Be your own PR guru

Let your passion shine through: take a leaf from Steve Jobs’ book and focus on the story you’re trying to tell, not the product you’re trying to sell

From my recent dealings with small businesses, I’ve come to see that there’s often a huge gulf between the passion that many business owners have for their businesses and their ability to communicate that passion through the various media available to them.

Once upon a time, when a business had a good story to tell, they drafted in a PR professional to write some press releases or maybe set up a glitzy event in order to get the traditional media outlets (newspapers, TV, radio) to give them some coverage. It was a system that worked fine – especially for the PR professionals themselves!

Now all that has changed. As everyone knows, the traditional media outlets have lost much of their stranglehold over the distribution of news. The massive variety of channels now available to businesses – and individuals – means that we longer need to rely solely on a newspaper or radio station to cover our event or story. From Twitter to Facebook to Youtube, there are now myriad ways in which businesses can get their message out. Essentially we are all now our own PR people.

While that clearly represents a real opportunity for businesses to tell their stories, it does leave them with one major problem: how to do it effectively.

And that goes to the heart of the problem that this blog is trying to address, namely the widespread inability to write clearly and effectively.

No matter how passionate you are about your business, if you can’t communicate that passion effectively then your audience simply won’t get it.

What has struck me about small business owners is that when asked to speak about what they do and why their business is so fantastic and amazing and wonderful, they have no problem doing so.

So why then do  so many of them fall down so badly when it comes to writing about their businesses?

You can see it everywhere – on company websites, in press releases, even in brochures and ads – incorrect spelling, bad grammar, nonsensical jargon. Where is the fluency with which they can talk about their business and why doesn’t it translate into writing?

I think it goes back to a common problem that arises whenever someone is presented with a pen and paper (or keyboard):  they switch into Writing (with a capital W!) mode. This manifests itself in various ways: using words and phrases that they don’t fully understand and often don’t make any sense; cluttering up their sentences with meaningless jargon; writing in a bland, official style that completely obscures their passion.

And as for the incorrect spelling, well there’s simply no excuse for that! Use the spell check or, failing that, BUY A DICTIONARY.

If small business owners are to take control of their own PR, then they need to put aside all the gobbledygook and start thinking about one simple thing – the story they’re trying to tell.

Steve Jobs was a master at this. He may have been selling machines (admittedly some pretty cool machines, but machines none the less), but in order to do so, he created brilliant stories, compelling narratives that customers in their millions bought into.  When you buy an Apple product, you’re not buying a machine for playing music or a glorified laptop, you’re joining a club of cool, hip, in-the-know people throughout the world who share an appreciation of style and functionality and performance etc.

You’re not buying a machine, you’re buying a lifestyle. You’re buying a  dream!

Or so Apple would like us to believe…

That’s the message that small business owners need to take on board when it comes to writing about their businesses. Remember, you’re telling a story – a story you believe in passionately and one you want to share with anyone who’ll listen. Drop the jargon, keep it simple, let that passion shine through and soon you’ll be putting the PR professionals to shame.

Keep it simple

“Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify.” — Henry Thoreau

Simplicity is the key to good journalism. Write clearly, write concisely, write honestly – and you’re on the way to writing well.

We live in a world that is governed by incredibly complex systems – both natural and manmade. The job of the journalist is to break these down – get to the nub of an issue and make sense of it all for your reader.

Simplicity is a virtue, and like most virtues, it can often be difficult to maintain.

There are many temptations, seeking to lead us from the path of virtue. For a hack, the greatest of these is the temptation of complexity. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of over-complication. We think it makes us seem smart – and as such is a classic example of the ego getting in the way of the writing.

Researching a story, speaking to sources, unearthing and making sense of data gives us access to a huge amount of information – much more that our readers will have access to. It can often be easier to simply throw it all into an article you’re writing rather than take the time to break it all down  and create a coherent – and simple to understand – story.

Taken in this light, complexity is a sign of a lazy journalism. It tells the reader that either you can’t make sense of it all yourself, or you can’t be bothered breaking it down for him. In my experience, the first of these is the most common.

I’ve already mentioned the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where and Why. Pretty much all stories can be broken down to these essential elements. But when it comes to simplicity in writing, I’m a big believer in the 3 Es. – Engage, explain and eliminate.

Engaging the reader is the first – and biggest – challenge for any writer. In an era where people are being bombarded with information from a huge array of sources, we have become extremely good at editing out what is not useful. Most of the time, we do this unconsciously, scanning headlines and opening paragraphs for certain key words and phrases. Those that grab us, we continue to read; those that don’t, we ignore. You need to grab the attention of your reader from the first sentence, make it so that they HAVE to keep on reading. A never-before-revealed fact, an unforgettable image, a fascinating character – all these serve the same purpose – getting a reader engaged

Once you’ve hooked them, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. What’s the article about? What’s the story? That’s when you start to EXPLAIN.

Example:

John Smith was just fifteen when he walked through the gates of X Chemicals for the first time. Today his fifteen-year-old son waits for him at those same gates as he leaves for the last time.

John is one of 1,000 workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the closure of the Springfield plant – part of the company’s plan to cut $5m from its annual wage bill.

In these first two paragraphs, you draw your reader in by putting a human face – a name, a story, an emotion – on the story. Then you summarise what the story is about.

But as you go on to explain further, you must also ELIMINATE.

Chances are you have a huge array of facts at your fingertips – hours of research, interviews, data, statistics – all of which is swimming around in your head as you start to write the story. The art of elimination involves knowing how much of this can be left out, what’s not essential to the story – that background noise that will only serve to confuse your reader, not enlighten them. Cut out the jargon, the repetition, the meaningless data – anything that serves to confuse rather than clarify.

Remember: What you leave out is just as important as what you put in.

Jargon and how to avoid it

Jargon. It’s all around us. From the corporate world to the voluntary sector, it seems that nobody in authority is capable of saying what they mean any longer, instead couching their utterances in a meringue of meaningless buzzwords and quasi-technical gobbledygook.

Sadly, the media is also infested with this creeping canker. How many times have you read jargon-filled articles that leave scratching your head by the end, asking yourself ‘what the hell was all that about’?

It’s nothing short of an epidemic. Take a look through any ‘serious’ newspaper or magazine. Chances are it’s full of terms like ‘rationalisation’, ‘collateral damage’, ‘austerity’, ‘challenging trading conditions’…the list goes on.

It’s easy to understand why some business/political leaders use jargon. By definition, it’s a way of codifying language, obscuring it so that the true meaning of what you’re saying can be understood only by those in your own clique.

Hence the use of terms like ‘austerity measures’ rather than ‘cuts’, ‘collateral damage’ rather than ‘civilian casualties’, ‘friendly fire’ rather than ‘shot by their own side’. And we won’t even go into the linguistic diarrhea that is modern business jargon and which has introduced such terms as ‘buy in’, ‘going forward’, ‘low-hanging fruit’ or the execrable ‘core competencies’.

A good journalist will avoid jargon at all costs. If an interviewee uses it, ask him to clarify what he means. If he fails to do so, then do the job for him. It’s not your job to hide meaning behind obscure terms or to help him cover up what his corporation/department/organisation is really trying to do. It’s your job to let your audience know what’s going on – and to do so in the clearest possible terms.

People resort to jargon for two reasons: to deliberately obscure meaning or because they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

There’s no excuse for a journalist to fall into either of these two categories. If you’re unclear what a word or a term means, find out. If your interviewee is unwilling to use clear, unambiguous language, then it’s your job to explain to your readers what he’s talking about. He may be a mouthpiece for some organisation or other but you’re not. Don’t simply repeat what’s being said to you, explain it. Probe, don’t parrot. Clarify, don’t collaborate. Become a jargon-buster today and help make the world a better, clearer place!