Posted on

Chequers Mate – how to break the deadlock in negotiations

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Beyond Boris’s inelegant turd-polishing outburst exactly what went on behind the heavy doors and high windows of Chequers during the Cabinet’s Brexit awayday negotiations will be kept secret under the Thirty Year Rule. And by the time the minutes are released to the National Archive Brexit may have been such an unalloyed success/disaster (delete depending on your own disposition) that only the nerdiest constitutional historians pore over them. But we don’t have to wait until 2048 to find out because ACM Training’s mediation and negotiation techniques trainer, Sandy Keating, has imagined, in her inimitable Australian way, how the discussions might have been handled…

Even before the ministerial limousines started sweeping down the narrow Buckinghamshire lanes, the most eagle-eyed hacks would have noticed an Office Depot van turn into the Chequers’ driveway. In the back a stack of flipchart pads and a dozen or so boxes of fat felt pens. You really can’t negotiate without these tools of the trade. Oh, and Post It notes. Everybody loves Post It notes although, because this was a Conservative get together, the driver was told in no uncertain terms not to bring any of those pinko lefty ones. Or orange ones for that matter because the colour would remind them too much of Nick Clegg. In fact, the only exception to the fifty shades of blue rule was to be several rolls of crimson sticky tape to mark out those uncrossable red lines.

Joking aside, the language you use in negotiation is important. All this talk of red lines is incendiary. It’s perfectly acceptable to make clear you have a position that would be difficult or impossible to give way on. But you must articulate it in an even-tempered way. Cool heads and dispassionate language are, or at least should be, the order of the day. Because, of course, once tempers flare and people start taking things personally positions tend to become entrenched.

When this happens and people are deadlocked I suggest both (or more) parties work separarely in break out groups and list what they want – which is where those flipcharts and pens come in. Then I ask them, in discussion, to put that list in order of importance. The items at the top will necessarily be the things they’re not prepared to give up. But in order to keep those things maybe they are prepared – willing even – to give way on some of the items towards the bottom of the list.

It may seem very old fashioned in this age of tablets and smarphones but actually writing stuff down – making a mark on a piece of paper – is a penny drop moment for so many of the people I’ve trained to negotiate and mediate. When the sides come back together to compare and contrast notes it’s almost always easier to see (literally) the negotiation in terms of WIN-WIN-lose-lose rather than WIN-LOSE. What’s the difference? Well I’ve used upper and lower case letters to emphasise that in order for both sides to win big they both have to lose small – rather than one side winning big at the expense of the other losing big.

The challenge with the Brexit negotiations at a UK-EU level is that one side at least doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Perhaps there weren’t enough flips charts in the back of that van. Possibly they forgot to order enough BluTack. Or, more likely, the caretaker at Chequers wouldn’t let them stick it on the antique wallpaper. That’ll be it. We’re coming unstuck literally and metaphorically.

Posted on

FF sake – what musical notation can teach presenters and public speakers

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Mozart was a dab hand at the piano. Which is putting it mildly. A veritable child prodigy, by the age of five he was already performing for royalty. And by the time he died – at just 35 – he’d written 600 works including his Piano Concerto 21 shown above.

I mention all this because more than 200 years later Mozart’s music has something to teach us as presenters and public speakers. He knew how to captivate an audience with high notes and low notes. Fast sections and slower, more reflective sections. Louder bits and quieter bits. In short, he scored his compositions in such a way that made them captivating. And I’d argue that you should score your presentations to make them captivating.

Far too many of the presentations I’ve had the misfortune of sitting through wash over me. Not because the content is dull (although it may be) but because the delivery is dull and as a consequence the content, however important, fails to register.

“Blah, blah, blah…

Nobody uses these exact words, of course. But they do use words that when spoken by the same voice, at the same pace and the same tone end up sounding so samey they may as well be.

“…blah, blah, blah.

The net effect of which is to send the audience to sleep. So how can we turn our presentations from unintended lullabies into stirring sonatas?

TEMPO

Well let’s start with tempo. You’ll see the word “andante” appears above the bar at the beginning of the sheet music at the top of this post. This notation of Italian origin is an instruction that the movement or passage should be played at a moderately slow tempo. If the whole concerto was to be played at the same tempo it’d sound much less impressive. It’s the juxtaposition of different tempos that make each stand out and contribute to the overall effect. And so it is with presentations. What bits of your presentation are best delivered allegro – that is fast? And which sections might best be delivered adagio – slowly?

VOLUME

Back to that sheet music you’ll see the letter “p” appears under a couple of notes. This means that the note should be played piano or softly. Two ps together as in pp means the note should be played pianissimo or very softly. It seems counterintuitive but if you want your audience to take notice of a really important point, saying it more quietly than your usual presentational volume (p or pp in musical terms) forces them to listen more carefully and helps reinforce the point. Although not if you’re too quiet – ppp!

At the opposite end of the dynamic range are the effs – f, ff and fff. F stands for forte or loud. FF for fortissimo or very loud. And FFF for fortississimo meaning very, very loud. I’d avoid fff altogether as it can seem really rude and shouty unless done for special effect, in which case it’s probably best to forewarn the audience or, at the very least, explain immediately after the very, very loud passage why it was so. And even ff should be used sparingly as it’s tiresome to listen to permanently loud speakers.

The knack is to vary the volume in a pleasant sounding and naturalistic way just as we do automatically in conversation. Think of your presentation coming to a crescendo – another musical term that means increasing or, literally, growing. Build to a major point or a call to action.

REST

Look carefully at the sheet music above and you’ll see what looks like a fat or bold hyphen at the end. This is what’s called a rest (actually it’s a half rest but let’s not get too technical – this is presentation skills not piano grade 8). A rest mark tells a musician to pause for a period of time to let the previous note die away. To echo into the distance. To be savoured to the very last decibel. And so you should pause for effect in your presentations. Carrying on before the audience has properly understood and appreciated your previous point is to cheapen that point. A tip here. A short pause for the audience can seem like an eternity for us presenters – especially if we’re nervous in which case silence can really spook us. So in order not to under do the pauses count to five in your head in one thousand chunks before moving on.

“One thousand. Two thousand. Three thousand. Four thousand. Five thousand.”

In summary, the human voice is a musical instrument. So play it like one. And if you feel the audience may be getting bored listening to the same old instrument playing the same old song can you change the instrument (if not the song)? By that I mean can you change the presenter? Most presentations tend to have just one voice (you) but can you recruit co-presenters and double-head or even triple-head your next speech? The simple expedient of a change of voice can keep an audience attentive for longer.

Forgive me for a final foray into this musical metaphor. Make sure your presentations are well orchestrated. Be a maestro. Just like Mozart. Aim for a bravura performance.


This post was first published as a podcast (complete with extracts from Mozart’s Piano Concerto 21) in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.

Posted on

Choreographing your presentation – what presenters and public speakers can learn from dancers

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Imagine paying good money to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, only for the dancers to be rooted to the spot throughout the performance. Static. Unmoving. You’d demand a refund.

In ballet, beauty springs from movement and choreographers think long and hard about how dancers use the full extent of the stage, where they position themselves in relation to one another and the audience and which steps to take –  a pas de deux maybe or a pas de chat.

And so it should be in presentations, with speakers giving similar consideration to the choreography of their performances. Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that this means pulling on a pink tutu and sashaying across the boardroom floor but simply injecting some more modest, naturalistic movement into your presentation in a way that compliments your words – energises them even – rather than detracts from them.

Don’t mess with my tutu

Too many presenters I’ve seen (or rather haven’t) stay hidden behind the lectern throughout. And those who do show us their legs often pace nervously up and down an imaginary track and I end up worrying more about the carpet than I do listening to what’s being said.

I get why presenters stay close to the lectern. It’s where their notes are and, looking out at the sea of faces that is the audience, they fret that if they swim too far from this presentational lifebelt they’ll end up drowning. Trouble is that, in a big auditorium in particular, the lectern is usually stage left or right which means you’re closer to one side of the audience than the other. And while the extra distance between you and those opposite may not be an obvious distraction, subconsciously at least, it may leave those farthest away feeling somehow left out.

A lectern house left (stage right) is a long way from the audience sitting diametrically opposite in the back rows.

Mind the gap

And so it is with the people in the cheap seats at the back, again, of the bigger venues. They can feel ignored if you don’t do something to literally or metaphorically close the gap between you and them. Literally closing the gap might mean coming down off the stage (with a radio microphone if the event is that big), walking along the aisle to the back of the auditorium and delivering a section of your talk from there. Metaphorical gap closers include spoken ones – “can you hear me alright back there?” – and unspoken ones such as making eye contact with people in all quadrants of the audience, not just those closest to you. A really good tip I was given years ago is to divide the audience into quarters (or sixths in bigger venues), pick a friendly face in each section (front left, front right, middle left, middle right, etc.) and make eye contact with them periodically. Because of something called parallax it appears as if you’re looking at everybody in each section rather than just one.

Come out come out wherever you are

Now in order to feel comfortable moving away from that lectern or desk and your notes means weaning yourself off those notes, so I’ll make that the subject of another post. But before that let’s explore the consequences of too much movement.

Carpets have feelings too

I’ve written elsewhere about nervousness and posted a 10 point plan for tackling it. Suffice to say that when our mind is racing our body often follows suit. So we pace up and down. And for the audience it can be a bit like watching a game of tennis where we’re the ball and their eyes swivel from left to right and back again ad nauseam which, in Latin incidentally, means literally ‘to sickness.’ Remember audiences (and carpets for that matter) have feelings so don’t overdo the movement. With practice it’ll become instinctive. Just as the movement does for those ballerinas.

Form and function

If too much movement can be distracting, it follows that the right amount can be attracting. What we should aspire to then is movement that is meaningful. Meaningful because it grabs the audience’s attention; gives people a chance to move around in their seats (and so prevents deep vein thrombosis); adds value to your words. By adding value I mean that your movement is actually making a point. Let me explain by giving a real life example.

A Third Sector presentation I recently helped choreograph was designed to get people to stop and think about the scourge of rough sleeping. The words went something like this…

“You’re walking down the street. It’s like a minefield. You’re navigating around other pedestrians who’re paying more attention to their mobile phones than the pavement ahead. Picking a route that avoids the beggars who are up. And tip toeing past the rough sleepers who’re down.”

Now these words could have been delivered statically from behind a lectern. But I’d argue they had twice the impact because they were delivered while the presenter was walking along an imaginary pavement, the actions mirroring the words.

Actions speak louder than words

If you want your audience to stop and think about the point you’ve just made, stop and think yourself. If you want your audience to take action, be active. If you’re presentation needs a moment of reflection, of quiet contemplation, then slow down and stop. If you’re excited, look excited. And, of course, sound excited. Which brings me on to a subject for a future post – musicology, or how to use your voice as a musical instrument and play all the right notes in your next presentation.

Posted on

What that Gavin Williamson vs Richard Madeley interview tells us about media training

Richard Madeley interviews Gavin Williamson on GMBApprox. reading time: 3 minutes

I could almost hear Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard breathing a huge sigh of collective relief. For years their Newsnight clash – the one where Paxo asked the former Home Secretary n times (where n is a large number) if he’d intervened in the day-to-day running of the prison service – had, for media trainers, been the go-to example of road crash interviews. But now we’ve got a new worst case scenario – the recent, well-publicised spat between the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and the stand-in Good Morning Britain presenter, Richard Madeley. If you haven’t seen it yet I’d thoroughly recommend a watch. It’s certainly entertaining. In a lemon-chewingly embarrassing way. But don’t worry if you haven’t got time because, in essence, Madeley called the interview to an unexpectedly early end when Williamson used the politicians’ trick of ignoring the questions and saying what the heck he wanted to say. Which is a pity because the Secretary of State was supposed to be talking about deploying British troops to help protect wildlife against poachers in Malawi – a good news story if ever there was one – but didn’t get beyond the preamble. Heck, he’d even gone to the trouble of doing the interview by satellite from West Midlands Safari Park.

So does this mean that media trainers like me will have to change our approach? Not at all! At ACM Training we teach interviewees to deal with the question and move on. But we always impress upon them the importance of striking the right balance between the two. Move on too fast or fail to deal with the question altogether and you risk what happened to Williamson happening to you.

“Let it be a warning! Us journalists used to say you’d been Paxo’d but I guess now we’ll have to learn to say you’ve been Madeley’d!”

No time to read this post and prefer to listen – with the added bonus of audio clips from the excruciating interview?

For a Defence Secretary, I thought Williamson was surprisingly tactically un-astute. Adversarial media interviews are (in very limited respects) analogous with battles. In both, if you try to defend disputed territory you can get bogged down, when it might be better to concede some ground and pull back to a line you can hold.

So first let’s explore what went wrong in MoD vs GMB. Madeley’s attack was to accuse Williamson of using Trump-like language. Williamson’s defence was to simply ignore this line of questioning and try to move on to how terrible the attempted murders of the Skripals had been and how wonderfully the emergency services in Salisbury had responded. But the Defence Secretary wasn’t able to move on to these, nonetheless valid, points because Madeley wasn’t satisfied he’d dealt with the question – repeatedly asked – well enough.

Now let’s examine the alternative. If I was Gavin Williamson’s media advisor I’d have prepared him on the basis that the Trump question was (a) wholly predictable and (b) entirely legitimate for a journalist to ask on the public’s behalf. I’d have told him that legitimate questions can’t simply be ignored because to do so risks antagonising the journalist and her/his audience. And, as a consequence, I’d have suggested he spend a little more time dealing with the question and a little less time moving on. If he asked what all that meant practically speaking I’d have come up with a few concede lines.

Williamson: “It’s certainly not the kind of language you usually hear from ministers I’ll give you that. But sometimes you have to be plain and forthright to make sure your message gets through to the intended target.”

Madeley: “So you’re admitting it was Trump-like language?!”

Williamson: “I’m saying that it’s important to be absolutely clear that attacking members of the public on British soil is unacceptable and making that point in a plain and forthright way is occasionally better than couching these things in the usual diplomatic terms.”

Madeley: “Sounds like you’re admitting to being undiplomatic.”

Williamson: “I’m admitting to being plain and forthright and, yes, angry too, because two innocent members of the public had been attacked in a cruel and unusual way and countless others – those who went to their rescue – put at risk.”

Now, of course, I’ll concede there’s no guarantee that this approach would have worked but I’m convinced it would have given the Defence Secretary a better chance of moving onto Malawi. As it was he had no chance at all because the interview was called to a premature and unceremonious end.

Remember this: you can only move on if you deal adequately with the question asked. To deal adequately with doesn’t have to mean to answer (although it can). Think of interviews as question and response session,s rather than question and answer sessions. Tailor your response not only according to your own needs but also to those of the interviewer and audience. Williamson was never going to admit to using Trump-like language (and nor, given Trump’s track record, should he have). But without conceding a little he gave away a lot.


This is a partial transcript of Richard’s five minute masterclass on the lessons of Williamson v Madeley. Click here if you want to hear the whole recording and listen to our other five minute masterclasses.

Posted on

In defence of spam: why post-GDPR unsolicited email is still a legitimate and legal marketing tool

Approx. reading time: 5 minutes

Here’s a confession that I bet not many company bosses are prepared to make publicly: we’re still sending unsolicited bulk emails.

Call it crazy and suicidal post-GDPR but believe me it’d be crazy and suicidal not to. Let’s face it, spam works. It works better than throwing money at Google and Facebook. It works better than enhancing one’s profile by blogging 🙂  And if it didn’t work it wouldn’t be a problem. So in my mind the question isn’t a practical one, it’s an ethical and legal one.

Like many such issues, a lot of it is down to interpretation. So who’s right? The professor of English who wrote to us “f*ck off and die you f*cking spamming c^nts.”  The professor of haematology who wrote “I don’t recall you getting my permission to send me marketing emails. That’s now illegal.” Or the professor of clinical epidemiology who wrote “I wish to recommend your training strongly to colleagues.”

This is a true story that I’m calling the Tale of Three Professors…

Professor One

I’ll say this for our first correspondent: he had an impressive grip of the Anglo Saxon vernacular. But, that aside, did he (and it usually is a he) really need to be quite so explicit in his request to be removed from our mailing list? It’s not like we tried to sell him Viagra. Or a night of unbridled passion. Maybe that was the problem. We’re a training company. Selling training, not little blue pills. Not so very different to the education his university is selling.

The first prof’s complaint (if that’s what you can call it) arrived before GDPR came into effect in May 2018. It was a golden age where we took the admittedly relaxed view that most people didn’t mind receiving the occasional unsolicited marketing email and even those, like him, who did were well worth the hassle. The gearing was something like one complaint to every 10,000 emails. Needless to say we removed his name from our prospect list (after pointing out that his institution might take a dim view of its servers being used for such colourful language) and haven’t heard from him since.

Professor Two

Our less bilious haematologist complained post-GDPR. So is, as he claims, sending a marketing email without the receiver’s consent illegal? Depends who you ask. It boils down to how you interpret something in GDPR called legitimate interest. The term is loosely defined – perhaps deliberately – as something that is in a business’s best interest to do. Chasing an unpaid invoice by emailing the head of accounts is clearly a legitimate interest – irrespective of whether or not the head of accounts has given you permission to send them that email. What is less clear is whether marketing and, in particular, sending an unsolicited email, constitutes a legitimate business interest which, in effect, trumps an individual’s right to privacy. We’d need a fourth professor – a student of law let’s say – to answer that one.

They’d need to consider whether there’s  a “relevant and appropriate” relationship between the data subject (the person you’re emailing) and the data controller (you or somebody in your business). Using the invoice example from before, clearly there would be such a relationship. But just because we’ve worked with one institution does that relationship extend to similar individuals in similar organisations? In other words could we rely on legitimate interest to justify sending an email to a member of staff in university B because we’d worked with a member of staff in university A?

Under GDPR our imaginary fourth professor would also need to bear in mind that legitimate interest has to be balanced against the receiver’s rights or freedoms. I’d argue that receiving one or two unsolicited emails does nothing to significantly infringe the receiver’s rights providing one offers clear and easy instructions how to stop receiving future offers and doesn’t continue to send unsolicited material after a stop request.

Professor Three

Our final correspondent is, in essence, exactly why we reach out to new customers. “Reach out” is, I’ll readily admit while I’m in confessional mode, a euphemism for send an unsolicited email to. But that’s exactly how we reached out to him. He’d not heard of ACM Training before. Did some research. Asked around. Took a punt. Came along one of our public training sessions. And so began a long and fruitful relationship with him and his institution. I’d argue (and I’m convinced he’d agree) that ACM Training has benefited financially and his university has benefited educationally from our training.

We need more of him, especially now. Open-minded individuals who don’t see the world in a binary way: all unsolicited email is spam; all businesses who send unsolicited email are bad; all unsolicited offers are dodgy; all spammers are scammers…

Business has had a tough time of it over the past few years and Government incompetence over the handling of Brexit is making it tougher still with many companies sitting on their money at least until there’s some clarity over the UK’s position in Europe. And GDPR has only made it even harder.

I’m not after sympathy. All I ask before you get shouty or sweary or legalistic is that consider the alternatives:

  1. So you don’t want what we’re offering or you have a rule never to buy anything from anybody who’s ever sent you an unsolicited email? That’s okay. We get that. It was always a long shot anyway.
  2. Spare a thought for the sender. Just like you, they’re trying to pay their bills, feed and clothe their families and have enough left at the end of the month for a few luxuries.
  3. Reaching out to potential new customers in all sorts of ways is a legitimate and necessary function of business. Sending emails is one of those ways. Without it employees and taxes don’t get paid. Companies go broke. The economy suffers. And ultimately roads don’t get fixed, hospitals don’t get built and universities don’t get research funding.
  4. Ask yourself if you’re (a) genuinely not interested in the product or service being offered or (b) potentially interested but not right now. If the answer’s (a) then go straight to point five. If the answer’s (b) then skip to point eight.
  5. Delete the offending email. It takes under a second. Even if you have to delete 50 that’s still a lot less time than writing to complain.
  6. Follow the remove procedure. Reputable companies will display it prominently and act upon it swiftly. Disreputable companies won’t but then writing to them won’t work either.
  7. Bear in mind that you may have several email aliases pointed to the same address and, if so, ask for those to be removed too.
  8. If after all that you still get unsolicited emails from the same source then by all means complain to the sender and, if that doesn’t work, to the ICO.
  9. Be open minded. Not all unsolicited emails are phishing for your bank details, offering little blue pills or a night of unbridled passion with the man/woman of your dreams (delete as appropriate). Some are selling goods and services that you might actually want or need or offer better value than your existing supplier. So at least have a look when you have a spare moment. And then, if you’re really not interested, go back to point five.
  10. There always has to be a point ten. Nobody has nine point lists. Five, yes. Twenty, yes. But nine? No.

Since posting this quite a few of my business friends have made an important additional point: that when it comes to e-marketing there’s a world of difference between B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer). The rules, they say, were written largely with the consumer in mind and that the dimmest view will be taken of those companies that post GDPR continue to bombard individuals at their personal (my italics) email addresses. Many companies will, they believe, continue to send unsolicited email to corporate addresses.

So, once again, it comes down to interpretation. In this case what constitutes a personal email address. Is professor.pat.pending@anywhere.ac.uk personal? Or, because it was provided to him by the University of Anywhere by dint of his work there, a corporate one? We’ve taken the view that an email address that an individual has to set up – e.g. richarduridge@gmail.com – is personal and we try our very best not to send to these unsolicited. But if the address is issued by your organisation’s IT department and you’ve only got it while you’ve got the job then it’s corporate. Of course, the line between the two isn’t neat. So we’re not expecting the complaints to stop anytime soon!

Posted on

Ten tips for dealing with difficult people

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes
  1. Try to stick to facts, not feelings when communicating with a difficult person.
  2. Focus on the main issues that need solving, rather than any minor ones. If you can resolve the big ones the small ones often turn out to be inconsequential or resolve themselves anyway.
  3. Your stomach may be churning and your mind in turmoil but it’s better if you can get your points across in an unemotional way.
  4. Agree to disagree, at least temporarily, because it’s better than arguing. Putting aside your differences allows progress.
  5. Resist the temptation to argue, shout or swear – whatever the provocation. Your point may be right so why undermine it by doing something wrong?
  6. Make the most of anything you agree on so that you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder and not shout across the vast gulf of what you disagree on.
  7. Separate issues from people – things can become very personal, very quickly.
  8. Easier said than done, but don’t take things personally. Developing self-belief as a part of your Emotional Intelligence is a good long term strategy.
  9. Say ‘no’ when you mean ‘no’ rather than ‘yes!’ You may think this will placate a difficult person – believe me it won’t. All the ‘yeses’ will do is contribute to unrealistic expectations.
  10. Finally it’s worth bearing in mind that we can’t change other people’s behaviour. We can only change our behaviour or our view of their behaviour.

Sandy’s been running ACM Training’s none-too-creatively named Dealing With Difficult People workshop for more than 20 years now and demand for it shows no sign of abating – which is a pity because difficult behaviour – whether it’s from colleagues, friends or family – causes untold pain and suffering to the victims, makes office life miserable and does nothing for productivity or health and well-being. The course is run publicly in London, Manchester and Bristol and often has discount places available from just £99 per person.

Posted on

Journalistic dirty tricks – how reporters try to get you to talk

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Getting quotes from those involved in any story is central to a journalist’s work. And the bigger the story the harder they’ll try to get you to speak. Believe me I was one. I won’t confess to using all of the techniques listed below but I’ve certainly seen and heard them used over 35 years in the business. So, whether you’re caught up in a human tragedy or a corporate bun fight, if you genuinely don’t want to speak (or perhaps can’t) then here are five tricks reporters will attempt to loosen your lips. Forewarned is forearmed!

I should add that these tips cover circumstances where the hack at least has the decency to own up to being a hack. Hacks being hacks, there will be occasions when he or she will pretend to be somebody else – a grieving relative, for example. Or a doctor with a convincing white coat and a stethoscope to match (we carry a range of fancy dress items in our car boots and not just for parties). Think of the first category as dagger and the second as cloak and dagger.

DAGGER

  1. Speaking to me gives you the chance to put your side of the story. The thinly-veiled or sometimes explicit threat here is that if you don’t speak then others will and what they say about you may be much less than flattering than what you’d say about you. If others already have spoken about you this morphs into the this is your chance to put the record straight trick.
  2. So that’s a no comment is it?  A stark, two-word “no comment” rarely plays well with the public who, on hearing it, might think you’ve got something to hide. Journalists know it. And you know it. So they try to get you to expand because it’ll sound much better. Better to explain why you cant comment than to say those potentially pejorative words.
  3. Look you can tell me off the record surely? There’s no such thing as off the record. Or there shouldn’t be unless you trust the journalist saying it with your life. And why would you trust somebody who’d sell their grandma for a good story?! There are many variations on this theme such as strictly between you and me and look don’t worry I can keep your name out of it.
  4. Moral or emotional blackmail. There are lots of variations on this theme, the idea being that if we can’t turn your head with logic, twisted or otherwise, then maybe we can turn the screws on your heart. Here are a couple of the variations I’ve heard and, yes, tried: How would you feel if it was you or your family involved in this tragedy/incident/situation?  And: Don’t you owe it to them to tell us what’s happened?
  5. Kite flying. This is where a journalist will try to get you to confirm something by denying something else. Let’s say you’re involved in some way in a horrible accident in which people have died but nobody is officially confirming that there have been fatalities.  A kite flyer will pluck a figure out of thin air and say words to this effect: We’ve heard that six people have been killed and the figure is so silly that you say: “Oh no not that many.” So now they know that a number of people fewer than six but more than one have been killed and can state in their reports: “It’s been confirmed by those involved that there have been fatalities but it’s unclear at this stage exactly how many people have died.”

Next time…Cloak and Dagger: how to recognise journalists who pretend to be somebody else and what to say to them whether you rumble their ruse or not.

Why not join our mailing list to make sure you receive updates on this and other media, communication and organisational development issues?


Richard runs ACM Training’s emergency call handling and crisis communications workshops. He’s just delivered a training session to volunteer call handlers at the Grosvenor Group as a part of that organisation’s business continuity planning. For added realism actors were used to simulate incoming calls. If you’d like to test your readiness or make sure you conform to the requirements of the Civil Contingencies Act (as a Category 1 or 2 responder) then Richard would love to hear from you.

Posted on

Could this be a sign?

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

I’m easily annoyed. Perhaps it’s just my age. Or maybe there’s a lot to be annoyed about in the world right now. And I’m not just sweating the big stuff (Trump, war, Brexit…). Little things bug me too. Like signwriting on vans and lorries. I’ve written about it before but I feel compelled to write about it again after an angsty journey from my home in Shropshire to the Home Counties. Barely five miles into the trip I’m following this monstrosity.

I’m assuming the company has gone to the trouble and expense of having the vehicle signwritten as a mobile billboard. But adverts generally only tempt potential customers if those customers know what the bloody hell they’re being sold. It’s not clear at all from this mumbo jumbo what the van driver does for a living so I’m unlikely to stop him and buy one. Whatever one is.

It’s a classic case of trying to impress the reader with clever words and having exactly the opposite effect.

But as these two examples demonstrate is is possible to use the limited space and time available on the side of a moving vehicle to advertise one’s wares effectively.

The lesson? Decide what you want your words to achieve before you start writing and use language that is clear and concise to the reader.

Creating value, building trust and delivering results are bullshit bingoey kinds of words or phrases that should, like cliches, be avoided like the plague.

It’s all about the reader. If it doesn’t work for them it can’t work for you.

PS R Breeders Ltd, it turns out, sell bull semen.

Posted on

Training – the investment that pays dividends

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

We’re always banging on about the value of training at ACM. How it’s a great way of increasing productivity. Boosting loyalty. An investment that pays dividends…

But as a training company we would say that wouldn’t we?! So it’s great when other people say exactly the same and validate our thinking. Here’s what a French academic had to say about the value of training on the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 recently. And it’s worth bearing in mind before you listen that productivity in France is way higher than in the UK. No coincidence.

Posted on

Striking the right tone – why conversational is best when writing for the web

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

The social web is supposed to be just that – social. So be sociable. Which, tonally, means writing in a conversational style. The best web copy is, in most circumstances, both chatty and purposeful.

In the old days when the majority of our social interactions were face-to-face our impression of an individual (or an organisation for that matter) was built up from these literal meetings. Rightly or wrongly we judged people from how they spoke, the words they used, the way they dressed. We even judged people instinctively. As I write this I can almost hear my granny saying “ooh don’t trust him his eyes are too close together.”

Well nowadays many transactions are happening online solely in a virtual sense and as a consequence our impression of the individuals and organisations we’re transacting with are derived to a significant extent (in some cases almost entirely) from the impression created by the website where those transactions are taking place.

So the big question is this: are your words creating the right impression?

Here’s a fun way of checking whether your website is creating the right impression. Look at the tone of your website from a user perspective and try to build up a mental picture of the person or people who’ve written the words. Now if you bumped into your organisation in the street what would he/ she be wearing? Suited and booted? Smart but casual? Or scruffy as hell? And how old would they be? Young or old?

We have a lot of delegates from local authorities attending our writing for the web workshops and after doing this exercise they realise that their tone is far too starchy and may well be putting off the very people they’re trying to help. “Male, middle-aged and wearing a grey suit,” they say. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that especially as I score two out of three on that count…

Work out the tone that you need to project to achieve your aims and objectives and then make sure the words on your website help do just that.

Of course it’s about a whole lot more than just words – things like the graphics and for those organisations with actual contact with their clients (whether by phone or face-to-face) how those interactions are handled. But all that’s for another day and another workshop. For example, our popular dealing with difficult people workshop.

Here are some examples of overly formal, downright pompous or simply stupid writing from the on and offline worlds.

“This item of gym equipment is currently out of service. We would like to take this opportunity to apologise to our customers for any inconvenience this might cause.”

We can see it’s broken. It’s covered with more hazard tape than a crime scene. Words that tell us what is plain to see are superfluous. Tell us something we don’t know. And I bet if we asked you face-to-face what was going on you wouldn’t speak in such a formal way: “I would like to take this opportunity…”

So make sure your words are chatty in tone, add value and get to the point quickly.

“We’ve called the engineer. Sorry!”

But shorter isn’t always better. Take the rather stark warning: “Do not litter!”

So commonplace a sign that we eventually become so used to seeing it that, in effect, we don’t see it at all. And, in any case, even if it adds “£50 penalty for offenders” we know the chances of getting caught are remote. So if the stick is ineffective enter the carrot…

“It costs you money to pick up litter.”

Or the softer version appealing to the heart instead of the head…

“Our workers risk their lives picking up your litter.”

Ask yourself what combination of words and tone is most likely to achieve your purpose. And make sure your words convey meaning clearly and concisely.

Here’s an exercise you can play when you’re stuck in a traffic jam or driving along a motorway…

Look at the signwriting on the sides of commercial vehicles, lorries and vans. During a recent trip to London down the M40 I saw “Sam’s Fried Chicken” and “Interior Contracting Solutions” within the space of a mile. I knew instantly what business Sam is in. He does exactly what it says on the van. But I’m still not sure what the other business is advertising. Both signs are three words long. One is clear. The other obtuse. Is your website a Sam or do you need the services of Website Clarification Solutions?

We’re all guilty of showing off in our use of language. Or at least I am. Trying to appear ever so erudite when it’d be a whole lot clearer if I used the word clever instead. Accidentally obfuscating – sorry I mean clouding/blurring/muddying/complicating/fogging – the issue when I’d be better off using one of the many more widely understood and/or shorter alternatives.

The beauty of English is that it has two roots – one Germanic the other Latin – and, therefore, an extraordinary lexicon/vocabulary to choose/select from. But it’s also a beast in that, confronted with a dazzling array of words (more than a million according to some studies) we can, if we’re not careful, end up choosing the wrong word and look silly instead of smart. I’m sure I’ve done exactly that somewhere in this article and that you’re just itching to tell me. I’ll make it easy for you just click here to send a fulminatory email.


This is an extract from Richard’s book Writing for the Web – why reading differently means writing differently. It’s available as a pdf, an e-reader and, coming soon, as a paperback. To order your sample copy please fill in and submit the form below.

Continue reading Striking the right tone – why conversational is best when writing for the web