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How to deal with hecklers and heckling – a 10 step plan to stop the sslandder

President Obama dealing with a hecklerApprox. reading time: 7 minutes

Hecklers and heckling can be a headache for public speakers – just ask Theresa May whose keynote speech was ruined by a prankster with a P45 (and one or two other glitches)!

So how should she, and more importantly we who earn a living giving presentations, deal with such unwelcome interruptions? By their very nature the specifics of a heckle are hard to anticipate and plan for, let alone rehearse. But there is a generic approach that can work in a variety of different situations. I call it my stop the sslandder technique.

You’ll notice I’ve spellled sslandderr in a slightly unconventional way (and I had to disable auto-correct to do so). It’s because the letters of the word stand for the steps you can take as a speaker to keep heckles down without getting your hackles up. And also because hecklers often do come up with, if not slanders, then certainly slurs. So here are the steps:

  1. Stop
  2. Smile
  3. Listen
  4. Acknowledge
  5. Negotiate
  6. Deal
  7. Delay
  8. Eject
  9. Re-start
  10. Repeat.

So now let’s take them one-by-one…

Stop

So you’re still speaking but that reptilian bit of your mind that’s always working even when your lips are moving has registered an unwelcome sound somewhere in that sea of faces that is the audience. It’s not yet the full-throated roar of an angry lion but nor is it the polite sneeze of a timid mouse. Question is do you stop or press on?

For the “harrumphers” in the audience – that is those who exhibit what I call sub-heckling behaviour – ignoring these minor interupptions may just work. Trouble is that the harrumph could be the precursor to a louder and more persistent interruption. So if the noises off are minor and they do quieten down quickly continuing is fine. But if the initial noises are major or the volume rapidly increases then my advice is to seize the initiative and stop. Show you’re in control of your mouth and manners even if, and especially as, they (the hecklers) are not. The alternative is worse: you keep going so they get louder; you get louder to make yourself heard above the din so they get louder still… If this was an arms race you’d be heading for mutually assured destruction. Mad. So stop before you’re forced to. On your terms not theirs. Look strong. Not weak.

In any case if two or more people are talking at once nobody’s going to hear you properly. At the very least the audience will be distracted. And a distracted audience is harder to “sell” to.

Smile

You probably won’t be smiling on the inside with that carefully crafted speech in tatters at your feet instead of the roses of adulation you’d been hoping for. But hang on! It hasn’t been ruined – yet. So relax. Take a deep breath. And smile. Force that smile if necessary and you’ll find that it soon turns into a more natural version. At the very least it shows good grace and coolness under fire. At best a smile can be disarming as well as charming and simply showing your teeth (it’s an ape thing) can be enough to subdue the hecklers. But even if it doesn’t it’s likely to win you a bit of audience sympathy. And you need the audience on your side for the subsequent steps. Otherwise it’s just you versus the heckler and what if they’re bigger than you, or uglier than you, or both? Besides the heckle may actually have been funny so smile, join in the laughter – even if it’s at your own expense. Nothing like a bit of self-deprecation to win even more audience support.

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Listen

Hecklers want to be heard. That’s why they heckle in the first place. So listen to them. And listen carefully with all the active listening skills you can muster (a look of concern on your brow, your best ear pointing their way, your head tilted slightly to one side). Try to ignore the anger – the heat if you will – and see the point they’re trying to make, however angrily or illogically – the light. The listen can in itself be disarming. Coupled with the smile before it, listening can be twice as effective. Better still link both with the next move…

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Acknowledge

It’s easy to allow an argument to be defined by the differences between two sides (you and the heckler in this case). After all that’s how arguments start in the first place. But what if you could redefine the fight the heckler’s picking by concentrating on the points you agree on? You’re not going to lose the argument by acknowledging their anger. You’re not going to lose by conceding some neutral or indefensible ground. “I can see you’re angry. I can hear the passion in your voice. We welcome passionate people.” I’m paraphrasing but these are the sorts of things that the former US President, Barack Obama, said to soothe tempers when he was heckled. “You’re absolutely right, politicians – me included – must do more to help the poor, the downtrodden, the neglected (delete as applicable). That’s why I got into politics in the first place.” In other words he’s saying – and you need to say to the heckler, “I’m on your side.” And when you’re standing if not literally then metaphorically on common ground there’s no need to shout across the gulf of your differences which is a crucial starting point for the next step…

Negotiate

Clearly you don’t want to spend more than a few minutes of your precious stage time negotiating with a heckler. But demonstrating both your willingness to negotiate and your negotiation skills can, like the preceding steps, enhance your overall credentials and win audience support. As in any negotiation make a reasonable offer, be prepared for a counter offer, amend your original offer in response to the counter offer if it’s reasonable and then stick to it. The whole point of negotiating is, of course, to reach a deal which brings us neatly to our next step…

Deal

There are two types of deal: the deal that gives the heckler what they want, or enough of what they want, to shut them up permanently; and the deal that silences them temporarily – at least until you’ve swept magisterially from the podium with those bouquets strewn in your path. If you’ve listened carefully and understood enough of what they want, maybe you can do a deal there and then. Perhaps they feel their voice hasn’t been properly heard, in which case don’t eject them from the hall, as this will only exacerbate the problem from their perspective. Invite them to a seat closer to you. Move closer to them. The closer physical proximity can demonstrate a willingness to closer intellectual proximity. It also plays to the old adage keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Delay

If you can’t do a deal (and it’s rarely sensible to do a big deal in the heat of the moment) then try to delay. A dealay, if you’ll forgive me for making up a word, encourages the heckler to think that a bigger deal may be in prospect if only they wai. It can buy you time. Offer to meet them afterwards for some “quality face time” as one person I heard put it inelegantly but effectively. And because the art of the deal is to get something in return you might try making their part of the deal more explicit as in: “How about you and I get together one-to-one at the end of my speech and in return you and I stop discussing this right now in front of these patient people so that they can hear the rest of what they came for?”

Eject

You’ll understand why I’m not offering the above advice on a money-back-if-not-completely-satisfied basis. The most determined and disruptive hecklers can’t be simply silenced rather they simply can’t be silenced. In which case we’re up to E for eject in our ten point plan for dealing with hecklers. If there are heaps of hecklers it may be best for you to pull the eject handle and make a steady (never rush) exit from the podium with as much of your dignity in tact as possible. But like a fighter pilot ejecting from a jet, this should be a last resort.

In most cases it’s better to eject the heckler, although again with as much dignity as possible. Give them every opportunity to leave under their own steam with perhaps a gentle guiding hand on the small of their back from a well-mannered colleague or security guard (if it’s that kind of event and you’re that kind of person). It never looks good to see people – even hecklers – manhandled from a venue. It may play well with the audience with you in the venue who have seen the wider context and your valiant efforts to not reach this point. But how will it appear to the wider audience watching on television or on the web (again if it’s that kind of event) where the context is lost. If the archetype you’re trying to establish and/or reinforce for you and your organisation is say the care-giver then the subliminal message of a person being wrestled, kicking and screaming, from your presentation is working against you. This is why Obama did his level best not to get to the eject step. Trump, on the other hand, wants to convey the strong man archetype -a bit like the bear-wrestling, torso-baring Putin. So they and maybe you actively relish this step, witness Trump calling for a heckler to be “taken out and beaten up and I mean that seriously.”  You can compare and contrast Trump and Obama’s differing styles on this fascinating Huffington Post video.

Restart

In most cases you’ll be able to restart without a messy ejection. If you can’t remember where you left off ask the audience: “Now where were we?” Note that’s where were we not where was I. The heckle is a collective inconvenience shared by everyone not just you. This approach shows you care for your audience and along with all that compassion you showed the heckler (unless you’re in the Trump school) will send your ratings soaring. But before you get carried away and start thinking of those garlands all over again a word of warning…

Repeat

Unless all of the hecklers have been ejected from the venue and unless those who’ve been persuaded to shut up and stay keep their word, then you may have to repeat all or some of these steps. Stop again and smile winningly. Listen carefully. Acknowledge what it’s reasonable to acknowledge – if only their anger. Negotiate again (gently chiding them from breaking the last deal you brokered). Reach a new deal. Delay the resolution if you can’t find a solution there and then. Eject them this time (assuming you didn’t last time and they snuck back in when nobody was watching). Restart and, all being well, this time you won’t need to repeat step ten.


Richard Uridge runs presentation and public speaking skills courses for a wide range of clients – particularly in the not-for-profit sector. He must be a masochist because he actually enjoys the thrill of dealing with hecklers. So if you’d like to book a place on one of his workshops and heckle him he’d be delighted – especially as you’ll be paying modestly (from just £99 per person) for the privilege.

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What the f? Or what the Prime Minister’s nightmare speech can teach us about presentations

Approx. reading time: 5 minutes

The Prime Minister would’ve been hoping the Heckler and Kochs were all safely in the arms of the police officers outside the Tory Party conference here in Manchester. Little did she suspect there would be a heckler and cock on the inside, armed with nothing more than a piece of paper. But in the right hands (or the wrong hands depending on your political perspective) a P45 can be every bit as lethal as an MP5 – particularly if the victim has already been wounded by blue-on-blue “friendly” fire from within the ranks. Step forward Lieutenant Johnson and Lance Corporal Rees-Mogg.

That the comedy Spetsnaz hiding in plain sight among the party faithful didn’t finish off the PM is testament to her presentorial (I made up that word) fortitude. After all, here was a speaker who also had to grapple with two additional enemies. The first biological: a sore throat. The second mechanical: an adhesive failure (or perhaps that should read ailure) when the f in the slogan behind her – building a country that works for everyone – came unstuck along with an e. Not great boss shtik. Or Bostik.

This scenery fail was, of course, a gift for the political commentators who were bound to see it as some kind of grand, unifying metaphor for the state of Theresa May’s rapidly disintegrating authority. But those seeking to bury her bits should remember the old adage “ne’r cast a clout til May is out.” And, by the end of her speech, May was down, yes, but by no means out.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, watching her performance put me in mind of those old nature programmes on the telly when I was a kid, except I don’t remember ever seeing the wildebeest get up and walk away after being dragged to the ground by a pack of hungry hyenas.

Now I don’t seek to make or score any political points here, but merely to suggest how those of us who have to present to audiences for a living might learn from May’s extraordinary recovery against the odds. It’s possible, of course, that she’s sustained mortal injuries and will succumb to them in due course. But as I write this in my hotel room overlooking the conference venue, where the security fences are being noisily dismantled, she’s still with us. The devil dogs have slunk into the shadows more usually occupied by the rough sleepers who, in turn, have been forced temporarily to seek out the even deeper shade in the streets and towpaths and underpasses the police consider a “safe” distance away.

So in this blog post I’ll suggest how you might deal with hecklers. And in subsequent posts I’ll write about sticky throats and less-than-sticky scenery.

HECKLERS

There are four main ways of dealing with those intent on interrupting our presentations. The first is what I call a pre-heckle preemptive manoeuvre – grandiloquent eh?! The other three are post-heckle tactics, or what I like to foreshorten to “hectics” because that’s what they can feel like.

  1. Stop them getting in.
  2. Ignore them.
  3. Tackle them (physically not intellectually).
  4. Tackle them (intellectually not physically).

Stopping them getting in in the first place is nigh on impossible. It’s hard to imagine a presentation with tighter security than for a sitting Prime Minister at a party conference. Yet even with a carefully vetted guest list Simon Brodkin aka Lee Nelson managed to get through. So by all means hope for the best and plan for the worst…

That plan should include whether you should ignore them and (a) hope they’ll give up/go away or (b) be escorted swiftly from the premises by your burly security detail. Now I don’t know about your presentations, but if you’re much further down the pecking order than, say, the PM or even the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, you’re unlikely to have such a, I was going to say luxury but, sadly, I should probably say necessity.

Both options – ignoring and physically tackling hecklers – are potentially problematic for your presentation. Bitter experience has shown me that while initially an interruption may barely disrupt proceedings when ignored hecklers usually get louder and louder until they can be ignored no longer. Best intervene on your terms rather than theirs.

So what should that intervention be? The physical tackle is best left to the rugby field (unless, of course, there is an immediate physical threat to your health and safety and that of your audience). The audience may forgive the physical nature of the response if it’s perceived to be proportionate to the threat. But if the threat isn’t physical or the response is disproportionate then the audience might change allegiance and see you as the oppressor and the aggressor as the victim. Whether seen live by your delegates or later by a wider audience via TV and the Internet, images of hecklers being man-handled (and it usually is man-handled) out of the building are rarely pretty. We instinctively back the little fella in the David vs Goliath scene we’re inadvertently producing.

All of which leaves us with the intellectual tackle, in its own way as hard to properly execute as the physical version but done well more effective. Doing it well means first of all pausing your presentation and acknowledging the interruption – ideally with a smile and especially with a smile if the heckle’s funny (to the audience that is – you’ll be struggling too see the funny side at the time)!  It’s amazing how often even the acknowledgment and smile can calm or wrong foot the heckler who would otherwise feed off your discomfort.

If it’s needed, the next step is the critical one and if it was a dance move it’d impress Len Goodman. In a few words it’s to deal with the heckle not the heckler. In many words it’s to placate not to exacerbate, to reason not argue. It’s a routine best done calmly. Slow      down      your      natural      delivery     pace    and    markedly    so. Speak more quietly than usual. Resist the temptation to speed up, rush things or get louder. Humour can work, if it’s self deprecating. May held up a throat lozenge handed to her by Philip Hammond and declared “look, a free gift from the Chancellor!” And it’s to her credit that she was able to turn defence into attack and redirect the spoof P45 towards her usual arch nemesis, the Leader of the Opposition. But humour can fail if it’s at the expense of the heckler.  They may become more not less disruptive or the audience may feel your humour is too cutting and the heckler’s once again an Old Testament David and you’re the cudgel-swinging oaf.

Asking questions of the heckler may seem time-consuming but can help you and the audience understand what exactly are their concerns. Once revealed those concerns can then be addressed – the underlying causes if you like rather than just the symptoms. If you discover that the heckler has a point then maybe you could concede some ground. Theresa may have said (but didn’t) “for those of us in uncertain jobs the P45 isn’t a welcome sight but thanks for reminding me all the same I’ll keep it to hand” and then, with a magician’s flourish, folded it into her pocket and resumed her script. It’s certainly a refreshing approach and can again wrong-foot all but the most determined heckler. I’d concede it takes both quick wits and steel nerves but I find that many sources of interruption can be anticipated and rehearsed so that you appear super smart and super cool only because you’ve practised.  And as you know, practise makes perfect.


If you’d like to practise dealing with hecklers in highly realistic training sessions then Richard Uridge and ACM Training offers just that for a whole lot less than senior politicians pay their armies of choreographers, script writers, voice coaches and colour consultants. Click here to send us an email outlining your worst presentational nightmares and we’ll do our level best to show you how to turn them into sweet dreams.

Next time. Not to be sneezed at: how to deal with coughs, colds and sore throats.

In the meantime here’s a good comparison of Obama and Trump dealing heckles. Which do you think  is more presidential?


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Why First Person isn’t bad for science communication

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Traditionally scientists have used the Third Person when communicating their work – particularly to fellow scientists. But in the cult-of-personality, social media age might the First Person be better? ACM Training’s lead media, communication and presentation coach, Richard Uridge, argues the case for scientists putting themselves centre stage.

Not so long ago science students were encouraged to write in the third person. “I did this” or “we observed that” first person communication was struck through with the bright red slash of a supervisor’s pen and replaced in spidery handwriting with “this was done” or “that observation was made.” Why? Because an aloof way of writing – and even of speaking – somehow reinforced a scientist’s sense of detachment from her or his research.  Get too close, put yourself at the heart of the experiment and you’ll compromise your independence or even corrupt your conclusions.  Or so the argument went.

Well after sitting through two days of presentations at a post graduate student event in Birnham, Perthshire, organised by the James Hutton Institute, I have to say it’s high time we overturned the archaic orthodoxy. The presentations that this, admittedly non-academic, member of the audience understood and enjoyed the most (and the two aren’t mutually exclusive) were those that unashamedly put the scientist centre stage. Being a part of your endeavours not apart from them isn’t bad science as anybody who’s been cured of a stomach ulcer (I speak from personal experience) ought to appreciate thanks to the pioneering work on Helicobacter pylori of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. By drinking a bacterial brew to prove their theory (that it wasn’t spicy foods that caused gastritis) Marshall couldn’t have been more first person. And it certainly didn’t stop him and his colleague picking up a Nobel Prize.

The fact that the pair were plain speaking Australians helped. You can’t imagine Warren saying “a beaker of H. pylori was consumed and 48 hours later vomiting and fever were observed in the patient.” You can imagine him saying “Bazza chugged a tinny of the stuff and was crook as a dingo on dodgy dog food before you could say surf’s up. “

Okay so I’m exaggerating but you get my point: first person doesn’t equal bad science. And what’s more, first person does equal more effective communication. In short because it’s more engaging. Engaging an audience is a necessary precursor to communication. Think of engagement as opening up the pipeline between you, the scientist, and your audience. Once it’s open you can push information, data if you will,  through it from your brain to theirs. If the pipeline’s closed conveying that data is impossible.

Here’s the Who Goes First? podcast. It’s not about first person science communication per se but more about scientists who’ve experimented on themselves and are very much centre stage in the way I discuss above. It includes discussion of the ethical dimension of Marshall and Warren’s work.  

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Please note that this programme was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a result it contains copyright material so is strictly for personal use and must not be used for commercial gain withour our express permission in writing. Please contact me if you’d like to obtain a licence.


NEXT Rumours of its death may be greatly exaggerated but why PowerPoint is in intensive care and may not be the most appropriate tool for science communicators.

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Hook ’em with a question

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

“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.


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Brexit – a victory for style over substance?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

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.

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Front loading – websites not washers

Approx. reading time: 5 minutes

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.

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

Approx. reading time: 8 minutes

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

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.

You can listen to Richard Uridge’s five minute masterclass on dealing with nerves by visiting the Masterclass section of the ACM Training website or you can listen here.


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The press release – dead or alive?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutesTen 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.

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Better letter writing – handling complaints

Approx. reading time: 7 minutes

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.

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Spot the difference

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesKeith is clearly a pedant. The sort of bloke whose teeth grate when he see’s a missing or misplaced apostrophe. So as a fellow traveller I was clearly disturbed to receive an email from him pointing out that on the ACM Training website I’d used different to rather than, in his view, the grammatically correct different from. Not the sort of thing, he implied, that becomes someone who leads writing for business and writing for the web workshops. And quiet write two. A bit of research was called for…

Turns out Keith that we’re both right. Different to, different from and even different than are all in common usage. Different to mainly in English English. Different than in American English. And different from in both traditions, particularly among(st?) old school grammarians. I realise, of course, that just because something is in common usage doesn’t mean it’s grammatically correct. But language, as my old English teacher loved to point out, is in a state of flux and that the rules of grammar can barely keep up. There are those in the vanguard of change who wouldn’t bat a proverbial eyelid at, what those in the rearguard would describe as, a flagrant disregard for authority. As someone who sits somewhere in the middle of this linguistic battlefield my view is that we shouldn’t get too caught up in these grammatical skirmishes. To do so risks bringing on a bad case of writer’s block as we fret over whether our use of words will offend. Too many people find writing hard work. That’s why they attend our workshops. Certainly they shouldn’t ignore the conventions of grammar. But nor should they feel weighed down by them. What’s more important, surely, is that we all learn to write clearly, concisely and that our words achieve the effect we desire?

Oh and yes there was a deliberately misplaced apostrophe in the opening sentence just to discombobulate you.