effective communications

Leaning into Better Writing, One Word at a Time

Someone once asked me the secret to good writing. I told him it starts with turning obits into living stories – and spending a lifetime getting rid of bad writing habits.

Someone once asked me the secret to good writing. I told him it starts with turning obits into living stories – and spending a lifetime getting rid of bad writing habits.

Good writing is critical to effective communications, especially in public affairs. Good writing involves knowing what to write, how to write it and what to leave out. And it helps if you can write intelligently and efficiently.

Good writing rarely occurs without mastery of your subject. If you don’t know what you are talking about, it is impossible to write about your subject clearly and coherently. Do your homework before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

Subject mastery leads to identifying a hook that can capture and hold the attention of your audience. Hooks serve as convenient hangers that let details of your subject naturally unfold for readers. Hooks also can be turned into crisp, catchy headlines. You can measure the sharpness of your hook options in test tweets.

Mastering a subject enables a writer to base a central argument on the most salient details while omitting interesting, but extraneous other details. Don’t tread on short attention spans by trying to tell everything you know about a subject. Readers don’t care how much you know. You need to engage them on what would be useful for them to know. They will find that much more interesting.

Concentrating on critical details provides focus for both the writer and readers. Savvy writers bond with their prospective readers by marshaling details to answer the questions readers would ask. This is especially important in persuasive writing when the main objective is winning agreement and support.

Careful attention must be paid to placing details in a logical sequence that readers can easily follow. The architecture of writing can take the form of a story, a report, a talk, a presentation, an essay or a blog. The logic train for each form varies, but the details always remain on the rails of a logic train so readers and viewers know where you are headed. 

When you reach the point of putting your thoughts on paper or a computer screen, try writing a complete draft that covers your hook, central argument and supporting details. Don’t worry if it is rough. That’s what editing is for. Editing may involve correcting typos to a full rewrite. If your first draft inspires a rewrite, that’s a good thing, not a bad omen.

When unsure whether you have hit the mark, ask trusted colleagues to give you their honest appraisal. Gentle editors can mix honesty with useful advice.

Writing fast can be a blessing or a curse. Sometimes it is both. Looming deadlines dictate when a piece of writing must be ready for prime time, but not how long it should take to get your story, presentation or blog just right. Adjust your schedule based on how well you write under pressure. If you work slow, give yourself enough time to think, research, write, edit and polish. Don’t short-change your reader with a slapdash job of writing.

The best writers are good listeners. They hear the melody of words and know how a good sentence sounds. They can replicate in writing how people speak. They employ everyday phrases and expressions.

Excellent writers understand words can paint pictures in the minds of their readers with vivid imagery, careful detail and active verbs. As the saying goes, good writing is a ship to anywhere you want to sail. This kind of writing demands constant observation. Some note-taking helps, too. 

Writers have egos, but they can’t act like spoiled princes and princesses. Great writing shines through regardless of the medium. Charles Dickens published his greatest works in monthly installments. People couldn’t wait to read each installment because of Dickens’ keen observation and authentic storytelling.

Don’t believe that barf about “born writers.” Like athletes or engineers, writers have to learn their craft through study, practice, trial and error. You don’t pole vault 17 feet or design a robot in your first outing. Good writing requires the same level of dedication, the same blood, sweat and tears. 

Writer’s block is a fiction, an excuse to give up. If you need a break to clear your head or work over a sentence in your head, take a break, don’t reach for a mental crutch. 

You can be a good writer and still work on perfecting your craft. Write letters, compose poems, volunteer to give a speech or maintain a daily journal. Keep looking for your unique voice. Think of new ways to attack the written word. Stretch your comfort zone. Whatever you do, write.

The Picasso Museum in Málaga, Spain, the great painter’s birthplace, contains 285 works that show the artist’s evolution in style and technique. What startles viewers are Picasso’s traditional paintings that formed the bulwark of his skill as an abstract genius. Picasso could never have created his cubist masterpieces without the foundation of learning how to paint a realistic garden. Great mastery isn’t an accident or a gift. It is earned. 

All of us may not have the ability or opportunity to become grand masters. But nothing stands in our way of getting better every day to the delight of our readers – and to the grudging respect of our doubters.

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Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

How Instruction Manuals Can be Instructive

Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals are supposed to explain how something works or how to assemble something. The thought of an instruction manual induces dread in many people, but their evolution offers useful clues for today’s challenge of showing people what you mean.

Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

According to Helene Schumacher, writing for the BBC, the first instruction manual was created by inventor James Watt, who advanced steam engine technology in the 1800s. Watt’s instruction “manual” was for his early, but effective document copier. His instructions were simple steps – take a sheet of paper with damp ink, put it on top of a blank sheet of paper, wrap it in a blanket and push it through the rollers. Watt glued the instructions to his copier.

Simple and easy to find – characteristics that still hold true for visual communications today.

Instruction manuals have proliferated in direct proportion to the number of new machines for industry and gadgets for households. Some are very technical and some are meant to make technical information easy to understand by non-technical people. Eventually, we evolved to instruction manuals explaining all the technology on our cars and how to assemble Swedish-made furniture.

People with some gray in their hair remember when instruction manuals were mostly all text. Often gobs and pages of text. Over time, instructions come as a set of sequential illustrations and, more recently, as videos. Even when there is text, it is written to be understood and not like a test question for an engineering student.

Printed instruction manuals have given way to online versions. Many instructions now follow Watt’s example of being integrated into a product so you can see them as you work.

Instead of being technical or procedural, instructions are often combined with recommendations for how to use a product. In her article, Schumacher cites the instructions that accompanied Kodak’s Brownie camera. It explained how to load film in the camera as well as hared tips on how to take a great picture.

You could view Kodak’s instruction as a form of branding. For years, Apple’s advertising for its Mac computers, iPhones and iPads have featured what you can do with their devices more than showcase their features. Interestingly, Apple doesn’t provide instruction manuals because it doesn’t want you fooling around with what it makes.

More complicated devices have led to more complicated instructions. However, product developers have taken steps to reduce the complications through design, which requires less complicated instructions.

Making instructions more user friendly is not just related to customer satisfaction; it also has become part of the consumer journey to buy products. People go online to check out a product before they purchase it.

Technology advances are influencing instruction manuals. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are coming into use in ways that meld instruction with initial experience of a product. QR codes are being integrated with instruction manuals so you can quickly find the information you need without thumbing through pages or scrolling online.

Just about every instruction manual innovation mirrors communications best practices – simplified design, relevant information, visual explanations, online versatility, technologically savvy, customer friendly.

Who would have thought instruction manuals could reveal the qualities of effective communications.

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

The Power of Listening and Observing

Your ability to reach compromises and find solutions will be enhanced by refining your ability to pay attention, listen and observe.Click and Clack, hosts of Car Talk on NPR, have an uncanny knack for translating odd, funny noises made by vehicles into credible car repair recommendations.

Last weekend, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as the Tappet Brothers, were chatting up a caller who had developed a chronic pain in his thumb because of an uncooperative gearshift on his Jeep Comanche. The brothers teased the caller, who described himself as the "outside man" for a Memphis law firm.

But they couldn't diagnose what was wrong until the caller impersonated the sound when he shifts gears. When they heard the weird whirring noise, Click and Clack knew instantly what the problem was.

The Habits of Effective Media Relations

Building relationships with the media is more effective over the long-term than coming off like a carnival barker pitching stories.Good communicators rely on craft and relationships rather than luck to earn positive media mentions. Many times, good communicators go unnoticed, like great athletes who make amazing physical feats seem effortless. But like athletes, communicators train to improve their skills.

Here are five healthy media relations habits you should adopt:

1. Believe relationships with the media are important

Don't fall into the indulgent trap of believing that reporters or media outlets are out to get you. Think instead of what you can do to build rapport with the men and women whose job it is to cover what you do and say. You can't control what the media publishes, but you can assure yourself better access to the people who write the copy by taking the time to treat them as you would a colleague or customer. A little respect goes along way, and you will get back what you give.

2.  Think like a journalist