Remember about five years ago, when everyone in PR became enamored with analytics and how numbers and math would create a Moneyball across the communications landscape? While today no one disputes the fact that analytics has become a standard communications tool, it is clear that a new—and surprising—weakness in our industry has emerged: the written word.
PR used to be critically reliant on writing. From Ivy Lee’s very first press release to Richard Branson’s latest LinkedIn post, prose has been how we have told stories. And while it’s impossible to ignore myriad Data Dive stories in PR News Pro and reports elsewhere about how video is playing an ever-increasing role in communications, writing is a mainstay of what we do.
But writing is a skill that is fading. My father, a top print journalist for 56 years and counting, would tell you the same (he reminds me regularly). Some of it, no doubt, is a function of a society where prose is ever-present—Forrester Research has pegged the number of texts sent each day at north of 6 billion—but informal.
In fact, brevity is so valued by the texting community that actually using punctuation apparently makes messages appear less sincere, according to a 2015 study from Binghamton University’s Harpur College.
I admit that both my father and I utilize smiley-face emojis and the thumbs-up icon, but we refuse to give up the fight for the greater good.
Ask for a Writing Sample, the Naked Rule
I suspect the decline of writing chops in PR and communications may be related to the fact that our industry today is comprised of many practitioners with a more diverse set of backgrounds than previously: The analytics folks are lumped in with the video crew, who work alongside community relations managers, paid-integration specialists and a host of other functions that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.
For a great many of those professionals, in a world of endless competition for content, writing isn’t seen as central to their core responsibilities. What used to be considered a price of entry is no longer. Want to stump a youthful job candidate during the interview process? Ask for a writing sample.
The ability to describe something concisely and clearly, in writing, is among the most critical skills in the modern communications world. It was not that long ago when we used the telephone to communicate complex ideas, but the lure of electronic communication is so great that the online magazine Slate has proposed the “naked rule” for phone calls: You should pick up the phone only for those who have seen you in the nude (parents, spouses, old roommates, older flames and virtually no one else). Now, email is king for that kind of conversation.
But, ironically, as our industry has become more complex, with talk of algorithms, Facebook targeting and bounce rates, it has become more important, not less, to be able to write clearly about what we’re doing. A 2015 survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that in our cluttered world, the average attention span fell to eight seconds, down from 12 in 2000, according to The New York Times. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish.
Writing Has Become Critical
We are in an age where writing is increasingly critical for companies. Blog posts are a standard part of the way Apple or Google talk directly to their audiences. The text-first world of LinkedIn is a platform for Bill Gates, and the leader of the free world takes to social media to talk tech, poverty and basketball.
Writing should not be seen as a magic trick reserved for copywriters. It’s a skill that can and should be cultivated. The good news is that there have been millions of pages and trillions of pixels devoted to the technical elements of good writing, so an informal education is always available. But for a few less-technical ways to improve prose, there are five pieces of advice I like to give to help everyone unlock their inner Hemingway.
• Read the Classics:No, not Moby Dick, but the foundational books on good writing: Strunk and White and the AP Stylebook. No, not all rules are applicable.
•...And the Paper: Yes, they still make those. The best way to be a good writer is to soak in good writing. The scribes who do the best job of communicating complex information in a straightforward manner work at newspapers. They deserve your dime and your attention. (I hope you are proud of me, dad.)
• Use an Editor: It would be great if everyone had an in-house copy expert, but the reality is that you don’t need a specialist, just someone with a keen eye who can read the latest plan or proposal and provide feedback. Adding that step into workflow boosts the clarity of the final product immeasurably. Many companies employ that approach. This also comes into play from the perspective of litigation or document-hold, which helps to ensure nothing that you communicate can be misconstrued or taken out of context.
• Put Away the PowerPoint: Sometimes a slide deck is required, but it shouldn’t be the default format for explaining the complex. If you can nail thinking in a Word document, re-formatting it for PowerPoint should be easy. Trying to go the other way encourages sloppy thinking and compromises opportunities to improve writing skills. I hate watching colleagues craft a key message document they believe has to fit into a slide.
• Treat Everything Like an Excuse to Practice: I’m not saying you should treat an email like a Wall Street Journal op-ed, but applying the rules of good writing to basic business correspondence provides an opportunity to flex your writing muscles. Did you do a sweep to check for grammar, emphasize specifics and avoid clichés? If you can do that daily, not only will the writing improve, but your readers—even colleagues two offices over—will appreciate it.
It’s Academic. Not.
This isn’t an academic exercise. As a communicator, you likely have more information about audiences than ever, often packed into dense spreadsheets. We also have more channels and outlets than ever for external communications, everything from documentaries to Facebook Live. Increasingly, though, what makes the difference in the data or the strategies I choose is not a brilliantly complex spreadsheet or the novelty of the platform, but the way that information is presented.
This content appeared originally in PR News Pro, November, 7, 2016. For subscription information, please visit: https://www.prnewsonline.com/about/info