3 Reasons Why Good Writing Matters

I teach public relations courses as a university adjunct faculty member. Right now I’m grading papers written by students in Employee Communications. The good news is that the principles of effective employee communications seem to have sunk in. Sadly, I’m taking points off for poorly written sentences, spelling and punctuation errors and grammatical mistakes.

It pains me to see how few students — especially those in their third and fourth years of university studies — have mastered the most fundamental skill to our profession. Here are three simple reasons good writing matters:

  • Writing is essential to any job in the communication professions. A communicator not knowing how to write well is like an accountant not understanding the most basic mathematical functions or a carpenter not knowing what tool to use for the job.
  • Writing well requires discipline, and discipline is important in any job. I’m dating myself with this story, but when I was a mass communications student, word processors and computers were just coming into wide use. If we turned in a story in class and the professor found an error — any error, no matter how small — we were sent back to type it all over again on the typewriter. That kind of rigid discipline has made me a better writer and communicator.
  • Poor writing is often the result of carelessness. As an instructor, many of the mistakes I find could have been caught if the student had only proofread their work before sending it to me. As a communicator, if my client gets work riddled with errors, it calls into question the quality of the rest of my work.

I have heard the arguments that language is constantly evolving. I get that. However, the basic rules are there for good reasons. Grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax are necessary for a writer’s words to be clearly understood by the reader. I understand there are times when we can bend or even break the rules. For effect. Like this. However, most of the time — when writing a recommended communication response to an issue, for example, or when writing a press release — we must follow the rules. Doing so demonstrates a command of the language and makes our writing clear and crisp.

Some of my students might not like how many points I take off their otherwise fine papers, but I’ll bet they’re less likely to make those mistakes again.

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Pardon My Pessimism About Solutionism

While watching the Olympics on television over the weekend, I heard a word that actually made my ears hurt. It’s not even a word, really, but one of those manufactured collections of letters that companies – or, more accurately, consultants – try to pass off as a word.

Solutionism.

You read that right. What is solutionism? According to Dow Chemical, it’s the new optimism.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

“Solutionism: The New Optimism,” it turns out, is the new B-to-B marketing campaign Dow is rolling out to position itself as helping to solve some of the world’s problems. It’s part of Dow’s “Human Element” campaign (which, actually, is not bad as far as advertising campaigns go).

Clearly, this new tagline was invented by highly paid marketing consultants. We know this because there are more clichés packed into those four words than you are likely to find anywhere else.

“Solution” is an overused word in press releases and advertising. Confession: I used the word as part of the name of my communication consulting business. In my defense, however, I decided upon Holland Communication Solutions in 2000, when it wasn’t quite as ubiquitous as it is now. Still, if I had it to over again…

Adding any “-ism” to any word is also a cliché. Just like adding “-ize” to turn nouns into verbs.

And “the new” anything is the new black. It’s not so new anymore.

Beyond the clichés, I’m not even sure what the tagline is trying to communicate. That Dow is an optimistic company? That finding solutions to problems is an optimistic act? That Dow has stopped inventing new chemicals and begun inventing new words?

I just hope the folks at Dow feel they got their money’s worth. Because you can bet a lot of money went into inventizing that new word.

Jesus Wept. Enough Said.

My dad, who is a retired Baptist minister and an outstanding teacher of the Bible, asked me to substitute-teach his Sunday school class this week. Most of the people in his class don’t know me very well, so they are probably expecting that the Bible teaching skills of the father have been passed on to the son. They are sorely mistaken.

I’ve taken the task seriously, though, and have been studying and reading commentaries on the scripture passage, which is from John 11 in the New Testament. It tells how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

I can’t seem to get to that part, though, because I’ve become fixated on one verse, John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible:  “Jesus wept.”

So simple, so elegant, so beautiful. And so packed with potential for great discussion. Why did he weep? Was it because the Son of God was experiencing human emotion over the death of a friend? Was it because of his disappointment in Martha’s questioning why he didn’t arrive sooner? Was it because he knew he would soon face death himself? And why did the people who organized the Bible decide to make those two words a verse unto themselves? What were they trying to say about it?

We don’t know. We only know that Jesus wept.

I keep thinking how communication can be so short and to the point and yet so powerful. It’s a beautiful thing. No extraneous words. No flowery phrases. Just a simple statement that, when taken in context, packs a punch.

As I discussed this on Facebook, my friend Steve Crescenzo observed: “What would corporate lawyers do with such a simple, beautiful sentence? After the approval process, it would look like this: ‘From a distance, it appeared that Jesus, or someone resembling Jesus of Nazareth, or a close relative of Jesus of Nazareth, appeared to have what could have been a foreign substance trickling out of his eyes, though it could have been sweat, as it was very hot that day, so there is no way to be sure.'”

If only Jesus could fight the corporate lawyers like he fought the Pharisees.

 

Faith Gives Hope for Communicating with Passion

This weekend I said goodbye to one of my two best friends. I shared some personal thoughts about Faith Eury with my Facebook friends — who she was, how we became friends, why I loved her and what she meant to me. As I’ve thought about her over the last few days, I realize there’s something I can say about her life that is relevant to communicators, so I want to share it here.

Faith was a communicator herself. That’s how we became friends — she worked for a client I served as a consultant 10 years ago. A friendship blossomed, then deepened because of some shared experiences including a history of anxiety attacks. I had been through them before and tried to offer encouragement that she could overcome them. Social anxiety is more common than many people know and attacks can be debilitating.

Faith was an effective communicator because she could cut through extraneous information and get to the essence of a message. She was that way as a person, too. There was no fluff with her. She cut to the chase.

On a spring morning nearly three years ago, I took Faith to the hospital because her primary care doctor told her she needed to go right away and she shouldn’t drive herself. I stayed with her through a long day of examinations and tests that resulted in a diagnosis nobody wants to hear. She had Hodgkin’s disease, a blood cancer that is survivable with chemotherapy. She endured the brutal treatments with courage and grace.

But she did more than just endure. While still in treatment, Faith organized a team to walk in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event in Richmond, Va. Not only did she organize the “Faith’s Hope” team, but it raised the most money of any team in the walk. Over the next two years Faith would lead the team to raise more than $16,000 for blood cancer research. In addition, she helped coordinate events for the LLS and spoke to school groups and others about the importance of research to the fight against cancer. The LLS in Virginia honored her as its Volunteer of the Year in 2010.

All this from a woman who suffered from social anxiety.

Faith and her pal Henry

I’ve thought a lot about how Faith was able to pull it off. Where did she find the courage to overcome her fears and speak publicly about her Hodgkin’s disease? Why didn’t the prospect of getting up in front of total strangers paralyze her? Why did a woman who was intensely private open up her life to not only friends but people she did not know?

It’s because Faith was passionate about her topic. She lived it. She experienced it deeply. It was part of her. When she spoke or wrote about it, she was communicating from the deepest part of her soul.

We communicators can learn something from that. Yes, even in a business context, it’s possible to communicate with as much passion. In business we rarely communicate about life-and-death issues like cancer. But as we write speeches for executives, we can try to pull the passion out of them. As we interview people for a feature story on the company intranet, we can ask them questions that get at why they care about the subject, using real words instead of corporate-speak. We’re working with people, after all, who hopefully live life in a real way and experience things deeply. Sometimes I think we just don’t work hard enough to get to the essence of the message.

If a woman like Faith can cast aside her fear and talk honestly about something she cared about that affected her, why can’t we get our clients to cast aside theirs and talk honestly about things that affect them and their audiences?

Join Me for a Twitter Chat

I’ll be doing something on Thursday, July 14 at 10 a.m. EDT that I’ve never done before: guest hosting a Twitter chat.

In fact, I’ve never even participated in a Twitter chat. I’ve live-tweeted presentations, which is somewhat similar, but this will be a new experience for me. I’m looking forward to it and I’d love for you to join me.

The invitation came from Sean Williams, a fellow communication consultant and college professor I’ve never met, but have admired for many years. I’ve virtually run into Sean many times as we’ve commented on the same blogs and participated in the same webinars.

Sean runs a monthly Twitter chat called #icchat (the IC standing for internal communications, a topic near and dear to both of us). He arranges for a guest host to address some aspect of internal communications through a series of Twitter posts ending with the #icchat hashtag. Participants follow the guest host and filter posts using the hashtag, asking questions of the guest host. The end result is a lively, fast-moving virtual conversation.

If you’d like to see an example of the kinds of discussions taking place in the #icchat sessions, read Sean’s blog account of a recent one about how social media are being used internally.

And if you can spare some time next Thursday at 10 a.m. EDT, join the #icchat where I’ll be talking about writing — how to write simply and clearly and how to do it well no matter what medium you’re using. It should be fun! Hope to see you there.

The Weight of Our Words

Two seemingly unrelated events in the news combine to illustrate the significance of choosing carefully the words we use to make our points.

The mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., caused a lot of discussion about the tone of political discourse in the United States today. While I don’t believe the gunman committed his despicable act directly as the result of fiery rhetoric, I’m convinced that the environment in which our discussions take place has contributed to a more hostile society. And I believe politicians, cable TV and radio personalities, people who spew hatred via social media and even some clergymen birthed this toxic condition and feed it with their daily infusions of vitriol.

We consumers of mass communication are complicit, too. The Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world stay in business because of us. We are the reason they’re unlikely to change the tone of their diatribes anytime soon. They’re in a contest to see who can out-zing the other and many of us are on the sidelines, egging them on, all the while boosting their ratings.

A related event in the news is the decision of a publisher to release an update of Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that replaces the offensive word nigger with the supposedly more acceptable slave. The argument goes that a cleaned-up version of the book will free it from banishment in school libraries across the nation and open it up to a new, more sensitive and politically correct audience of students.

Subjecting Twain’s masterpiece to editing 125 years after the fact robs Twain of his creative license as an artist and robs the audience of its freedom to either choose or reject Twain’s message. More than that, it represents a total misunderstanding of Twain’s statement in support of human dignity and the personal growth that can happen in the hearts of even the most ignorant people (Huck, not Jim).

Each event demonstrates the weight of our words. Those who participate in the heated political rhetoric of our day have little to no appreciation for the power of words. They don’t think through the consequences of what they’re saying and they can’t see the destruction their words are causing. Those who would edit Huck Finn also have little to no appreciation for the power of words. They don’t understand that Twain was deliberate in his choice of words as a reflection of the society of his day and a reflection of the prejudice in people’s souls.

Words carry a lot of weight. That weight can either crush us with its impact or it can make us stronger as we lift words to a higher purpose.

RELATED UPDATE: In a CBS News poll, 57 percent of respondents said they don’t believe heated political rhetoric was a factor in the Tucson shooting. Of course they don’t. It’s like asking a drunk, “So, do you think your drinking has anything to do with your life being in a shambles?”

Writing: The No. 1 Skill for Communicators

Let me be unequivocal in how I say this: Writing is the most important skill a professional communicator can possess.

It amazes me that this remains a topic of debate, but it does. This week, our friends at Ragan.com posted an article titled “Does writing well still matter?” (I’m not providing a link because chances are the story will be behind their firewall by the time many of you read this.)

No communicator should have to ask that question. Of course writing well still matters — despite what some PR consultants and even practitioners have you believe. Anyone in a communication profession who suggests otherwise is simply trying to appear leading-edge and oh-so-21st century. The argument goes that in this day of social media, short attention spans and businesses focusing on the bottom line, other skills are more important to communicators — such as strategic thinking, problem solving and the ability to get results.

The truth is strategic thinking, problem solving and the ability to get results flow directly out of a communicator’s ability to assimilate a multitude of information, shape it into a coherent message that supports business objectives, and then articulate that message in ways that will be well received by audiences. That’s what we do. Without a communicator’s ability to write well, all the strategic thinking, problem solving and results focus in the world won’t do us or our employers any good.

To say the ability to write is not the No. 1 skill communicators need is like saying the ability to operate on a patient is not the No. 1 skill a surgeon needs. It’s a ridiculous statement.

You will find no greater advocate of strategic thinking than I. If we don’t bring that skill — along with myriad others — to the table, then we won’t serve our clients or employers well. The ability to write, though, is the must-have for professional communicators.

I’m an adjunct university instructor in public relations and I can tell you the next generation of communicators needs strong instruction in writing. I don’t entirely blame the students. I believe our public school systems largely fail to teach kids to write, but that’s another discussion for another time.

I’m excited to be teaching a Writing for PR class next semester, the first time I’ve taught this particular subject. I can tell you this: the students who take my class will know how to write before they move on. The objective, after all, is to set them up for success in their future careers.