7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.7

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3) Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

4) Writing well saves everyone’s time

5) Writing well can give full expression to your great ideas

6)   The process of improving your writing forces you to clarify your ideas

7)    Good writing makes you look good

Write well and you can get away with a multitude of other failings. If I’m totally honest I would say that throughout my life I’ve been able to get away with being lazy, incompetent and on more than one occasion quite frankly dissolute, simply because I can write well.

People are impressed by the ability to put words together in the right order. It happens with oratory (just ask Tony Blair) and it happens with the written word. It comes back to the point that business is all about personal relations and if you can express yourself eloquently people are more likely to read what you have written, to accept your opinions and ultimately to warm to you.

It certainly helps if you can back up your words with rigorous research, incisive analysis and genuine expertise – just as it’s usually best to remain sober when writing – but it’s not altogether necessary. The power of writing is such that it is enough, on its own, to make you look good.

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Press release of the month: Cable & Wireless Worldwide

This month I’m looking at a press release I received on 9th February from CHA PR. Here it is:

CONFERENCE CALLER CONFESSIONS – CHECKING EMAILS, DOODLING, EATING AND FALLING ASLEEP

SURVEY BY CABLE&WIRELESS WORLDWIDE FINDS THAT:

  • OVER 42 PER CENT OF BRITS CHECK OR WRITE EMAILS AND 32 PER CENT DOODLE WHILE TAKING PART IN A CONFERENCE CALL
  • 24 PER CENT OF THE UK WOULD BE HAPPY TO DEAL WITH A DOCTOR OR HEALTH PROVIDER ON A VIDEO CALL

09 February 2011: Over 42 per cent of UK business people admit to having checked or written emails when on a telephone conference call, while 35 per cent have doodled and three per cent have even fallen asleep, according to research from mission critical communications provider Cable&Wireless Worldwide.

In the UK our concentration and focus on telephone conference calls begins to wane after an average of 23 minutes, but on a video conference call or in a face-to-face meeting our attention span rockets to 35 minutes, putting us on par with Singaporeans who report the longest concentration time on a video conference call at 37 minutes. Interestingly, on regular one to one phone calls the average focus in the UK is just nine minutes, a figure the Germans put to shame with the ability to concentrate for over 16 minutes.

It’s not just those from the UK who have a tendency to lose concentration on a conference call. Over 46 per cent of all respondents from Germany, India, Spain and Singapore check or write emails, while on average 43 per cent surf the net, 17 per cent doodle and 11 per cent have even made another phone call.

Cable&Wireless Worldwide provides telephone and video conferencing solutions to large national and multi-national companies and UK Government departments.  It estimates that the use of managed video conferencing (MVC) saves customers at least 25 per cent on their travel costs. The number of video conferencing units being deployed to customers has increased by 34 per cent over the last 12 months. Internally, Cable&Wireless Worldwide uses managed video conferencing extensively, clocking up over 1.2 million minutes across the business in 2010 with usage increasing 36 per cent in the last six months alone.

Video conferencing and face to face meetings also tend to bring out the image-conscious in us with two thirds of people in the UK saying they would put more effort into their personal presentation by wearing smart business attire, while a third would smile more. Just over 10 per cent of 16-24 year olds would even practice in front of a mirror before!

“It’s fascinating to see the different behaviours prompted by audio and video conferencing,” says Matt Key, Managing Director, Enterprise at Cable&Wireless Worldwide. “Both telephone and video communications have an important role to play, particularly in the workplace. However this research clearly shows that telephone conference calls are best suited for a shorter conversation while video conferencing can ensure that people are focused for longer.

“It seems video calls are better for discussions where it is important to not only hear what is being said but also see how people on the other end are expressing themselves. Video conferencing is particularly well suited to greater numbers of participants and meetings where visual props need to be discussed. It also makes the workplace more stylish!”

The Cable&Wireless Worldwide survey also found that almost 24 per cent of people in the UK would be happy to deal with a doctor or health provider on a video call. This number rises to 54 per cent in India while in Singapore more than 36 per cent would be happy to talk to a school teacher through a video call.

Luan de Burgh, a leading voice and presentation coach, says: “The way people present themselves, visually as well as verbally, has an enormous impact. It’s always been the case in traditional face to face meetings but with the increase in the use of high definition video conferencing in the workplace and personal video calls, people need to consider how they look on screen as well.”

NOTES TO EDITORS:

Cable&Wireless Worldwide conducted a survey with over 4,800 consumers and business respondents in the UK, India, Spain, Germany and Singapore about their communication methods and habits.

Luan de Burgh who has lectured on the prestigious voice studies course at the Central School of Speech and Drama and is a leading voice and presentation coach.

Now, I’m going to disappoint you and admit that I think this is a very good press release. I wouldn’t really expect anything less from CHA – they’re a bright bunch who I deal with frequently and who by and large hit the mark with their press releases and pitches. So, what do I like about this press release?

– I can’t spot a single error of spelling, grammar, maths or fact, so I can focus on the point they’re making

– they make that point clearly and directly, with some good, solid stats to support it

– they give some vivid examples that I (and more importantly my readers) can identify with: who hasn’t checked e-mails or come close to falling asleep on a conference call? (Just me? Well I’ve been on some truly dull conference calls!)

– the subject is entirely relevant to me and the titles I write for, and they’ve found an interesting way of promoting their client’s services

Good job, CHA. A final comment on surveys….

People on my copywriting course often ask about the use of surveys in press releases and I think they’re a useful tool, which can help to add credibility to a point. However I offer a few caveats:

– the survey has to be credible; this means it’s conducted by an impartial third party and it involves a statistically relevant sample

– be careful with numbers, especially percentages; they don’t come easily to us wordy types, but we do need to make sure they all add up

– avoid tedious comparisons between regions and countries; I can understand the need to include regional comparisons if you’re sending the release to local media as they are popular with those titles, but I would steer clear of using your survey results to reinforce tired and irrelevant national stereotypes

How did this press release fare against those criteria?

– 4,800 is a good sample, but C&W did it themselves which makes me question how far I can trust these figures

– as far as I can see C&W and CHA have got their maths spot on

– is it really interesting that, according to this survey, Singaporeans and Germans can concentrate for longer than Britons? I don’t think so.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this press release and on the use of surveys in general. Do you agree with my caveats? Are there others you would add? Do you think conference call concentration could make it as an event in the 2012 Olympics?

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Interview of the month: Angela Knight on Reuters TV

Angela Knight has a tough job. As the Chief Executive of the British Bankers’ Association she is essentially apologist in chief for the group of people widely credited with the most severe economic crash in living memory.

As public sector spending cuts start to bite, small businesses continue to struggle to get credit, and the threat of stagflation looms ever more menacingly, Knight is probably hoping and praying for bankers to keep a low profile for a while – most of all stop paying themselves so much.

She will have been disappointed. Shortly after announcing that his bank paid just £113m in corporation tax in 2009, Barclays Chief Exec, Bob Diamond, revealed he’s paid himself a bonus of £6.5m.

He doesn’t really have to worry about the fall-out from all this. That’s what he’s got Angela Knight for. You can imagine the conversation, as Rich Ricci (the remarkably named boss of Barclays Capital) put his head round Diamond’s office door.

Ricci : “Bob! £6.5m, you old dog!”

Diamond: “I know! Great, isn’t it, Rich? And you? Think you’ll scrape by on your £44m?”

Ricci: “Oh I’ll manage somehow. This is the Age of Austerity after all – ho ho ho! Just one thing, Bob – how are we going to square it with the media? I mean, surely, there will be questions asked?”

Diamond: “Oh yeah. There always are. That’s what we’ve got good old Angela for. She’ll go on telly and trot out some bollocks about how we’re all going to move to Switzerland if the Government stops us paying ourselves what we like.”

Ricci: “Switzerland – hilarious! How do they keeping thinking of new ones? Anyway, so long as you’ve got it all in hand I’d best get on. This money doesn’t spend itself after all.”

Something like that anyway.

So, you’d expect Angela Knight to be a good media performer. And she is. She  used to be a Conservative MP after all. Take a look at her on Reuters TV.

Five things I think she does well:

1) Straight away she corrects the journalist’s assumption. In fact she doesn’t really contradict him that much, but the fact she’s done it, and done it in a friendly, jovial way, immediately puts her in a strong position in what could turn into a difficult interview.

2) She’s well presented, in smart, sombre colours. Her jewellery might be a bit fussy for TV, and her hair’s a little flyaway, but nothing that would distract too much or detract from her impressive appearance.

3) She deals with awkward questions (such as “Which of your members are going to leave?”) well. She can’t really answer this, but she doesn’t make it clear she’s not answering it. She looks as if she’s answering it, but actually talks about something altogether. Crucially, she makes what she does say fairly interesting and to the point of the interview.

4) She’s clearly very well briefed on exactly what she believes the banking industry has done to curb excessive pay.

5) She signposts her key messages. For example: “What we MUST do is achieve balance in how we view this issue…”

All in all I think it’s a very impressive performance and one that anyone planning to speak to journalists in front of the camera could learn from. And best of all, it means those good old bankers have one less thing to worry about, and can dedicate themselves full-time to spending their bonuses.

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Thought of the month: doosras, googlies and cake

It can last five days after which it still ends in a draw. It is famously dependent on good weather. And its rules are a mystery to at least 99% of the world’s population.

And yet, dear reader, I put it to you that cricket is still the greatest sport ever invented.

Why?

One, it’s nice to look at. Players dressed in white, in lush green fields on perfect summer’s days. What could be more picturesque?

Two, you’re never too old. In my club we have players well into their seventies, and their wisdom and character is just as valuable to the side as youthful energy and strength.

Three, it’s an equal opportunities sport. Women’s cricket is a fast-growing sport – helped by the fact that the English women’s team won the last World Cup.

Fourthly, it is a love affair that can last a lifetime. You never fully master the game. Even when you know your leg before and your silly mid offs, are you sure you know how to deal with a doosra followed by a googlie?

Fifthly, food is included. I won’t labour this point – I’ll only say that oranges in a sweaty dressing room that stinks of deep heat bears no comparison to a homemade cake in a pavilion lined with black and white photos of teams from yesteryear.

Fifthly, and most importantly, cricket is a mind game, a test of character. Perhaps only golf rivals it in this regard. You can have all the natural ability you want but if you lack patience, courage and judgement you will never make it count. If sport is a test of character then cricket is its ultimate test.

Still don’t believe me? Well at some point over the next few weeks take a look at the World Cup which is currently being played in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. One day cricket is not the finest version of the game, but in that part of the world it is more ardently supported than football in the favelas. Last Sunday England drew with tournament favourites India in a thrilling , high scoring match in front of a sell-out crowd of more than 40,000 in Bangalore.

Take a few minutes in the next few days to watch a bit of the tournament, and then try to tell me this is a dull game. I’m confident that you’ll soon agree that this is in fact the greatest sport ever invented.

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Press release of the month: Giveacar.com

Here is the press release I’m dissecting this month. It arrived in my inbox on 8th February:

“Young entrepreneur answers David Cameron’s call for Enterprise

In July last year David Cameron launched the ‘Big Society’ campaign to empower members of the public to play a greater role in the prevision of services in their local areas. This ambitious plan has sought to reinstate the entrepreneurial spirit and culture of volunteerism the Conservatives believe dwindled under Labour, as well as to loosen the restrictive grip of Whitehall over those who would like to influence the direction of services in their local communities.

The Big Society programme has come hand-in-hand with the spending cuts highlighted by the Prime Ministers as an essential step in creating a sustainable state. It is hoped that charities and social entrepreneurs will step into the void created by reductions in local spending to soften the blow of diminished public services. In addition, the Prime Minister sees the creation of a new generation of entrepreneurs as an important part of creating jobs and generating growth on the path to economic recovery.

One young entrepreneur and founder of the social enterprise Giveacar, Tom Chance, has heeded Mr Cameron’s call. Chance started the car donation service in January 2010 just as the economy was slowly emerging after an 18 month-long recession. His organisation arranges for the scrappage of old and unwanted cars, a service traditionally operated by local authorities, and donates the proceeds of the scrappage to charitable causes.

In the 12 months since its birth Giveacar’s popularity has grown rapidly. Attracted by the simplicity and the chance to make a donation to their favourite charity more and more people are utilising Chance’s scheme each month.

In addition to reducing the burden on local councils across the UK to deal with unwanted and abandoned cars, Giveacar, which Chance started from his bedroom, also provides employment for three people at its office in London. With demand sky high Chance is looking to add to his staff to cope with the mounting number of donations.

“It is great to contribute to the UK economy, even if only in a very small way. The charity sector, like other sectors, has been hit hard by the spending cuts, and never before has the demand for innovative schemes like Giveacar been higher.” Commented Chance.

The Giveacar scheme, now operating for one year, is supported by 250 charities, and has made donations exceeding £250,000. A drop in the ocean for the UK economy, but an indication that graduate enterprise has a lot to offer.

To find out more about Giveacar, visit www.giveacar.co.uk or call 020 0011 1664.”

SEVEN WAYS TO IMPROVE IT:

It’s an interesting business in a very topical area, but this press release isn’t doing justice to it. It could be vastly improved.

In my training course How to Write Copy That Journalists Actually Use I outline 20 steps to improving press releases. These are in four sections: getting the basics right, simplifying your language, telling a story, and making it relevant. I can straightaway identify seven improvements to this press release from just the getting the basics right and simplifying your language sections:

1) Sort your spelling out. First sentence: “prevision” should be “provision”. It looks sloppy and many journalists will stop reading right there and then.

2) Sort your grammar and punctuation out. To give just one example, there’s no need for hyphens in ‘hand in hand’. Again it looks a bit amateurish.

3) Get someone to proofread your copy. Why have we got an ‘s’ after Prime Minister? I know Cameron and Clegg are fairly indistinguishable, but I’m pretty sure there’s still only one Prime Minister.

4) Don’t waste time on unnecessary background. Everyone reading this is going to know what the Big Society is, and is just going to be bored by this fairly turgid explanation. Cut it.

5) Get to the point. This press release only begins to get interesting in the third paragraph. Why not cut the first two paras down to something like: “With Government spending cuts begining to bite and private sector recovery remaining tentative, it is more important than ever that social entrepreneurs step forward to deliver not only the Prime Minister’s Big Society agenda but also economic recovery for the UK….” – then get straight into the interesting stuff about what Giveacar.com does

6) Simplify your language. “This ambitious plan has sought to reinstate the entrepreneurial spirit and culture of volunteerism the Conservatives believe dwindled under Labour…” Er…. what? Any never, ever use “utilise”. Use is perfectly fine.

7) Be specific with figures. “In the 12 months since its birth Giveacar’s popularity has grown rapidly.” By how much? If it is an impressive figure why not include it? The fact that it’s not there makes us think it’s not that impressive.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

That’s just 7 ideas off the top of my head and from the simpler half of my training course. There are many more ways this could be improved.

To win a free place on my training session on the afternoon of Friday 4th March, and find out how I’d improve this further by telling a story with it, and making it relevant to the reader, e-mail me or comment on this post suggesting another way to improve this press release – the best suggestion wins the place.

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Pitch of the month: Officebroker.com

I’ve received  two pitches from officebroker.com this week, from two separate PR agencies – the company is clearly putting some serious investment into its PR work. But is it getting good value for its money? I’ve taken a look at one of those pitches and offer here four things I like about it and four ideas for improving it.

THE PITCH

“hi, would you like to do something on officebroker.com? Market leaders at finding workspace deals for businesses.

Company began 10 years ago founded by Jim Venables and Andy Haywood. Turnover is now £6m.

Story is how they’ve become the biggest in the serviced office sector by bringing in a sales led business model.

Previously the market for commercial property was dominated by chartered surveyor led consultants (much like King Sturge who are also our clients).

Jim is a former market stall trader and Andy used to import cars. They met while working together in a recruitment business.

They brought that commercial nouse to bear in growing their business. They have also benefitted during the recession as companies have looked to save costs and hunt for better deals on accommodation.

The guys have expaned aggressively. They have around 80 people in their HQ in Tamworth and have opened offices in USA and Australia.

Andy moved over the the US to help run the operation there. They chose Dallas, Texas as a base saying it’s Central time zone location has helped them get a foot in both the East and West coast markets.

They have around 20 staff in the US now and around half that number in Australia. So worldwide staff count is around 110.

Let me know if you think you could use them for a feature.

FOUR THINGS I LIKE ABOUT IT:

1) They get straight to the point. Far too many pitches start off with unnecessary waffle, asking how I am (even though I’ve never met the sender), going into minute detail about the company, or giving a supposedly interesting but unrelated intro. This pitch gets right into it, asking if I’d like to write something about officebroker.com, telling me very briefly who they are, and then summarising the story.

2) It’s well targeted. I write for the SME press, so this is very much my area.

3) It’s given me clear facts and figures. Rather than being coy about its size in the hope that  I’ll assume the company is bigger than it is, they’ve been direct and open, telling me its  turnover and how many staff it employs. This helps me build a picture of the company, and get a feel for where I could use the story.

4) They’ve used short sentences. This does a great deal to make a piece of writing readable.

FOUR WAYS IT COULD BE IMPROVED

1) I have a name. Why not use it? Presumably because this was a blanket e-mail to dozens or hundreds of journalists. Immediately that makes me less interested in the pitch.

2) Nouse is spelt nous. Benefitted should be benefited. Expaned should be expanded. That is three basic spelling errors in a fairly short piece of writing. Looking at the grammar, it’s should be its…….you get the picture. Journalists spot these things. It makes us assume that the writer is either stupid or unprofessional. Neither make us keen to pursue the pitch. More likely these were typos. They happen. I frequently make them, especially in e-mail conversations. But this wasn’t a conversation – it was a blanket e-mail sent to dozens, maybe hundreds, of journalists. Shouldn’t the sender have removed these typos?

3) There’s too much irrelevant detail. Having outlined the story, they go on to tell me about where one of the partners went to work, why they chose the location they did, and specific employee numbers for each branch. It feels a bit like they were trying to fill in space at the end, or they thought they’d chuck a  few more facts at me in the hope that one would stick.

4) They’ve not shown me why my readers should be interested in this story. They’ve given me a lot of facts and they’ve told me a story. They’re strong facts and it’s a compelling story, but for a journalist whose job is to inform or entertain readers that’s not enough. The very best pitches show the journalist exactly why his or her readers will be interested in this story. It’s a difficult thing to do, and that’s why very few succeed – however, it is what marks out the great pitches from the merely ok ones.

So, is officebroker.com getting value for money? I can’t tell you. I don’t know how much they’re spending for this PR service. And who knows – they might have got lucky and hit some journalists just at the point they were keen to run a story like this. Next week we might not be able to open a paper or a website for stories about officebroker.com. I hope that is the case – after all this was far  from a bad pitch. Believe me, I’ve seen much worse!

I can though say with some confidence that this pitch could have been improved. What do you think?

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Interview of the month: James Laxton on BBC Breakfast

It was the sort of media opportunity businesspeople dream about: a full one and a half minute piece on BBC Breakfast, combining both pre-recorded pieces and a live interview with the MD, repeated throughout the morning. Whoever James Laxton, MD of Laxton’s Specialist Yarns has got doing his PR, he ought to give them a bonus.

However, as we all know, getting the opportunity is only half the battle. You have to make sure you fully exploit it, and I’m not sure that Laxton entirely achieved this. Take a look at the clip here and see if you agree with me.

In some ways  Laxton had a tough job following on from his employee in this piece. That employee (unnamed by the BBC) might not have been the first person the marketing team thought of when they looked around the factory for a media spokesperson but he did brilliantly. He spoke with a broad smile, and he brimmed with enthusiasm for his traditional and highly-skilled work – there would have been few viewers who didn’t warm to him. He also did a great job of conveying the  company’s key selling point: it’s not competing on price with textiles manufacturers in Asia, but it offers a high quality product.

So, it was a challenge for the boss, but one that, had he risen to it, could have seen this turn into a major PR triumph. And he did ok. He certainly looked the part; he was calm, considered, and clearly proud of the work he  is doing taking his family business into the 21st  Century. However, I think he got a bit lost with his message.

He told viewers that they have responsibility to buy British, so that retailers will want to stock it. It was a somewhat confused argument – you can see him slightly losing his train of thought – and it wasn’t the right argument to make. Viewers don’t want to be told what they should do; they want to hear what’s in it for them. The point his colleague had made about quality was the right one to use, and I think that with a bit more preparation on his key messages Laxton would have had much more impact in this interview.

Those are my thoughts – what are yours? (NB. I’ve resisted all temptations to talk about woolly spokespeople, so you should too!)

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