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Dealing with difficult people (and presidents)

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

In May 1998 ACM Training’s sister company, ACP Television, filmed Bill Clinton arriving for the G8 Summit in Birmingham. The Lewinsky affair from a few years earlier was still dogging the US President. So much so that there was huge speculation surrounding the arrival of the First Lady separately aboard Air Force 2. So much so that the media were keen to secure pictures of Clinton outside the Swallow Hotel (use your imagination) where he stayed for the duration of the conference not far away at the ICC. And we thought he was a controversial figure!

So seeing Donald Trump touchdown at Stansted for his rather more controversial UK visit made us think what a difference 21 years makes. And gave us a great excuse to delve into the company archives. What we knew then but were too polite to say was that Boris arrived smelling heavily of drink (no, not that Boris, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin). What we also knew was that there was a mad scramble to find any two star fuel for Yeltsin’s Communist-era ZiL limousine and that the motorcycle outriders from West Midlands Police were convinced the car wouldn’t make it to the city centre giving them a massive security headache.

But what we didn’t know then was that our dealing with difficult people suite of courses would all these years later be our best-sellers. So for old times’ sake and in the spirit of entente cordiale we’re offering Trump (and his entourage) 10% off any of our difficult people sessions such as managing difficult teams, handling awkward conversations and tackling trade wars (actually we made up that last one). We’re convinced they’ll make an enormous contribution to world peace. And office peace for that matter. Which is why we’ve decided to extend the offer to non-Trump delegates like you. To secure your discount simply enter #TrumpUKVisit in the promotional code box when you make your next booking. But hurry – the offer ends seven days after Trump leaves UK territory.


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Formal or informal language? What toilet signs can tell us about writing for the web

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

This is the tale of two loos. Both of them at venues we use at ACM Training for our open workshops. One of them – Ort House Conference Centre in Camden – at the more traditional end of the market. The other – Waterfront Meeting Rooms in Bristol – at the funkier end. Now I’ve nothing against traditional or funky per se. But it’s funny how the signage at the two venue follows suite.

“We will endeavour to fix the issue in a timely manner,” asserts the sign from the Building & Facilities Team (their capitals) at Ort House when, in truth, the team is probably just a bloke with a spanner who doesn’t speak like that in real life – the bloke, that is, not the spanner.

By comparison the Waterfront sign is much less formal and the writer has even thought about the audience by appealing directly to younger gents (I can’t vouch whether the same sign appears in the ladies) with the “or your parents’ home” line.

Now you could argue that a sign on a toilet wall doesn’t really matter because people’s impression of the venues is based on so much more – the friendliness of the reception staff, the cleanliness of the facilities, the airiness of the training rooms. And that’s certainly true with face-to-face businesses. But what about those businesses whose customers only transact with them online in a virtual sense? Or those where the initial contact is via a website or blog? Then words really matter because, like the reception staff in this example, they are for many people the first point of contact. And first impressions matter.

So if you’re writing for websites instead of toilet signs you need to think long and hard about the most appropriate use of language. For most organisations conversational but purposeful is best. That and plain English. Have a ponder next time you visit the loo.

By the way, I have endeavoured, on behalf of ORT House, to fix the linguistic issue in a timely manner so here, for what it’s worth, is my alternative…

If it’s broke we’ll fix it. You just need to let us know.

If your website is broke (linguistically that is) we’ll help you fix it.Or, better still, we can train you to fix it yourself. Either way you just need to let us know.


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“Right Royal chump leaves BBC” – how Danny Baker became Twitter’s latest twit.

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes
Danny Baker: still smiling as he’s doorstepped by reporters following his sacking by the BBC.
Image credit: PA

He’s not on the BBC’s list of top earners, so we can safely assume Danny Baker was paid less than £150,000 a year for his Saturday morning job at Radio 5 Live. But getting the sack for tweeting a picture of a smartly dressed chimp captioned “royal baby leaves hospital” was an expensive mistake all the same – both financially and reputationally.

Of course, he’s not the first to, dare I say, make such a chump of himself on the social web. And he definitely won’t be the last. So what is it about Twitter that leads so many people who should know better to say silly things?

“Facility and immediacy combined are a toxic mix.”

Richard Uridge, social media trainer, ACM Training

Facility, that is ease of use, is the first part of the problem. Speed is the second part. The two together make a toxic mix. The ubiquity of mobile phones with their always on apps leads to what I call instant quips: words and images that we realise, too late (post post if you will ), are really not that funny or, worse still, potentially offensive. If we had to go home or back to the office and login via a dial-up internet connection (remember them?) we’d have time for reflection.

There’s a third component in the Danny Baker case. Journalists and, in particular, those working in live broadcasting thrive on the buzz. Believe me I’ve been there. It’s like a drug. In fact it is a drug – just a naturally occurring one called dopamine. So tweeting leads to a natural high. And, just like junkies, the more you tweet the more you need to get the same level of high. Until one day you overdose.

So what’s the answer? Short of coming over all cold turkey and deleting your Twitter account(s), I recommend you follow my seven minute rule as a part of a social media policy. It works a bit like a longer version of the seven second delay on early radio broadcasts which meant that bloopers and profanities could be stopped before they made it to air. Wait seven minutes – you really won’t miss the party – and if the tweet still works* for you and, crucially, your target audience then by all means hit the tweet button. And if it doesn’t? Then use the next seven minutes to change it until it does.

*By works for you I mean is the tweet or social media post purposeful in that it helps move you even a small step towards your personal or organisational objectives? By works for your audience I mean is the tweet likely to be received in the way it was intended. If the answer to one or the other question or both is no then at best you’re simply adding to the white noise on the social web and at worst you’re going to land yourself a P45. Just ask Danny Baker.


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How #tweetyourthesis can help academics prepare for media interviews

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

The #tweetyourthesis hashtag has been doing the social media rounds in higher education since it was coined by Susan Greenberg, a lecturer at Roehampton in 2012. Or that’s what my own very cursory and possibly unreliable Google-based research tells me. Whatever the hashtag’s origin, it quickly caught on as a way of letting off a bit of steam between postgrads to relieve the pain of knocking out (😭) a 50,000 word research paper. But after spending an enjoyable and productive afternoon media training scientists at the University of Birmingham (including a PhD student about to start writing up her thesis), it struck me that this harmless bit of fun is a brilliant way of helping prepare all academics for media interviews whether they’re talking about their actual theses or some other research.

Why? Because turning your thesis into a Tweet (even if you don’t publish it) can help you synthesise what your research is about from a layperson’s perspective and become a better communicator to external audiences as a result. After all, #sciencecommunication is vitally important but that’s another hashtag! Back to #tweetyourthesis …

It’s a highly reductive process. Turning 50,000 words or more into 280 characters or fewer is a challenge. But doing media is a challenge. Not least because it too is a highly reductive process with that 20 minute interview (at 3 words per second approximately 3,600 words) being edited down to a 20 second soundbite (of about 60 words). So better get used to it before the interview and, if you actually #tweetyourthesis , crowdsource advice from others who’ve been there, done that, got the Today programme tee shirt (it has a picture of John Humphries on the front and a Rottweiler on the back).

Here at ACM Training I use a planning matrix to help academics (and others for that matter) prepare for interviews. It sounds rather lofty and students of a certain age are often disappointed when I don’t conjure Keanu Reeves from my training tool box. But when all is said and done it’s simply a piece of paper or screen divided into three columns. Column one is where you jot down the three most important features of your research – let’s call them key messages. These shouldn’t necessarily be what’s most interesting to you but what’s most interesting from the audience’s perspective. Column two is where you choose up to three facts or figures to evidence those messages. And column three is for the narrative or stories that provide illustration. Think of column one aiding brevity, column two understanding or rationality, column three the emotionally engaging stuff and all three together the clarity and relevance. I then ask my trainees to practice extemporising a series of 20-30″ soundbites from their matrices using the stopwatch or countdown timer on their smartphones to keep them honest.

I like playing #tweetyourthesis too, although, of course, I wouldn’t dream of actually Tweeting your thesis (and I haven’t started mine yet). So here’s my effort at taking the editor’s proverbial red pen to the academics I met earlier this week. You know who you are. And, if I’ve done a half decent job, your colleagues should recognise you from what I’ve written. Feel free to copy, paste and Tweet what follows from your own social media accounts – using the #tweetyourthesis hashtag, naturally. Or, better still, come up with your own version and Tweet that instead.

A quantum clock so accurate if you set it to midnight at Big Bang it’d only be a second out nearly 14 billion years later. (That’s today). One that potentially could make navigation systems more accurate especially in remote areas hidden from the gaze of satellites. [266 characters]

Birmingham University quantum physicist

A contact lens-size sticking plaster with tiny grooves on its surface that encourages collagen (think human scaffolding) to heal without scarring, could save the sight of million and reduce the physiological and psychological impact of other scars. [248 characters]

Birmingham University biochemical engineer

Atoms harnessed to measure tiny changes in gravity to help us “see” below the surface. Like Newton’s apple but smaller and colder. Research that could be applied to roadworks and save us hours sitting in avoidable traffic jams and £ millions in lost productivity. [263 characters]

Birmingham University metrologist

It’s worth noting the #tweetyourthesis hashtag started when Tweets were limited to 140 characters. Now you’ve got 280. Easy innit?

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Blogging – the perfect excuse for working from home

Approx. reading time: 1 minute
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The #Gatwick #drone part 2 – what the policeman should have said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And yes, it’s easy to be wise after the event. But in my previous post on the Gatwick drone incident I promised I’d suggest an alternative – and hopefully better – response to the one that prompted lurid headlines and landed Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley in hot water with his Chief Constable and the Government.

The BBC News presenter asked him, you may remember, what turned out to be a trick question: “Are you even considering the possibility that there may not have been genuine drone sightings in the first place?”

By answering it the way he did – conceding the point – Det Ch Supt Tingley set a proverbial hare running which proved hard to stop. Denying the journalist’s contention outright wouldn’t have been advisable either because (mixing metaphors hopelessly) he’d have boxed himself into a corner if it turned out there wasn’t, in fact, a drone. My version doesn’t ignore the question but lets the facts speak for themselves and, in turn, allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Police officer:  “We’re investigating more than a hundred sightings – not just from members of the public but from police officers and airport staff too. Some of those sightings may, of course, be duplicates (several different people reporting the same thing). Some may be genuine mistakes (people seeing what they think is a drone but which turns out to have been something else – a bird of prey for example). Some could be made up for malicious reasons. But all that said we have to act on the information given.

“Aviation is, quite rightly, a risk-averse industry. A collision between an aircraft and a drone could be calamitous. So we have a duty to do all we can to keep people safe. We exercise what we call the precautionary principle – better safe than sorry in other words. Now I understand that the impact of all this is huge and I’d like to add my apologies to those of the airport and airlines for the disruption caused. I’d also like to thank the public for their continued patience and understanding. I’d like to pay tribute to my police colleagues, airport and airline staff, the Civil Aviation Authority and now the Army for their hard work in getting Gatwick back to normal as soon as it’s safe to do so. And I’d like to reiterate my determination to bring those responsible to justice. Let me be absolutely clear. We are investigating a crime.”

Compare this to what Det Ch Supt Tingley actually said.

Now I fully accept I had several hours to carefully consider my response compared to the detective who almost certainly only had several minutes and was also shouldering heavy responsibilities as the SIO (senior investigating officer). That said the purpose of media and crisis communications training it to have the benefit of foresight. Foresight, of course, is not as good and never as accurate as hindsight but it’s certainly better than being blind-sided. Plan for the worst, hope for the best and be flexible.

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Schrödinger’s drone – three crisis comms lessons from the Gatwick closure

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley probably didn’t have the best of breaks. He’s the Sussex police officer who admitted in an interview just before Christmas that there may not have been a drone at all – despite the numerous reported sightings that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill over two days, disrupted 1,000 flights and affected 140,000 passengers.

Following a hastily arranged conference call with Government ministers, Tingley’s remark was explained away as “poor communications.” His press office issued a clarification. And then his boss, Sussex Chief Constable Giles York, appeared to contradict him, stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed.”

Giles went on to say that his officer “was trying to describe an investigative approach, that asks ‘how can we prove the presence of the drone in the first place?’” But he conceded Tingley’s remark had “amplified the chaos” surrounding the incident.

So what can be learned from the curious incident of the drone which, not unlike Schrödinger’s Cat, appears simultaneously to have been both present and not present? Here’s my analysis of the original exchange on BBC News and three lessons for all of us involved in media, PR and communications. Once you’ve had a look a what I have to say please subscribe to our blog and the ACM Training YouTube channel (if you haven’t already).

So what should the Detective Chief Super have said? I’ll be making a suggestion or two in the next post.


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#O2down – 11 crisis comms lessons from the mobile company’s data outage

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

I was one of the estimated 32 million customers affected by O2’s data outage. And like many of those customers I took to Twitter under the hash tag #O2down. But in my case not to criticise the company. No, I wanted to thank O2 for providing me with a crisis communications case study. There’s a lot, I believe, other organisations  can learn from its approach – whatever sector they’re in: high tech, low tech; for profit, not-for-profit.

  1. Acknowledge there’s a problem as soon as it’s evident there is a problem. These days there’s nowhere to hide – especially for data companies like O2 whose very business model is information exchange.
  2. Monitor social media. For bigger organisations at least, keeping an eye on social is a great way of staying as close to the proverbial curve as possible (despite what others may tell you keeping ahead of it is nigh on impossible in crisis comms).  In our always-on world (or nearly  always on in O2’s case) the initial indication of trouble often comes from customers rather than from colleagues.
  3. Apologise. Saying sorry costs nothing. Not saying sorry costs a whole heap more in the long run. Saying sorry isn’t an admission of guilt. It’s a strength, not a weakness. And, contrary to popular belief, it won’t make a scrap of difference if or when it comes to litigation. In fact, damages are likely to be lower as a consequence of an early apology. 
  4. Don’t blame. Nobody likes a snitch so blaming somebody else for your travails will only exacerbate the problem. In O2’s case it looks as if the problem was with expired software licences at one of its suppliers, Ericsson. So it might have been tempting for the company to say, in effect, “not our fault guv.” But I heard nobody from O2 say anything of the sort. That said O2 didn’t hide the fact that Ericsson was involved which leads on to my  next point…
  5. Be open and honest. Don’t dissemble. Keep your “customers” (or other stakeholders) in the loop. Let them know what you know as you know it. And also let them know what you don’t know. I know this sounds suspiciously Rumsfeldian but there’s no shame in the  early stages of a crisis not to have the complete picture. It’s the inevitable fog of war. There is shame, however, in holding back important information like the loss of sensitive customer data. You don’t want them to feel as if critical information has been dragged from you. 
  6. Actions speak louder than words. Words are all very well but they can sound rather hollow if they’re not backed up with action. O2 apologised almost immediately (see point 3) but very quickly followed that up with an offer of compensation. Now that doesn’t just sound like sorry if feels like sorry too.
  7. Be generous. Most of O2’s customers lost only a day’s data. But they were offered two days worth of credit as a gesture of goodwill. That’s likely cost the company millions of pounds more than if it only made up for the actual loss. Now, it may yet recover the cost from Ericsson so you could argue it’s being generous with somebody else’s money. But nonetheless this goodwill will almost certainly be worth every penny. And while we’re on the subject, offer compensation (it doesn’t have to be financial) before it’s demanded. 
  8. Get the tone right. It’s not just what you say but how you say it. Saying sorry through gritted teeth grates. So does telling people you’re being open an honest with them but with your arms folded firmly across your chest. Your verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal communication are pulling in different directions.  Have some humility. Don’t be overly apologetic (it can sound insincere). But don’t be flippant either. O2 made sure its communication – digital and analogue – struck the right tone, walking the fine line between light  (on social especially) and heavy. The outage was inconvenient for most, serious for some. But ultimately nobody died and the tone conveyed that.
  9. Don’t overpromise. It’d be crazy for O2 to tell us it won’t happen again. But the company made it clear it had learned from the situation conveying the more realistic and credible message that it’s less likely to happen again.
  10. Don’t under do the thanks. Thank your customers for their patience and understanding. Thank your staff for working hard to resolve the problem. Even thank your suppliers – even if they were to blame (see point 4)!
  11. Turn a negative into a PR positive. The episode will end up costing O2 and Ericsson millions. Giffgaff (one of the smaller providers affected) has made it easy for it’s customers to donate their compensation directly to charity. It won’t change the Giffgaff bill – its financial capital will decrease. But its social capital will increase. Smart move. Cost neutral. PR positive.

This post is also available as a podcast in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.


If you’d like to join Richard at his next open, public, crisis communications workshop in either London or Manchester he’d love to see you. And as a follower of the ACM Training blog you can book your place for just £99 between now and December 31st – a Christmas saving of £80.

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In praise of social media content calendars and how they can save your professional life

Approx. reading time: 4 minutesI’m a big fan of diaries. Leather-bound analogue or online digital, they’ve saved my (personal) life more than once. Reminded me of children’s birthdays when there was still enough time to get presents. Helped me remember the exact day I met my wife so that the flowers arrived on the actual anniversary because a day late…well that bunch of tulips may as well have been Triffids. Stopped me missing the deadline to get those Christmas cards in the post to relatives Down Under.

And so content calendars can be (professional) life savers. Reminding us in plenty of time to plan and schedule content before it’s too late to post – not to Australia – but to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and the other places we’re colonising as part of our social media empires.

A content calendar should be the number one tool in your social media tool kit. It helps you plan and schedule your content across the full range of your platforms in advance.

The sheer volume of content on the social web means it’s getting harder and harder for your content to stand out. And to make matters worse organic reach is in decline. So to tackle these twin challenges you need to generate creative content, schedule it well and consistently and boost it selectively as your budgets allow.

Consistent posting is one of the best ways to get more followers. Regular updates show potential followers you are, in fact, worth following. That they’ll be rewarded with fresh and interesting stuff – whether that stuff is pictures, videos or words (written in a blog post or spoken in a podcast).

A content calendar can you help you achieve this consistency across your platform mix by getting you into the habit of planning and scheduling in advance and not missing opportunities. I’m guilty – and I’m sure I’m not alone – of forgetting my Twitter feed, for example, and then playing catch up by posting heaps over a short period.

Finding the right content mix

The temptation is to use social simply to “sell.” Don’t! Many a sale has been lost by the seller being too pushy (think getting pounced on by an over-eager assistant the moment you walk into a shop). Pushy on social is understandable. After all, you’re putting a lot of time and effort into it and you want the best possible ROI. But, paradoxically, the harder you try to sell in an obvious way the less well you’re likely to do. Too much self-promotion can alienate your “customers.” The answer is to mix the explicit sales stuff with other content.

Eighty/twenty (80/20) is a good starting point. That is for every post that’s “selling” your product or service you make sure there are four posts that are helpful and interesting.

Another starting point is to use what’s called the rule of thirds. A third of your posts promote your business or generates leads. A third comes from other sources within your sector – on the understanding that your customers aren’t just interested in you and your company or organisation  but have wider interests. And a third of posts engage directly with followers – for example, by answering their questions, responding to their comments or posting user-generated content.

Whichever approach you adopt, over time you’ll discover the exact mix between these sources that works for your business. A content calendar will help you stick with the right mix.

The simplest content calendars are those that come with your computer, tablet or smartphone. Just jot down ideas as you get them. They might be timeless ideas or have a long long “shelf life” in the sense that it doesn’t really matter if they’re posted this week or next month. Others might be date-related – tied to a particular day or event such as national bring your dog to work day (yes, really)!

The more sophisticated calendars are spreadsheet based and can help you keep an eye on things like content quantity and network mix, with colour-coded pie charts and bar graphs. You can even add columns to assign work to colleagues or link to resources such as word documents, images and videos. Here’s one I’m road testing for a client courtesy of Smartsheet. It’s a free resource and seems pretty impressive so far, although I’ve only done a few miles so far so to speak.

Whatever calendar option you choose, encourage collaboration by sharing it via the cloud – unless it’s an old-fashioned wall planner which has the simple virtue of being seen by everybody who walks past it whether they want to or not.

Save time (and money)

You might think it’s a lot of faff filling in a content calendar and making sure it’s up to date. But used well it’s a time saver not a time waster. And the time you save can be re-invested in the all-important business of content creation. Remember content is king. Without good quality content and plenty of it you’re bound to fail!

Here are three other content calendar tips…

  1. Content calendars remind you to create platform-specific versions of your content to avoid posting exactly the same posts across multiple networks with the embarrassment of asking Facebook or LinkedIn followers to retweet. Uncool.
  2. Look back through the entries in your content calendar as well as forward. This way you can keep an eye out for content that’s  becoming too samey or repetitive whether that’s at a key message, target audience or content level, thematically (too many posts on the same subject) or over-reliant on the same words and images (too many puppy pics).
  3. Compare your content calendar with your analytics. Are there any patterns? Did a particular post do well? If there’s a spike in your visitor numbers on a Thursday what content might have created it and when? If you’re going to pay to boost certain posts it’s usually better to boost the best performing rather than waste money trying to breathe life into the worst. Your content calendar will enable you to spend your advertising budget wisely.

Finally here’s my content calendar entry for tomorrow: start blog post on quantity versus quality – why posting rubbish is drowning out the good stuff. And here’s my diary entry: order Christmas turkey.


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Adversarial or conversational – why media training should cover both styles of interview (and everything in between)

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesFor years now the aspiration for most media trainees from the very top levels of industry, commerce and, especially, politics has been to be prepared for a haranguing by Humphrys (John, long-standing rottweiler-in-chief of BBC Radio Four’s flagship Today programme). And for years media trainers have dutifully helped them meet that aspiration. It’s been the default position on both sides of the training room. But with Humphrys’ kennel mate Paxman no longer baring his teeth on Newsnight, a new, less adversarial kind of journalism has been taking its place. This more conversational approach might, on the face of it, be less challenging for interviewees. Yet it presents them with different kinds of challenges. Ones which require less obvious and softer presentational skills than before. So media trainers must adapt their approach too.

I was reminded of this when given the brief to train the chief executive and senior management team at a non-departmental government body. The media manager told me that, like many people at their level, they’d been media trained earlier in their careers. But not recently and certainly not in a way that prepared them for the kinds of interviews they were increasingly being asked to give. Interviews where the expectation from the media was that the interviewees would be more reflective, less inclined to simply deliver their key messages irrespective of the questions (slippery style as I call it) and more entertaining (whatever that means) to boot. They’d clearly failed to meet this expectation, the media manager went on, because a recent interview hadn’t been used. Spiked, as us journalists with a print background like to say. All of which, he concluded, was a pity because they had some really important points to make.

In essence, the problem here is one of perception. One person’s shiny key messages are another person’s ditchwater. A safe pair of hands from an organisational perspective can be terminally dull from a media perspective.

Let me put it this way: if, by comparison to other contributors, your key messages are the least interesting (to readers, viewers and listeners) then in order to survive the edit and, in future, be asked back, your contribution has to be the most engaging.

Now, of course, I’d be the first to admit this is a gross oversimplification. And I’m not suggesting that if what you’ve got to say is dull then you’d best deliver it from a unicycle while dressed as a clown and juggling three chainsaws. What I am saying, however, is that you have to work even harder to frame your key messages in the most appealing way possible and deliver them with all the presentational charm you can muster. It’s a tall order. But one that at ACM Training we can help you with!