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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.

 

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Spoiled for choice

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesAs a trainer I pride myself on being able to answer the many questions my trainees ask. But here’s one that got me stumped on a writing workshop the other day: how many words are there in the English language? My initial response was to say “a lot” which, at the very least,  has the virtue of being correct but in every other respect isn’t terribly helpful. So here is my slightly more considered response…

It depends who you ask and how you count.

Ask an organisation called Global Monitor who profess to keep tabs on such things and they’ll tell you 1,019,729.6 (yes, you read that right – point six)!  They base this questionable figure on a trawl of English words on the web. Do the trawl manually through all 20 volumes of the Second Edition of the Oxford English Diction and you’ll arrive at the much lower (but still impressive) 171,476. They base their figure on words in current use and count the same word each time it has a distinct and different meaning. For example, the word dog appears at least three times in the OED list – once as a noun (as in the dog barked); once as a verb with a traditional meaning (as in to follow persistently); and once again as a verb with a more modern meaning (as in…well, you know what I mean and if you don’t use your imagination)!

Whoever’s figures you choose there’s no arguing it’s a lot. So why so many? Another good question and an easier one to answer…

It’s Harold’s fault!

Before Harold Godwinson was beaten in the Battle of Hastings the English language had a largely Germanic root thanks to the Angles and the Saxons who populated our island  from the east. Post 1066 William the Conqueror’s Norman buddies brought with them a whole new vocabulary rooted in French (itself rooted in Latin) and rather than supplanting the Anglo Saxon lexicon the two grew up alongside one another. And since then we’ve since added many other words borrowed from the various languages of our once huge Empire (from India bungalow, pajamas and  jodhpurs to list but a few).

This presents writers with a huge challenge: which word do we choose?

To fight or to battle that is the question

In his “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech Winston Churchill is said to have chosen the old word “fight” instead of the equally valid but newer word “battle” because he felt it would stir the British bulldog spirit more effectively. And you can’t argue with Churchill. So when you’re pondering which word to use, choose the one which conveys your meaning most precisely and which moves your reader most effectively. You don’t need to be spoiled for choice providing you choose well/select properly (delete/cross out as applicable).

Happy writing.

 

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ED MILIBAND’S CONFERENCE SPEECH DECONSTRUCTED

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

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Love him or hate him, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s keynote speech to his party’s conference in Manchester this week is an interesting, instructive and, it has to be said, fairly lengthy watch for students of public speaking and presentational skills. If you’ve got one hour, four minutes and 48 seconds to spare you can watch his address here and make up your own mind. But if you haven’t (or as a true blue Tory voter the very thought of spending that long with him makes your skin creep) then read my conference speech guide – not to the politics of it but the mechanics.

I’ve divided his address into the five components that make up any speech from the grandest to the most modest :

1 the speaker
2 the spoken (words)
3 the spoken to (audience)
4 the unspoken (body language)
5 the place spoken (venue)

In this post I’m going to explore the first component – the speaker. Future posts will cover the other four.

Purpose
As a speaker the key to a successful presentation is knowing from the outset exactly what you want that presentation to achieve and never losing sight of your objectives through the planning and delivery phases. As a trainer I recommend speakers distil their purpose into a just few lines as the very first step. Watching Ed Miliband I’d stake my house on his early notes reading something like this: “show the audience I’m an ordinary kind of guy, share with them my vision for Britain and tell them how together we can make that happen.” As a politician he almost certainly couldn’t resist also scribbling “and rubbish the Coalition, especially the Conservative half or it.”

Know thyself
Know thine audience is the phrase most often associated with public speaking. But there should be a second mantra – know thyself. Self knowledge as a speaker is vital. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Where the comfort zone ends and the discomfort zone begins. How nervousness manifests itself (and all presenters get nervous however relaxed they may appear). Like top athletes the very best speakers frequently push themselves beyond their normal limits. It’s how they improve. By speaking entirely without notes Miliband was pushing himself to the limits of his endurance. Doing the oratorial equivalent of a Mo Farah (whose name, incidentally, he mentioned in an effort to associate himself with the winning Olympic team). In delivering his address without even the safety net of an auto-cue he was again serving his purpose. He wanted us to think “hey a guy who can do that can run the country.”

As a speaker it’s also vital to know your relationship with the audience. Is your stock, so to speak, high or low? Do they like you or hate you? You’re selling them something – in Miliband’s case a promise to make Britain great again in return for our votes – so you better know how hard a sell you’ve got on your hands. The Labour leader clearly understood his stock was on the low side, not at the conference itself so much as among the wider public audience. Confronted with this tension between themselves and their audience speakers have two options: ignore it and hope it’ll go away; or concede there’s tension and do something to reduce it. Sensibly Miliband chose the second. “I understand why you voted for Cameron,” he declared before moving on to why we should no longer trust the Prime Minister but trust him instead.

You’re havin’ a laugh
Humour is an important part of any speech. Important but not essential. Not essential because some people are uncomfortable with humour – speakers and audiences alike. And some subjects are simply no laughing matter. Done right, however, humour can lift a speech. Give both the audience and the speaker a moment to relax. Act as a delicate counterpoint to a more profound moment. Provide punctuation. Give people a chance to shift buttocks or open a Murray mint without drawing attention to themselves. Done wrong humour can kill a speech stone dead. Alienate an audience. Overdone and it can tend to trivialise a speech and overshadow the content.

By making himself the butt of his jokes Miliband avoided giving offence. And mostly the laughs he got appeared genuine (but then in a hall full of acolytes I’d be surprised if they didn’t) although occasionally there was a momentary disconnect between punch line and laugh which made the smile on the Labour leader’s face a tad strained. My advice is to move on swiftly if the anticipated response isn’t forthcoming.

More importantly his self deprecating humour helped serve his purpose: it was designed to show the audience (especially the overwhelming majority of us beyond the conference walls) that he was our kind of guy. Odd looking perhaps. A bit like the bloke off Wallace and Gromit maybe. But warm and friendly nonetheless. The friendly bit is crucial to politicians. They know we don’t trust them. And because we don’t trust them they know we don’t like them. But they also know that human nature dictates this behavioural formula works the other way round and if we like them we’ll trust them. So politicians work hard to make themselves likeable. Hence the humour and the frequent references to family history in the Miliband speech.

Richard Uridge coaches public speakers and runs presentational skills workshops. He hasn’t trained Ed Miliband. And even if he had he’d be contractually obliged to say he hadn’t (but he really hasn’t)! He’s not a bad speaker himself. Not the best. But then Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t the best footballer. If you’d like him (Richie that is not Fergie) to train you or your colleagues or give a speech then you can get in touch by sending him an email richard@acmtraining.co.uk

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AVOID CLICHÉS LIKE THE PLAGUE

Approx. reading time: 1 minuteSo much writing (and speech for that matter) is lazy. People peck at their keyboards or open their mouths and let whatever comes to mind spill out. Which very often is cliché-laden, jargon-strewn nonsense. Take a look at “50 Office-Speak Phrases You Love to Hate” and you’ll see what I mean.

No excuses. Think before you write. Take Samuel Johnson’s advice. The 18th Century English writer of dictionary fame said: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” Or Ernest Hemmingway’s. “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Avoid clichés like the plague. Don’t make your readers as sick as proverbial parrots. Please them with your well-crafted words. Let me show you how with one of my writing workshops.

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CHOMSKY’S A CHUMP – why Noam’s a numpty

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesNoam Chomsky may well be an expert linguist. But his suggestion in a recent Daily Telegraph article that oratory is unnecessary is ludicrous. ‘I am no Barack Obama,’ he told the interviewer, Nigel Farndale. ‘I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don’t try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.’

Well Noam I beg to differ. Hearing you drone on would bore me, however interesting the content. I’m glad I’m not one of your students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d be the bloke at the back dozing off.

Great communicators combine content with style. Okay so no amount of style can make up for a total lack of content. But great content can be spoiled by poor delivery. Try reading any of Churchill’s famous wartime addresses to the nation in a boring voice. Or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech for that matter.

Classical music provides an appropriate metaphor. Imagine Beethoven’s 5th played on just one instrument. And, what’s more, imagine that the instrument played just one note. Wouldn’t be much of a symphony. Blah, blah, blah…You wouldn’t want to listen beyond a few blahs – oops I mean bars – now would you?

When public speaking your voice is an instrument. So use it as such. Unless, of course, you’re in possession of one of the world’s greatest intellects. And are arrogant enough to believe that alone will compel people to listen to you.

Are you a Chomsky or a Churchill? Take my presentational skills quiz.

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WORDS MATTER

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesWords matter. Well chosen they have the ability to move us to tears. Of sadness. Of joy. They can pluck our emotions as assuredly as a classical musician plucks the strings of a harp. Or, if you prefer, play our soul like Noel Gallagher tweaking his Telecaster. Written for the eye or spoken for the ear, words can transport us through time and space. Badly chosen words can move us too. Spark moral outrage and indignation. Provoke anger and frustration. Or, more likely, send us to sleep through a fog of I-really-can’t-be-arsed-to-read-this indifference.

Most of the time we choose the words we speak or write instinctively. We don’t, consciously at least, consider whether they’re the right words. And, as a consequence, sometimes they’re the wrong words. Which may not matter a whole lot if we’re talking to friends or writing to family. But which may matter heaps if we’re comunicating with a wider, possibly less tolerant, more critical audience.

Take the word communicating in the last sentence. It’s missing an m. And while that may not bother you there’ll be some readers fulminating at such a basic mistake. It would undermine my credibility as a communications coach and make selling my services to the angry reader an unlikely prospect. Yet every single day I receive letters and emails exhorting me to buy something that are littered with literals, or are simply (and often complicatedly) inelegant, ineffective, inept, inane. And occasionally insane.

Consider for a moment the poor soul at the NHS who wrote the letter sent to 8.5 million patients advising us that our healthcare records were about to be put onto the computerised Summary Care Record system and that we could opt out of the move if we wished. According to the Telegraph (June 17th 2010), just 15% of the letters were read which means 7.2 million letters were not. A remarkable reflection on our indifference or a sure sign that the letter was poorly written? If you’ve received such a letter let me know your view by posting a comment. Oh and if you’d like to learn how to write professionally and creatively (yes the two can go hand in hand) sign up for my creative and professional writing skills workshop.