We’re expanding our business writing classes

At ML & CO, our business writing classes have always been through word-of-mouth referrals. Teaching people how to think clearly … and to articulate their ideas in a way that’s concise and interesting … has kept us busy. Over the years, we’ve helped dozens of professional people gain more confidence in their ability to get their message out.

I started teaching business writing to clients after being a part-time instructor at Ryerson University, Centennial College and Seneca@York. I mentored several of my students who have since gone on to become successful communications professionals. So I know from experience the benefit that comes from learning to write well, both as a PR professional and a business person.

Our classes are small, customized and hands-on. Participants learn:

  • How to write a good lead
  • How to structure thoughts in a logical and compelling way
  • How to avoid the common pitfalls that can derail an argument or position
  • How to use plain language (and why it works)

The people who benefit the most from our classes typically work in the technology, engineering, scientific and research areas — where it can be challenging to translate complex ideas into plain language for a non-expert audience.

What I’ve learned from teaching these classes is that being a better writer is better for employees’ confidence. It’s also better for their company’s brand.

For more information about how classes can benefit you and your team, give me a call.

 

Why I stopped tweeting

I suspended my Twitter account several months ago and haven’t looked back since.

What happened? You probably think it goes against the grain for a communications professional to shun a tried-and-tested communications tool to connect with clients. And perhaps you’re right. But here’s what I’ve noticed about Twitter.

 

1. Twitter is not about brand building — which is one of the outcomes that ML & CO works hard to deliver for our clients. It’s about attention-getting. Two different things.

It’s really hard to distill thoughts down to 280 characters. And even harder to have those characters get noticed and shared. Good headline writers and copywriters know how to make every word count. But most ordinary non-writers do not.

I have no way of knowing, but my hunch is that many people tweet before they have even collected their thoughts. Or they tweet as a thought is in the process of being developed. Limited by the number of characters, and spurred on by the need to get their followers’ attention, I can see why people add some drama, or some edge, or some hyperbole, to an emerging thought. Suddenly, an idea that started off half-baked turns into a tasty little morsel ready for their followers’ consumption.

But is it really what the person thought, or simply a reflection of their emotive state when they began to write. Who knows?

Twitter is Pavlovian, and as a digital tickle, it works. But the most it will tell you about a brand is very little. Unless, of course, the brand is based on shallow attributes rather than real insights. Because if there were an insight, what need would there be for drama?

2. I also stopped tweeting because it makes everyone sound like an extrovert and an expert. And thanks to the followers who amplify a tweet, the implication is that some ideas are more legitimate than others.

I know from years of interviewing people, engaging with clients, and listening to employees that the best ideas come from talking face-fo-face with people.

Being in the same room, on the same conference call, sharing the same video link all provide a means of hearing the subtleties of an idea, the nuances of an argument, and the quiet merits of a point-of-view. And the body language that speaks volumes.

I’ve learned to pay attention to quiet tones, thoughtful pauses and sub-texts. Not all good ideas come from extroverts and so-called experts.

Twitter turns the volume up on everything. It’s like a hearing aid that doesn’t know how to make a distinction between the background noise and the conversation.

Give me a choice between a conversation and a conversion, and I’ll pick a one-on-one chat every time.

Why I’m penciling in March 21

I do a lot of content development. Mostly, this is for documents that are written and designed to be read online. But increasingly, it’s for web content.

When I first started out in corporate communications, I also did a lot of content development. But that was mostly for print and mostly directed to print and broadcast editors.

I won’t go on about how much things have changed in the world of communications. I’m really glad they have and I’m excited to be part of an industry that’s in such constant flux.

For all the good, however, I’ve also noticed an alarming trend: The number of words in the average corporate vocabulary seems to be shrinking. Same with the type of words. I learned early on in my career that some words were just too colourful for a corporate press release and that even dull words were preferable to images and metaphors. (The BBC did a wonderful send-up on this recently.)

But increasingly, I’m finding that clients seem more inclined to err on the side of bland and repetitive rather than accepting new ways to express a thought. Not jargon exactly but predictable nonetheless.

I look at it this way: Does a shrinking vocabulary limit the way we talk about brands? Does it censor new ideas or reduce a strategy to same-old? Does it change the way we brainstorm new ideas or develop a creative brief? I think it does.

In the struggle to meet plain language criteria and dodge the risk-mitigation hurdles of in-house counsel, I’m afraid that if we continue down this path, we’re doomed to cycle-recycle-repeat, with the occasional new word thrown in for effect.

But I do see signs of hope. In reaction to the new U.S. President’s unique choice of words and worldview, people are talking again. They’re speaking up. They’re agitating. They’re using interesting images (and wearing cool pink hats). Is it just me, or is heartfelt language making a comeback? In a weird way, could this be the best news ever for corporate communicators, speechwriters and content developers everywhere?

March 21st is WORLD POETRY DAY, and this year it can’t come soon enough. According to UNESCO, one of the main objectives of World Poetry Day is to “offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.”

I’m quite sure the Day wasn’t established in order to help broaden the way English speakers use their language in a business context. Probably not even close. But for that one day, I’d find it so rewarding if just one outlier word made it through the client approvals process. Just one. I’m circling the date now.

 

Share and share alike

We live in a share economy. And in the spirit of sharing, I’ve decided it’s time to start passing on some of what I’ve learned after almost 20 years as an indie corporate communications strategist.

In my world, every strategy, every post, every report starts with information. Research is one way to get that information. Talking with people is another. Last year, I probably interviewed 50-60 people for various projects. Some of them were in-person interviews. But most of them were phone interviews. I spend a lot of time listening to people’s stories, and here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Record everything. You’ll need it as back-up. Some clients want the digital file after the interview, some want a transcript. Either way, it’s critical to have hard proof of what was said, in the event your subject claims she was misquoted. It’s also essential to have back-up for approvals, particularly for large clients where most corporate communications are vetted through a disclosure committee or legal team.
  • Listen carefully. If you’re a speechwriter, that digital recording will help you to remember the cadence of the person’s speech, any idiosyncrasies in their speech patterns and the tone you’ll want to emulate in writing for them. This is really important, especially if you need to work quickly and get inside someone’s head to deliver a quality first draft. And if you’re constantly juggling different projects for different clients, having a recording will help to keep things straight and can kick-start new ideas or a new take on a communications strategy.
  • Write it out. If you’re a content developer, I strongly recommend transcribing the recording and then summarizing the key points in a notebook, rather than just keeping the file in digital format. Even when I record a conversation, I always take long-hand notes throughout. And the research on this backs me up. A 2014 report claims that long-hand notes do a much better job at interpreting information as it’s being delivered, compared with simply typing information that we hear. Writing long-hand involves some degree of interpretation, whereas typing amounts to transcribing what you hear. Trust me, you want to remember your reaction to various facts in the moment, and long-hand notes help do that.
  • File it. Keep your notes organized. Put dates on your notebooks, and for each interview, record the date and contact information. I know it sounds old-fashioned. But earlier this year, a client asked me if there were any new angles I could find to update a story I had worked on last summer. Having everything dated, stored and classified made it easier to retrieve — and because the notes were handwritten, all my thoughts on the interview, as well as what was actually said, were all there. This made it more efficient for my client — no additional fees for re-interviewing — and efficient for me, as it put me right back in the headspace I was in when I did the interview.

Bottom-line: Be safe, not sorry. Don’t rely on your memory to keep track of the facts. You owe it to your clients to be accurate. And you owe it to your reputation to be as buttoned down as possible. Sometimes you only get one chance to interview people. Make it count.

 

 

Communications strategy 101

One of the best communications strategies I know, whether it’s in the business world or private life, is knowing when, and how, to say thank you.

I learned a long time ago that thanking a client’s receptionist or EA can be a life-saver.

Saying thanks to clients for work they send our way is also life-saving, but clearly for different reasons.

Remembering to thank partners and suppliers, people we interview, people who help track invoices, technology specialists who get us to deadline on time and with our equipment all still in one piece …. these are just a few of the people who I rely on everyday as an agency owner and business person and to whom I am forever grateful for their help.

This week, ML & CO celebrates 18 years in business. We’ve weathered at least three recessions, maybe more. But more importantly, we’ve done it thanks to those mentioned above, and also thanks to three incredible angel investors, without whose support and encouragement we would not be where we are today.

Very special thanks to three very special women — my mother and my aunt who generously provided seed money in 1997 for a business they didn’t really understand but who clearly understood the potential. And to my sister-in-law, who all these years later continues to provide financial coaching, business advice and a level head.

With gutsy people like this behind us, we’re totally psyched about the next 18 years!

Thanks again for entrusting us with your business.

Not all PR is good PR

The public relations profession has often been dissed for crossing the line between fact and fiction.

It’s called ‘spin’ and critics are quite right to call PR people to the carpet for embroidering the truth. Our reputations as strategic communications advisors — and the very sustainability of our profession — hinges on our ability to present the facts in a way that is credible, provable and transparent.

Contrary to what many people believe, not all PR is good PR. Sometimes what looks like a good story is just that — a story. Spin, pure and simple. And because it’s wishful thinking, rather than reality, it doesn’t do what good PR is supposed to do which is to help people trust what is being said. And by virtue of trusting what is being said, trusting also the person saying it.

McDonald’s Canada recently launched a new ad campaign to try and ‘humanize’ the brand by showing people engaging with it directly. Great idea. I’m all for putting a human face on things.

The part that I have trouble believing is the campaign’s focus on the farming families who help to produce some of the food that McDonald’s sells.I have no problem with farmers, and if you follow my work, you’ll know I’m a big fan of local food.

The issue I have is with the spin. The ads insinuate that because farmers are most likely trustworthy people, therefore McDonald’s food is healthy and natural, and McDonald’s brand is therefore also good.

It’s not only bad logic. It’s wishful thinking. And a clear case where some PR is actually pretty bad.

Food literacy anyone?

Spring may not be in the air yet, but literacy sure is.

Because it’s RSP season in Canada, I’m being swamped with information about saving for retirement and constantly reminded of the need to be more financially literate. I’m also reading a lot more about media literacy and a wonderful organization called MediaSmarts. And last week, it was all about ‘sexual literacy’, as Ontario announced a new sex ed curriculum for primary and high school students.

I applaud all these efforts to make us all smarter and our kids safer. It’s a complicated world out there, and the more informed we are — with credible information — the better able we are to make good decisions.

But there’s one initiative initiative in particular that I want to shout out. Not just because it’s unique and dove-tails with some really amazing research out of McMaster University earlier this month.

As a PR person, why didn’t I think of food literacy? I wish I’d been asked to design a campaign to raise awareness for the importance of knowing more about what we eat. So congratulations to the Durham School Board for introducing a new procurement strategy for 15 of its schools and introducing local food into school cafeterias. I think it’s a great way of teaching students where the food they eat comes from, helping them to think twice before putting stuff in their mouths, and what environmental and health benefits come from their food choices. The initiative also shows tremendous leadership because it demonstrates a commitment to local farmers and the local economy.

I recently spent a lot of time visiting a family member in hospital. One of the things I noticed was the quality of the food and how difficult it was for my sibling to actually tolerate the food because of the medications she was taking. With this in mind, I was interested to read about Health Care without Harm — a movement that I hope will gain momentum and encourage more local hospitals to prove they too are food literate. Patients deserve tasty, nutritious, chemical-free food in hospital, not only for their physical but also their emotional well-being.

There isn’t much popping out of the ground yet, but come planting season, a whole new crop of kids soon will be smarter about their food choices. It kind of makes a grey day in February less dull, doesn’t it?

Reputations live and die online

Reputation has been a hot topic in the world of Canadian journalism lately.

First, radio talk-show host Jian Ghomeshi is let go from the CBC. Then Leslie Roberts resigns as news anchor from Global as a result of an investigation into conflict of interest. And most recently, business editor Amanda Lang has come under scrutiny for conflict of interest, leading our national public network to change its policy on paid appearances by on-air journalists.

The knives are definitely out.

But although they’re handy — and highly visible — targets, it’s not just journalists whose reputations are being flogged in the court of public opinion. It’s all of us. Like it or not, we’re all visible and we’re all targets for scandal.

It’s the world we live in. Sadly, social media has become an ideal platform for finger-pointing, whistle-blowing and reputation-bashing.

According to Tony Wilson, a lawyer and SFU professor specializing in social media and reputation, it’s more important than ever to think long and hard about one’s reputation, and the risks to that reputation, before hitting the ‘send’ button. Here’s the link to a recent article on the subject.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/leadership/the-camera-never-blinks/article22636446/

Consider this: According to Business Insider, there were an estimated 4+ billion mobile phone users in 2012 globally, and the number is expected to increase to over 5 billion by 2017. That’s a lot of photos, a lot of videos, a lot of texts, a lot of opinions and a lot of potential for missteps.

Intimidating as it is, that’s not really the point. The point is that here we have a technology platform that increasingly is being used to ‘out’ people. We’re imperfect beings, and in some weird way, technology is conspiring against us to show us just how broken some of us are.

As a PR person, I’ve seen how personal and corporate reputations can be ruined on social media. I saw it before the advent of social media, at company get-togethers, corporate retreats, and off-site meetings. But with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, the risks have become magnified a thousand-fold.

On the positive side, I’ve also seen how reputations can be enhanced. And that’s really the point I want to emphasize, not the sleazy underside of human behaviour. Instead of tattle-telling on each other, it’s time to grow up and get the most out social. Leverage it for all it’s worth — to build community, improve customer experience, engage employees and strengthen relationships.

So make this the year we all get smarter, lead with our heads, and take the high road.

 

 

Apologize and build trust

One of the first rules in crisis communications is to know when and how to apologize, assuming, of course, that you’re in the wrong.

The sooner the apology is offered, the better it is for your reputation — to say nothing of the reputation that you and your organization have worked hard to build. It’s also best to offer the apology quickly, rather than waiting to be bullied into action on social media or as a result of consumer backlash.

Which leads me to ask why, for instance, have the dentistry students at Dalhousie University not come forward yet to apologize for the unacceptable comments made about their female classmates on Facebook? It seems to me their silence is having a negative impact not only on their reputations as professionals going forward, but also in the moment, on Dalhousie’s. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/dalhousie-dentistry-facebook-scandal-has-some-alums-pulling-funding-1.2882937

Whether out of fear of reprisal, fear of litigation, or simply shame, apologizing when you’re wrong should be part of what executives are taught at business school, if not later in their careers, by their executive coaches, their media consultants, their mentors and colleagues.

Some things are just plain wrong and require an apology. Imagine how differently we might feel as consumers, if someone way back in 2007 had spoken out about sub-prime mortgage lending and blew the whistle. An apology from financial regulators, or from a central bank somewhere, would have been nice. It may not have stopped the global recession we’ve lived with for the past 8 years, but it would have built more trust in the system (and that’s really the bottom-line) had there been more accountability and more mea culpas.

On the subject of natural capital, an interesting article appeared this week in Corporate Knights on global deforestation, including an analysis of why it’s happening, countries most at risk and the overall economic impacts. Here’s the link. http://www.corporateknights.com/channels/natural-capital/decline-of-forests-index

Ever the optimist, the article made me wonder, what a different world it would be if apologies were expected not only for bad personal or corporate behaviour, but also from whole industries or individual governments. In the case of deforestation, how amazing would it be to hear an apology?

Apologizing simply because it’s the right thing to do, especially in this litigious world, takes guts.That’s what I like about the way the CEO of AirAsia is handling communications in the aftermath of Flight 8501′s crash into the Java Sea.I find Tony Fernandez’s approach incredibly refreshing. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/aap/article-2907604/AirAsia-better-CEO-says.html

It leaves me hopeful that even in the face of incredible human tragedy, a new type of leadership might be emerging.

 

 

 

 

 

Is analog trending?

If you work on multiple social media platforms every day, as many of us in public relations and marketing communications do, you know how quickly stories can break and trend — and how tempting it can be to jump into the conversation.

This busy-ness can be both addictive and exhausting. Which isn’t to say  social media isn’t a wonderful tool. It is. It gives a voice to people who may otherwise never have been heard which, as a small boutique PR firm, I fully appreciate.

What I find really interesting, lately, is the emergence of ‘analog’ marketing. Digital and analog are starting to hang out side-by-side — like musical points and counter-points.

Here’s what I mean. Today, I read that Glenfiddich, a brand of single malt whiskey introduced to the U.S. in the 1960′s, had launched an integrated marketing/PR campaign that highlights the brand’s heritage attributes. Budweiser recently announced a similar campaign, marketing its iconic brand in old-fashioned wooden crates.

And it’s not just beverages. The growing ‘authenticity’ trend seems to be driving everything from Etsy’s online market for artisanal goods to the slow food movement. In a digital world that moves quickly, decides quickly, reacts quickly and moves on quickly, there is an equally strong appetite for going slow. Knowing where products come from, who makes them, what makes them unique and what the back-story is — for many people, this knowledge is hugely important and drives consumption.

Louise Fili, whose work I greatly admire and is featured above, is another example of the synthesis between digital and analog. I agree with her view that social media — at least as it is used most often today — allows us access to a lot of information but necessarily a tactile experience. We still need time, and distance, to process the data and figure out what it means, personally and emotionally. Digital may allow us to appropriate and mediate information, analog, I think, allows us to make sense of it on a human level.

I’m sure digital technology will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. And as it does, our experience with using it will no doubt mature. At some point, the busy-ness of it all will settle into a less frenetic, more measured, rhythm.

In the meantime, as PR and marketing professionals, I find the co-existence of analog and digital a cool development. Our job is still about drilling into the data to unearth that nugget of insight that helps clients to communicate credibly and authentically. It’s still about — and always will be about –  helping to build relationships and discovering better ways to engage our audience and customers.

Culturally, this is a time of peaceful co-existence. Even though the pace is frenetic, it’s up to us as practitioners to find the right balance. And to remember that digital’s role is to give analog voice. Analog’s role is to give digital soul.