Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why is Business Writing so Awful?

This was a question posed on the International Association of Business Communicators web site recently and about three dozen people responded.

Here is some of the rationale people gave:

They don't teach people how to write in college - and then they get out into the business world and there's no one to train them.

Executives are uncomfortable letting others write for them and so take all the punch out of what they say.

Writing for SEO means you don't write at the highest level you can - instead it's to fuel the search engines.

Layers of review water down text - and if lawyers are involved it only gets worse.

" I've come across many people who can write well technically and stun with their dextrous manipulation of multiple clause sentences.. . but they are not compelling."

"The biggest problem is that most people think of this as business writing instead of communicating. . . The goal needs to be: communicate in ways that drive the results you wish to achieve.

So what does the expert marketer think? The bar is just way, way too low. I hired a writer once who had a masters degree from a very prestigious "business writing" program and she had no idea how to organize information or determine what was important and what was fluff. She was a good technical editor - but she wasn't a good writer.

I was talking to a former colleague once about the writing that came out of our company and how bad some of it was.

And he said "I now understand that the bar is so low the stuff we produce - even when it's not really good - is better most of the other stuff out of there."

His point was if our clients didn't know what good writing was and didn't respect and admire it - then when they got something that was just OK, but comprehensible and said what they wanted - they were happy. I agree with that.

I also think that most kids are not taught to write in school unless they are in a communications or arts magnet program in middle and high school. I remember the stuff my ex-husband used to get when he was a teaching assistant at MIT.

Some of the papers didn't even make sense. He failed one girl on a paper and she came to him absolutely hysterical. She'd never gotten anything less than an A or B before on an assignment. She was a science and engineering whiz but no paid attention to her writing. When he did - and she calmed down - he was able to help her get better.

So if we as business professionals do not take the time to teach those who work for us - and over the years I have spent a lot of time trying and gotten very little management support for it in the PR world - we bear a lot of the responsibility too.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Redoing Stern Communications Web Site - Design and Definition

If your web site doesn't reflect social media, video, the endless power of the Google search engine, new coding formats, I will not hire you as a partner.

I'm looking for a partner in government relations for what could be a very large project and people are sending me recommendations so I go to their sites - they are just like mine but even flatter. I will not work with them.

I've been wanting to my redo my site for awhile and now we're starting. Awhile ago, I realized that all of the things I was telling clients to do - start blogs, use social media, RSS feeds, and especially coding with key words - were not done on my site.

A colleague put up a band-aid on the gaping out-of-dateness of it, with an RSS feed from one of my blogs and some buttons to social media sites. He had absolutely no sense of design and it looked unbalanced and weird. But he didn't charge me and I can't complain.

My web site is three years-old. It was created before I understood social media and what it can do for you, when you couldn't upload your web site into really flexible formats (or at least no one told me that) and by a woman who though very nice, was pretty limited in her web skills.

Bottom line PR people - while it still may be possible to live within the worlds of the future and the past - your time is ending. Get with the program.

This time around I'm doing better with the web development process. I found a designer through one of the only designers I know in this town who is really good, and the woman she sent me is better. The exact endorsement was "I found this fabulous new designer. . ." and she is absolutely that. I'm not going to give you her contact information until she finishes my site though. The other advantage is Alissa is very client savvy and easy to work with.

Not only did the new designer come with talent - she came with a web developer who is affordable, will answer any questions on just about anything and is as smart and as affable as you get. I feel like I've died and gone to web heaven.

Oh and I forgot the best part. I got a bid to develop a web site from a company recently and it was $15-20,000. This is a designer and web developer who has already done the look and feel and put it into a book and e-book. Plus all their web sites look exactly the same. I'm not saying that overall they didn't do an excellent job - they did. But design wise my redo is creative, smart and going to be 15-20% of that.

To be fair I'm keeping my logo, but it looks so updated in the new format it's unbelievable. So it's really new copy, new categories, new architecture, it's a whole new web site.

So here's what I've learned so far, other than prices for these kind of services, and quality, are all over the place.

Know your business model. When I started this company it was after eight years of fuzzy thinking about how to brand an organization. A group of us tried to define and brand and specialize the DC PR company I was with for several years but all we got was rolled eyes from one founder, and a full listen too by the other who then didn't do anything. Their web site makes mine look like it was developed yesterday morning.

So I started my business and based it fuzzily on the practice I'd developed at the previous client. Like my old company, I was reluctant to specialize because I felt it would cost me business. But of course if you don't specialize, and you can't quickly define what you do best, no one else figures it out either. So now I know - Sharing science, health, engineering and education with everyone. We take our clients' complex stories and transform them into compelling easily understood ones for the media and general public. It's that simple.

Give yourself a break. I could think of a million reasons why I shouldn't pay out a couple grand to redo my site right now, but I can only think of one why I should. If I went to my site and looked at it, I wouldn't hire me. That's about as strong a reason as it gets.

Sound bites are the future You have to tell your company's story right away - and you have to get my attention or I'm off your site. Compelling isn't saying you are great at what you do - although I am. It's conveying experience and confidence then demonstrating through examples how you've helped others. Pretty simple.

More next time on architecture. Oh and as I was writing this I figured out how to connect my intro page with all of the others. So it's not just a rant - it's a productive one. Yeah.

Monday, July 12, 2010

TV Media Training 101 - What Really Makes You Better

I don't do television very often, but I was on NBC Richmond recently for, and it was a cake walk. The producer came to my house, did the interview, filmed it, edited it and handed it over to someone else to integrate into her broadcast.

If this is a model for the future - editorial house calls are more than welcome.

As a matter of fact, all of those high-priced media trainers out there should do a live interview on television and use that as part of their presentation to new clients. That would be a great way to find those who really know what they are doing.

Anyway the person I worked with said I was very good on television. Since I've trained people how to do television, I do know what I'm doing. But I've read so many banal tips about preparing for a broadcast interview, I thought it might be useful to add a few tips of my own.

Don't Be Nervous - If you can talk to your boss, or someone several levels above you with an attitude, television is much easier. First of all most interviews these days are friendly and informative, not hostile and inflammatory unless you work for a company like BP. Most of today's news is about getting information out there that can help people do what products used to do - get things done faster, smarter, more effectively, and save money in the process. Take a deep breath, do some sort of relaxation exercise - you pick - and just have a conversation.

Not being nervous, will also get rid of the Ummmms - remember Caroline Kennedy they counted hers. I can't remember how many there were but it made her look completely unready for the role in which they'd placed her. This may have been totally false, but if it's on TV or the Internet people believe it.

Know Your Talking Points But Don't Spout Them - Talking points are just that - they are ideas to talk about not a line you recite every time you get on television or a list of stuff you must get in no matter what the questions are. Listen first. Figure out the context in which the question was asked and what your interviewer wants to hear. Breathe. Anecdotes are always better than one liners. If you want to hear over talking pointed people, watch Jon Stewart. Most executives that go on that show have a list they've memorized, and aside from an occasional burst of laughter when Stewart says something outrageous, they often come across as scripted. The same is true for Steven Colbert and the morning shows.

Watch the Show - You don't always have to but you should. See how the interviewer interacts with people, and the kinds of information that makes it to into the actual program whether its live or pre-recorded. What do they really want to get across? Then make sure you do it in an engaging way.

Connect, connect, connect - If you don't like the interviewer, the camera will slap you down. Television shows leering, snottiness, anger, drug use (no names but you know you've seen it) you name it - your facial expressions tell a story too. I'm not telling you to be super bland but be conscious of what your face, hands, and mouth are doing. This isn't just talking it's also major body language.

Look where they tell you to look - Whoever is interviewing you does this all the time and knows what to do to make you look your best. Follow the instructions. Look at the camera exactly where they tell you too - or the wall or whatever else the instructions are. Whether you are pre-recorded or live, you'll appear confident and focused. When you have a central focal point, you fidget less. That's a good thing.

Say Thank You - It may not make it on the air, but it always pays to say thank you to the interviewer while film is still rolling. Depending on what kind of show it is - the morning shows in particular - it's a requirement. When people don't say thank you or they delay the thank you they look foolish and kind of rude. It's part of that connection thing.