Hook ’em with a question

“Online it’s all about the narrative. We’re suckers for a good story so try to convey your research as such. Make it engaging for your target audience. Aim for a conversational tone. And remember to ask lots of questions. Think of it this way: a question mark is like an upside down hook so to hook people into your research ask them questions. As a researcher you’ll be amazed at the value of their responses. It could even be the answer you’re looking for!

I penned these few words of advice for researchers looking to build an audience for their work online. It was in response to a request from Hywel Curtis at http://www.growresa.com – a new website to help academics with blogging.

The quote took me a long time* – certainly longer than the few minutes I’d expected. But it’s amazing how blogging can help clarify the thought process. And that, in itself, is surely one of the benefits of blogging for researchers? There are, of course, other benefits. Here’s a short presentation I prepared as part of a training course for Queen Margaret University in Scotland. It’s a basic introduction that I hope might help you decide whether to start blogging yourself. Watch it carefully and you’ll spot the delicious irony when I say that blogs shouldn’t be a repository for all those presentations you’ve given!

 


French philosopher Blaise Pascal
French philosopher Blaise Pascal

*The French philosopher Blaise Pascal, he of the “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter I didn’t have time to write a short one” was right; it takes longer to ponder a few sentences than it does to compose a whole article.

What’s the difference between categories and tags?

Whether it’s birds or blogs we’ve be organising stuff into groups since the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus invented his system of classification. In fact I’d argue that making sense of our complicated world is something we’ve felt compelled to do as Homo sapiens (Kingdom: Animalia; Order: Primates; Family: Hominidae) pretty much from the get go. Or to put it another way, we were anoraks well before the anorak was invented. But whilst the taxonomy of the natural world is, for want of a better word, taxing, the taxonomy of the digital world is, thankfully, less complicated.

Carl_von_Linné

Blogs can be organised into three, simple sections:

  1. Subject
  2. Categories
  3. Tags

Think of the subject as the label that covers everything you write about or are planning to write about in your blog. It might be a subject with a wide-ranging scope like nature or gardening or something much narrower like hill walking or vegetable growing or narrower still like Munro-bagging or potato propagation. Narrow or wide the choice is yours – especially if you’re blogging for pleasure. If you’re blogging for profit then I’d suggest you stick to a subject you know about and one where your target audience will value your expertise. It’s easier to sell yourself a master of one trade rather than a Jack-of-all.

Categories become important once you have more than a few blog entries and  help vistors find their way around. The wider-ranging your blog the more important categories become. I have a client who blogs about urban anthropology (the subject). She’s written extensively about the legacy of the London Olympics but also writes about the post industrial landscape and about the impact of technology on human behaviour. I suggested they should be thought of and classified as three separate categories. Of course, there will be times when you want to list a post under several categories and that’s fine. For example, if Pokémon GO ever becomes an Olympic sport it’d come under two of my anthropologist’s category headings.

Tags are similar to but more specific than categories. Again looking at the example above a post could be categorised under “Olympic legacy” but be tagged specifically “London” or “Rio” so that a visitor could more easily find all the posts that are tagged or reference, say, “Rio.” Tags on blogs aren’t that different to tags on #Twitter that help us find stuff there.

Most if not all blogging platforms allow you to display your chosen categories so visitors can see your blog’s organisational structure at a glance. I’d suggest you do just that. WordPress and others also enable you to display the tags you use so that if a visitor clicks on a particular tag it aggregates all the posts that use that tag.

If you want to have a look at how I utilise categories click on the dropdown menu  on the sidebar of this post or on my personal blog. The tags I use appear along the bottom of this and other posts. Try out the feature by clicking on one.

Eat your heart out Linnaeus!

Facebook groups versus pages

Should I set up a Facebook page or group?

Good question and the short answer in most cases is both!

The longer and more helpful answer is that it depends largely on what you’re trying to do (your organisational aims and objectives) and who you’re trying to do it with (your target audience). By answering the following questions you’ll be able to arrive at the best answer…

Which description best fits you and your organisation?

A: We’ve got a well-established support base on the social web and would simply like to split this existing audience into more manageable and natural subsets.

B: We need to get more likes and build a bigger audience in order to “sell” our products, services or ideas.

Answer A Then a group or groups is probably the best option for you.

Answer B Then a page is more likely the better option.

Do you want to keep the conversation between you and your audience private?

YES! Then a group is probably the best option because with closed or secret groups you can more easily manage who sees what’s being shared on the group’s timeline.  For example, with a secret group nobody outside the group can see it and, as a result, know who’s in it or what they post.

NO! You need to answer a few more questions yet. A page might be the best option but equally an open group could be the perfect solution.

Do you want to vet who’s allowed to join?

YES! Then a group is probably best. Group settings allow you to decide who you invite and/or accept.

NO! Then either a group set to anyone can join will be the right option or a page where anyone can like a page to connect with it and get updates in their news feed.

Do you want to use Facebook Insights to measure the results?

YES! Then go for a page because Insights doesn’t currently work with groups.

NO! Then it doesn’t matter which.

Do you need to share with your audience documents or files on your computer?

YES! Then go for the group option as it’s easier to share, collaborate and ask questions.

NO! Then again it doesn’t matter.


CASE STUDY – local authority

Victoria Fawcett of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council set up a Facebook group called Stockton 5K trail series to promote, as the name suggests, a series of 5k runs across the North East of England. The group was fine as a way of communicating with athletes who’d already heard of the series from other sources – both on and offline. But it wasn’t so effective at growing that community to get more taking part in the events. Two things informed Victoria’s decision to set up a page and invite group members to join her there: firstly visibility – pages, she was told, are easier to find on Facebook than groups; secondly, because only a page gives you access to valuable metrics via the Facebook Insights suite of feedback and analysis tools.  Whilst the latter is true the former is not – unless your group is secret. The community page has nearly 1,500 likes (July 2016). That’s significantly more than were members of the now defunct group so it was clearly a good decision to make the change to page.

TOP TIP

Make an informed decision before you establish a page or group as you can’t automatically convert a group into a page or vice versa at a later stage. The only workaround in the case study above was for the group owner to ask members via the group timeline to migrate to the page incentivising those who make the journey across the wide open trails of cyberstockton by offering modest prizes (a beanie)!  Nor is it possible to merge two groups into one short of asking members of the one you’re closing to join the one you’re keeping going.

Think of pages as physical places. If you’re a small organisation you might only need one page/room. If you’re a big organisation you’ll probably need several pages/rooms. Get as many people coming through the doors of these pages/rooms as you can and then, once they’re in, decide how you want to organise them into separate groups.

CASE STUDY – national charity

As a supporter of the NSPCC you might like the charity’s Facebook ’s page. Almost 300,000 people already have. But it would be inappropriate for discussions about some of the grittier areas of the society’s work to be held, in effect, with all these people listening. So there are five open or public groups and who knows how many secret groups where like-minded individuals can get together in much smaller groups to discuss things. Social workers use these groups, for example, to discuss child welfare issues away from the public gaze. And young people can discuss growing up in a secret group away from the inappropriate gaze of adults.

TOP TIP

Ask yourself is it more appropriate for conversations with a target audience to be happening in relative if not absolute privacy? If the answer is yes then a Facebook group with its built in privacy settings is probably the best  for you.

CASE STUDY – small business

At ACM Training we had too many groups and it was almost impossible to find both the content and the time to post stuff to the various groups’ timelines to stimulate debate among members. For example, we had one group for people who’d been on our social media training courses and another for those who’d attended our writing for the web courses. Now we have a larger – but more easily managed – social web group which works for us because resources aren’t spread so thinly and works for group members (unless they think otherwise!) because there is a natural crossover between the two subject areas – if you’re interested in the social web you’re almost certainly going to be interested in writing for the web. We encourage group members to like our page but don’t insist on it as a precursor to joining the group. We also allow group members to invite new members so we can grow organically.

Here is a link to Facebook’s own thoughts on groups vs pages.

Brexit – a victory for style over substance?

I promised myself I wouldn’t write about the EU referendum here. But then so many people (for which, read politicians) seem to be going back on their words left, right and centre that one more little broken promise won’t matter surely?

Actually I don’t want to comment on the politics at all. Or reflect on the outcome. More than enough has already been said on those fronts. But as a student of public speaking and as a presentation skills trainer I believe that the contrasting styles of Remain and Leave did influence the result. To what extent I guess we’ll never know although it’s worth adding that in a close contest the side with the better lines and the better delivery can and often does end up winning as a consequence.

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re selling England down the river, dodgy DVDs down the market, or a proposition to colleagues down the corridor, your “patter” must conform to what I call the Four Cs. It must be: clear; concise; catchy; and strike a chord with the audience.

So with that in mind let’s explore the political patter.

“Let’s make tomorrow our Independence Day.”

Nigel Farage’s call to action is undoubtedly clear, concise and catchy. The fourth measure, of course, depends on your point of view. But on the first three alone it trumps the Remain refrain.

“We are stronger, better off and safer in Europe than we would be out on our own.”

Again, whether it strikes a chord depends on your point of view.  But putting that aside, what the two quotes boil down to is Independence (leave) versus Interdependence (stay). Now we’re more familiar with the word independence. And its face value is probably higher too. We seek financial independence.  As teenagers we can’t wait to leave home and become independent (even if not immediately financially so). At the other end of life we fight to keep that independence for as long as possible. By comparison the word interdependence is weaker and, therefore, harder to promote. The irony here is that our treasured independence is illusory. Take the notion of financial independence. Unless I keep my fortune under the mattress my security depends largely on external factors, as anyone who’s lost money on the financial markets in the turmoil that’s followed Brexit will tell you. Indeed, even under the mattress, my financial independence exists only in so far as it doesn’t get stolen. I’m depending on burglars not reading this, the alarm company, that nosey lady at number 23 who’s in Neighbourhood Watch, the police, the law…oh and the bloody great Rotweiller that has a free run of the house when we’re out.

A better presentational strategy for Remain might have been to subvert the familiar phrase and quote it back at their opponents and, by extension, the wider audience – you and me.

“They say ‘let’s make tomorrow our Independence Day.’ I say there’s no such thing. We all depend on others. Children on their parents. Grandparents on their children. All the way up to nations on their neighbours. For our safety. For our security. For our jobs. For our families. Let’s make tomorrow our Interdependence Day.”

Okay, I accept it might need a bit of a polish (although less if you read it in a stirring Churchillian voice) but it’s certainly better than some of what I heard which, paraphrased, amounted to: “The EU is a bit shit to tell you the truth. But we can make it a little bit less shit. And it’ll be a lot shittier if we leave.Trust me, I’m a politician.” Actually I made that last bit up but you get my drift.

It seems like VoteLeave had all the good lines. Here’s another one:

“Let’s put the Great back in Great Britain.”

So powerfully did this key message tug at the heartstrings of a certain demographic that I heard it being repeated in conversations. Something that strikes a chord (the fourth of the four Cs) resonates. And if that chord is still resonating when people enter the polling booth then there’s a chance that their pen (not the pencil provided) will dance to its tune.

“Stronger together” was as close as Remain were able to get. But I’d argue, semantically, that given a choice most people would prefer to be great than strong. In other words, being strong is only good if it makes you great.

So what does all this mean for those of us who present not on a national or international political stage, but in more modest meeting rooms and conference halls? It means being clear about what you need to say. It means saying it as concisely as possible. Make your key messages and calls to action catchy by choosing your words carefully and putting those words in the right order. And, although it’s not always possible (especially if your audience doesn’t like you or what you’re saying) try to strike a chord.

Over the next few months I’ll be exploring the impact that personality has on presentation through the lens of the referendum. Was it, for example, the undeniably colourful (yes I think that’s the right word) characters like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage wot won it for Brexit?

My next presentation skills course in London on July 5th is sold out but there are still places available in London on September 6th and December 8th and in Manchester on September 14th. You can book here.

Front loading – websites not washers

Here’s a quick and easy fix to make your website more appealing to your target audience:

Don’t bury the good stuff so far down the screen that people have to scroll or swipe to find it. Because they probably won’t!

To avoid this problem we have to “front-load” web pages – that is, put the most critical information at the top of the page where it’s clearly and immediately visible. In the old days of broadsheet newspapers it was called putting stuff  “above the fold” where, on a newsstand, the bit of the article on the top half of the front page could instantly be seen by potential buyers.

Front loading is such an important concept in my writing for the web workshops that I’ve devised some simple exercises to help explain it. The exercises also cover principles such as decluttering for clarity and brevity. It’s probably easier to print them off  (open pdf) and mark the paper, as I suggest, with a real red pen.

Here’s a paragraph written specifically for print that follows the conventional, and some would say out-dated, intro, explanation, conclusion format:

In this article I’m going to show you how to write for the web and explain why it’s different to writing for print. But first a little bit of history. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. But when we read stuff online we’re much less linear in our approach. Eye tracking studies suggest we scan the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And if we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page or worse still the whole site in a hurry. The fickle way readers behave online is the biggest single factor determining the way we write web copy. In short, because people read differently we need to write differently. It really isn’t good enough simply re-purposing words written for paper. Or certainly not without wholesale changes in terms of structure, layout and length.  Structurally we need to write in such a way that the important stuff is placed on the screen where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down. The principle is called top or front loading. Another name for the technique is the inverse pyramid. Doesn’t really matter what it’s called. We need to write in a way that lends itself to breaking up long paragraphs and, therefore, large blocks of text, into shorter paragraphs and smaller blocks, bullet points and lists. And we need to write in a way that is shorter, sharper and to the point because or readers tend to be less patient than when reading a book. [312 words]

Where is the introduction? Highlight it and write the number 1 in the margin alongside.

Where is the explanation or background? Put a number 2 next to it in the margin.

Highlight the conclusion (or conclusions) and mark with a 3.

Now try writing a version that conveys the same information but in the reverse order – 3, 2, 1. Start with the conclusion.

Struggling to find a natural sounding place for the introduction at the end? Another virtue of writing this way is that we can often dispense with the intro altogether and make the article shorter as a consequence.

Here’s my version.

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down. The principle is called top or front loading or the inverted pyramid method. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Write in a way that is short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye tracking studies suggest we scan the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page in a hurry. Compare that to the way we read words on paper. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. [176 words]

Better structurally but still a bit too long so let’s next go through it striking out the words that aren’t strictly necessary. See how short you can make the paragraph without rendering it meaningless.

Here’s my version, first with the editing showing and then without:

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down scrolling. The principle is It’s called top or front loading. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Write in a way that is Be short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye tracking studies suggest we scan search the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page in a hurry. Compare that to the linear way we read words on paper. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. 

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Be short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye-tracking studies suggest we search the page in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page. Compare that to the linear way we read words on paper  – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page. [106 words]

Shorter, certainly, but perhaps still a bit “slabby” in appearance. Try breaking it into bullet points and improve usability further by changing the font type, size and colour to make the key words stand out like headlines in a newspaper.

Read differently means write differently.

  • Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading.
  • Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists.
  • Be short, sharp and to the point. 

Eye tracking studies suggest we search in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave. Compare that to the linear way we read word by word on paper. [83 words]

The shortest and cleanest-looking version yet, although maybe a bit too short for readers who are really interested in the subject. Extra detail can be provided through hyperlinks (internal or external) readily accessible to those who are motivated to learn more but without cluttering the page or confusing those who are only after an overview.

Here’s my shorter version with hyperlinks (and, yes, the hyperlink works)!

Read differently means write differently.

  • Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading.
  • Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists.
  • Be short, sharp and to the point. 

Eye tracking studies suggest we search in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave. Compare that to the linear way we read word by word on paper. [83 words]

Now try the above exercises with a page or section from your own website. When you’re done road test it by asking your visitors  (or, failing that, colleagues, family or friends) which version they prefer. If your own website is too close to home to fiddle with without upsetting your co-workers then choose an external website from your sector that you think could do with a makeover.


This article first appeared in Richard’s writing for the web booklet which accompanies his training course of the same name. You can book a place here.

Dealing with nerves – a ten point plan for presenters and public speakers

So you’ve got to do a presentation. Stand up in front of room full of people and speak publicly. Admit it. Your legs are turning to jelly. Failure and ritual humiliation beckon. Sound familiar? Well join the club. We’ve all felt nervous at some time – even those who routinely present to millions of people on television and radio. And those who say they haven’t are either big fat fibbers or dead from the neck up.

Nervousness is what tells us we’re alive – along with a few other physiological niceties like breathing, of course. In fact nervousness and breathing are bodily bed fellows – if you’re feeling the former it’s more difficult to do the latter. To the point where you risk beginning your presentation with lungs as empty as if you’d just outstripped Usain Bolt in a hundred metre dash. And believe me I’ve been there. Not in a running race but in a mad, hyperventilating rush to get to the end of the opening sentence whilst reading the news. It wasn’t even a long sentence come to think of it: “Hello, good evening…” So how can we say good night to our nerves?

  1. Say hello to your nerves
  2. Make a plan
  3. Practice make perfect
  4. Grow your confidence from a solid start
  5. Focus on success
  6. Breathe deeply
  7. Speak slowly
  8. Feed off the audience
  9. Admit nothing
  10. Share the load

Like what you’ve read so far? Subscribe to this blog by entering your email in the left hand column and get £30 off your next workshop place.

Say hello to your nerves

Our minds move in a mysterious way. We begin by worrying about the actual presentation – let’s call this the primary concern. Then we begin to worry about the consequences of a poor presentation. We imagine ourselves looking stupid in front of colleagues, being passed over for promotion or maybe even sacked. In effect this secondary concern doubles our worry. But hang on a minute. We haven’t actually failed yet. We’re not really on the platform looking at a sea of unforgiving and unfamiliar faces. It’s just a bad dream. Make that a nightmare. In the dead of night we’ve snapped awake with a start, drenched in sweat. A bad attack of THE FEAR OF FAILURE! At this point we need to drag ourselves out of bed, go to the bathroom and have a long, hard look in the mirror. Give ourselves a cheer up smack. Say out loud: “I will succeed.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. He’s beginning to sound like some whacky American lifestyle guru. What about us shy, retiring Brits who wouldn’t say boo to a goose let alone “I will succeed” to a mirror? Okay here’s the UK equivalent: “Hello mirror old chap. Awfully sorry to disturb you at this unearthly hour. Any chance I could have a quiet word with you? You see I’ve got this presentation to do. I don’t mean to burden you unnecessarily with my troubles but…”

Look, whatever you say in your moment of reflection don’t mention the word failure. Fear’s fine. But put fear to work. Harness the fear. Channel the nervous energy into planning and the imagined dire consequences – the secondary concern – are much less likely to come true. So don’t go back to bed. Start a plan.

Make a plan

Planning is so crucial to any nerve reduction strategy that it deserves a post all of its own and at some point I’ll do just that. On my presentation and public speaking skills workshops I encourage delegates to think about the following steps:

Purpose – what do you want your presentation to achieve?
Audience – who’s watching?
Context – where are you giving the presentation and what are the physical and intellectual  barriers to communication?
Content – what do you need to tell them?
Structure – what’s the best order to communicate your content?
Style – what’s the most appropriate style to communicate your content?

A good plan probably won’t get rid of your fear entirely. But it can make the difference between the adrenaline-max version which makes us want to run away and the adrenalin-lite type whose purpose is to encourage us to stay and do a good job. Flight or fight.

Practice makes perfect

Done a plan but still feeling nervous? Nothing unusual there. They may feel the same, but what you’ve got now is a different type of nervousness. Not the disabling fear of failure that springs from a lack of planning but the enabling fear designed to get us to carry out our plan. Performance nerves not planning nerves. Actors plan well. They learn their lines. Do endless rehearsals. Yet they still get first night nerves. Sir Laurence Olivier and Barbara Streisand both suffered an extreme version of it called stage fright. So you’re in good company. I prefer to call it pre-presentation panic. But as Corporal Jones would put it: “Don’t panic!” Again subdue the nerves by acknowledging them and use the nervous energy to rehearse. What’s the old adage? Practice makes perfect.

Grow your confidence from a solid start

Even with practice you’re going to feel nervous when it comes to the real thing.  And the bigger the audience the greater the fear. But enabling fear dissipates the moment you start your presentation. It’s why in the planning phase you design and practice a simple start. One you know you can manage even with a few jitters. If, when I was reading the news, a producer had written a long or complex introduction to the lead story, one where even the sub clauses, the bane of simple speech, had sub clauses and it looked, with my shattered nerves, that I’d be unlikely to reach the full stop, that welcome little dot indicating the end of the sentence, without expiring, then – a bit like this convoluted nonsense richly deserves – I’d split the sentence into more manageable chunks. Tiny. Little. Bits. So take a deep breath…

Breath deeply

Our heart rate increases when we’re scared. We breathe more quickly too and the breaths we take tend to be shallower. Although not always. Sometimes we forget to breath altogether. Which is kind of weird given that most of the time we don’t have to think about breathing at all because it just comes naturally. So restore the natural order of things by taking ten deep breaths whenever you feel the panic rising and the heart quickening. In through the nose for at least three seconds. And out through the mouth for a similar count.  Stilling our bodies stills our minds. Stilling our minds stills our bodies. Circular breaths.

Speak slowly

When we’re nervous we tend to speak more quickly. Which is understandable because the quicker we speak the sooner our presentation is over and we can relax. But although the instinct is right, the reaction is wrong. For two main reasons: that we may be speaking so quickly the audience can’t keep up; and that we may trip over our words like Mr Spooner of Spoonerism fame who meant to raise a toast to the dear old Queen but instead raised a toast to the queer old dean.

Slowing down is easy to say but harder to do. I find concentrating on the pauses provided by the full stops and commas of speech a better way of slowing down. Pausing for effect….letting a point sink in…counting to five slowly in my head before moving on.

Focus on success

When we want something to be over with (like my visit to the dentist the other day) we tend to focus on the finish line. But like speaking too quickly, doing so can make us rush and more likely to trip over. Try focussing instead on the purpose of your presentation. This subtle shift can be transformative. Not achieved your purpose yet? Then don’t sit down until you have. Achieved your purpose? Then sit down now. Purposeful presentations are very often shorter presentations.

Focussing on success can also help by putting our nerves into perspective. One of the best presentations I’ve ever seen was delivered by someone who, by her own admission, was extremely nervous beforehand. The young woman was raising money and awareness for stroke patients. Afterwards I asked how she’d managed her fear and she said: “By concentrating on the outcome and realising that my own fear was nothing compared to the suffering of the people  my speech was designed to help.”  Wise words.

Feed off the audience

The audience is more supportive than you might imagine. They really don’t want you to fail – except perhaps the few ruthlessly competitive inviduals who’d like your job at any price and might benefit from a stuff up on your part. Most people know from bitter personal experience what you’re going through as you clear your throat ready to speak. Tune into and draw on this positive vibe or empathy. With a big audience it all adds up to a lot of people rooting for you. Your very own personal cheer leaders if you like – without the ra ra skirts and pom poms!

If the audience still feels like a huge, amorphous blob ready to gobble you up for breakfast, scan the crowd and try to find a friendly face or two. Maybe you met them over coffee ten minutes ago or you’ve known them a lifetime. Nodding acquaintance or bosum buddy, engage with these individuals eye-to-eye. Remember where they’re sitting and return to them now and again when you feel the need. It’s best in a big venue if you choose at least four friendly faces – back, front, left and right. Look in only one direction and you risk visually excluding everyone else. Incidentally, even though you may be looking at only four in a hundred faces the 96 other people think you’re looking at them. It’s all down to the physical properties of light and how waves propagate. Certainly way too complex to get into here so let’s just call it an optical illusion. In a small venue, however, this “magic” doesn’t work in your favour and it means trying to make eye contact with everyone. In the film Zulu the actor Michael Caine uttered the immortal line: “Don’t shoot til you see the whites of their eyes.” Your words are less likely to hit their target if you shoot your mouth off before you can see the whites of the audience’s eyes. Not a lot of people know that.

Admit nothing

Whilst all of the above can help us deal with our nerves they never truly go away. And sometimes, mid presentation, they can come bounding out of the shadows and attack us when we least expect it. We feel the butterflies in our stomach stomping around in size 12 boots. We feel our hands going cold and our faces getting hot. But the operative word here is feel. Feelings are just that – felt. They’re rarely manifested to the extent that the audience even notices them. And what the audience can’t see can’t hurt you. For example, don’t apologise for losing your place or missing out a bit. The audience doesn’t know you’ve lost your place or missed out a bit unless you’ve given them a script to follow beforehand – rarely a good idea.

Mind you it is possible to make the invisible visible. Tony Blair made the mistake of wearing a shirt that not only showed he was sweating but also became see through. It’s hard to take anybody seriously when you can see their nipples. My own salutory lesson would have been even more chastening had it not been for some quick thinking. I was chairing an event one summer and decided on the Martin Bell look – a creamy coloured linen suit. But I hadn’t reckoned on the faulty plumbing. Not mine I hasten to add even though the audience wouldn’t have reached the same charitable conclusion. Nipping to the loo for a pre-presentation pee – another physiological response to fear – I was careful not to leave a tell tale splash only to be stymied at the hand-washing phase. Just a quarter turn of the hot tap unleashed a torrent of water with the force of an Icelandic geyser. Up the basin and down the trousers in a pattern for which there could be only two explanations – neither of them relishing. Accusations of a bad aim or incontinence were narrowly avoided by whipping off the offending trousers, soaking them in the washbasin, wringing them out and putting them back on. Fashionably and visibly crumpled and universally but invisibly damp. The moral of these stories? Stop sweating. And don’t go to the toilet. Or, more feasibly, choose your suits, shirts and blouses carefully.

Share the load

A problem solved is a problem halved, or so the saying goes. There’s a presentational equivalent: a speech shared is a speech halved. In the world of broadcast news and current affairs the busiest shows are very often double headed – that is, there are two presenters. It’s not just done for cosmetic reasons. It’s also because fast-paced and quick-changing programmes can be too much of a challenge for one presenter. And in the same way long or complex presentations can be too much for one speaker. So why not double head them? Buddy up with a colleague. Share the load. Half the nerves.


Richard Uridge is a former journalist and broadcaster turned communications coach. If you’d like him to help you with your next presentation he’d love to hear from you. A place on his open presentation and public speaking courses starts from just £99. To qualify for this special price all you have to do is subscribe to this blog by email (sign up in the left hand column or, on mobiles, below) and we’ll send you your £30 discount code as a thank you.

The press release – dead or alive?

Ten years ago ACM Training regularly ran writing press release courses the length and breadth of Britain. Filling a room with trainees in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham and Newcastle wasn’t a hard sell. Why, we even paid the occasional visit to Norwich! But then something happened and within a year bookings dropped almost to zero. That “something” was the social web. Suddenly organisations didn’t have to rely on the media to get their messages across. Facebook and everything that followed meant they could get in touch with their target audiences directly. Cut out the middleman was the mantra. Made sense. Sort of. Cue dozens of articles proclaiming “the press release is dead.”

And that’s pretty much the way it stayed. Or at least it was until about six months ago when, almost as suddenly as it dropped off, demand started building up again. Cue dozens more articles proclaiming, with a startling lack of originality and misappropriating Mark Twain, that “reports of it’s death had been greatly exaggerated.”

So which is it – DEAD or ALIVE?

Both, in my view. Dead in it’s original form. Alive in it’s new form. Or to sum it up in one word: different. Different because the media landscape has shifted dramatically in the past decade. A decade where the dizzying rise in the fortunes of another Mark (Zuckerberg not Twain) has been matched by a precipitous fall in the fortunes of the print media, particularly local newspapers.

But those that are left still need copy. In fact, with very few staff running them, they are so desperate for copy they’re likely to print your press release almost verbatim. Which is good. Unless your press release is bad. In which case it’ll still be bad. Because the chance of a reporter or sub-editor rewriting your copy and ironing out any wrinkles are zip.

So without this journalistic back stop in place there’s a good case to be made for ensuring your press releases leave you in the very best shape. Which is perhaps part of the reason why there’s been an upturn in business for training companies like ACM. But there’s an additional reason to give your press releases a polish – because once written they can easily be re-versioned for all of the other distribution channels now available such as online newsrooms and, of course, the likes of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Think of the press release as content with a newsy nose. That kind of content is likely to go much further on the social web as well as getting you noticed by journalists working in print, online, on television and radio.

In my next article on this subject I’ll take you through the key elements of a press release fit for the digital world. If, in the meantime, you’d like to book a course and join the renaissance movement then click on the image below.

writing-press-releasesRichard Uridge has been a journalist for more than 30 years, though he claims it feels like only yesterday that he started as a cub reporter on the Reading Chronicle. Heʼs worked in all three major media – television, radio and print – and for ten years presented Open County on BBC Radio Four. His journalistic work has taken him all over the world. Less exciting, though perhaps more relevant, is that over the years he reckons heʼs read several thousand press releases and as a result knows what makes good, bad and downright ugly reading.

First, second or third person: which is best for blogging?

First Person

For me writing is a largely instinctive activity and I don’t often ruminate over which personal pronoun I should use when blogging.

Second Person

Want to know which perspective to use when writing a blog? Then keep reading. This post will explore the various options and help you decide which is best.

Third Person

Bloggers often struggle to know which perspective to apply to their posts. Should they use the first person of paragraph one? The second in paragraph two? Or, like this paragraph, the third?

And I know what you’re thinking, maybe you could use all three in the same paragraph because some writers do just that and seem to get away with it!

The first person (me) puts the writer centre stage. The second puts the reader (you) in the spotlight. And the third views things from an audience’s point of view (he, she, they) – way up in the cheap seats at the back of the auditorium if you like.

So which is the best? Sadly there’s no simple answer. All three have their place. It depends on a number of variables: who you are; why you’re blogging (your purpose); who’s reading (your target audience) and so on.  But what follows is some basic guidance drawn together after I delivered  ACM Training’s blogging workshop to a group of enthusiastic but reflective academics at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

Like most academics they are used to writing in the third person because of the commonly and firmly held view that this way is somehow more objective. (I say somehow because I’m not sure that it genuinely is only that it gives the impression of being so, but that’s a discussion for another day). So changing their perspective from third to second seemed, for them, like a huge step. From third to first a giant leap. And one that, because they’re academics, they needed plenty of empirical evidence to take.

When to use first person

The person you know best is you. So writing about yourself ought to be easy. And for some people it is. Too easy in fact. And they end up over-disclosing. Telling us all sorts of things that, frankly, are of no interest to us at all.

But some of you will find writing about yourself really difficult. Perhaps you’re naturally shy. Or, like my academics, so used to writing about other people that writing about number one seems uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t though. As a blogger the most important thing is that you engage your readers – hook them in the first place and then keep them reading, ideally to the end. And if writing about you’re own experience is the stuff that is most likely to engage your audience then do so. Get out of your comfort zone.

Let me give you an example. An academic had written a blog post about the Notting Hill Carnival and a controversial proposal to change it from processional to a fixed location. It was, by her own admission, a little dry and read more like a press release or the abstract of a learned paper. All because it was written in the third person. Talking through her own experience of the carnival it turns out that she attended her first as an unborn child. Write about that I implored her. Let rip with your imagination. Take us there. Have us listen to the beat of your mother’s heart in utero overlaid with the pulsating rhythm of steel drums.

When your experience is relevant and interesting it can lift your copy from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Try it.

The first person approach is also good when readers are coming to your blog principally because of you (and not only for what you’re offering them). As a keen cyclist I might, for example, follow Chris Froome’s thoughts on Twitter (a micro blog) not to read his detached and aloof views on cycling but to get first person insight into his life in the saddle.

When to use second person

But if people are visiting your blog mainly because of what you’re offering them (and who you are is largely irrelevant) then focusing on their needs via the second person perspective is probably the best approach. I find myself using the second person most often for instructional blogs and think of it this way: what does the reader really want? Me or the advice I’m offering them? If the answer is them then that’s what I’ll concentrate on. That’s where the value is. And my stock rises (hopefully) not because of who I am but because of how I’ve helped.

As Brian Clarke of Copyblogger put it “…if you’re blogging for marketing or public relations purposes, your every post should be purposefully aimed at the needs and wants of others. You only benefit when readers benefit first.”

When to use third person

Writing in the third person puts some “distance” between you as the writer and the events or people you’re writing about. It’s the preferred position in academic writing because, as already touched on, is or appears to be more objective. So if that’s what you’re after in your blog use the third person. But that sense of detachment can also appear aloof. The reader may be frustrated by this and wish you’d come off the proverbial fence. Again the guiding question should be this: is my detachment helping me achieve my purpose? If the answer is yes then stay detached. But if your aloofness is hindering then don’t.

In all forms of writing engaging readers and keeping them engaged is crucial. Whilst the words engaged and detached aren’t exact antonyms (engaged and disengaged would be) being engaging in a detached way is a hard trick to execute. Good academic writers are frequently pulling this particular white rabbit out of the hat. Bad ones send us to sleep.

When to mix and match

In reality very few posts are written strictly from only one perspective. We (first person plural) tend to use them in combination. You (second person singular) might even find them all together in the same paragraph. But never in the same sentence. That’s a recipe for confusion:

“I signed up for Richard’s blogging course and by the end of the day you have to write at least one blog but they didn’t insist in it being written from one particular perspective.”

Let me know what you think. Comments welcome. And if you author or read a great blog written from the first, second or third person link to it below. This person would love to see it!

Better letter writing – handling complaints

READ RIGHT TO RESPOND RIGHT – THE FOUR Rs

It’s impossible to properly answer a complaint letter unless you understand the complaint in the first place. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised at how many responses I’ve seen in my work with the NHS and elsewhere that are incomplete, make too little of big issues or, conversely, make too much of little issues and consequently end up exacerbating the situation rather than resolving it, antagonising the complainant instead of calming them.

Reading right takes time. You might, for example, have to read a letter through several times. Or show it to a colleague for a second opinion. Even email or telephone the complainant for clarification. But it’s time well spent. Think of it as an investment. Rush this bit and you’ll probably end up having to write a second or third letter to deal with the bits you’d missed.

SEEING RED (AND GREEN)

Most people don’t write their complaint letters in a logical way. The angrier they are when they sit down to compose them, the more like streams of consciousness they become. Some (although thankfully very few) are really rather nasty, are full of invective and can make us feel threatened. Try not to take it personally. Easier said than done, I appreciate, but if you get cross too it can descend into the written equivalent of a slanging match. So take a deep breath and….

…however badly (or well) the letter’s written read it through once again from top to bottom to get the gist of it and then a third, fourth or even a fifth time line by line and list the substantive points they’ve made – that is what’s caused them to complain in the first place and, if they’ve mentioned it, what they’d like done about it – their ideal resolution. Sometimes, with really complicated complaints or angry complainants, it can help using a couple of different colour highlighting pens – say red and green – to differentiate between what actually happened (green) and what they’d like done about it (red). Green for the gremlins and red for the resolution, if you like!

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT

Another tip that’s particularly useful if lots of colleagues are going to be involved in the investigation is to turn the list you’ve just made into a précis so that others can read this, rather than ploughing through the original document which, in complex cases, can run to many pages. The précis should include the name of the complainant and the patient, customer, client or service user (where it’s not one in the same). Be meticulous. Get people’s names right. There’s nothing more infuriating than being called by the wrong name and I speak as a Uridge. I once received a letter addressed to Mr Uridog. Annoyed the hell out of me and amused me in equal measure. I’d also add to the précis a word or two about the complainant’s emotional state so that you can pitch your reply accordingly. And finally I’d add the names of those in your organisation who need to see the précis in order to carry out their part of the investigation and/or add their comments before you write the actual response.

GET A GRIP

When lots of people are involved in a complaint there’s a danger nobody takes responsibility and it can languish in the system for weeks or even months. I know of one organisation which was taking so long to respond that it was receiving complaints about it’s complaints department. Don’t let this happen to you by making sure a nominated person takes ownership of the complaint and expedites it through your system. It’s usually makes sense to nominate the person who will be writing the reply.

So that’s you huh?! Okay, let’s assume you’ve chased everybody for their input and you’ve got a pile of material in your intray or inbox in return. All that plus your précis and the original letter. Pen to paper time surely? Not so fast! It’s actually time for a bit of role play.

Put yourself in the shoes of the complainant and try to work out the order of importance of the one or two lists you drew up earlier. What is their biggest beef? Redraw the list with this at the top. What action do they most want you to take? Put this at the top of a redrawn resolution list. The reason for doing it (and some people prefer to incorporate this into the initial read/précis stage) is so you can write your reply in the same order of importance.

KEEP IT CONVERSATIONAL

Keep your role playing hat on for a while longer. I’d now like you to have an imaginary conversation with the complainant. Unless you’ve got a colleague to work with you’re going to have to play both you and them. Make a mental or, better still, written note of what you hear yourself (that’s as you not as them) saying in this conversation. You can then use this as the basis for your written response. If we go straight to the written word we tend to use overly complicated and flowery language. I prefer to receive letters that are conversational in tone. There’s something soothing about them which is the very opposite of the formal language many were (and, sadly, still are) written in that I, for one, find rub me up the wrong way.


Dear Mr Uridge
We are in receipt of your letter of complaint dated the 15th instant and wish to inform you that…


Avoid jargon. Use plain English. Short sentences are usually better than long ones. But not always. Write as you would speak. Remember the old saying speak as you would like to be spoken to. Or rather write as you’d like to be written to. Don’t be condescending. Or pompous. Be humble. And helpful. Avoid cliches like the plague. And avoid cut and paste like cliches. Readers can spot copying. You might have a template but personalise it. People like personal.


Dear Mr Uridge
My name’s Richard and I’ve been asked to look into your complaint. I have to say your letter made pretty depressing reading and I can understand why you’re angry so I’m going to do my best to sort things out. And the very first thing to say is sorry…


SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD

There’s been plenty of debate about the s word. And it shows no sign of abating, with one camp saying you should only apologise if you’ve genuinely got something to apologise for and the other saying you should always say sorry irrespective of blame. I’m sorry but they’re both wrong.

Thomas Cook was patently wrong for failing to apologise (until this summer) over the well-publicised deaths of brother and sister, Christianne and Robert Shepherd, in Corfu in 2006. A swift, genuine and unqualified apology can go a long way to defusing an otherwise awful situation as the holiday company has found to its cost (putting aside, for one moment, the terrible human cost). So if you’re going to say sorry say sorry as soon as you can. Better late than never but best sooner rather than later.

However, if you genuinely think there’s nothing to apologise for then don’t. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about what I call the customer isn’t always right approach and you may find that instructive.
Once you’ve written your letter put it to one side. Ideally sleep on it. Not literally of course. It’d be uncomfortable and crumple the paper. Come back to it the next day when you’re much more likely to put the proverbial red pen through bits you don’t like.

Editing is a vital part of writing well and the last thing you feel like immediately after giving birth to an idea (or in this case a letter) is to kill the child of your invention (as somebody much cleverer than me once put it). Time gives us the perspective required to be disciplined self editors. If you haven’t got the time to leave it until tomorrow at least go and get yourself a coffee before reading the letter with a view to revisions. But don’t, I repeat don’t, read it as yourself.

MY SHOUT

Read it OUT LOUD (yes!) as if you are the recipient/complainant. Listen to your voice. How does it sound to you in role? You’ll only notice clunky constructions and poor word choice this way (the silent voice in your head is a whole lot less critical for some reason). If you’re struggling for breath before the end of a sentence maybe that sentence is too long. And you need to break it into two sentences. Or three. And tonally how does it sound? Antagonistic? Conciliatory?

Read it one more time, on this occasion with the précis list of points/resolutions you drew up from the original complaint. Does your response tick them all off? If not why not? In reality you may not be able to answer every point or resolve every issue in exactly the way the complainant wished but perhaps you need to explain your reasons. Otherwise there’s a danger that a partially unresolved complaint just keeps on going. Speaking of which…

SHUT THAT DOOR

Don’t leave the door open at the end. They’ll only come back through it. I know of one hospital trust that was in the habit of signing off every single reply with the words (and I paraphrase): “We hope that we have dealt satisfactorily with your complaint but if you’d like to take matters further please get back in touch…” No surprise lots of people did get back in touch and their complaints went round and round and round tying up valuable NHS resources that would be far better spent fixing sick people or mending broken ones. On my advice they removed the offending sentence. It was an easy, quick and painless operation and the health of the complaints department immediately improved with the number of open complaints falling sharply. If your letter has dealt properly with someone’s complaint they’ll have no reason to get back in touch and if they do put the onus on them. A closed door is going to stop them. For long. So why make it easy?!

Which reminds me, where’s my turquoise fountain pen? Ah yes, here it is. “Dear BT, I am writing to complain about your so-called super fast broadband….


Richard Uridge and his company ACM Training offer a range of writing media, communication and organisational development workshops that are delivered either publicly at venues across the UK from just £99 per person or in-house from £750. His most recent project was to deliver a series of better letter writing workshops for the complaints department in a busy hospital trust.

Tripping over TripAdvisor

How should restaurateurs and hoteliers respond to negative reviews on TripAdvisor?

It’s a question I’ve pondered many times as a social media trainer who, because of the job, eats out more than in and the answer is always the same: only after careful consideration. Doesn’t matter if we cook for a living or not, our instinct, when attacked, is to lash out. Attack being the best form of defence, or so the saying would have us believe. But it rarely is, whether we’re being bashed over the head with a real stick or it’s our online reputation that’s taking a digital beating. Why? Because in the heat of the moment we might end up doing, saying or writing something that makes matters worse.

So here’s my recipe (forgive the pun) for avoiding disaster on TripAdvisor, or elsewhere on the social web for that matter.

Ingredients

Everyone has their own favourite version of this dish. And even the name varies. The most common is revenge which, according to aficionados, is best enjoyed cold. Others prefer it served at boiling point or, ideally, above. Whatever your taste, all have certain ingredients in common:

At least 1 disgruntled customer (2 or more can make the dish hotter);

1 angry chef, restaurateur or hotelier (some recipes call for all three);

A liberal dash of sarcasm;

More than a pinch or two of salt;

A heaped tablespoon of opprobrium;

and 1 litre of bile.

Method

Mix all the ingredients together. Bring to the bile – I mean boil. Simmer, stew, roast… it really doesn’t matter which. The most important part is to serve the dish as publicly as possible.  Most people use TripAdvisor for this purpose. Others swear by Facebook or Twitter. The really rancorous often serve up a slice on each.

Here’s one somebody made earlier…

So how best to respond to something like this? Before I share with you what the owner of the restaurant castigated above actually said, here’s the decision-making process I encourage those in the hospitality business to follow.

It requires honest reflection, which is made easier by the passage of time. The social web creates a feeling of immediacy and it’s all too easy to get caught up in the moment. Don’t! Pause. Take a deep breath. Take several more deep breaths. Finish service. Pour yourself a hard drink. Or a soft one. Sleep on it. And only then ask yourself these questions:

Have they got a point? And can you do something about it? If the answer to both is yes then thank them for bringing the matter to your attention and tell them (and the wider world) you’ve done something about it. If they’ve got a point but you can’t do anything to rectify the situation then gently explain why. Perhaps their complaint was about an argumentative couple at the table next to them. Not within your control, although you might point out that if they’d raised it at the time you’d have done your best to move them to a quieter table. In both cases saying sorry doesn’t hurt and plays well with the increasing number of would-be customers who use TripAdvisor to help them make their minds up where to stay or eat. (By the way, nobody’s really sure exactly how many people rely on TripAdvisor and you’d want to take the network’s own figures with a pinch of salt for obvious reasons but that the number is increasing is certainly the case).

If you genuinely believe your critics haven’t got a point you’ve got three choices: ignore them (the least said soonest mended approach); thank them for their comments and leave it at that (the turn the other cheek method); or tell them they’re wrong and explain why (the customer isn’t always right technique). I’ve nothing against any of these approaches providing – and it’s an important proviso – in doing so you don’t compound the situation by inadvertently drawing more attention to it than is warranted.

It’s also worth considering the gearing between positive and negative comments on the TripAdvisor visitor rating bar chart (see below).  I don’t know about you, but I tend not to believe establishments that have nothing other than positive comments and avoid them. What I’m looking for is a nice smooth downward curve from top right to bottom left. Lots of excellents and very goods, some averages, a few poors and even fewer terribles.

TripAdvisor's visitor rating bar chart.
Uphill good. Downhill bad.

Generally speaking the higher the number of reviews of any kind the more accurate the reflection of the establishment. That’s the beauty of crowd sourcing. One or two people might be mischievous, malicious or  just plain wrong. But hundreds? Unlikely. It’s a warning sign. And not only for potential customers but also for the management. A warning they ignore at their peril.

There is an alternative method. I call it the Basil Fawlty way. Done well it’s hugely entertaining and actually makes you want to visit the place being so rigorously defended. Done badly it can leave a poor taste. Just like food. And there’s the rub. Taste is such a subjective thing. One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that. Perhaps we should be thankful that the range of replies on TripAdvisor is as wide as the range of food on offer. Something for everyone.

Here’s the French Pantry’s response to the complaint above. For the record I’ve eaten there many times and always enjoyed it. I like the owners Simon and Helen. Simon’s a colourful character. An accomplished musician as well as a restaurateur. Whether he’s too colourful at times with his use of language…well I’ll let you be the judge. Comments, as always, welcome. Even negatives ones!

The restaurateur's response.
A Fawlty-esque defence. Right or wrong?