlines 

Good PR people always caution against this. They know that being too clear about targets or making highfalutin promises can often cause negative headlines further down the line. Here is an incomplete list of mundane things we would advise against being too definite about.

  • There will be no further job losses. Who knows there might have to be?
  • We are expecting 20% growth in sales/profits etc. You might be confident but such a public prediction turns a 10% increase into a failure.
  • We want to be number one in the market within two years. Better to say one of the leading players in the market.
  • We expect to be profitable by Q4 2018. This is a difficult one because it is the sort of information you have to share with investors and therefore it may already be in the public domain. My advice would be not to lie if asked outright – stupid if it’s already published – but if possible not draw attention to it in media interviews, and if asked be cautious about it rather than bullish. If it is a major important element of a story that won’t help but hubris is easy to spot and may lead to mischief from the journalist. All in all, this would be more of a judgment call and our advice would depend on what else you have to say.
  • Margins are set to rise to 25%. Here again being vague is the standard. Unless they are published in your annual accounts you may be best to avoid talk of margins. Again you may have an internal forecast but is there really any benefit to being specific?

PR Basics: There are always exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. I have taken part in discussions where CEO’s or other senior bods have weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘hostage to fortune’ pledge and decided to take the risk  – because the benefits outweighed the possible costs.  That is sensible and their prerogative.

Often our role is to bolster the PR advice and ensure ‘enthusiastic’ interviewees don’t make casual public promises or forecasts without understanding this basic rule of PR: avoid a hostage to fortune comment unless there is a very good reason not to.

Don’t forget, if we can help you prepare your spokespeople for a public announcement – results, product launch or a new direction – give us a call 020 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

Photo used under Creative Commons Licence

The Wealth of Language

Will Self is one of Britain’s most idiosyncratic journalists.  Most popular writers would think twice before using words like rodomontade, juvenescent, irenic or febrillity in a 10-minute radio blog (Jan 15th). Think twice, and then delete them, substituting more common alternatives – bluster, rejuvenated, peaceful and feverishness.

The Wealth of Language

Journalist Will Self

And most popular writers would be right. Communication, especially in our hectic modern age, is all about reaching the largest possible audience in a form which is easy and pleasant to absorb. Spoken or written, it’s all the same.

The Wealth of Language: Keep it Simple

The advice most commonly given is to Keep it Simple – use common, everyday language, avoid complex terminology and grammatical structures, keep your sentences short.

Simple, however, does not mean dull, and we can learn a lot from Will Self in that respect. One of the pleasures of listening to him is enjoying the skill with which he deploys the enormous resources of the English language. He uses the breadth and depth of the language beautifully, with a wide range of better-known vocabulary and a wealth of cultural and political references.

English is an enormously rich language and if we want to keep our audience engaged and, when appropriate, stir their emotions, we need to use it imaginatively. So:

  • avoid repetitions of the same word. Use synonyms. If you have referred to “hens” a couple of times, try “chickens”, “poultry” or simply “birds”.  If you have already used “reform”, try “improve”, “upgrade”, “enhance”, “redesign”, re-make” – any number of alternatives.
  • steer clear of that bland, bureaucratic style of language whose over-use so irritates the general public. Address envelopes, not issues. Appeal to people, don’t reach out to them.  
  • throw in references to events or people that all of your audience will find familiar.  Add richness to your message with a mention of Mozart or Julius Caesar, Beyoncé or David Bowie, Nine-Eleven or the Brexit vote, Lionel Messi or Tiger Woods, the 2008 Crash or the Greek debt crisis.  
  • vary the tone. We always encourage you to illustrate any point you make with an example, usually involving individual people and often from your own experience. This is a good opportunity for a change of tone, make it personal, wield that most powerful of words – “I”.

If you or your team would like help with some of these elements or other ways to tighten up your grammar, enrich your writing style or lift your corporate writing from the mundane, the Media Coach can offer short, bespoke workshops.

There is always something that can be improved, even if we cannot hope to have you writing with the mastery of a Will Self, a writer who blends serious messages with a familiar, personal style that entertains while it informs.

Incidentally, it is important also to note that when he slips in words like recondite or factic, you can usually tell from the context roughly what is meant. He does not put them out in a vacuum. You may not get all the subtlety of a certain word, but you get the general drift.

To less talented writers – and that is virtually all of us – who are tempted to reach for the dictionary for some rarely used language, we simply say: “Don’t try this at home”.

Photo used under creative comms licence

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines: do not criticise using a metaphor, interesting or flowery language. [If you are a student of The Media Coach we would say don’t ‘sizzle’ on the negative.]

The firestorm that surrounded the comments from Ofsted chairman David Hoare, about the Isle of Wight ‘ghetto’ with ‘inbreeding’ caused a deep sigh from me. When will they learn!

How to avoid unplanned headlines 4

How to avoid unplanned headlines: be cautious in your language

Here is a man who is in public life, and has been chairman of Ofsted, the school’s regulator, for two years. Before that, he had 30 years in business and was a trustee of the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs 60 schools. Why does he not know that, unless you want headlines, you should be very cautious in your language when you are being negative.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: journalists love criticism

Journalists love criticism. They live in a world of black and white, heroes and villains, goodies and baddies. They love to report conflict. They love it so much that they often manufacture it. If they don’t actually make it up, they will certainly fan the flames of even a tiny spark in the hope that it will become a two-week long conflagration.

When I was a local radio reporter at the beginning of my journalistic career I worked out quickly the way to deal with a boring interviewee; persuade them to criticise someone or somebody. I had a list: the council, the public, the government or the landlord. Any one of these would give me a headline. Teacher slams councillor, Norfolk councillor blames the government, Norfolk landlord criticised, etc. Usually it didn’t work, interviewees saw the danger and declined to be led into controversy. I can’t remember but perhaps occasionally it did because I went on trying.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: don’t play with fire

And that is my point. How can these senior people not see that they are playing with fire.

Last week I blogged about how Kevin Roberts of Saatchi and Saatchi aggravated his first crime (suggesting women in advertising lacked ambition) by criticising a well-known campaigner Cindy Gallop.

Here are a bunch of other people who have criticised without thought and had to apologise:

Boris Johnson accused Liverpool of wallowing in disproportionate grief for Ken Bigley who was killed in Iraq.

Ken Livingstone had to apologise after suggesting North Durham MP Kevan Jones, needed psychiatric help and was “obviously depressed and disturbed”.

Michael Gove was forced to apologise for comparing pro-EU experts to Nazi propagandists.

Labour MP Pat Glass had to apologise after calling voter a “horrible racist”.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: check the mic is off

There is a whole other category of gaffes made when the perpetrator thought they were in private but their comments were caught on microphone.

There was the one that contributed to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown losing an election, when he called a Rochdale pensioner ‘that bigoted woman’.

A famous one from long ago, well 1993, was ‘those bastards in the cabinet’, an unguarded remark from the then Prime Minister John Majorabout three of his colleagues.

Another Prime Minister, David Cameron, was caught on mic telling the Queen that Afghanistan and Nigeria were two of the most corrupt countries in the world. 

This was shortly followed by the Queen being caught on camera saying the Chinese officials had been very rude’ to the British Ambassador during an earlier state visit. 

I cannot really write about gaffes without mentioning Prince Philip, who has a whole file for which he has never apologised. But then he is married to the Queen.

 

Why do executives need media training? Kevin Roberts

Why do executives need media training?

Why do executives need media training? Because they need to be reminded of the dangers of media interviews on a fairly regular basis. If not they can do something stupid that damages the brand and themselves as Kevin Roberts, executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi did last week.

Why do executives need media training?

Kevin Roberts

I had the privilege of making a documentary on Roberts for Bloomberg television many years ago and of all the programmes I did, this was the one I enjoyed most. Roberts was an extremely interesting man and I am personally saddened to see a thoughtless interview cause him so much trouble.

Roberts decided to be outspoken and provocative in an interview with Business Insider. You can read the article here. In it, Roberts claims the issue of equality for women in the advertising industry, unlike in financial services and elsewhere, is over.

Roughly half of the people working in the industry are women. However, while they are well represented they tend not to hold the top jobs. The CEOs of all six major advertising agencies are men. Also, there have recently been allegations of sexism at the top of another agency, J Walter Thompson.

When this was put to Roberts he gave some highly quotable comments about women choosing not to go for the top jobs because they were happy where they were.

Why do executives need media training? Criticising others is bound to get you quoted

He did not stop at explaining his view that women had ‘arrived’ but were choosing not to take the top jobs. He went on to personally criticise a well-known campaigner from the industry, Cindy Gallop, saying she had ‘problems’ and was ‘making up a lot of the stuff’ thereby ensuring that Gallop and her supporters would hit back. Here is a report from The Drum about the response to the Business Insider story.

Why do executives need media training?

Cindy Gallop

Roberts was immediately suspended from his job. He may be the executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi but the agency is owned by the French giant Publicis, and the board moved swiftly to distance itself from Roberts and his comments.

For the record, Saatchi and Saatchi employ 65% women and recently promoted a woman, Kate Stanners, to Global Chief Creative Officer. Stanners appeared on the Today programme on Monday, to contradict her boss and explain that women in advertising were just as ambitious as the men.

Why do executives need media training? Interviews can get hijacked

Who knows why Roberts decided to sound-off about this particularly delicate subject. From a media trainer’s point of view, reading the write up of the interview,  it is clear there was little preparation on this point and no caution or careful messaging. In my experience diversity, race and gender issues, are amongst the most difficult to talk about publicly because so much can be open to misinterpretation or quoting out of context. It is not clear from the story, but I doubt this issue was the stated focus of the interview. I suspect it was a planned hijack by the journalist Lara O’Reilly. She seemed to have gone in with her facts and numbers to hand. From a journalistic point of view, she did a great job and got a real scoop, as well as a scalp. Kevin Roberts seems unlikely to keep his job. [Update: he resigned on 3rd August.]

Photo credits: Kevin Roberts from YouTube. Cindy Gallop used under Creative Comms Licence.

Professional blog guidelines from a grumpy journalist

These professional blog guidelines are provoked by a sense of annoyance and frustration.

Blogs have become a major channel of communication for outward facing organisations of all sorts but too many ignore the basic rules of good writing. So I have put together professional blog guidelines for the sort of blogs I read for work: blogs about pension rule changes, customer service, consumer rights and employee engagement.

Here are my professional blogging tips.

Professional blog guidelines: focus is everything

  • As a journalist my colleagues and I were taught to identify the top-line or the angle of a story. In most news-writing this appears clearly as the first paragraph and the headline. That may not be necessary in a blog but the writer must know what the key point of the article is. And they should know this before they start typing!
  • Stick to one message per blog. A professional blog should not try to deal with more than one key point. Don’t shoehorn in six loosely related thoughts.  Make one point clearly and with supporting arguments. Save the other five thoughts for another day.
  • Read it aloud to yourself. This is the professional way to check the punctuation is correct and everything makes sense.

Professional blog guidelines: short sentences, short paragraphs, just short!

  • Keep it short. The guidance on this is a bit mixed as there is some evidence that high quality long blogs are read and shared more than short ones. However, I would rarely read a 2,000 word blog and I am much more inclined to read shorter ones. 500 words seems to me a good length unless you have a lot of important data to share.
  • Short sentences are preferable to long ones. Limit the number of sub clauses.
  • Short paragraphs are favoured by readers, particularly those reading on their phones.

Professional blog guidelines: blogs versus documents

Here we start to depart from the basic rules of good writing into some blog specifics.

  • Identify your key words and put them in bold. This is not so much for the reader as for the search engine robots. There is a whole science of how to appeal to the ‘bots’ and it is not the subject of this article. My concern is that once I have found a blog I want to read, I can get through it with out grinding my teeth and wanting to start editing it.
  • Include links. Links to other web resources are the great advantage of blogs over documents. One click reveals supplementary material for the reader who cares but keeps the main body uncluttered for those just scanning.
  • Consider whether you should use the first person – by which I mean should you use the ‘I’ word. g. ‘I was thinking yesterday…’ or ‘I wondered…’  This is certainly more acceptable in a blog than in other types of professional document but I observe that it’s falling by the wayside somewhat, as professional blogging becomes part of the mainstream.

Professional blog guidelines: check, check and check again

  • Remember blogs live forever! Well, maybe not strictly true but they may well still appear in online searches in 10 years time. So check, check and check again before you publish. Of course, unlike 20th century publishing you can go back and correct a mistake after you have published.

Professional blog buidelines: other resources

Here are some good professional blogs:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/academy

huffingtonpost.com

drudgereport.com

Here are some more good sites about blogging

http://allindiewriters.com/about/

http://blog.thewholebraingroup.com/sensible-blogging-checklist-infographic

copyblogger.com

Allsorts 23

In defence of clichés

Allsorts-23-300x211Clients often express horror and disgust at the idea of using a cliché in an interview. They feel, as serious professionals, that they should not be using what they see as trite, overused and near meaningless phrases to talk about their important issues.

Well, there are some clichés I hate and would never use but in general I find clichés very useful.

Divided team

This is a subject that divides Media Coach trainers. Some of these professional wordsmiths, whose writing skills were honed at Reuters and the BBC, are reluctant to write anything that might be seen as ‘lazy’. Others, like me, are delighted when technical people can tell their story in colloquial language.

Arrogance

A knee jerk dismissal of clichés is, for me, an arrogance of the chattering classes.  Cliché’s communicate meaning quickly and in a way that is familiar and inclined to provoke empathy. Clearly that is not true if it is your pet hate cliché (mine is ‘at the end of the day’ which I once counted 17 times in one interview on Radio 4.) But phrases such as,

‘It’s like buses, nothing for an hour then three come all at once’
or
‘Horses for courses’
or
‘There is no one size fits all’
or
‘There’s a time and place for such things’

All of these are instantly recognised in the UK and communicate meaning very quickly.

Owned by the people

Madeleine1

Trainer Madeleine Holt believes acceptable clichés have to be in common parlance

My colleague, Madeleine Holt, says clichés are bad news unless they ‘owned by the people and routed in our history and common parlance’. She cites ‘don’t rob Peter to pay Paul’ as being a good example. She avoids, in messaging, anything that echoes known ‘spun’ phrases. So ‘Education, Education, Education’ she sees as having strong echoes of the Blair era of spin and therefore to be avoided at all costs. Similarly, we would probably all agree that ‘green shoots of recovery’ should not be used because when Norman Lamont used it he was lying, or perhaps misguided. Either way the folk memory has negative connotations.

Laura Shields in Brussels wrote a whole blog on how ‘game-changer’ was a grossly overused and now a meaningless phrase. I happen to completely disagree with her!

Oliver Wates, once a senior editorial figure in Reuters and our go-to person on written style, is inclined to wield the red pen when it comes to clichés.

Judicious

Despite the prejudices of these very clever people I will continue to advocate the judicious use of clichés and why – because I am always seeing my carefully chosen phrases in the write up of my clients interviews. Journalists are actually very predictable and rarely turn down a good cliché.

Why we all need an elevator pitch

Why we all need an elevator pitch

I have come to the conclusion that each of us who represent our business to the outside world, however that is defined, needs to have a honed and perfected elevator pitch.

What is an elevator pitch?

It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.

Why do we need one?

Why we all need an elevator pitch 2

Can you describe your company in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator?

Because the world is complicated and we all assume too often that others completely understand where we are coming from and what we do. Most people interviewed at the start of media training make daft assumptions about the knowledge of the journalist. Once this is pointed out, it is obvious but it is not just relevant for journalists. I am always using my elevator pitch when introduced to new people. I lengthen or shorten it depending on the circumstances.

What are the elements?

I think the elements are first an overview or helicopter view. ‘We sell software that helps people cut their use of paper and save money’ or ‘we provide a wide range of personal and business insurance for the UK market’ etc. Second a bit of detail e.g. size of the business, number of employees, range of contracts, key clients etc. and finally an example of a good piece of work you have done.

Do I need to include the history of the business?

I believe the history of the organisation is only relevant if it is memorable and interesting. If it was started in a cow shed in 1901 or was the brainchild of an astronaut, use it, otherwise don’t bother.

Why is the overview so important?

Because detail makes no sense to people if you don’t provide a frame for it. Once you have the frame you can hang different things on it, but you need the frame.

Why so much emphasis on numbers?

Numbers allow people to understand scale, whether that’s scale of an operation, scale of the growth, scale of the potential market. Without scale, people are left wondering or guessing.

Do you really need examples?

Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.

Warning! Do not try to be all things to all people!

Sounds daft but this is such a common mistake. A story I often tell from the early 2000’s when I was media training a start-up in the dot-com boom.

Me: ‘What is your website for?’
CEO: (aged 22): ‘It’s for all sorts of things, all sorts.’
Me: ‘Okay, what sort of people do you envisage visiting your website?’
CEO: ‘All sorts of people’
Me: ‘So, what might prompt them to visit the site?’
CEO: ‘Oh, all sorts of things!’

I left after three hours none the wiser what this company planned to do (of course, it is possible they didn’t know either which is a different problem.) Much better to give an idea and then layer in further information later if you get the chance.

Warning! Avoid positive bland!

This is another major problem. People think it is impressive to say ‘we provide a great service for our customers’, ‘we help clients become more efficient’, ‘we help make staff more productive’. No detail and only positives means it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart unless you have a diagram!

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody and is difficult to hold in your head unless it is very simple (e.g. two divisions, one UK and one European focused) or you happen to have a diagram to hand.

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) last year asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it the Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well. Here is an example from our trained friend: how do you think she did?

trump Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Shock horror: simple language reaches people

trump-Mike-Licht-CC-by-2.0

Academic research shows Donald Trump uses grammar of 11 year olds

The news that a bunch of academics, after long hard study, 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

James_Murdoch_IMG_0335_30299700341

Note to self: Remember the Power of Stories

In Time magazine at the end of 2015 James Murdoch wrote about the importance of stories. He lists examples of transformative story-telling both in the US and in Bollywood. But on a darker note he mentions how the ISIS (Daesh) story of blood-soaked vengeance against western oppressors has motivated individuals all over the world to unspeakable acts of violence.

James Murdoch

We agree with him that stories matter. They matter much more than most people realise. We struggle every session to persuade serious, clever people to tell stories about their own organisations, products or services. Somehow the facts and numbers come more easily but telling stories seems frivolous.

Here is my guide to crafting stories with impact.  These are not stories to be written in a novel, although there are some similarities, but stories that are crafted to become part of presentations or media messages.

What is a story?

Most people understand that if you are talking about a new product or service a client example is a good idea although they are often ridiculously difficult to come-by. Occasionally, organisations go to a lot of trouble to collect ‘signed off’ case studies. These are undoubtedly highly valuable. But they are certainly not the only sort of story that can be of use in business. As a simple short-cut a hypothetical case study works pretty well. So does an anecdote from a person’s own life. Anecdotes about my own mother have been very useful for a number of clients, how she reacts to call centres, the difficulties she has with pin numbers etc.

Beginning, middle and end

Good ‘stories’ need a beginning, a middle and an end. Simply to state ‘we helped a client save a million pounds, dollar or euros’ is the most basic of example. In the aid world to say ‘we helped a Syrian refugee family’ or a ‘subsistence farmer in Ethiopia’ tells the audience or the journalist very little. But it doesn’t take much to turn these simple statements into a story that has impact.

Create people we care about

The first step is to create characters an audience can identify with. You don’t need a great deal of detail. Just a bit of humanity will immediately give your story more impact. If your Syrian refugee is a young widow or your client an ex-serviceman making his way as a civilian, suddenly the story comes to life.

Add colour and tangible detail

The next ‘trick’ is to add the odd bit of detail that creates a picture. Let us take our widow in Syria. A few words can paint a picture of the horror of her life; sheltering in what was once a school, making a camp for her three children in the corner of an old classroom.

Any detail that creates a picture will give a story more impact.

Add drama or tension

Finally, it will help your story if there is drama or tension. Some dilemma where a happy ending is not assured. If our ex-serviceman was thinking of giving up his business and signing on, if coming to your bank for a loan was his last ditch attempt to stay afloat, suddenly we have some dramatic tension.

We never suggest making-up these stories.  We don’t have to. They always exist. It is just hard persuading people that stories not facts are the thing that will change the mind of an audience or spur them into action.