TO THE MARKETING MANAGERS

Here’s to the marketing managers – the cajolers and the wranglers

The ones who make the deals, who smooth the bumps in the road

The problem sorters, the burden shoulderers

Here’s to the organisers; the fixers

The type of professional who looks at Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction sorting out the aftermath of Marvin getting shot in the face and says: “I could do that. Hell, I DO do that.”

You guys can get people round the table…

Here’s to the arse-kickers, the action takers, the bullshit detectors

Who know how to plan, and know when the plan needs to go out the window

Here’s to the swans, serenely floating along, while furiously paddling like hell

Who ‘get’ it, but rarely get the credit for it

Here’s to the hustlers, the ones with a knack for finding budget

Who know all the tricks, and when to use them

You are the motors and the motivators. You don’t give up. You see it to the end. You get it out the door.

And I’m not just saying that.  I mean – where would we all be without you?

Gorging on Christmas Content

The earliest journalist content request for a Christmas related article I got this year (from Peter of Rowing & Regatta magazine) was the 23rd of June.

Print magazines continue to use Christmas to jostle with each other on the newsstand. Even for those mags distributed on controlled circulations, it’s a time for bumper issues, annual round-ups and free giveaways. It’s also the time for most yearly subscription renewals, and that all-important December issue is the last make-or-break chance to make a genuine impression. However, there are less print magazines now than ever, and so the proportion of corporate communications being funnelled to buyers through that channel is getting marginalised.

The typical method of reaching the corporate buyer remains email, and again we see Christmas emerge as a common theme for content. You’re more than likely to receive some of these in your inbox in the run up to Christmas:

  • The ‘instead of burning carbon to send you a Christmas card, we thought we’d email you this’ seasonal greeting
  • The ‘lessons from 2014 you can put into action now’ list of top tips
  • The ‘what’s going to be really important in 2015 that we just happen to be ideally placed to sell you right now’ thought leadership piece
  • The ‘countdown to Christmas’ series of promotional emails, with a new one every single day
  • The ‘best content/news from the past year’ round-up (great for covering up the profound lack of any fresh content/news)
  • The ‘make sure you enjoy yourself this Christmas without having to worry about things that might go wrong as a direct consequence of not buying one of our products yet’ semi-threatening discount deal
  • The ‘buy now for no other reason than because it’s Christmas and we’ve stuck reindeer everywhere’ limited time offer

The obvious drawbacks with this approach are:

  • It’s a bit hackneyed, isn’t it?
  • The amount of Christmas related spam email always spikes during this time of year, and your message is a high risk of being zapped by the recipient (if the spam filter doesn’t get it first)
  • Email is also diminishing as a proportion of corporate communications voice, with the slack being taken up by social.

Ah… social. Real-estate wise, we’ve gone from A4 sized magazine cover landing on someone’s desk, to an email subject line enduring in someone’s inbox, to now – with social – an ephemeral snapshot of content appearing momentarily in the line of sight of a busy person’s fickle social media preference. What to put in those 140 characters or less…? Does your community want it to be full of knockabout festive cheer, or to continue engaging them on the kinds of trusted content you’ve worked hard to develop in the other 350 days of the year?

Christmas is 9 characters long (unless you’re the kind of heathen who’d swap for Xmas) and many people are sick of it by mid-December. We all need a creative theme for our content, but how creative is it when it’s the same theme as everyone else?

I say you threaten your integrity by complacently going through the motions with any kind of content. If you really want to share a good old-fashioned Christmas message with your customers or prospects, then you should absolutely go ahead and do it. But if you started looking at the calendar in mid-November and thought: “Eh up, time to wheel out the chrimble schmaltz,” then kindly go and stick it up your chimney.

And before I unwittingly cause offence by overlooking the religious and spiritual significance of Christmas, consider for a moment – by comparison – what vacuous lack of homage a box-shifting IT distributor is paying when it spams customers about its 2 for 1 Christmas offer on Ethernet routers.

A little less Christmas surely makes the Christmas we’ve got left far more special.

SLOW MARKETING

I can’t abide airy-fairy marketing nonsense, but I do love a rhyming ditty. Hence I have come up with this:

“A brand should take a stand.”

I’m not giving advice about buying tradeshow booths here. Nor am I pumping any more molten excrement into the already steaming and heavily laden bandwagon of brand philosophy.

No. What I’m talking about is resistance; resistance against the pace that marketing is played at. I’m advocating thoughtfulness and purpose, but also unhurriedness and inevitability. Don’t mistake this as a charter for just chugging along or a manifesto for the festering. Damn it people, we need a strategy for slowness.

Slow food, slow travel, slow parenting – the whole slow movement is a fascinating concept, founded on the simple calculation that rushing around trying to get it done fast makes the end product markedly crapper than if you took your time. So why not slow marketing?

I interviewed an experienced PR Account Manager for a job once, and can still remember being completely taken aback when he introduced the notion of a three-year PR plan.

Having worked in an agency environment for so long, working exclusively in the very fast-moving technology sector, I scoffed at the idea and probably pontificated at him about ‘the quick and the dead’ and the realities of needing immediate results for extremely demanding clients.

Since then, things have only gotten faster and busier. New social media platforms, 24-hour TV news cycles, computers in everyone’s pockets, an explosion in rich media content… everything points to instant gratification both for the fee-paying corporate client of PR and communications services, and for their buyer audiences.

I thought that interviewee was talking garbage, but in fact it was me with his head in a bin. How far can you genuinely succeed with a six-month strategy, a two-month plan or a three-week campaign? You can measure progress and you can evaluate results, but if it’s the brand we’re talking about then you’re not giving yourself enough time to convince real human beings to impart trust and display curiosity. You can barely get them to click a link, and when they do we tell ourselves it really matters.

If you Google ‘Slow Marketing’, you could soon end up encountering the kind of (very nice) people who may or may not have done far too much acid in the 90s, have never had venture capitalists breathing down their necks, and whose idea of ‘putting food on the table’ is a split decision between having blueberry or cranberry jus to accompany the venison course.  Some cool ideas though…

But, to my mind, slow marketing doesn’t have to be a socks-and-sandals revolution. You can add the following slow principles into your marketing and communications thinking and benefit… er… pretty much immediately…

  • Remove the imperative from calls to action. Instead of ‘Buy Now’ and ‘Register Today’, treat your audience like sentient beings by encouraging them to think about the proposition. Go the whole hog and create a button labelled ‘Sleep On It’ and make sure nothing but zzzzzzzz happens when anyone clicks.  Seriously!
  • Stop changing straplines. If you spent enough time getting it right, stick with it. For ages…
  • Broadcast less, engage more. Use social feeds to ask what’s going on, what people want. Talk with your community, not to it…
  • Put your experts in the front line. No one gets to speak to anyone integral to the product in a dirt cheap supermarket or fast-food joint, but they do at a premium priced farmer’s market stall or upmarket restaurant.
  • Plan longer.  Build for the long term and your structure will last.

WHEN TYPOS REALLY ARE CRIMINAL

Chirpy FT regular Lucy Kellaway is always good value, and her article on BBC Online this week, about the relative unimportance of spelling mistakes and typos, was guaranteed to get a vociferous response from grammar zealots. I’ve some sympathy for her position, having already staked out my red lines around typographical fastidiousness, but the truth is that this lady has gone too far.

I, like Lucy, have made a great many howlers in my time. Indeed, “I, like Lucy,” may even be one of them. The reason these made it in front of my clients (and on at least one occasion, in print) was because I didn’t try hard enough to identify the faults and correct them. Like making sure there’s no hair in the sandwiches I make my kids every morning, it DOES matter. It matters because the act of writing is an intimate communication process between a writer and a reader. Failing to apply the highest possible care in delivering that content fundamentally disrespects the reader, and if you disrespect the reader then what was the point in sitting down to write your ditty in the first place?

I get a pile of spam email every day, most of which is funnelled into a spam folder that I rarely open. Spam is often the delivery mechanism for extremely damaging bugs and viruses, or the opening gambit for a ‘phishing scam’ where the email appears to be from your bank or business supplier but is in fact from a rather nasty character in Belarus called Vlad. Clicking on a link or opening an attachment could be a disaster. The information security industry makes billions of pounds a year developing technology to identify and stop the bad stuff reaching you; letting the good stuff pass through unfettered.

Telling the difference between a cybercriminal attack and a legitimate email is very simple, if you take the time to read for spelling, grammar, syntax, formatting and so on.

I’ve written about information security for over 10 years and seen a great many malicious email threats. Cybercriminals are doing astonishingly clever things with code that run rings around national intelligence agencies and anti-virus scientists. But never, in all that time, have I read a cybercriminal email that was sophisticated enough in its use of English to look as though it was written by the marketing/comms department of – say – a UK high street bank.

That’s a blatant crime if ever you saw one.

“WHAT BISCUIT ARE YOU?” & OTHER TALES FROM INSIDE THE MESSAGING WORKSHOP

If you’re too close to something, you can’t see it so well. This is the value of an external consultant who not only brings rare skills but also can step back and take a different perspective that’s free from historical baggage, “we’ve always done it this way” thinking and office politics.

Messaging workshops are a very useful way of enabling a communications consultant to get at what is often the most surprisingly difficult thing to articulate: your proposition. But ‘messaging workshop’ is a very arty-farty term isn’t it? I mean, a couple of grand to sit in a room all day with a troupe of prancing marketing types getting you to muse on what sort of biscuit your brand is most reminiscent of…?

If you can get over the name, and get your head around the beautiful simplicity of what happens during one of these sessions, then you’ll realise just how immensely valuable they can be to your entire marketing strategy.

The perfect recipe for a successful messaging workshop:

  • An appropriate group of people from the business itself (in physical attendance rather than conference call – that just doesn’t work), including people who sell the product/service, provide customer support, create the intellectual property etc. Don’t just have marketing people. Make sure the MD/CEO is there.
  • A qualified facilitator who can lead the group through a series of questions and exercises; ably supported by a scribe who can record all of the discussions.
  • A set agenda, with timings, allowing for best use of the day.
  • An agreed set of outcomes. These would typically include the development of a series of ‘elevator pitch’ propositions of varying length with additional consideration to how these could be put to work in creative marketing campaigns and specific channels like PR.
  • A session length of around 6 hours, including for lunch to be brought in.
  • No mobiles or other distractions.

A typical workshop is 40% collecting, 40% creating and 20% therapy. Magic really does happen inside messaging workshops, and it’s surprising just how many times I’ve sat in one and it’s become apparent that the people around the table – all of who occupy senior positions in what is invariably a start up or early stage business – have NEVER got together and talked like this before.

What often isn’t appreciated by people who’ve never commissioned a messaging or positioning workshop is that the majority of the consultant’s work is done AFTER the workshop is finished. Like I said, it’s 40% collecting information and this bit is immensely important in the week or so after the event to interpret and replay the energy, observations and ideas from the session to produce a set of outcomes that are not only what the participants recognise and agree with, but which will serve their objectives for clearer and more differentiated communications.

But there are pitfalls in doing this too. I’ll leave you with some ploys that you need to watch out for when working with a communications consultant on a messaging workshop.

  • The hilarious cost

It is ever the case that, if you pay peanuts, then thou shalt get peanut eating sub-human primates. A lot of time goes into a workshop, a day each for the two consultants plus another two or three days to develop the stuff back at base. What I’m talking about is being shaken down for five, six, seven, TEN thousand pounds by some ultra-cool agency with exorbitant rents to cover. The illusion is all about value. “Is this going to be a valuable exercise?” you quite rightly ask. “Well of course it is – just look how bloody expensive we’ve made it!”

  • Insisting that the workshop takes place offsite or at their premises

This is rubbish; it doesn’t matter where you do it so long as it’s comfortable, accessible and private. This is just a ploy designed to inflate the price or sell other things at you harder.

  • Bigging up their power player

Telling you crap like “We’re really excited to have Frazer pop in for some of today’s session” is an irritating connivance intended to make you believe in the value of a prat in a bow tie and espadrilles. Frazer is no better than anyone else, but by stalking in like some rock-star, only to sulk in the corner and then pop up with a sage comment like: “We don’t need a strategy, we need a stratagem”, he can make even very intelligent, pragmatic people behave like nodding idiots.

Be careful out there everyone. And if you need any more help, don’t be afraid to ask.

COMPANY ANNOUNCES DEAL NO-ONE ELSE GIVES A TOSS ABOUT

Being tired, emotional and at the end of your tether is a bad time to start writing. But when writer’s block strikes, the best way to overcome it is to splurge complete and unmitigated truth onto the page, marvel at its inappropriateness and then edit it into shape.

The following is a made-up example, albeit perilously reminiscent of something I needed to write many years ago under immense time pressure from a client who couldn’t be convinced otherwise. Having got it out of my system and whipped it into shape, the resulting edit made it into several top trade IT publications.

 

COMPANY ANNOUNCES DEAL NO-ONE ELSE COULD GIVE A F*CK ABOUT

“It would make a good press release, yeah?” claims person promoted into a marketing position on the strength of their sales performance

DATELINE:   A jumped-up reseller of IT boxes purporting to be something to do with ‘managed services’ has sold a small quantity of said equipment to a construction company that the reseller claims has a loose connection with a really big building project on the other side of the world which its technology has, in fact, got nothing to do with.

“We’ve got something broadly the same as we used to have which let’s us do what we did before at a marginally improved cost,” said Bob Bloke, Head Curator of Technology Gubbins at Big Building Co. “If I could find it in my heart to say anything else of any consequence then I sincerely would.”

The reseller, who sells some technology you’ve heard of (but a good deal more of technology you haven’t), already has a number of customers of even less interest including a UK borough council you didn’t even know existed, and western Europe’s third largest exporter of grommet valves for civil and marine applications.

“The managed services paradigm is embracing new synergies as we transition toward a cataclysmic revolution in virtualised user-centric models for IT adoption, transformation and agility,” said the oiled and over moist Sales Manager. “I must dash, as I’ve left my Ford Probe at the Travelodge and it’s got all my cocaine in it.”

WHAT DOES A FREE iPHONE SAY ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS?

Whenever Apple releases a new consumer device, that’s the top prize giveaway that gets hawked on all the 3 m2 exhibition booths at trade shows up and down the land for the next six months. Unless you’ve been living under the earth’s crust these past few weeks, you’ll know that Apple just released the iPhone 6. I’ll bet a decent proportion of the shipments made in its first quarter will end up in these promotions.

As the company giving it away, you look relevant as well as fairly generous. You look like you understand that people want what’s new, and that this is going to attract people to give you their contact details and enter.

But it’s a bit lazy isn’t it? I mean it lacks a certain amount of imagination. It isn’t such an issue when the product is still very new – IP Expo is just a fortnight away and iPhone 6s will legitimately be a pretty hot draw – but when you get caught deep in one of the dusty recesses of Apple’s product roadmap, the best you might rock up with at CloudIT 2016 will be a iPod that everyone’s pretty much already got.

I like the prizes that communicate what the business is all about; that tie in with a theme for the event and why that company is at the show touting for your business. It makes it easier for the booth staff to explain the promotion, easier and more logical to express the value proposition behind the promotion ahead of the event, and a much better way of extending the mindshare of the prospects you engaged with when you follow up weeks, months or even years afterwards.

However, even these themes can get a bit tired can’t they? I’ve been to more IT trade shows that I’ve had cooked dinners (well, almost) and this is my top three laziest trade show themes:

  • The Formula One car. Someone knows someone who can get a replica F1 car from 4 years ago onto your stand for only £2k. It means you can talk to prospects about your ‘performance’. The giveaway is a driving experience. Some exhibitors will even dress their stands with dead-behind-the-eyes ‘promo girls’ to hand out leaflets.
  • The Casino: Whether it’s a three-metre diameter replica Wheel of Fortune, or just a cheap roulette set from Argos – you can pull off the Casino theme for any budget. Great if you want to talk to your customers about risk, or about being ‘a winning business’. Get really switched-on croupiers to articulate your product message, or be an idiot and hire promo girls to wear something ridiculous and… er…. hand out leaflets.
  • The Character Actor: This is where the entire premise of your theme is based around a well-known or entirely contrived character that you pay some actor about £150 a day to become. In my time I’ve seen a robot, a zombie, a quick-draw cowboy, a superhero called The LAN Man, a 12st 8lb (i.e. NOT fat) Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine, and a rather ill-advised (given the political situation at the time) ushanka wearing ambassador from the ‘People’s Republic of Hackistan’. Who knows who the agency will send on the day, but if they are the next Michael Sheen then it might just pay off. The trick here is to keep it professional at all times; it loses its lustre when you’re queuing up behind Batman while he asks for a VAT receipt for his overpriced Egg Mayonnaise sandwich.

When it all ties together, you succeed in communicating something that’s bigger and more logical and enduring that the sum of its parts. At least the companies employing the themes above are trying to think creatively, in spite of their lack of imagination. It’s almost tragic when you walk past a ghostly exhibitor booth with just two guys, a laptop, a glass bowl with a few business cards in it, and a little sign saying “Would you like to WIN the LATEST iPhone!”

Some colleagues far cleverer than me came up with a great idea for a trade show many years ago that we called ‘collars and cuffs’.

The client was a distributor of IT security products and the challenge they’d identified was that there were a lot of security solutions out there which were extremely large and expensive, and this made it difficult for reseller partners and their customers to know they weren’t overspending or ‘overspecing’.

The client’s objective for the show was to meet as many prospective reseller partners (and their customers) as possible. The stand was going to cost upwards of £30,000, so what they really wanted was to set-up meetings before the event and run a schedule, rather than relying on passing traffic to make their return on investment.

The idea was to send everyone on a pre-bought mailing list of prospects a collar or a cuff from a Savile Row shirt maker. We had a big box of these offcuts provided by the shirt company so must have mailed out about 500 to the best contacts along with a letter than explained how a meeting at the upcoming Infosec event would show them ‘how to be fitted for a tailor made security solution’ and allow them to ‘get the rest of this shirt’. The mailer – and the email equivalent that went out shortly after – had a great response and the client did a good job of following it up. The result was a packed schedule in time for the event itself.

The stand was dressed like a tailor’s shop, with real tailor’s mannequins and real tailors (from the shirt company) measuring up the prospects. The cost of the incentive was easily managed because the client could take a decision – either before the event or right there and then with the prospect in front of them – whether it was worth the £80 cost of the shirt to bother having the meeting.

Conversely, when you choose to have big prizes and give them out at random you don’t get to manage your returns so well. At least ‘break the safe’ and other similar games genuinely are random. The amount of times I’ve witnessed a company fix the prize draw by going through all the business cards to discard competitors, staff, irrelevant job titles etc., to identify the prospect of greatest value is testament to just how few prize draws are played straight.

Anyway ‘cuffs and collars’ got rolled out for a few clients and events, before the theme became a little tired and other companies caught wind of the idea.

People still talk about the company who did it first though, and remember as much about the proposition behind the promotion as the promotion itself.

That’s what I call good communication.

ROBOT JOURNALISTS THAT NEVER SLEEP

If you have daughters of a certain age then you too may have come across a stinking corruption of literature known as the Rainbow Magic Fairy Books.

Each lazily contrived volume is an attempt to come up with a new angle for the pretty standard fare of your common-or-garden fairy character, and it feels like meagre exaggeration to suppose that – positioned end to end – the entire compendium would stretch to hell and back. Having been begged by an excited 6 year old to pollute their absorbent mind by reading out loud one such example of this rotting crap, your heart and soul should be sufficiently burnt out to avoid exposing them to another. But you love your kid right? So that’s why I read another.

The unsurprising realisation that Kate the Royal Wedding Fairy’s story was as depressingly formulaic as Adele the Singing Coach Fairy caused me to wonder who on earth had written this nonsense. There are no authors credited on the spine, yet endless supplies of fairy mini-series pour forth; Sporty Fairies, Ocean Fairies and (I shit you not) Pet Keeper Fairies being just the tip of the iceberg. There was only one conclusion to my mind: they are written by robots.

Robot writers are becoming increasingly popular, as I read with interest in this chilling Guardian article by Yves Eudes this week. By 2025 about 90% of the news we read will be generated by computers, claims one of the foremost peddlers of automated writing technology. Well I hope to goodness I’ll be spending 100% of my reading time on the other 10%.

PR practitioners have grown used to the strange world of news aggregation websites that regurgitate enormous amounts of announcements from PR-land, despite being entirely bereft of human journalists. It used to be that these places just cut and pasted newswires to create a win-win situation for all involved: a win for the PR sender and their client because it’s an extra piece of exposure on the Internet for no cost or effort, and a win for the site owner whose traffic and corresponding advertising revenues would marginally increase. All of this was before Google changed the rules on its algorithm and now prefers ‘original’ content instead. Thankfully, the new Google regime supports the ideal of employing a human writer to interpret the more worthwhile PR blurb, apply their own news values to it and then publish the resulting original content as something someone might value reading. That content wouldn’t have existed if the press release hadn’t provided the impetus for the story.

I know a colleague who had a bit of a run-in with one of these automaton sites recently; let’s just call them storagegubbins.org. Rather than cut and paste, and rather than spend money on a writer, it looks as though they employ a rudimentary auto-thesaurus rule in a bid to fashion something different out of a bog standard press release; different enough to fool Google anyway. My colleague had put out their release about ‘ABC Components’, which read a bit like this:

“ABC Components, a major manufacturer of next generation chipsets, has announced a strategic partnership with BigBang Computers to extend their dominance of the European cloud IT market….”

Within minutes the website had published something more like:

“ABC Components, a chief industrialist of next generation chipsets, has proclaimed a deliberate syndicate with BigBang Computers to prolong their supremacy of the European cloud IT bazaar….”

I found this website doing something that looks alarmingly similar.

Back to the Guardian article, it’s hard to argue with the intelligent claims of experts but I can’t be the only one who thinks the idea of so much machine-driven writing is very sad indeed. Reading good writing is a joy, because you’re sharing the human experience. I also believe great writing is a performance in itself, where the words on the page conjure images in your imagination and generate some kind of emotional response.

I don’t know how machines can respect their readership. I just hope that it’s the sheer volume of data increasing to such as extent that only machines can supply the gaps in ‘news content’ that we don’t really care about anyway.

THE CHINESE ARE COMING

Globalisation was supposed to make it absolutely imperative for me to have a ‘modern language’ GCSE, and look how that turned out. Putting up with Mrs Flanagan for two years equipped me with little more than the ability to get an occasional giggle (or patient correction when I said ‘really, it’s kidney’ when I meant ‘really, it’s nothing’) from the French people I have since worked with.

In my school at 13, French was still the big one. By 15, I found out six months too late that it should have been German. At 18, everyone thought Spanish was paramount, amidst confident claims that no American president after the year 2000 would ever get elected unless he/she spoke it fluently. By the turn of the century, with the inevitable rise of the Chinese superpower, the smart money was supposed to be on learning some Mandarin.

All that fretting seems a bit silly now.  We’d clearly seen the evidence for Britain’s post-Imperial decay as a global power and just assumed her language (yes, yes, yes – and America’s etc.) would be going the same way.

I’m not some ignorant linguaphobe who wanders around like a safari-suited Denham Elliot going “Hello! Does anyone speak English?!” refusing to bend to cultural differences. Indeed, being Welsh and married to a Welsh speaker I am equally committed to the preservation of what is, in the cold light of day, a redundant language. But with English utterly dominant as the international language of business in 2014, I believe native English speakers have an exceptional opportunity to exploit their advantage in a global economy for knowledge skills. If you’re a native English speaking communications professional, then you’d better be pretty exceptional in how you use it. There is absolutely no room for you to be complacent.

Whether it’s junior PR pros, trade IT journalists straight out of college or everyday business people going about their work, I’ve seen the average standard of English fall through the floor over the years. At the same time, the skill with English I’ve seen from the likes of German, French, Dutch, Indian and – dare I say it – Australian clients and colleagues has been extraordinary, and getting better all the time.  We need to sharpen our pencils!

I gave a talk at Cohesive recently, called “The Chinese Are Coming – so what do they need you for?” which covered some of this in depth. We started off in party atmosphere with a big bowl of prawn crackers and a fairly knockabout exploration of the issues. We ended up soberly confronting the truth that an increasingly international economy is not going to require more diverse language and communications skills; it’s going to need better English ones. I’ll update this blog with a link to the presentation once I figure out how to get a sanitised version of it onto Slideshare.

It’s not just about the Chinese of course, but the Chinese example is especially pertinent to the technology industry with Lenovo, Huawei and ZTE just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese government’s goal is to transform the country into a world technological power, and when the Chinese government stands up and says it’s going to do something, it invariably (albeit chillingly) gets it done.

Researching my presentation I found – where figures are available – that only Honduras, Ethiopia, Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic have a lower proportion of population than China able to speak English (less than 1%). The Chinese government apparently doesn’t believe changing that is a top priority, and why would it?

THE DEEP BREATH OF WRITING

Nature programs us to be scared of things like sudden movements, the stink of rotting matter, and brightly striped buzzing creatures. Fear is the emotion best equipped to keep humans alive, so it’s a real sign of the times that so many people are scared of public speaking.

I just watched ‘Stammer School’ on 4OD where a bunch of poor unfortunates facing a lifetime struggling to speak, work bloody hard trying to.  I dare say it’s enough to make anyone with a fear of public speaking a little ashamed of themselves.  I’ll bet most stammerers would give their eye teeth to ‘stand up and say a few words’ without being burdened by their cruel disability.

I’ve seen a few people struggle in front of an audience – a cousin’s best man comes to mind, who gave, I am confident to assert, the shortest and worst wedding speech ever – but you can sympathise with the pressure that comes from being ‘in the moment’ and expected to perform.

By contrast, it’s very hard to sympathise with someone who is phobic about writing, and for whom the sight of a blank Word document (with cursor flashing mockingly at them) is enough to make them reconsider their choice of trouser colour.  That’s because of the single biggest advantage of the written word over the spoken, and one made even more assured since the comparatively recent introduction of word processing software; the delete key.

Writing isn’t a live sport; you don’t have to start at the start and do each piece in turn.

Imagine writing is like modelling with clay; first of all you need a lot of clay, right?  To accumulate your lump, embark on a process of unloading every little thought (even if it’s only tenuously related to what you’re writing about) onto the page.  A lot of these will be entirely unconnected little lumps – don’t worry; keep going.

Pretty soon you’ve overcome this fear of not having anything on the page.  Now there is a lot of seemingly useless crap on the page instead, but that’s OK because you’ve got the delete key to cut, scoop and smooth most of it away.

Some of the individual lumps will each look like something; a good ending perhaps, or an example, a metaphor, or passage of meaty technical bumf.  Work them over and over to shape them into short, sharp pieces.  It’s all disjointed but they’ll all come together in the end.

Now you’ve got some parts you like the look of, you need to put them in order and fashion the linkages and segueways that make them flow.  In no time at all you’ve got a finished piece of writing in front of you – which you now need to delete the hell out of…

It is quite liberating to smash the hell out of your own work, but like a baker’s dough it genuinely will benefit from a good thrashing.  “Cut like a scalpel until it is lean, taut and compelling,” is what my old boss used to tell me.  You will be merciless and, in so doing, you will see whole parts that you really liked creating being consigned forever to Microsoft’s extremely short-term memory.

Having employed this approach for many difficult writing tasks in the past – and in training countless junior colleagues down the years – I’ve become used to witnessing a phenomenon I call ‘the deep breath’.   This is the very start of the writing process (initial clay lump accumulation stage!) where the first few sentences start forming on the page.  You can tell a ‘deep breath’ from a mile off.  People accidentally leave it in at the very start of their writing instead of deleting it along with everything else that’s obsolete.  (Check out my recent Ode to Aldi post and you can see I’ve made the mistake there.)

Watching those stammerers learn to overcome their challenges, you can see each one consciously remember to take a big deep breath (part of the costal breathing technique) before each word.  The coaches – all former stammerers – never seem to need to; instead they’ve become experienced enough to do it subconsciously, and the result is speech much like anyone else’s.  It’s so similar to writing; the deep breath you seem to want is the deep breath you don’t end up needing.  It’s a comfort blanket you don’t need.

If you’re lacking in writing confidence then learn to love the delete key and it will pay you back a million fold.

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