07/20/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five noteworthy communications stories from the past few days.

Sponsored Content: An Ethical Framework by Richard Edelman, on edelman.com, July 16.

In this article, Edelman writes about his agency’s newly released special report on PR agencies’ opportunity to develop an ethical framework for sponsored content—content written and produced by marketers, not the media outlets. He says that PR agencies must “have a different set of ethical standards than the media buyer or ad agency, because our profession relies primarily on its trusted relationship with earned media. Those principles fall into three broad categories: Disclosure, Quality and Process.”

He discusses those categories and provides a link for downloading the report: “Sponsored Content: A Broader Relationship with the U.S. News Media.”

Social Media Makes for Better Student Writing, Not Worse, Teachers Say by Joanna Stern on abcnews.go.com, July 16.

In this article, Stern provides anecdotal and study evidence showing that social media and digital technologies are having a positive—not negative, as many people would believe—effect on student writing. A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the National Writing Project, for example, shows that three-fourths of the teachers questioned believe digital technologies “encourage study creativity and personal expression,” Stern says.

This result, it seems, is due mainly to students wanting to improve the quality of their classroom writing because they are sharing it with a wider audience through blogs and other online outlets.

Three Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader in Your Industry by Louise Julig, on socialmediaexaminer, July 17.

This article on how Drillinginfo, a company serving the oil and gas industry, has used social media to become an industry thought leader and to become recognized by potential and current customers as a premier source of information in the industry. Specifically, Julig details the company’s efforts to blog with a plan, market its marketing, and network with influencers.

Others can learn from Drillinginfo’s successful content marketing work.

Presentation Skills Learned from ‘Mad Men’ by Danny Groner on ragan.com, July 18.

Groner offers five tips that will help PR professionals—and others who give presentations—succeed while showing “some Draper-like swagger that’ll keep people on the edge of their seats.” To see how it’s really done, watch the three videos embedded in the article.

Brands Look for Guide to Navigate New World of Native Advertising by Sarah Shearman, on prweekus.com, July 19.

The growing importance of native advertising is increasing the PR industry’s “need to create a set of standards to keep the line between editorial and advertising intact,” Shearman reports. If this line is blurred, she writes, reader trust will erode because native advertising “threatens to encroach on the line that editorial and readers hold sacred.”

One of the first steps in creating these standards would be for people in the media and in the PR and advertising industries to agree on a consistent definition of “native advertising,” which Shearman describes broadly as “brand-sponsored content on a media site that is housed with and closely aligned with editorial in subject matter, design, and style.” It is sometimes referred to as “sponsored content,” as Richard Edelman does in his article mentioned above.

Learning to Communicate Clearly—from Alan Alda

shutterstock_121137493Who would have thought that actor Alan Alda would have anything to say about unclear language, especially anything that we in PR and business communications might want to consider.

We all know that jargon is specialized language associated with a particular industry or group and that when used with our peers, it sounds meaningful. But how many of us notice the jargon we use routinely in our external communications? More important, how many know or care that more often than not, jargon creates a wall between us and our outside listeners and readers who can’t understand the words we use.

Alda knows. And he is concerned about the miscommunication that results when scientists use unclear language. He’s so concerned, in fact, that now as a visiting professor, he teaches a course at Stony Brook University’s newly named Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. His goal is to help science students become better communicators, to teach them to speak clearly.

In his course, “He trains scientists to be more sensitive to their audience,” according to a recent Sunday Morning TV show, “so instead of speaking with what we might call gibberish (‘I study spatial planning and the valuation of ecosystem services to different stakeholders’), we get this: ‘I study ways oceans are used.’”

On Sunday Morning, Alda gives an example of clear communication that he claims saved his life when he was on a Chilean mountain top and would have died from a strangled intestine without proper treatment. The doctor, according to Alda, said “in the clearest possible way, ‘Something’s gone wrong with your intestine and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.’  I said, ‘That’s Great. Do it.’”

That’s the kind of direct, clear language Alda hopes to teach his students and the kind of language he would like to see other scientists adopt.

All of us in PR and corporate communications could learn from this approach, whether we’re giving a speech to shareholders, writing a white paper as a marketing piece, or tweeting about a new business product or service.

Photo: Shutterstock/Sam72

A Quote from William Zinsser

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

This quote comes from William Zinsser’s 1976 book “On Writing Well” and is mentioned in this week’s New York Times article on Zinsser who, besides having written this now-classic guide to writing, has been a teacher of writing for decades. At 90, he still teaches even though he is blind and has to listen to, rather than read, what his students have written. The quote underscores Zinsser’s call for cutting excessive words and eliminating jargon in an attempt to write simply and clearly.

What if We Ran Out of Words?

IMG_0420I’ve been worrying about running out of words.

My worrying began recently when I read an interesting essay, “The Ghost Writes Back,” by Amy Boesky, on The Kenyon Review website. It’s about her experience ghostwriting several of the Sweet Valley High books in this series for teenaged girls—while also working on her PhD.

This long essay (just over 5,000 words) is worth reading. It’s well written. And Boesky provides insight into how someone could write these novels—sometimes as many as eight per year—while also attending classes, working as a teacher’s assistant, and writing her dissertation. She also talks about the unsettling feelings she had about being a ghostwriter and about keeping this side job a secret from her classmates, students, and teachers. And she discusses the difference between writing a dissertation that took five years and writing these breezy novels for which she could produce an entire chapter on a weekend morning.

Then, deep in the essay, she writes about a conversation she had with an acquaintance. The acquaintance said she thought that writing the books was creatively risky because, as Broesky asks in the piece, “How did I know that every word I ghost wrote wasn’t depleting my creative arsenal? What if you’re only born with so many words, and you use up the ones you’ve been allotted on writing somebody else’s stories? Then what?”

That statement floored me. What a frightening concept: to have only a specific allotment of words—the very source of writing and communication.

What if, I thought, we have only so many adjectives and adverbs, a limited supply of nouns, and a finite number of verbs, not to mention a restricted stockpile of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections? And worse yet, what if we have only a certain number of each specific word?

I thought of only one bright side to this tragedy: My supply of the word interesting might soon run out. Interesting is my default adjective when I want to describe something as being appealing, thought provoking, or worthy of our attention. (See the second sentence of this piece.) It’s notScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 4.27.41 PM a word I necessarily want to use often; there are many better choices. But it just pops into my head. And what’s worse, sometimes it seems to type itself, my fingers tapping the keys without my thinking.

I use this word—and interestingly, its adverbial cousin—too often in the first drafts of my writing. So much so that if I were to have only a limited number of specific words, my arsenal would surely be nearly empty of this one. When it ran dry, perhaps my writing, at least the first drafts of each piece, would be better, I thought.

But in thinking about Broesky’s statement, I knew I wouldn’t be better off if I could no longer use interesting or any other specific word. Not having a word at my disposal, even one I overuse, would be devastating.

What, I wondered, would it be like if every time I used a noun, say strategy, my overall supply of that word declined, as did my opportunities to use any other noun, since all of them share the same grammatical purpose?

How many times could I use the word strategy before running out? Perhaps half a million. Possibly just 30,000. Maybe only 4,877.

None of these amounts sounds very large, certainly not enough for a lifetime of writing. Strategy is a good word to use and there are lots of places where it fits most perfectly in a sentence. It’s not a word I’d like to lose anytime soon.

I wondered if I would have the same number of every word, or at least the same number of each word used as a verb, and maybe a different number for each noun. Verbs and nouns are key to good writing, and none of us could write long without them. So I would hope my supply would be as large as possible. But adverbs and adjectives are important, too.

If I had a limited supply of beautiful, for example, I wondered if it would be possible to exchange other words, which I value less, for this one. IScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 4.36.47 PM know I have a larger supply of  ugly than I’ll ever need. I don’t like the word and never use it. So, would it be possible to trade in a keyboard full of this word for an equivalent amount of one I treasure more highly. If so, I wondered if the exchange rate would be the same for every word: One ugly would equal one beautiful. Or would the rate vary, with maybe a really good and useful word like communications requiring as many as five harsh and jarring words like sequestration.

Would we know—from the time we start to write, begin high school or college, or when?—that we had a limited number of specific words or parts of speech? Would we know when we were running out?

I wondered how my writing would change if I knew I had to make every word count or I might not have a particular word when I most needed it. Certainly, I’d write more carefully, more slowly, cautiously choosing my words, writing fewer drafts to avoid wasting words that no one would see, rewriting sentences to minimize using those words that I most want in my arsenal.

And I wondered how I would know when I ran out of a specific word. Would beautiful just not be there anymore?

When I put my fingers on the keyboard to start typing it, would they just not move, would they be stuck in place? Or would they automatically form another word, say alluring, an almost-good-enough synonym that would have to serve my purpose every time I try to write beautiful in the future?

When beautiful is gone, would I even be able to see it in my mind? Would I have a concept of the word anymore? Maybe it would be as if it never existed. If that were to happen, would I then not recognize it or not understand its meaning when I saw it in someone else’s writing?

I wondered, finally, how many words I would have to lose before I could no longer write, and if, after all these years, I’m getting close.

My Blog: Celebrating One Year

shutterstock_85653580With this post, my 65th, I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of my blog.

In my first post a year ago, I said this blog would be about business communications. But my goal then—as now—was to take more of a sidelong glance at this topic than a direct, in-your-face, view of it.

Many people focus narrowly on one aspect of today’s business communications, covering everything there is to know about, say, social media or blogging. Some do a really good job. But most just seem to copy what they’ve seen in someone else’s post. And quite frankly, I often feel I’m reading the same article over and over again, as the third person this week provides a list of the six things you must do to succeed online or the ten things you can do wrong when tweeting.

I chose, instead, to write about what I see as the whole communications process: “word usage, grammar, sentence construction, the structure of documents, communications tools, the strategies and tactics for communicating with specific key stakeholder groups, the execution of these strategies and tactics, and the evaluation of the success or failure of these efforts,” as I said in my first post.

So each week over the past year, I’ve written about whatever communications subject felt important or intriguing at the time, even if this approach produced what might seem—at first glance—to be an array of subjects unrelated to business communications.

Some posts make the connection more directly than others. For instance, my fourth post, from April, ties together a philosopher’s view of shaker furniture and Steve Jobs; a piece from November stresses the need for a company to really understand what its product is; and a post from earlier this month presents a Q&A on digital long-form content.

The subjects of other posts tie less overtly to business communications, but the link can easily be made: tattoos (two Olympians’ and my father’s) with business branding; Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon with the need to write clear business communications; and the different ways “Brussels sprouts” was spelled at the Farmers Market in Madison.

A few posts may require even more thought to find the link. Among these are the September post about my dog, Henry, and the joy he gave me; an October piece about the subconsciousness of writing; and this month’s post on U.S. schools deciding not to teach cursive handwriting.

I believe this circling of my blog’s key topic helps me—and I hope my readers—to think more broadly, and yet at the same time more closely, about the business of communicating about companies, their products and services, and their actions.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vesna Cvorovic