Category Archives: Writing

NOBODY CARES THAT YOU HAVE MOVED OFFICES

It’s bloody hard work selling stories to journalists.

People do it because journalists exude the all-important ‘third party validation’ that you can’t get through self-publishing or advertising.

You might not have done this before. Perhaps you usually get your PR agency to do it, or it just isn’t in your sphere of experience. But really, you should give it a go some time.

Here’s an idea:

They should put ‘pitching stories to journalists’ onto MBA courses.

It will teach our future captains of industry that success in this realm is only partly related to one’s charm, timing, relationships and salesmanship. Mostly – and you may need to sit down for this next bit – it’s to do with whether the story is any good.

Like I say – selling stories to journalists is bloody hard work. But it’s a damn sight easier when you actually have a story.

Here are 6 PR whimsies that should never be exposed to the scrutiny of a self-respecting journalist. Make them into blog posts (or else dispose of them entirely) so that no one need incur the counterproductive wrath of an important influencer whose time you wasted:

 

1) We’re moving offices

If you ever read an independently written article about a company that has moved offices, then it will most likely be because an armed gang is holding the journalist’s family to ransom. Or it’s a publication that nobody reads. Or isn’t a publication at all.

The moving offices story is a classic case of something mattering a great deal to an organisation but not to anyone else. It is the equivalent of being a bit worried about constipation for a few days, defecating prodigiously and then using this as an excuse to update your Facebook status.

 

2) Us and another company are doing something together that doesn’t involve a contract

Lots of customer win stories are pitched; only a few of them ever get covered. A massive deal, an industry-first or peculiar customers are all good ingredients. Stories can also result off the back of ‘channel deals’ where a manufacturer strikes an agreement to push its stock via a distributor or major retailer.

But this is none of these things. This is the so-called story that emerges when two companies find something broadly in common and decide not to be complete strangers anymore. This is ‘corporate strategic alignment’, ‘technological interoperability’ and ‘synergistic initiatives’. This is NOT a story.

 

3) Something we announced previously is now available to buy

A favourite of US-based companies, this is the classic GA (General Availability) press release. In other words, the communiqué marking the general availability of a product that has already been pre-announced, showcased, certified, awarded best in show at some obscure event in Kentucky, and officially released.

This is the kind of story that some salespeople insist upon in the deluded belief that it represents a ‘PR victory’ over a competitor who’s suffering the same problems getting their product ready for market too.

It says much about how powerful the sales department is in an organisation, and how much influence it has over the marketing function.

 

4) We’re going to be 20 years old next year

Sure, everything can have a birthday. Pets, cars, buildings, corporations… It’s the staunchly held right of the self-obsessed.

Actually, that isn’t fair. Preparing for a year of celebrations and themed events, giving each of your staff a special keepsake, releasing a special logo commemorating your ability to not go bust in two decades; all of these are bona fide marketing communications tactics. But it isn’t a story.

If you want to make a story out of your company’s special birthday then mark it with something more worthwhile like a ritual sacrifice, or by donating your annual profits to charity.

 

5) Our CEO will be speaking at Burpcon 2016

You may think that cooking this up as a PR story is a vanity exercise by the CEO, but most of the time it’s a well-meaning colleague performing a vanity exercise on their behalf.

I’ve been present on at least two occasions where the CEO has tried to block anyone bothering to make a story out of something like this, only to be talked round by a marketing/PR sycophant who believes it might ingratiate them a few inches further towards a promotion.

People present at conferences all the time. Sometimes 90 or 100 speakers will pack a multi-track, three-day show. This is not news. And in any case, the website of the event has got all this stuff listed on it already.

 

6) We’ve won an award at the Blah-Blah Industry Awards Night

Some industry awards are worth entering because there is real value in showing customers and prospects that your business or technology has been judged better than its peers.

But almost all industry awards are directly correlated with a specific publication.   Why does this matter? Well, imagine you are the person whose job it is to pitch this story. Who do you pitch it to? Well, you can’t pitch it to the publication that gave you the award, because they already know and are planning to write about it. And you can’t pitch it to any other publication because who the hell wants to write about the glittering awards ceremony hosted by a competitor?

The simple truth is that there is nobody to pitch this story to.

 

If you’re still wondering why The Sun never covers The Daily Mirror Pride of Britain awards, then I suggest you enrol onto the best MBA you can find and hope they’ve got a module on pitching stories to the press.

Oh, and wear a crash helmet when your turn comes.

‘PEAK FUD’ AND WHY BETTER ISN’T ENOUGH ANYMORE

Generating news, comment, opinion and sales bumff around technology has forever been predicated on the notion that anything featuring extra bells and whistles is a mark of progress.

But the “buy this new one cos it’s better” adage is unravelling. Having fed off the harvest of technology innovation for so long, it’s inevitable that we now start plunging down the slide of diminishing returns. More and more new technology will be for technology’s sake.

6th Gen vs. 4th Gen

I’ve happily used the same iPhone 4 for the last four years, and the intervening technological progress really isn’t worth it. My wife just ditched a stone-aged Blackberry and would have got an iPhone 4 too if anyone still sold them. So an iPhone 6S joined the family. My assessment thus far is: it’s basically the same phone as mine (cue screams of derision). Yeah. It is.

Apple’s communications machine always talks like the company is changing the world, but this is damned difficult when it doesn’t have much proof. You can see the effort it’s taking. The latest iPhone TV ad tries conspicuously hard to spell out the crucial differences in its latest generation, presumably because so few of them are self-evident. The idea that “everything has changed” is a bit of a stretch.

We’ve seen this before with toothbrushes; one of the most barren wastelands of innovation known to mankind. The poor wretches who market toothbrushes (let me remind you: plastic sticks with brushes on the end) must be lurching between states of terrifying panic and amphetamine-fuelled desperation. After all, these are the same class of marketers who list ‘Aqua’ as an ingredient in a pharmaceutical product, because ‘Water’ is too passé. They’ve found the only conceivable way to make up for toothbrushes’ inherent lack of innovation is to accentuate meaningless new mini-features to the level of near-parody. This nonsense is stunningly observed by Mitchell & Webb in this classic sketch from 2006.

Back to the real world, and the same complete and utter desperation is plain as day when you watch the latest Samsung phone ad about its three-sided display. There are two striking aspects about this advert:

  1. Unless you’re a phone geek, you have to watch the advert a few times to work out why the advert consists chiefly of a phone rotating very slowly while being shot from every angle (it’s to demonstrate that the display area actually goes down the sides a bit)
  2. It offers no practical applications for what the hell this capability is useful for

Is this the technological equivalent of ‘the science bit’ in cosmetics commercials? Or maybe it’s like the sultry, sexily lit glamour photo of luxury cars. Regardless, the phone-maker is so bereft of practical applications for their innovation; we’re invited to gaze longingly at it under the microscope. As if that’s enough.  And it isn’t…

But what if those are the only innovation cards you’ve been dealt, marketing hack!? Will you instead be tempted to turn to the tried and trusted tactic of FUD…?

Prepare for Peak FUD: Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt

Increasing numbers of technology products are sold on the back of FUD, because it so gracefully obscures the meaningful reasons for buying. You’ve heard of Peak Oil.  Well prepare for a steady escalation toward ‘Peak FUD’, where fickleness and negativity fill the vacuum created by gaps in innovation. But be careful with FUD-slinging, because:

  • It can make the FUD-slinger look foolish when the negativity is baseless
  • Communicating negativity on a prolonged basis can cast a shadow on your brand reputation
  • It shows a lack of confidence; that your product is low on innovation
  • People are rarely that stupid

Vauxhall has just introduced a new innovation, called OnStar, to its new cars. But I didn’t know any of that when I sat down to watch TV last night, and their new advert came on.

If you haven’t seen it before, play it up until 0:10.

The first thing that strikes you is that it’s been made in German, and dubbed into English. Bad start Vauxhall. Or should I call you… Opel, hmm?!

Audiences are already cynical when ads come onto their tellyboxes, but they reserve a special measure of contempt for dubbed ads. I for one prepare myself to scoff at whatever pretence they create.

But this isn’t the issue here. The issue is the message.

Straight away you’re compelled to associate with the guy and his car, not the spotty kid next door. The kid has come over to ask some questions and talk to you about the technological showstoppers that may be missing from your prized motor. By 0:10 I’m honestly, truthfully thinking the man is going to reply saying: “Aah shut up kid, I don’t care about any of that guff, I’m off for a spin” and then the ad will cut to him tearing up the autobahn, waving to his mates out the window as he passes through a few (German?) piazzas, before finishing up taking a lovely lady home with him and sticking two fingers up to the kid peering furtively though the curtains.

But no. Roll the clip on. It turns out that the kid is an agent of FUD. He’s cooler and smarter than you. Don’t you feel stupid that your car isn’t equipped with a load of technological gubbins (Vauxhall OnStar)?! OK so they offer the smallest scintilla of benefit; barely able to register any enhancement to your life, your driving experience or the pursuit of human advancement. But that’s not the issue. The issue is who you haven’t become. Look now (at 0:15) as a younger, hunkier, happier and more successful looking man emerges to get into his car; a car so apparently dripping with Vauxhall OnStar goodness that he’ll live a life that the other bloke wouldn’t dare to dream. Be like him or you – you loser – will be consigned a hapless Luddite who just drives his car places and phones people on his phone and lacks the imagination necessary to press buttons that bounce personal data off satellites. Surely, surely you want to be that better person?

Nah…

This is a warning to the marketers in the B2B technology industry. If innovation slows down then practical applications and benefits are going to be evermore granular and harder to find, but never more important.

Don’t resort to FUD. FUD means you’ve run out of ideas.

FUD makes you the irritating know-it-all in a car commercial.  Or worse – his toothbrush.

GIVE VERBOSITY A SNIFF

Next time you are on a plane, get the duty free brochure and marvel at the most florid and inflated copy you will find anywhere (outside one of my own blogs).

For me, anything will do when I really need something to read. I will avidly digest every advert inside a tube carriage, including terms and conditions at the bottom. I have been known to sit in a hotel room waiting for Mrs Dev to finish getting ready, reading the fire drill instructions and every single bottle in the toiletries bag. I think it’s because I associate with whoever wrote these things, and I’m looking for errors and tautologies so that I can mentally high-five my own razor intellect.

Very sad, I know.

Anyway – back to the duty free brochure. Pick a bottle of perfume or aftershave and read its 50-word stanza, which invariably goes a bit like this.

Verbosity by Shanelle

Confront the factory smog of your existence with the splendid tones of emmenthal, shagpile carpets and smoky bacon burps in this sanctimonious ode to aspiration. Embrace your passion and be heralded by angels of destiny on your journey to the neverworld of you, and the banishment of forgotten ages past.

On the face of it, this is complete bollocks. However, looking more closely you can see that this is in fact extremely expensive.

What is the intrinsic value of a bottle of perfume? A nice piece of mass-produced glass in an attractive box, containing an ethanol-based formula of synthetically manufactured scents. Being generous – and having done zero research into the matter – I’m saying that’s worth £2. In fact, £2 can’t be that inaccurate if counterfeit perfumes can be sold for a tenner by people prepared to go to prison for being caught.

Our bottle of Verbosity will cost you £45 for a small bottle, but a bargain £70 for one twice the size. That’s one hell of a margin. But we’ve forgotten all the marketing costs – and there are A LOT of marketing costs. Why? Because you can’t just rely on stupid people and rich people (and the golden combo: stupid rich people) to sit up and take notice. It needs a ‘story’ so that the hordes of temporarily distracted sane people will also engage.

This idea that people don’t just buy a product, they buy the story that goes along with the product, is absolutely fascinating. Fascinating because it requires intelligent people to be so bored and uninspired that a splurge of what we’ve scientifically established as “complete bollocks” will drive them towards making a purchase.

Our Verbosity description tells you absolutely zero about what’s in that bottle and 100% of legally permitted nonsense that the manufacturer has optimised to make you want to buy. OK, so you’ll have a squirt of it before you actually hand over your money, but by then the seed is planted.

Looking at the wider fashion industry – and specifically the premium end of the market – you find other examples of storytelling. As you might have already gathered, I’m not the sort of person who spends more than £100 on a pair of jeans. I think £100 is too far above the intrinsic value for a hardwearing garment intended to cover my lower half. I’ll go £60-70, which is pretty far above it too, but then the pair is still likely to be of far better quality, colour and cut than your Asda-esque garb. I buy this from a standard shopping centre outlet. My jeans have NO STORY.

If you want a story with your jeans, then check out Hiut Denim. Here’s a snappy bit of prose describing one of their product lines: Selvedge.

Selvedge is an investment. Ours is from Kuroki, the artisanal Japanese denim mill. Woven on a 1959 loom. 100% indigo dyed. Unwashed 14.5oz.

The key difference between this text and Verbosity is that Hiut’s is a succession of facts about the product. But aren’t they INTERESTING facts? You can’t help feeling “Oh my God, the jeans I’m about to buy were made on a 1959 loom from Japan, not some 2006 French junk” or “Whoa – 14.5oz – that is way cooler than any of that inauthentic 410 gram rubbish”. A little too pretentious for a Gap wearing tight arse (no pun intended) like me, but still very engaging indeed.

All of it builds a story, and it fits in wonderfully with the company’s website and its clubby little nuggets of information, hipster steampunk photography and general “vibe”. I dare say the actual products are lovingly and professionally produced, and that the people at Hiut believe in what they’re making a good deal more than the cynics at “Shanelle”.

The big question is – what can you learn from fashion marketing and communications that you can apply to a business-to-business environment? In my view, you learn almost nothing. B2B marketing needs personality, and DOES involve aspirations, but never in the realm of people’s personal aspirations for how they want to be perceived. Go large on this approach in a B2B environment and I’m sorry but you risk insulting your audience.

The story approach that makes a difference in fashion products is only really relevant in B2B when you’re explaining the background to the people at your company. But not all the time. I’ve worked with hardware distributors and components manufacturers and these aren’t places where your purchase has got much to do with people. A software developer or cybersecurity consultancy is different, because you’re buying people when you spend money with them.

No B2B copy must ever be devoid of humanity, simply because humans will read it. Take this blog for instance. What you’ve been reading so far is basically a roundabout way of ingratiating myself to people who work at businesses. I may or may not have failed in maintaining your interest, but I really can’t afford to insult your intelligence.

I’ll cover more on what B2B should include (rather than shouldn’t) in future blogs. For now, there must be something else to read…

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.

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.”

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.

NEVER ABUSE THE ENGLISH B*STARD

I’ve ghost-written for countless business leaders and other influential people, and I’ve trained a lot of young writers and communications professionals.  One thing I’ve learnt is that you can always be a better writer.  That’s especially achievable because the English language is such a contradictory, rule-breaking mongrel of uncertain parentage, that you can paint on its canvas in a lot of different ways.

Now when it comes to some of the essential elements of English grammar, it pays to be a pedant.  Personally, spelling errors and botched apostrophe’s (see what I did there?) would be punishable by death if I ruled the world etc. etc.  For a business (and by extension a professional person) to present themselves without regard to these essential conventions frankly makes them look stupid.

But whether you’re carefree about your commas, or pernickety about your parentheses, the people who I’ve got no time for whatsoever are the ultra-orthodox nut cases who wet their pants at the sight of a split-infinitive.

And misplaced modifiers?  Don’t talk to me about misplaced buggering modifiers…  OK, OK, so I accept that the syntax of a sentence could be more gracefully expressed in many of the instances where modifiers are misplaced, but come on… really?  The only two clients that ever presented this objection to my work were basically missing the point about what the article/press release/opinion piece was trying to achieve: COMMUNICATION.  Technically, they were right, but what the hell is that supposed to count for?

(Incidentally, if you want to know what a misplaced modifier is then feel free to Google it.  That’ll be 20 seconds of your life you’re never getting back, by the way…)

There is a wonderful line by Lynne Truss in her book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.  Following a brief analysis of appropriate  scenarios for employing the comma, she offers her own rule to beat them all: “Don’t use commas like a stupid person.”  I regard that as seriously good advice.

Content creators are not the Waffen-SS of the English language.  Just remember what the content is for, and who it’s for.