Category: Work

Three ways to become a better writer

IMG_20181228_120800

Never fear the rubbish first draft.

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!

 

 

Putting a value on social media outputs

The other day I had cause to Google: “What’s the value of a Facebook fan?”

This because some colleagues were evaluating a recent campaign for a client; a campaign that over a month or so had attracted nearly 4,000 Facebook fans. The client wanted to know how much these fans were worth. My initial reaction was that their worth was difficult to calculate, as it would (should) potentially increase over time as they became more engaged, bigger advocates and, hopefully, valuable lifelong customers. But no. We needed to put a value on them. Hence my search.

One of the first results returned highlighted the problem. This article in Advertising Age from June last year references two different studies that tried to answer the question. The studies – by social media companies Syncapse and Vitrue – both used highly complicated and sophisticated formulas. Syncapse put a value on a Facebook fan of $136. Vitrue’s value was $3.60. Perhaps an average of the two might work?

It’s a bit ironic that we’re armed with any number of buzz monitoring and sentiment tracking tools – applications which can help measure the outcome of not only digital and social media but all marketing activities – that we’re being driven to measure the outputs of social media activity: Facebook fans, tweets, blog posts and check-ins. And not only to count the mere numbers, but to stick a precise value on them too.

But clients we have, and clients we serve, so I’m thinking that we should at least have a stab while we’re also trying to educate them…

So earlier today I tweeted that I was thinking about pulling a cross-industry group together to put a value on social media outcomes and that if anyone was interested in getting involved to drop me a line. I’ve already had a great response – the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned. If you fancy it then drop me an @ reply on Twitter, or leave a comment here. I’ll try and get a meeting organised.

PR Week digital ramble

PRW_DIGI10_Shine_021

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.)

Ad agencies transforming. As discussed.

About 10 months ago I posted this following an essay by Edelman‘s Jackie Cooper. Jackie’s essay was called “Why It’s Time for Ad Agencies to Admit defeat” and in it she claimed (as many people have done over the past few years) that PR agencies rather than ad agencies were the ones best placed to take advantage of the brave new world of communications.

My point was that she was ignoring the fact that ad agencies might be able to adapt and evolve, and also the not insignificant advantage that they already hold the vast majority of a client’s marketing budget and therefore had the relatively simpler task of persuading a client to spend it in a different way.

This morning I read this piece in The Guardian: “Digital technology and social networking breathe new life into advertising.”

Wonderful thing, evolution.

The Flackenhack Awards 2008…are you in?

The Flackenhack Awards are back again for the second year…let’s see if we can get it right this time, eh?

What am I saying? Last year’s event was a cracker. So it’s more of the same, just bigger and better. If you weren’t at last year’s awards, you can get a flavour for the evening here.

All the relevant details can be found on The Flackenhacks blog, but here’s a summary:

– The awards are taking place on October 29th at the Village Underground in Shoreditch (a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street station) starting at about 7.00pm

– Tickets are on sale here. Full price is £65 but if you get in before the 23rd September you can snap one up for £50. Credit crunch friendly, see? You’ll get some grub, enough booze to make you wobbly, some music and a decent laugh. Not bad for a wet Wednesday in London, eh?

– To make sure we have a decent turnout from the press community, there a ‘buy a hack’s ticket on eBay scheme’ going on. Again, more details here.

– The all-important award categories will be announced soon. These are prestigious…look here.

It’s all shaping up to be another cracking night. John ‘Wheels of Steel’ Ozimek is back on the decks; Paul ‘Balls of Steel’ Wooding is our witty compere once again. Why change a winning formula?

Hope to see you there.

Twitter anxiety

I’m only following 33 people on Twitter.  Is that enough?

I think so.  Other people follow loads more – like 783 – but I can’t understand how that doesn’t become utterly useless.  Unless all you do all day is sit watching your Twitter account you’re going to miss loads of stuff aren’t you?  Or am I mssing something?

I saw this blog post, see, from Todd Defren.  I totally agree with Todd that Twitter’s a really useful tool for understanding what people are thinking about, writing about and doing…which can only help PRs do a better job. 

Todd lists a load of Twitterers that are essential following.  But there are 45 of them.  And I bet they all Tweet like mad.  The reason I stopped following Hugh MacLeod (long before he decided to stop…and then start again) was because he posted so many times that my Twitter page filled up with just his Tweets.  Which wasn’t very useful.

Todd’s the fella who follows 783 people, so if he’s got a canny way of managing that, perhaps he could pass it on?

Here’s a few other Twitter-related things: 

A post from some bloke called Stowe Boyd saying he’ll only accept pitches from companies via Twitter, which I think is a bit ridiculous.

A link to Twhirl which is a much handier way to see and post Tweets than the website (I think Dom put me on to that).

And this little gem called Twistori that Tim just showed me.  When you click on one of the words on the left – love, hate, think, believe, feel, wish – it aggregates all the Tweets that are being posted using the word and scrolls them up your screen.  Strangely compelling.  I particularly like ‘I feel…’

About-face book

u.jpgWhen 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.

One thing I chuckled away at this morning is Kara Swisher’s decoding of Zuckerberg’s apology on her excellent BoomTown blog.

POOP

cio3.jpgThat’s People Opposed to Open Plan.  It’s a movement I’ve started.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of open plan offices.  As far as I can tell, they’re simply a way of packing more people into limited and very expensive office space.  It also drives the culture of “presenteeism” that I’ve mentioned before.

OK, so you might say that open plan offices encourage more collaborative working amongst employees, that they foster more communication and improve a company’s culture.  But what you really mean is that they allow people to muck around, flirt and gossip.  Anything, in fact, other than do their job.  Which, being honest, I’ve been more in favour of than against during my career (I’m talking myself out of my argument here, aren’t I?).  Yes, it’s true.  I’ve always quite liked office distractions.  Hell, I even married one of ’em!

But with my serious head on, Aunt Sally, I’ve always felt that open plan hinders rather than helps productivity.  But I’m like King Canute against the tide of open plan office solutions.  Until now, that is.

Reading this week’s Economist last night, I find a comrade in the battle against workplaces without walls.  It’s only Jim Goodnight, co-founder and boss of SAS, the world’s biggest privately-owned software company.  And what a brilliant name too!  The only other Goodnight I know is Britt Ekland’s character in The Man with the Golden Gun.

(Pause while Mark finds video clip of Britt Ekland in Get Carter.  But can’t.)

In his profile, Jim says: “You are so much more productive in your own office than when you are being distracted by the people either side.”  Right on, Jim.

And how about this for a knock-on effect of Jim’s decision to give almost everyone of his employees their own office?  All that additional wallspace needs filling, so Jim started buying pieces of art and the company now boasts a collection of more than 5,000 pieces!  What a smart cookie.

SAS is clearly a company that treats its people very well indeed.  For me, it’s partly a function of being a company that has remained privately-owned, some of the advantages of which Jim sums up rather neatly:  “We don’t have to deal with Sarbanes-Oxley or minority shareholders suing us every time we turn around, or 25-year-old Wall Street analysts telling us how to run our business.”  Rock on, Jim.

Anyway.  Who else wants to join me in POOP?

Annual report 2.0ish

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.

Is that a mirror in your pocket?

billsteve_1.jpgIt’s just I can see myself in your knickers.

One of my favourite chat-up lines.  In theory at least.  I’ve never had the balls to use it.  And of course, I never would. Ahem.

Chat-up lines are designed as conversation starters though, aren’t they?  Make ’em laugh…get them in a conversation…see where it leads.  If they don’t kick off a conversation, they’ve failed.  It’s a bit like social media.  In fact (Swiss Toni voice), “social media is very much like chatting up a beautiful woman…”

See those two fellas above having a conversation?  I wonder what they’re saying?

“It’s like this big!”

“Whoa!  But I’d have to like hold it in my hand like this, open up my mouth real wide…”

Talking about an early iPhone prototype, no doubt.

I don’t suppose those two have to fish around for too long to spark a conversation.  It’s more difficult when you’re a business and you want to strike one up with an individual, or audience, that you don’t know terribly well (and let’s face it, most businesses don’t).

You need a decent conversation starter.  Doing a bit more these days in the area of “conversational marketing”, I’ve been putting some thought into what makes a good conversation starter.  And if you believe that conversations are central to the new world of marketing and communications, pondering on conversation starters is a fantastic way of highlighting the difference between “old” and “new” PR.  Because most of what companies shove out as PR is about as far from kicking off a decent chat as you can get.

Think about the great conversations that you’ve had.  How did they start?  Probably with a brilliant question.  Or a forthright opinion.  Or a piece of honest feedback.  Or a good joke.  Or maybe even a chat-up line.  Great conversation starters are thought-provoking, controversial, funny, divisive, sincere, candid, direct, contentious.  Now how much PR pushed out these days is any of those things?  Not much.  It’s all very bland.

The new world demands that we provoke a reaction – an emotional reaction – because that’s the only way we’ll be able to enter into a conversation.  And let’s not be afraid to provoke both negative and positive reactions (though on balance, obviously, we’d prefer that the positive ones came out on top).  Negative reactions can be very useful…because you very quickly learn what the audience doesn’t like and can change your behaviour accordingly.

Let’s forget about trying to please all of the audience all of the time.  Hell, let’s forget about pleasing all of the audience some of the time, or even some of the audience all of the time.  Pleasing some of the audience some of the time is enough, as long as we listen to those that we’ve pissed off.