I work in the communications industry. An ability to write well is a fundamental skill.
But in every aspect of life we’re communicating with each other far more through the written word than ever before. Email, messaging, blog posts, tweets…even a compelling caption on an Instagram post can bring context and greater meaning to an image.
Becoming a better writer will make you a better communicator, both personally and professionally. It’s definitely something that can be learnt and constantly improved upon, but like any skill it takes work.
There are three things that will help you become a better writer: study, practice and coaching.
Study: First step to becoming a better writer is to become a better reader. Most experts in their field – from cooking to music to sports – will be voracious consumers of the subject. Read for enjoyment, sure, but read to learn about writing too. Think about how sentences and passages are constructed; about phraseology and storytelling. For those of us in business communications, reading publications like The Economist and Wired will show you what exemplary writing looks, sounds and feels like.
Practice: Just write! I came across a great book about writing recently, despite it being first published in 1980: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (the story behind the title – which is on the Amazon page – is a great writing lesson in itself). Another piece of advice that I really liked was about writing rubbish first drafts. The fact is, most first drafts of anything are crap. Once you accept this, it makes it far easier to get the first draft done, knowing that it’ll probably be discarded. But there’ll be stuff in there that will find its way into a much better second draft. Just get that first one down.
Another tool I’ve found really useful for writing practice is Penzu. It’s essentially an online diary, or a very simple (and private) blogging platform. It’s a completely ‘safe place’ to draft copy, try out ideas, and get through the rubbish first draft. Of course, you could always create a blog and write drafts that you never publish, but I find there’s something really easy and natural about using Penzu.
Coaching: Again, nobody becomes an expert in a skill without coaching. Seek out a mentor, someone whose writing you admire, and see if they’d be willing to review some of your own work. Listen to their advice, and ask them to comment, not edit (I’ll happily admit that this is something that I’ve had to work to improve in coaching people in my own team, offering advice and direction on copy rather than simply editing it).
Personally, I love writing, but not everyone will ultimately find writing a pleasure. That’s OK. After all, not everyone enjoys cooking, but just as there’s real value in being able to produce a well-seasoned omelette, being able to write clearly and accurately will help you in every aspect of your life.
There’s plenty of advice and inspiration out there. Both Wadds and Marcel have been doing some nice work recently on blogging for beginners (my description, not theirs) which contains some really useful tips. Well worth a read. Another booked I absolutely loved is Jonathan Gotschall’s The Storytelling Animal. Check it out.
And good luck!
As requested, here’s a pdf of the Shine essay in the PR Week digital supplement, penned by your’s truly. As such, it’s a bunch of old pony.
(NB: I’m not entirely sure that I’m allowed to post this up here. It might upset the powers that be at PR Week. If so, let me know and I’ll take it down.)
For a few years after going freelance way back in 2003 I created and delivered a number of training courses for UK PR consultancies. I haven’t done much for the past couple of years, but have just been asked to meet an agency to chat about its training requirements. If nothing else, it’s good to know that even when things are tight, agencies still recognise the need to invest in their employees’ skills and development.
Digging out the courses I created those years ago, a few things struck me. Firstly, I’d actually built quite a comprehensive set of practical and pragmatic training courses. Created for a number of different clients, I’d never really pulled them into a coherent whole. I really should.
Secondly, it’s interesting to see what content needs updating and what has remained consistent, given the much talked about changes we’ve seen in the PR and communications landscape in recent years. The logical thought might be that a great deal of the content is outdated, and very much more suited to the ‘old world’ of PR.
It isn’t true, of course. Many of the fundamentals have stayed the same. One of my courses which always seemed to go down pretty well was the Strategy Development training. Basing communications strategies on insights delivered through audience research, and the tools and techniques you can use to create a robust strategy within which to unleash your creativity, remain as relevant today as they ever have. I’d be worried if it were any different. Similarly, PR professionals need to be able to manage their time and workloads, and build mutually-beneficial relationships with their clients.
The pool of influencers with which relationships need to be created and managed has expanded; the focus in years gone by has very much been traditional media, so that will need some updating. Helping agency employees get their heads around social media and digital channels has been something I’ve done a bit of in recent years, so that’s a course that should almost write itself.
A couple of areas that I do think will need more original material are crisis management and content creation. The take the second of these first, to PR pros in the past, content creation has primarily meant the written word (so a writing skills course was handy…). Being able to turn out good, accurate, compelling copy is still something that has to be in the toolkit of every PR consultant, but an awareness of and ability to recommend when, for instance, video would be a more effective medium is growing in importance. Further to that, the ability to actually create video and audio content to a decent quality is going to be vital.
Finally, while the nature of the issues and crises that affect organisations has largely remained the same, the way they manifest themselves and the speed with which they spread and grow has changed markedly with the rise in social and digital media. This, again, is something that round PR consultants need to be skilled in.
So that’s all the stuff that has been around for a while and would benefit from some updating. In terms of brand new stuff, well I reckon as the basis I’ll nick Rob Brown’s recent blog post on the five things every PR person needs to think about…
Oh, and if you fancy having a chat about any training for your people, drop me a note. Contact details are in the ‘About‘ page.
When Bite PR, as PRWeek put it back in October, “became the envy of trendy consumer tech agencies everywhere [by] scooping up the Facebook UK brief” I bet in all their excitement the team never suspected that one of the first things they’d be handling would be the fallout from the Facebook founder’s humiliating apology over a dodgy advertising system. Though perhaps they’re not having to do very much at all…as we all know, when stuff like this happens with our big American clients, it’s generally time to stick to the prepared statements and say nothing else. I’ve always found that enormously rewarding.
In fact, with all the current chat about Facebook having jumped the shark, I’m not sure that other agencies would be that envious right now. My gutfeel is that Facebook’s crested the hill and is starting a chilly descent. I reckon Zuckerberg knows it too, so he’s grabbed the cash from Microsoft and the rich Asian fella while he can…$300m isn’t a bad return for a few years’ work in anyone’s book. Hopefully Bite has negotiated a long notice period.
I bet the guys at LinkedIn – the client that Bite (rather arrogantly in my eyes) thought wouldn’t mind being serviced by the same agency as Facebook but which (rather predictably) decided that it did – are chuckling away though.
Tim Dyson, CEO of the Next Fifteen Group and therefore my old boss, points to something that he believes to be a world’s first; a company annual report that is also a blog. It’s for his own company, of course. I’ll always take a look at the Next Fifteen annual report as (a) I think, somewhere, I still own some shares (though they’re well underwater, wherever they are) (b) I know for a fact that my mum owns some shares and (c) I’m always keen to see how much Dyson gets paid.
I’m not totally convinced about how innovative the social media annual report is…it’s rather like an online annual report (which the company’s done before) with a bit of blogging literally added onto the side. I mean, it’s not like you can comment on the chairman’s statement or other specific parts of the annual report itself (now wouldn’t that be cool…”so Tim, why did David Dewhurst get a performance related bonus but you didn’t? What did he do that was so much better..?”)
But I’m happy to agree with Dyson when he says that more and more companies will be producing their annual reports in this way. That hand on the front page is a bit odd though…I thought it might be some fancy biometric jobby and now my screen’s covered in sticky hand-prints.
A couple of years ago I had a chat with one of the members of the Egg plc PR team about – as I saw it – a new PR discipline which I rather cunningly called “consumer financial”. The premise was that, as millions of individuals now own shares and are increasingly involved in managing their own share portfolios, quoted companies needed specific communications activities geared towards this audience. Sure, they’d need all the standard financial info and regulatory announcements, but the tone and approach would be very different to those communications, say, pushed to institutional investors in the City. While the numbers clearly matter very much to members of the “consumer financial” audience, they’re also, I believe, more inclined to want to understand the culture and ethics of the company in which they have invested. I see the Next Fifteen annual report/blog mash-up as fitting right into this category.
As I said though, the blogging bit seems a little added on to me. There are posts from key directors in the Next Fifteen Group, such as Dyson himself, “Social media – the new big thing in PR” (hmm…) Grant Currie of Inferno (a good mate of mine) and Aedhmar Hynes of Text 100. They’ve kick-started the conversation by commenting on each other’s posts and roping in a few clients, but you can’t blame them for that (in fact Hynes’ post – about virtual worlds, natch – has two comments, one from Cisco, a client, and the other from a bloke called Tony Hynes. No relation, I’m presuming…or is it?)
What’ll be interesting for me is how well they manage to keep the blog element of the report alive. Neither Dyson or Hynes have exactly been the most prolific bloggers, and Currie’s contributions to the Inferno blog have been, ummm, sporadic.
Still, credit to them. I do think it’s original and more companies will do something similar. Of course, it would have been really cool if Next Fifteen itself had a digital team as part of the group that could’ve developed the social media annual report concept; I could have seen that leading to a load of new business. But it doesn’t, so used a company called CGI Squared instead.