Hw Remember when everyone in PR became enamored with analytics. We thought numbers and math would create a Moneyball across the communications landscape. Today no one disputes that analytics has become a standard communications tool. It is clear, though, that a new—and surprising—weakness has emerged in PR: the written word.
PR used to be critically reliant on writing. From Ivy Lee’s first press release to Richard Branson’s LinkedIn posts, prose has been how we told stories. And while it’s impossible to ignore the rise of video, writing remains a mainstay of what we do.
The Informality of Texting
But writing is a skill that is fading. My father, a top print journalist for nearly 60 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. We send an estimated 18 billion texts daily. Yet those mostly are informal.
In fact, brevity is so valued in texting that using punctuation apparently makes messages appear less sincere, according to a study from Binghamton University’s Harpur College.
Ask for a Writing Sample, the Naked Rule
The complexity of our industry, I suspect, may have hastened the decline of writing chops. PR practitioners have a more diverse set of backgrounds than previously. The analytics folks are lumped in with the video crew. They work alongside community relations managers, paid-integration specialists and a host of other functions. This would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.
For many of those professionals, 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 an interview? Ask for a writing sample.
The Naked Rule
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 communicated complex ideas via telephone. But the lure of electronic communication is so great that Slate has proposed the “naked rule” for phone calls. You should pick up the phone only for those who have seen you nude. This includes parents, spouses, old roommates, older flames and virtually no one else. Now, email is king for that kind of conversation.
On the other hand, as our industry has become more complex, it is more important, not less, to be able to write clearly about what we’re doing. With the shortening of our attention span, we have no choice.
Writing Has Become Critical
We are in an age where writing is increasingly critical for brands. Blog posts are a standard way Apple or Google talk directly to audiences. The text-heavy world of LinkedIn is a platform for Bill Gates.
So, avoid thinking of writing as a magic trick reserved for copywriters. It’s a skill that can and should be cultivated. The subject of writing well is covered on millions of pages of books. An informal education is always available.
A Writing Checklist
For a few less-technical ways to improve prose, here is some advice to unlock your inner Hemingway.
• Read the Classics: No, not Moby Dick, but foundational books on good writing. Try Strunk and White and the AP Stylebook. No, not all rules are applicable.
•...And the Paper: Yes, they still make those. 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.)
• Read: The best way to be a good writer is to soak in good writing.
• Use an Editor: It would be great if everyone had an in-house copy expert. In truth, you don’t need a specialist. Just find someone with a keen eye who can provide feedback. Adding that step boosts clarity immeasurably. Many companies employ this approach. It also comes into play from the perspective of litigation or document-hold. Using a proofreader should ensure that nothing you write can be misconstrued or taken out of context.
• Put Away the PowerPoint: Sometimes a slide deck is required. On the other hand, avoid making it the default format for explaining the complex. If you can nail thinking in Word, re-formatting it for PowerPoint should be easy. Trying to go the other way encourages sloppy thinking. It also 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. On the other hand, 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. In addition, we have more channels and outlets for external communications. 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.
Morry Smulevitz is VP, Business and Operations Communications, Walgreens
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