Talk About Getting Stuck in a Hole

Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, has likened President Barack Obama’s early days in office to the experiences of 33 Chilean miners who spent 69 days trapped deep underground.

According to MSNBC.com:

In a speech to supporters in Las Vegas on Sunday night, Reid said that when Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House he found himself in a “hole so deep that he couldn’t see the outside world.

“It was like the Chilean miners, but he, being the man he is, rolled up his sleeves and said ‘I am going to get us out of this hole,'” Reid said at an “Early Vote GOTV” event.

Right. The political challenges facing the leader of the free world are akin to spending day after agonizing day in a hot, dark tomb, wondering if you’ll ever see your family again.

Reid’s choice of analogies is so distasteful that it barely deserves comment. So I’ll end it here, but direct you to some similes and metaphors that are so bad they’re funny.

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The Adventures of Pinkly Pulchritudinous

Preparing recently to teach a class on writing for public relations, I ran across an example of what not to do that is so terrible that I just have to share it.

This is from a florist’s website:

Pinkly pulchritudinous and amazingly delightful, infinitely charming and sensationally fascinating.

Somebody’s been leafing through their thesaurus again.

Pinkly pulchritudinous? Sounds like the name of an effeminate villain on an old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon.

Readers’ admiration for your writing does not increase with the number of syllables you write. William Strunk, who co-authored the classic handbook on writing, The Elements of Style, said it best: “Vigorous writing is concise.”

The Only Time Jargon Works

A few weeks ago I spoke to a group of job-seeking professionals about how to market themselves. One bit of advice I gave them is to avoid jargon in their written and spoken communications.

Afterward, one of the participants challenged me on that point. “I’m a tax accountant,” he said. “If I don’t use tax lingo with my peers, they won’t know what I’m talking about.”

That, my friends, is the only time it is appropriate to use jargon: when its absence would reduce clarity and understanding among your audience.

As I said to the tax accountant, my work is all about helping people and organizations communicate clearly. One of the greatest barriers to clear communication is the use of jargon. Ninety-nine percent of the time, jargon gets in the way of effective communication. And there is a more insidious side to jargon, too. Often, people use it in order to purposely obfuscate.

Once while preparing a presentation to a group of marketers about writing clear copy, I used this example from a website. The name has been changed to protect the guilty:

XYZ is a unique, patented software solution that addresses the problem of organizational disconnectedness. By automatically understanding enterprise activity in real time, XYZ enables employees throughout the organization to connect with one another on key topics and speeds the organization’s ability to solve problems and address issues.

That’s a lot of words to say this company’s software helps people talk about the stuff they need to talk about. There’s really not a lot of “there” there, so the copywriter used big words to cover that fact up. The message is not clear and not easily understood — but it sure sounds impressive.

Instead of relying on jargon to get your point across, think about these things before you write:

  • How would you say it to a neighbor at a backyard barbecue?
  • Does it really pass the “smell” test? Could you speak those words without cracking up?
  • What are you trying to hide by using big words and long sentences? An unclear message? A weak argument? Lack of confidence in what you’re saying?
  • Would people really get the point without you having to explain it to them?
  • Are you just trying to impress someone by using jargon? And if so, why?

If you eliminate jargon, people will easily understand what you’re trying to say and they’ll have a lot more respect for you (or your organization) for saying it clearly.

But, hey, if you work with a bunch of tax accountants and they know what the jargon means, go for it.

Don’t Mess with a Cowboy’s Name

“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.” Mrs. Page in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare

TV Land sent me an e-mail today notifying me of a weeklong marathon of “The Brady Bunch” episodes celebrating the series’ 40th anniversary. I know all the Bradys’ names: Mike, Carol, Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby and Cindy. And Alice.

I also know the names of the Cartwrights of the old western TV show, “Bonanza.” That’s why I was shocked — shocked, I say — when I saw in the same e-mail a promotional ad encouraging me to follow the adventures of Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little John.  Little John?!

Yes, TV Land — the last bastion of bad TV — had bastardized Little Joe Cartwright’s good name. So I did what any good editor would do. I sent TV Land an e-mail telling them of their error. They wrote back with an apology, which is fine, but I hope they corrected the error.

Now, before you think I’ve become a crotchety old curmudgeon when it comes to spelling and grammar, let me just say that errors regarding a person’s name — even that of a fictional cowboy — are especially egregious. And I should know.

My first job after college was that of reporter for a weekly newspaper that, at the time, was highly respected throughout Virginia. Part of the reason it garnered such respect was because it was a fine product with excellent reporting, writing that sparkled and compelling photos. Another reason was because its editor, Jay Pace, was a patient mentor to his young staff.

A memorable assignment for me was to profile a young man who had become a champion rodeo cowboy. It was a fun story. I spent several hours talking with the guy, our photographer took some great pictures and I could tell this was going to be a beautiful package. So I told of Freddie’s accomplishments, I quoted Freddie liberally and I wrote a story that I was sure Freddie would proudly show his family and friends and fellow cowboys. The story of Freddie published the following week.

The only problem is the cowboy’s name was Frankie.

I was devastated. Not only did I embarrass myself, but I also embarrassed Frankie. I apologized profusely and he took it in stride. But I could just see all his rodeo cowboy friends, laughing and calling him Freddie. I had messed up the one thing you just don’t mess with — a person’s name. And a cowboy’s name at that! You just don’t.

I can unequivocally say that I never made that mistake again. When I’ve written about people — and I’ve written about a lot of people in the 25 years since then — I’ve always double-checked the spelling of their names. When I’ve edited other people’s work, I’ve verified the spelling of names if I had the slightest doubt.

Life’s circumstances might take a lot of things away from us, but it can never take away our names. Everyone deserves to have their name treated with respect and spelled properly.

Even Little Joe Cartwright.

Speling Erors Guarenteed

This is the first week of school for my two sons — one is a senior in high school and the other is in 8th grade — which means an onslaught of syllabi and introductory letters from teachers. It also means my annual gnashing of teeth over the number of spelling and grammatical errors in those documents.

Before school started I received an e-mail from the 8th grader’s Language Arts teacher. She used “you’re” where the correct word was “your” and she misspelled “guarantee.” I resisted the urge to print it out, mark it up with a red pen and send it back to the teacher. I’ve done it in the past, but I’m mellowing in my old age. Plus, I didn’t want to make things difficult for my son.

But come on! This is the teacher who is teaching my son Language Arts!

I’ve been called a grammar snob, but I don’t mean to be. I also don’t care because I believe using our language correctly is as important as using the correct functions in math and mixing the correct elements in science. Just as a 2 won’t do when the correct number is 3, “you’re” shouldn’t be used in place of “your.”

There simply is no excuse for these errors from a teacher. If they were typos, then she should have proofread her work. If she wasn’t sure which word to use or how to spell a word, she should have looked it up. These are things that I — someone who makes a living using the English language — must do every day. Within my reach right now are a dictionary and three grammar reference books. I use them all the time. Lots of similar handbooks are easy to find.

We all make mistakes, but we should learn from them and avoid repeating them. Like it or not, teachers — just as professional communicators — are held to a higher standard and they represent their larger organizations. This parent would feel a lot more confident in the quality of my children’s education if their teachers could produce a simple letter without errors.

7 Tips for Writing Sticky Online Copy

This week I delivered 7 tips for writing “sticky” online copy to the IABC chapter in Lynchburg, Va.

Writing for online media is different from writing for print. One of the big differences is that online readers generally are more transient, less patient with long prose and more interested in grabbing all the information they can in as little time as possible. That’s why online copy has to be sticky. It must make a quick impact, grabbing readers’ attention and drawing them into the content. It has to be efficient. It must be compelling enough to keep readers on the intranet or website because they are easily lured elsewhere.

Tip #1. Short and sweet. For intranet stories, I like the guideline of 400-600 words per story (and 600 is getting pretty long for online). Keep it shorter for website info, marketing copy, etc. Shoot for 1-2 screens of copy with minimal scrolling. Write short sentences, use bullets and abbreviations and vary the formats with lists, Q&As, etc. Think like Twitter. What can you say in 140 characters? Elevate the role of editing when writing for online.

 Tip #2. Get right to it. Rethink the 5 W’s you learned in journalism school. They don’t always apply to online writing. Skip the lengthy prose. Kill wordy jargon. Go for simplicity, which can be beautiful. William Strunk: “Vigorous writing is concise.”

 Tip #3. Punchy heads and teasers. First impressions are everything, especially online. Remember the purpose of heads and teasers (as well as leads): Pull ‘em in. Readers wonder if your content is worth their time and what they will get out of it. Address those issues. Use action words and active phrases. For great examples of punchy heads and teasers, look at popular media. My friend Steve Crescenzo always points to Cosmopolitan as being the standard for enticing heads. Who wouldn’t want to know 5 Ways to Make Your Lover Scream with Pleasure?

 Tip #4. Break up copy. Liberally use bullets, subheads, sidebars, Q&As and other copy-breakers. Reduce word count. Provide visual breaks wherever possible. Be on constant lookout for breakout opportunities.

 Tip #5. Link to other stuff. Link where more info enhances the message or helps the reader, but don’t link frivolously. Too many links can be annoying. Link to info on your own site first and open links in a new window so readers stay on your site. Use links to help readers take action, sign up, request more information or learn more.

 Tip #6. Keep it active. Write in the active voice. Help readers take action. Look for opportunities for interaction; this is the Web, after all. Readers are transient, so make their quick visit to your site worthwhile.

 Tip #7. Write well. The way to do this is by reading a lot and writing a lot. Your copy needs to be compelling, interesting and fun. Learn to tell great stories instead of imparting dry information. Use lots of quotes. Avoid jargon.

That list should get you started. Do you have other tips for making your online copy sticky?

Fundamental Skills for the Profession

I just want to say this right up front: I had nothing to do with last week’s Twitter and Facebook outages.

But I could not have orchestrated a better example for the point I made in last week’s post about how communicators fawn over social media while allowing other fundamental skills and capabilities to languish for lack of attention.

What has our profession become when we are so reliant on one form of communication — for our own use as well as to carry out the work of our clients — that its failure cripples us? A reader of another blog shared a quote from a PR manager who “said she felt ‘completely lost’ with Twitter out because ‘it gives me all the breaking news I need.'” This kind of statement makes me fear for our profession.

As I wrote last week, I understand the tremendous impact social media have made on communication in general and on the communication professions in particular. I am not a Luddite; in fact, over the years I have embraced technology as a powerful tool for organizational communication. I use and participate in social media all the time. And there is no denying that social media skills are necessary to work in our profession today.

The thing that bothers me about social media is how so many communicators are so enraptured by it that we have lost sight of skills and capabilities that are more lasting and, I believe, ultimately more important to succeed in PR and communications. I am especially concerned that the next generation of PR/communication professionals will be well-versed in social media but will lack other fundamental skills.

What skills do I believe are necessary for PR/communication professionals? Here is my list. I’d like your reactions:

  • Writing. This is the foundation upon which everything else we do is built. The ability to express oneself and to use our language correctly is important for anyone, but it is required of communication professionals. There’s no room for sloppiness. We wouldn’t hire a carpenter who decided 13 inches rather than 12 equals one foot. Neither should anyone hire a professional communicator who fails to uphold basic standards of writing. Our credibility as communicators is at stake and we need to know how to use this most basic skill.
  • Strategic thinking/planning. The ability to put together a strategic communication plan is important, but the real value lies in possessing a strategic mindset. This is the ability to connect the dots between PR/communication activities and business goals. My mentor and friend Les Potter taught me everything I know about strategic communication planning and I believe his model remains the best.
  • Problem solving. This is akin to research, but at a more tactical level. It’s the ability to break down a problem to its root cause and then to create solutions that meet the needs of diverse constituencies. Negotiation is part of problem solving.
  • Research. Business leaders don’t base their decisions purely on gut instinct. The ability to research an issue on the front end in order to understand it and on the back end in order to measure it is vital. By the way, social media can be tremendous aids in research.
  • Tactical skills. We must know how to use the tools of our trade — from how to develop a website to how to produce a publication to how to plan an event. Social media are among the tools at our disposal, but there are so many more of which we also need a working knowledge.
  • Business acumen. PR and communication pros must know how business works, how to navigate organizational politics and how to speak the language of business.
  • Relationship management. We must know how to build and maintain relationships with various stakeholders inside and outside our businesses and our clients’ industries. It’s also important for us to manage our personal relationships within our profession because they enhance our lifelong learning.
  • Flexibility. We must learn how to be open to opportunities that come to us. We must be open to criticism, adaptable to changing circumstances and open to learning. This mindset is a skill that is learned; it does not usually come naturally.

What do you think of this list? Do you see anything being especially neglected while social media command our attention?