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professional communicators

8 tips for professional communicators

Professional communicators, whether writing or speaking, need to remember these basic rules to ensure what they say is remembered by the audience.

A client asked me at lunch the other day to just give her the top 5 things we say when trying to help people communicate better. I couldn’t stop at 5 and ended up with 8 but this is what I said.

1. Speak in simple language

This is the key universal challenge. It is the one thing high-powered professionals struggle with most. But it is essential to work out how to tell your story in layman’s language.

professional communicators

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Albert Einstein

2. Be tangible

This is the advanced version of keeping it simple. It is much easier for people to understand and remember what you are talking about if you explain it in words that create a picture in people’s minds. Here are a few examples:

Rather than ‘access to financial services’ – say ‘open a bank account, take out a loan etc’.

Rather than ‘leveraging our resources’ – say ‘using the people, the money and the knowledge we have to do more …’.

Rather than ‘influencing health outcomes in a population of lactating women’ – say ‘improving the health of breastfeeding mums in a way that can be measured from month to month’.

3. Use metaphors, similes and analogies

All professional communicators will use metaphors, similes and analogies. Here are a few that have stuck in my mind over the years:

professional communicators

Economist Andy Haldane once delivered a speech about banking regulation entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’.

In 2012 the economist and regulator, Andy Haldane, delivered a speech entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’. He was drawing a comparison between catching a frisbee and preventing a financial crisis: his takeaway message was that writing down heaps of detailed regulation will not help anyone prevent a crisis. Here is a snippet:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity. Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans. …
Catching a crisis, like catching a frisbee, is difficult. Doing so requires the regulator to weigh a complex array of financial and psychological factors, among them innovation and risk appetite. Were an economist to write down crisis-catching as an optimal control problem, they would probably have to ask a physicist for help.

And here are a couple of shorter ones:

Love is like the wind, you can’t see it but you can feel it.
– Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
– Maya Angelou

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
– Albert Einstein

4. Throw in well-rehearsed hard evidence

I have a simplistic approach to this. For the media, three numbers make an argument. When I was on the board of the National Association for Gifted Children* we used something like this:

On a normal distribution curve of intelligence, the top 3% of children can be considered gifted. That is three in every hundred, which means there are more than 10 gifted children in your local primary school. If you, as a teacher or a mum, do not know who they are – it’s because they’re hiding.

Notice that in this case it is not three different numbers but the same number stated in three different ways.

[*NAGC has now changed its name to Potential Plus]

professional communicators

Jeremy Hunt will often line-up detailed numbers when explaining the challenges faced by the NHS.

You can often list your key numbers. Here is a passage from a speech by Jeremy Hunt UK Health Minister :

We have not stood still: compared to six years ago, our remarkable professionals are treating 1,400 more mental health patients every day, 2,500 more A & E patients within 4 hours every day, doing 4,400 more operations every day, 16,000 more diagnostic tests every day and 26,000 more outpatient appointments every single day.

This is the sort of paragraph, familiar to professional communicators, that is the filling in the sandwich between the first articulation of an argument and the second – as in the technique Point-Evidence-Point.

In a speech, you can include more numbers but too many and the audience gets bored. For an interview stick to three or four, neither you or the audience will remember more.

5. Tell stories

Stories, anecdotes, examples or case studies are by far the most memorable elements of any communication. Our brains are hard-wired to remember stories over facts. We have blogged about this extensively already, for example here and here.

6. Make sure what you are saying is interesting and credible

Sounds obvious doesn’t it but you would be surprised. In both presentations and interviews, even professional communicators will say things they know sound stupid but feel it is expected of them by their company or organisation. Never turn off your own judgment.

7. Have a clear argument

If you are a professional communicator you will know that you have to check and check again that your argument is crystal clear.

8. Craft then rehearse all the above

Your presentations and your messages for any interview should be rehearsed aloud. There is no substitute. Think you don’t have time? I can assure you it will be quicker to edit, improve, commit to memory and correct if you say it aloud.

If you would like help with your messages The Media Coach can facilitate bespoke message-building sessions for your organisation.

 

All images from Pixabay.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

The Media Coach is often asked if we run courses for business writing and the short answer is yes we do. [See more in the last paragraph]. The enquiry normally stems from deep frustration of someone senior who has just read a paper or report from someone more junior and thought ‘what did they teach them at school!’.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Senior staff are often moved to ask: ‘what did they teach you at school?’.

I am a stream-of-consciousness writer for whom grammar and spelling do not come easily. One of my colleagues at BBC Look East once said to me: ‘You are very unusual. Most people who can’t spell don’t care. You can’t spell but at least you care!’ I think this was a sort of weak compliment. Anyway, I have put a lot of work into it over the years but I am still deeply insecure about my spelling and grammar. Reuters, where I worked later in my career, had a very good ‘two sets of eyes’ rule and this is one I impose throughout the Media Coach, yet I know mistakes still get through.

I may be an inaccurate writer but I am not someone who struggles to put words on the page. I have always been able to write and write fast. But if you are not like that, what advice can we give? Well, here below, are the Media Coach tips for both sets of writing problems: how to get started and how to check and check again.

Have a plan

Sounds obvious but you cannot write a document – whether a press release or a white paper – without a clear understanding of the business purpose of the document. This involves identifying the audience and the objective.

Pay heed to the structure

Structures are not blindingly obvious, whatever anyone tells you. Most business documents have an established style. If you are being asked to write a type of document that is new to you, you need to find out what is expected. Find other examples and analyse the sections. Ask if there is a template. It is much easier to get started if you have clear chapter headings.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Start writing – even if you think it is rubbish

Everyone knows it is easier to correct, polish and hone once you have something to work with. Don’t expect to get it right first time but just get something down on screen. When the time is right for a natural break, walk away and come back to it with fresh eyes. Rewrite, tweak or reuse paragraphs of your original in a different order.

Read it for sense

Once you are nearly done on a short document or have a substantial amount written on your long document, read it through for sense. It is always most effective if you do this aloud. Ask yourself: will your audience be able to follow the thread of the argument? This is crucial. Put your most self-critical hat on and ask: is it clear? Can you use less jargon? Can you substitute less formal language? Perhaps fewer words or more words, shorter sentences, fewer sub-clauses, etc. The writing must flow logically from one paragraph to the next.

Read it to check grammar and spelling

Always best done after a break. Reading for sense and reading for grammar and spelling are to my mind two different things. This time you are looking for missed apostrophes (its instead of it’s), commonly mistaken words (there instead of their), missing commas, etc. Check the spelling of all names even if you think you know: is it Hilary Clinton or Hillary Clinton?

Ask someone else to read it

For me essential, but may not always be practical.

Sort out the layout

Not worth doing this earlier but at this stage you are checking the fonts are right, that the margins are the same and that the style is the same throughout. If you have made changes, you may have mucked up the layout or the sense. Check it again.

Once you have some words on the page, read once to ensure it makes sense and a second time to check the grammar and spelling. If you change one or the other you will need to check again.

I fear there will be people who have worked with me guffawing into their Chablis to see me write this. But I have sweated over how to write better most of my adult life, so I feel I am entitled now to give a few pointers from my experience.

You will be relieved to hear that I don’t run any of the Media Coach writing courses. We leave that to Oliver Wates, a former Reuters reporter, bureau chief and desk editor (the guy who corrected everyone else’s copy). He has been my most patient and tolerant advisor on these things for more than a decade and he can build a fun, interactive course that is designed precisely to meet the needs of your team if you need such a thing. Just drop me an email lindsay.williams@themediacoach.co.uk or give us a call if it’s something you would like to discuss.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

It’s easier to start writing if you have a clear business objective and some chapter headings. (And coffee!)

Meanwhile, if you are struggling to self-educate on these things, here is our suggested reading list.

Economist Style Guide There are lots of style guides, the Times and the Guardian, for example, both do one. All are useful but we particularly like the Economist’s version.

Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is a classic; it’s really a grammar primer but is readable and funny rather than a dry textbook.

The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto is maybe a bit old fashioned but I have had it recommended to me a number of times and so include it here. This is all about helping you bring clarity to your writing.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage I have never lived in a house that didn’t have Fowler’s on the bookshelf. Both my parents were journalists and before the internet this is where you checked easily confused words, etc. However, there is nothing in here that you can’t find more easily online in my view and I rarely look at it. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, it might be worth buying cheap and dipping into.

Photo notes: Feature photo from istock, used under creative comms licence. Other photos from pxhere.com

Do journalists matter

Media strategy: Do journalists matter?

Do journalists matter in this age of social media? President Trump seems to relish a public bust up and you could argue it is not doing his popularity ratings any harm.

Trump relishes a public bust-up

Indeed, amongst his supporters, it seems to actually enhance his popularity.  And there appears to be no end to his willingness to let his frustrations show as illustrated by his ongoing feuds with CNN, the New York Times, the BBC and the list goes on….

There is an argument that with the rise in influence of social media, mainstream journalists are now almost irrelevant to a successful media strategy? Some even argue mainstream media is dead.

Media strategy: Corbyn gave priority to social media

In the UK, the recent election also provides evidence that the mainstream media have lost their influence. Since he became leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn faced hostility, even derision, from much of the traditional media. Whether by choice or necessity he placed his faith in the power of social media.

And that faith paid off – with a much better result in the election than virtually anyone predicted. (Though still winning more than 50 seats fewer than the Conservative Party.) All a long way from The Sun newspaper’s gloating headline after the 1992 election: “It’s the Sun wot won it”.

Can you now drop traditional media from your PR strategy?

So does it matter if companies and organisations antagonise journalists they don’t like?

I would argue that that would be a risky strategy.

Firstly, a recent study by Reuters concluded that mainstream media stories are the lifeblood of topical social media conversations in the UK. Social media amplifies mainstream media even if it sometimes eclipses it.

Secondly, politics is a very different environment to the corporate/business world. Trump and Corbyn have built their personas on being outsiders – there to challenge the system.  There are very few companies or organisations who can pull this off successfully over years and years.

And that is the key difference between business and politics: the need to build – and maintain – a much longer-term reputation. Warren Buffet has frequently warned employees: “lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless.”

Do journalists matter

Warren Buffett has always stressed company reputation takes years to build and moments to destroy.

Here are two contrasting examples which show the positive advantage of “playing the game” with journalists and the perils of not doing so:

Richard Branson has for years had a good relationship with journalists and has made himself available for interviews, both on his businesses and as an industry expert. And his companies’ reputations have emerged relatively unscathed despite being caught up in crises such as the price-fixing scandal with BA and the West Coast Train crash in 2007.

In the world of sport, as a result of what Tiger Woods felt was an unfavourable interview early in his career, he virtually shunned all contact with journalists, apart from what he was contractually obligated to do at tournaments. And for much of his career he was untouchable, based on his performances on the course. However, when the scandals hit, journalists took great pleasure in settling scores and indulging in a large slice of schadenfreude.

Do journalists matter

Tiger Woods avoided talking to journalists wherever possible. Some say, when things went wrong, he paid a heavy price for denying them earlier access.

Building relationships with journalists takes time. It never guarantees you will be immune from criticism but it does mean you have ‘credit in the bank’ and will get a hearing when things go wrong.

Other people’s thoughts on this:

A TechCrunch blog from February this year

The Guardian’s take

The Guardian again after the Manchester terror attack

And for the long read here are two Reuters reports on disruption of mainstream media by social media. They seem to suggest more of a coming together with social media amplifying stories from the mainstream at least in the UK.

  1. Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery
  2. Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery
Don’t just answer the question

Media Training Basics: Don’t just answer the question

Imagine this ridiculous scene: You go to a doctor with some slightly worrying set of symptoms in the hope that he or she can reassure you or at least throw some light on what ails you. However, on this particular day your doctor refuses to do anything but answer questions. She (let’s say) has a huge wealth of medical knowledge that would be very useful to you but she refuses to share it unless you ask the right question. Ridiculous I hear you say. No one would behave like that!

Don’t just answer the question

But actually, this is exactly what most novice interviewees do in a media interview. They just answer the question.

Don’t just answer the question: know what you are there to say

In our book, media interviews should never be about just answering questions. You should arrive at the microphone or in front of the journalist knowing what you are there to say. This is absolutely not to say you should ignore the journalists’ questions. That is really annoying for both the journalist and any audience.

Of course, it is clear to all PR professionals that working out what the interviewee is there to say is not so straight forward.

Don’t just answer the question

Why knowing what to say is not so simple

Firstly, if the identified senior business executive spends most of his life talking to colleagues or fellow professionals, he will likely assume knowledge that a general audience doesn’t have and use jargon and technical language that is inappropriate.

Second, he will almost always forget to fill in the context. It is another version of assuming knowledge. One of my training colleagues likes to say ‘don’t forget to state the blooming obvious’.

Thirdly, in business, if you talk to a general audience about making money you are not going to get a good hearing. In the UK making money, whilst necessary, is thought to be a rather grubby activity.

And actually, it is probably not the important point. In fact, most business people spend most of their time worrying about doing a good job for their customers, they only think about costs and margins when talking to the boss. The problem is, if they treat the journalist as they would a grilling from the boss they will come across as hard-hearted and grasping rather than on the side of the angels. (There is an exception to this for financial and investment media who think making money is good. As we all know you have to tailor the message.)

Be credible

So, any spokesperson has to be helped to build a narrative that tells the story that needs to be told. That story needs to be rehearsed so they show up at an interview knowing what they are there to say. If they don’t they will just answer the questions.

And then they must be able to take the opportunity opened by a journalists question to land a message – but do this in a credible way. Credibility and likeability are the holy grail here.

Don’t just answer the question

Who does not have this ability?

• Theresa May. She ignores questions and lands her message without credibility.
• Donald Trump. He usually has no message and makes up a new one in response to the question. Alternatively, he trots out some tired platitude such as ‘Making America great again’ which works for him it seems but is not a strategy we endorse.
• Most Friday Boss participants on Radio 4’s Today programme. They rarely get beyond answering the question.

Who does have this ability?

• David Davis. Generally brilliant at answering the question but then moving to what he wants to say.
•  John McDonnell. Also brilliant these days in the toughest of interviews.
• Nigel Farage. You don’t have to agree with anything he says to know he is an excellent political communicator.
•  Nick Clegg. Continues to impress despite the tide of history turning against him.
• From the business community, Sir Martin Sorrell is always a prepared and credible interviewee.

We think most media trainers – our competitors – just prove how difficult media interviews can be. We constantly work with our clients to help them identify the messages and then codify them in a way that can be easily remembered in the interview.

If you watch or hear examples of bad (or brilliant) interviews do let us know. We are always looking for examples to use in our training.

Election and other bits and bobs

Election and other bits and bobs

It’s election time –  unexpectedly – in the UK. This gives those of us that follow public communications lots to think about and discuss. Instead of our usual article I decided to just share a few things I have been thinking about:

Just to restate a basic – this blog is apolitical. I comment on communication style, skills and lessons. Not on who people should vote for.

Watching Corbyn’s election communication style

Having become something of a lame duck leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a rather good first speech of the campaign last week. You can both watch and read it here. He has since spoken in Scotland and been interviewed on Andrew Marr and he looked relaxed and reasonably happy. Somewhat more in control than he was at the start of his leadership. He could still learn a thing or to from us about controlling interviews. 

Election and other bits and bobs

Someone pointed out to me that Corbyn is looking as if he is going to follow Trump and the Brexit referendum Leave campaign and concentrate on big picture assertions and ignore the detail: Shout loudly about ‘enemies of the people’, threaten big business, Philip Green etc. and avoid the complexities of reality. It has worked for others.

Blair steps into the fray with a confused message

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair – in my view normally a brilliant communicator– stepped into the campaign with a very confused message in an interview on BBC Radio 4. What he was probably saying was vote liberal or vote tactically but it was not clear. I know he was trying to avoid the wrong headlines but he needs to rehire Alistair Campbell.

Theresa May loses key comms personnel

And a final observation about the UK election this week: we note the departure of two key people from Theresa May’s PR team as explained here in the FT. Katie Perrior Downing Street Director of Communications resigned immediately after the election was called, while Lizzie Loudon, the Prime Ministers personal press secretary announced her resignation last Friday. This is a significant change and it will be interesting to see if May’s buttoned-up ice-maiden style changes.

French elections fascinate

We are also watching with fascination the French Presidential election. Not much to say about this today yet but more (from Laura in Brussels) in the near future. But we did notice this article in the FT which suggests politics is all about style over substance.

Election and other bits and bobs

Airline apology: how it should be done

In other news, there was this snippet you may have missed about an unfortunate incident on an American Airlines flight. Clearly, there were echoes of the United Airlines story of earlier in the month but this time the apology was swift and apparently unmuddied by ambiguity.

Lucy Kellaway shares her embarrassing public speaking experience

I am a dyed in the wool Lucy Kellaway fan, she is always an entertaining read. Assuming you have a subscription to the FT, this column from her is about how she got over confident and did a bad speech. It is worth a couple of minutes if only to remind ourselves it can happen to any of us. I did something very similar many years ago. Pride comes before a fall!

And finally…we make the news (in Estonia)

And finally, Laura Shields the Brussels Director of Media Coach International Ltd made the media herself in Estonia. The Environment minister there blogged about his training with her – including posting pictures –  and it was picked up by a prominent online news site. If you can read Estonian you will find it here. We suspect google translate doesn’t do it justice.

Laura-Estonia-Environment-Minister

 

Photos used under creative commons licence, Wikimedia etc. 

rsz_cc028_jeroen_dijsselbloem

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 Power of the Personal Martin Schulz

Power of the Personal: How a Great Story can shape a Political Campaign

The power of the personal story can shape a campaign and a political career. Skim any article about Martin Schulz, the Socialist challenger giving Angela Merkel a run for her money ahead of Germany’s federal elections in September, and you will almost certainly learn four things about his life before he became a politician.

Power of the personal story

  • Schulz played football so well during his childhood in West Germany that he was tipped for a professional career.
  • A knee injury put an end to these ambitions.
  • As a result he fell into depression and alcoholism.
  • He overcame both, stayed sober and worked in the same bookshop until he became an MEP in 1994.
CC025-Martin_Schulz

Martin Schulz successfully uses his personal story in his political campaign

Sticky details form a political narrative

Taken in sequence these kinds of ‘sticky’ details form a political narrative that is used to imply character and grit, often in the face of adversity or under-privileged origins. Journalists frequently adopt it as a shorthand for explaining motivation but skilled campaigners are also masters of their own personal story.

As Gavin Esler notes in his book Lessons from the Top; the three universal stories that all successful leaders tell’, everyone who runs successfully for public or commercial office tells a version of a ‘Where I’m from’ story as a way of creating a quick connection and instilling trust among their target audience or voters.

This is the reason why most of us know that Angela Merkel and Theresa May are both vicars’ daughters or, that Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim Mayor is the son of a bus driver.  In Barack Obama’s case, we had two full autobiographies and a barnstorming speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention to ram home the point that the first term Senator from Illinois was simultaneously the embodiment of the American success story and the change the country needed.

Strong personal stories also hit audiences in the gut*, which is one of the reasons they often survive contact with facts that present the protagonist in a contradictory or unfavourable light. This partially explains why George W Bush, despite being a Yale graduate from a political dynasty, was able to use his folksy charm and cowboy hat to convince enough Americans that he was less blue-blooded and more down to earth than both Al Gore and John Kerry. 

[*If you have read Don’t be Such a Scientist you will be familiar with Randy Olson’s core theme that cerebral communication is less effective than communication that hits people in the heart or the gut. If you haven’t read this and you are in comms, please catch up.]

Outsider bonus

In the absence of an authentic personal story, a fabricated ‘outsider’ one can often do just as well. In the US and France, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen’s supporters have been able to overlook their privileged backgrounds, often outlandish behaviour and criminal investigations (in the case of Le Pen) because they have consistently and successfully portrayed themselves as anti-establishment types willing to take on a political elite that is actively conspiring against them.

The Power of the Personal Marine_Le_Pen

Le Pen portrays herself as anti-establishment

And it’s interesting to note that Marine Le Pen’s main (for the moment), presidential competitor Emmanuel Macron, himself a former investment banker and Economy Minister, has also styled himself as an ‘outsider-change’ candidate in the mould of a young Tony Blair or Barack Obama, even though his CV would suggest he’s anything but.

Which brings us back to Schulz.  While no one doubts his authenticity or political credentials, his absence from the German political scene for the last 23 years means he is able to combine experience with a genuine outsider status into a convincing change story.

Judging from his reception at the polls, it’s working.

will_self_jpg

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

Post-truth era

Post-Truth era: weaponising numbers!

Post-Truth era communications hold a particular challenge for companies whose marketing is based on some form of science or data. How should companies communicate in the Post-Truth era, particularly when it comes to the use of numbers?

For a re-cap of how Lindsay and I view ‘Post-Truth’ please see our previous posts here and here.

Post-Truth Era communications: case study

Post-truth era

As a case study, let’s look at the most famous Post-Truth number; the £350 million a week that the Vote Leave campaign continued to claim the UK sends to Brussels even after it was debunked as ‘misleading’ by the UK Statistics Authority. 

Here are some lessons for communicators.

Post-Truth numbers are not about factual accuracy

It didn’t matter and it didn’t hurt the Leave Campaign that the £350mn figure wasn’t true. By keeping it out there, the campaign intended to create confusion and crowd out Remain messages and arguments. Like its larger cousin (fully fledged fake news articles), the £350mn figure is part of a broad family of misinformation that is designed to muddy the waters. The Russians even have a military term for it- maskirovka.

Post-Truth numbers are about forcing opponents onto the defensive

In his 2004 book Don’t Think of An Elephant, cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued that conservatives are much better at winning arguments than liberals because they use powerful language to frame their ideas (e.g. ‘tax is theft’) and then force their opponents to argue on that territory (as opposed to the ‘tax is investment’ argument ). The £350mn is the numerical equivalent of a linguistic frame. It forced the Remain campaign to come out and argue that the number wasn’t true, which kept the conversation going and also kept the idea that it might be alive in people’s heads.

Post-Truth numbers link to a powerful organising story

The £350mn figure evoked powerful images associated with the deeply embedded Eurosceptic tropes of waste and a lack of financial control. Throw in the NHS (the ultimate British identity meme*) and the figure goes from being an example of hard data to an expression of the powerful and simple story.

Post-Truth Era communications

Paul Stephenson was Communications Director of the successful Vote Leave campaign. 

All three of these ideas are on the record in a recent article by Paul Stephenson, the Communications Director for Vote Leave:

“Of course, our campaign claim of the now infamous £350 million a week that Britain sends to the EU was not completely accurate … The Remain campaign couldn’t stand it. They constantly tried to rubbish these official statistics and accused us of ‘lying.’ These attacks were entirely counterproductive for them; it kept the debate focused on an area where we were strong: just how many hundreds of millions of pounds the U.K. gives the EU every week.”

So, the question still remains as to whether companies should engage in these kinds of tactics.

And quite simply the answer is no.

Donald Trump isn’t even in office and Brexit hasn’t yet happened, so no one knows what, if any, price will be paid by the members of the public who did believe what they were saying.  But organisations that have shareholders and/or regulatory constraints will almost certainly get clobbered for putting bad information into the public domain.

Post-Truth era communications: a commercial case study

Equally damaging is withholding information that could contradict the powerful story which a company uses to justify its ‘social licence’. Like many others, I have been gripped by the downfall of Theranos, the ‘revolutionary’ US blood testing company founded by Elizabeth Holmes, a 19 year old Stanford dropout who managed to convince the stalwarts of Corporate America (including Rupert Murdoch and Henry Kissinger) to either invest or be on her board. Worth an estimated $9bn by the age of 32, Holmes’ built the notoriously secretive company’s brand on an emotion-drenched-story which lacked the transparent data to support it. The image was shattered when the Wall Street Journal started digging around for numbers and discovered that the supposedly ground breaking blood testing technology was in fact deeply flawed.

Companies are right to see storytelling and emotion/issue based campaigning as a way of engaging the public around the issues they care about. And planting memes and tropes* over a period of years can be incredibly helpful for shaping public opinion around core images and ideas (particularly if supported by a willing media).

But when it comes to hard numbers they should never weaponise them. Handled badly they can go off on in the wrong hands and cause injury, not just to the public but also to the user.

For the record here are a couple of definitions:

*A meme is an element of culture (it can be a video, an institution, or a type of behaviour) that is shared, copied or mimicked by lots of people.

A trope is a figure of speech, a metaphor and sometimes a cliché. It’s a shorthand for something the audience will instantly recognise. It has a slightly different meaning in politics, literature and TV drama.

As those of you that read this blog regularly will know, the Media Coach team don’t just teach people where to look and what to wear on TV. We offer a broad range of bespoke media and presentation training workshops and message building sessions – all run by  experienced communications professionals. If you need help building or refining messages just give us a call.