Posted on

EDEN SUN

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

The tree tops are immersed in molten copper. Cast with the the horizontal rays of a dying sun. But the death of day breathes life into the night. And the blue black shadows, born short and shy in the seconds after midday, rush ever faster towards maturity. Across field and valley, through farmyard and village to a vanishing point where, after the pale hours of a summer night, tomorrow will send them into a reverse journey from the infinity of dawn to the oblivion of noon. And where just a second later the cycle will begin again.

But for now the sun has gone and the shadows have melted away like my fair weather cumulous friends and I am left alone in my Garden of Eden.

Posted on

ON YOUR FARM – health food

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

What would you rather eat if you were laid up in hospital – a freshly cooked meal prepared from locally sourced produce or something knocked up in a factory and heated in a microwave? A no brainer isn’t it? The “real” food is tastier, nutritionally better and cheaper. So why are so many hospitals still serving ready meals that, according to experts, risk starving their patients? I’ll tell you why…because some NHS Trusts are seduced by the smooth talk of big business.

I’ve just presented a programme for BBC Radio Four on the Nottingham hospital trust that is refreshingly different. It’s supporting local farmers by sourcing all of its fresh food and drink from local producers. I talked to dairy farmer Robert Walker and followed his milk from cow to hospital ward, and along the way met butcher Richard Taylor, who supplies meat to the hospital. And at Nottingham City hospital I met the man behind the project, John Hughes.

You can listen here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006s571

Posted on

(MC)CHRYSTAL CLEAR – pouring trouble on oiled waters

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

General Stanley McChrystal may be a brilliant military strategist but he ain’t gonna win any media campaign medals. His sacking as the commander of US-led forces in Afghanistan by American President Barack Obama for telling a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine there were “wimps in the White House” demonstrates that the ill-chosen word is mightier than the sword.

Eating one meal, running seven miles and sleeping for only four hours every 24 has clearly softened the hard man’s mind. Why else would he forget one of the rules of engagement with enemy media forces: don’t say what you think unless you’re happy to be quoted on it and can live with the consequences?

Another man to shoot himself in the foot is BP boss Tony Hayward. Telling the media he “wanted his life back” was an insensitive choice of words so soon after the loss of nine lives in the rig explosion that led to the Gulf oil spill. A PR gaffe compounded by the suggestion (true but unpalatable) that, relatively speaking, the leak was a drop in the ocean. He’s guilty of pouring trouble on oiled waters.

Frankly they’re both paid enough to do better and, money aside, are surrounded by advisors who are either useless or unheeded. Let me make myself McChrystal clear: think before you speak; ask yourself what the television-viewing, radio-listening, newspaper-reading, web-surfing public will make of what you’re about to say; and if you’re still happy then go ahead punk make my day – pull the trigger and let those words come firing out.

Posted on 3 Comments

WORDS MATTER

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Words 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.

Posted on

Lock up your hens

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

Scary creatures stalk wood, field and heath.
Fox and badger with fearsome teeth.
Death and destruction wherever they pry.
Henhouse, sheepfold, pond and sty.

All is happening while the farmer’s asleep.
Rounding up flocks of imaginary sheep.

And by the time he awakens when the cockerel crows
And the sheepdog is nibbling his corny old toes.
The entrails and bloodshed have been cleaned by the crows.

And a chorus of birdsong replaces the screams.
And the terror of night is consigned to our dreams.

But next time you ponder the moon or a star.
The darkness they lighten is not very far.

So when blackbird sings sweetly from his eventide perch.
And the eastern sky purples with a sun setting lurch.
The song is a warning of dangers to come.
The notes may be gentle but the message is RUN

Posted on

WHAT MAKES NEWS?

Approx. reading time: 6 minutes

A well written news release can persuade the media to act as your de facto advertising agency and help you “sell” your “product.” The product can be something tangible that you want to market for strictly commercial reasons. Or it can be an intangible idea being marketed for social reasons. Trouble is, in both cases, most news release fail to get published or broadcast. And that means that an awful lot of creative juice is being spilled for nothing. So why do the majority fail? Most don’t work because they never quite overcome what I call the so what factor – that is they are of little or no interest to the newspaper-reading, radio-listening, television-viewing public or, in the case of specialist publications, of limited value to even the readers of the trade press. Some stumble because they are poorly written. Others trip up for seemingly arbitrary or trivial reasons like they were sent to the wrong person or on the wrong day.

This article was written as part of the course material for ACM Training’s writing press releases workshop. If you’d like to find out more about this workshop or the many others we offer in the fields of media, communication and organisational development then please click here.

To make sure that your news releases don’t fall at the first of these hurdles it’s worth exploring what makes news. And that means doing an almost forensic dissection of your target media – the media outlets you’re aiming to get your release into or on because that’s where your target audience are. Doesn’t matter if you’re pitching at mass circulation daily papers or magazines, your local papers or specialist trade publications. Read them from cover to cover. Get to know them inside outside out. The same applies if you’re targeting television or radio programmes except, of course, you’ll be watching or listening instead of reading. What sorts of stories do they cover? Draw up a list. It’s likely to be a fairly long one but I bet you people will be at the heart of most, if not all. That’s what we’re after – human interest stories (even if they’re about animals). 

Dog bites man, as the old saying goes, is not news. Happens all the time. Just ask your local postie. But man bites dog is news because it bucks the usual trend. So trend bucking is one news category. What are the others? Well, on the subject of trends you could add stories that conform to trends – those that serve to reinforce our world view. For example, most stories about global climate change fall into this category. I say most because those dissenting voices who say that climate change is natural rather than man made fall into the previous category. And before we leave trends behind there’s a news category dedicated to trend creation the most annoying of which are the stories in the style pages of Sunday supplements and glossy magazines which tell us gushingly that brown is the new black, or that the Boysenberry is going to the next must-have electronic gidget (that’s a cross between a gadget and a widget by the way and not a typo). Private Eye has a satirical column dedicated to these stories. It’s called the Neophiles. Despite this, it’s a rich vein worth tapping into if you possibly can and, who knows, you may get some additional, free publicity courtesy of the Eye if you pull it off.

Another vein you might exploit is nostalgia. Not news, of course, in the traditional sense because it’s the exact opposite – history. But local papers, especially, love stories about the way we were and publish old black and white photos by the column mile. If, for example, you’re a business trying to promote the opening of a new building, your local newspaper may ignore your news release because it’s deemed too commercial. But if you can find some old photographs of what was there before and engage a friendly local historian to say a few warm words then it may get picked up, even if only as a kind of before and after photo story. Better than nothing.

The Oxford Times recently carried a full page feature about a local company developing a jet engine which could cut the flight time from Britain to Australia to just a few hours. This is a classic example of the cutting edge category. It doesn’t have to be high tech engineering as in this case. It can be in medicine, construction, commerce…pretty much any field, including a grass one if it’s an agricultural story. 

The tabloids, in particular, are obsessed with the rich and (in)famous. So your news release might be able latch on to this. Charities especially, realise the importance of celebrity endorsement. They understand that if you keep the message the same but change the messenger it can make the difference between being ignored and being talked about. You don’t even need the celebrity’s permission to invoke their good name. For example, if you are trying to promote healthy packed lunches for school children and would like, but can’t afford, Jamie Oliver to launch your campaign, then I see nothing wrong with saying in the top line of your release: packed lunches in Anytown are getting a Jamie Oliver-style makeover. The celebrity doesn’t need to be a household name. If you can’t get anybody on the A-list don’t worry, there are another 25 letters in the alphabet. Okay, so Z-list celebs may not have universal appeal but even the Mayor or Mayoress of the smallest place ranks as something of a celeb in their local media. As a fellow Z -lister I know, having opened more than my fair share of summer fetes when I read the television news from Pebble Mill in the BBC’s Midlands region. The organisers of those events misguidedly assumed my mere presence would boost takings a thousand fold. It didn’t but what it did do was almost guarantee a pre-event announcement and/or a post-event snap in the local paper and, frequently, a mention on local radio too. Years later the transient nature of (very minor) celebrity was brought home to me in my local town, Ludlow. One of the area’s best loved but slightly eccentric characters came up to me in the street and said without a hint of irony: “You used to be that Richard Uridge on the telly didn’t you.”

The old saying there’s nothing new under the sun could be re-worked along the lines of there’s nothing new in the Sun. There’s very little genuine news around – that is, literally, something new or novel. So instead hundreds of acres of newsprint and thousands of hours of airtime are dedicated to stories that add to the debate on topical events or include expert opinion or speculation. The rolling news channels such as BBC News 24 and Sky News and stations like BBC Radio Five Live couldn’t function without these time-filling categories. They have an almost insatiable appetite for information to the extent that one of these days a broken toenail is going to get the breaking news treatment. Well maybe not quite, but if you’ve got an expert in your midst why not suggest them as a guest? Universities do. However, they and other organisations could do much more to help meet the demand.

You can even search religious texts like the Bible for clues as to what makes news. Papers are full of parables such as David and Goliath and the Good Samaritan. Here are some examples. Plucky pensioner (David) refuses to pay council tax to local authority (Goliath). “Metric martyr” grocer (David) takes on the crazy Brussels bureaucrats (Goliath) by refusing to sell his produce by kilogrammes. Defiant granny (Davina) bashes yob (Goliath) with handbag. Have-a-go hero (Good Samaritan) rescues kids from blazing house. Disgraced MP in expenses wrangle gets job as swineherd. Okay, I admit, I made up the last headline. Casting my mind back to Sunday School it’s the first part of the story of the Prodigal Son. That or wishful thinking. But you get my point. Can you reframe your story to give it a familiar feel?

Perhaps the single definition that underpins all of the others is impact on other people. Does your story impact on other people in any way? The bigger the impact and the greater the number of people affected the better. Step back from your story and try to look at it with objective eyes. Of course you are interested in it. But will enough other people feel the same way? The whole purpose of working out what makes news is that your news release must be newsworthy in someway. As we’ve seen, it’s a pretty broad definition that doesn’t have very much to do with news at all in many cases so there’s plenty of scope. But if you can’t picture your proposed story sitting comfortably within whatever programme or publication you are pitching it at, then you’ll probably be wasting your time writing it up. Save yourself the trouble. Concentrate on those news releases you feel have a better chance. Look at it this way – if your news release doesn’t tick at least one of the definition boxes then it may not work. Journalists are unlikely to risk breaking a tried and tested formula. We think we know what our audiences want and, rightly or wrongly, feed them this staple diet week in week out. To continue with the foodie metaphor for a moment, if you want us to change the menu then what you’re offering better be appetising because we don’t want our readers turning up their noses and going to another restaurant!

Got a category to suggest? Something that’s paid off for you and you’d like to share? Click here to email me and I’ll add it to the list.

Next time…structure and how the Pyramids of Egypt can help you write a successful news release.

Posted on

LAMENT FOR A LOST LANDSCAPE

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

There are no trees in Orchard Ride
Nor apples ripe at autumn tide
Save for those in cellophane
From Tesco, Waitrose or some such name.

No roots, no trunks nor grass between
No insects, bugs or things unseen
Just bricks and blocks and glass and cars
And halogen lamps that switch off stars.

Posted on 1 Comment

PODCASTING EQUIPMENT – what to buy

Approx. reading time: 7 minutes

The following is a guide to what you need equipment-wise to start podcasting. If it’s in CAPITALS it’s pretty much essential although if you’re on a really tight budget you can get away with just a computer and its built-in microphone plus some free software.

Most people already have a COMPUTER that’s good enough for making podcasts. Anything purchased within the last few years will do because it will almost certainly have a reasonably good soundcard pre-installed. And while each has pros and cons there’s not really that much to choose between Macs and PCs. A laptop gives you added flexibility. You can turn it into a mobile recording studio with the addition of an audio interface (see below) and, of course, you can take your work with you wherever you go and edit at home or on location late into the night with a glass of red wine (or whatever takes your fancy).

Of all of the AUDIO SOFTWARE available I’d plump for Audacity. It’s free and what’s more it’d still be a bargain if it cost £100. So Google it or click http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

You’ll also need a bit RSS SOFTWARE to help you write the really simple syndication files that let your subscribers know when there’s a new episode. I like FeedForAll which you can buy with complete confidence for under £30 by clicking on a logo below. This clever package also uploads your podcast audio and any associated images. The first logo is for PC users. If you want to try before you buy can download a trial version here (PC only).The second logo is for Mac users.

Buy FeedForAll

Buy FeedForAll Mac

There is syndication software available without this dual function but then you’ll need a separate bit of FTP SOFTWARE. I use a combination of the file transferring abilities built into Dreamweaver and a free piece of software called Cyber Duck which is designed specifically for Mac users. Find it at http://cyberduck.ch/

Strictly speaking you don’t need a RECORDER because you could use your computer to capture the audio directly into the Audacity software via your computer’s built in microphone (if it has one) or via a microphone plugged into the miniature jack socket on the side, back or front panel. But you’ll pretty soon end up needing a field recorder if you’re doing podcasts more ambitious than a single voice. The advantage is they’re cheaper than laptops so losing or breaking them in the field is less painful. And because they’re designed to do just one job (i.e. record sound) they tend to do it better than a multi-tasking computer. The best in my view is the Tascam DR-100 Portable Digital Recorder.

Tascam DR-100 digital audio recorder

This is one of the few reasonably-priced recorders that has what are called XLR inputs which enable you to directly plug in professional microphones. It costs £325 from Dolphin Music (a reliable firm that I hold no particular brief for but from experience has a great ethos and even greater customer service). Check it out at http://www.dolphinmusic.co.uk/product/61174-tascam-dr100mkii-handheld-recorder.html

The DR-100 MkII comes with a MEMORY CARD but it’s fairly small so you’ll probably want to get a bigger one. I’d go for an 8GB Sandisk SDHC memory card which will set you under £5 and can carry more than five days of audio recorded in mp3 format. You can get cards with up to 32GB of storage but why bother? On the longest of records I’ve never needed more than eight hours of storage and, in any case, when the disk reaches capacity you can transfer the audio to your computer to free up space. A short USB cable is included with the Tascam DR-100 for this purpose. Check out a range of memory cards here at Jigsaw 24 – another supplier of audio equipment that I’ve found is pretty reliable and competitively priced – http://www.jigsaw24.com/search/sandisk?ct=disabled&3991=SDHC PC World is also pretty good.

It’s worth investing in good quality MICROPHONES. Your choice is dictated by what and where you’ll be recording. A good quality, general purpose microphone is the Beyerdynamic M58. It’s called a reporter’s microphone because it’s the sort carried by radio and TV reporters and is good for short, news-style interviews and vox pops and, when coupled with a stand (see below), is okay for recording voice overs and longer interviews. You’ll also need what’s called a male-to-female XLR lead to connect the microphone to the XLR socket on the bottom of the recorder. Dolphin Music sell the M58 bundled with a 3m lead (long enough for most situations) at £132.06. See http://www.dolphinmusic.co.uk/product/4512-beyerdynamic-m-58.html

Holding a microphone still for any length of time is difficult and can give you cramp so a STAND is helpful. At £17.99 the Dolphin Music black microphone stand is good value. See it at http://www.dolphinmusic.co.uk/product/43815-dolphin-mic-boom-stand black.html

If you’re planning to do lots of interviews and want the interviewer’s voice to be recorded as well as the interviewee’s then you’ve got two options: either move one microphone deftly from one person to the other with a flick of the wrist; or get a second microphone. Two microphones are preferable because It’s easy to forget to point one in the right direction. For this reason a lapel or clip microphone (so called because they clip on to a tie or lapel) is worth adding to your podcasting kit, if not initially, then at some later stage.  Then the interviewer can use the reporter’s mic (see above) and the interviewee can wear the clip mic . And there’s an additional benefit – once it’s clipped in place and the sound level’s taken the clip mic shouldn’t need adjusting because the distance between mouth and microphone stays roughly the same.  At £148.80 the Audio Technica AT831B Omnidirectional Lavalier Condenser Microphone is a good quality, medium-priced example. You can find it at http://www.jigsaw24.com/product-details/g950ara/audio-technica-at831b-omnidirectional-lavalier-microphone-(xlr)

Both the Beyerdynamic and the Audio Technica are wired microphones – that is they need to be connected to the recorder with a wire. In most circumstances wired microphones are fine but wireless, or radio, mics are essential if you’re recording in any situation where a wire would get in the way or present a trip hazard. I’ve used them to record interviews with rock climbers whilst stationed safely at the bottom of the rock face! Radio mics always come in pairs – a transmitter attached to the interviewee and a receiver attached to the recorder. The Sennheiser ew 122P G3 Wireless System including ME4 Clip-on Microphone will set you back £364 exc VAT but is a nice bit of kit. Find it at http://www.jigsaw24.com/product-details/g982ara/sennheriser-ew-122p-g3-wireless-system-including-me4-clip-on-microphone

Sennheiser K6 System with ME 66 Shotgun head and Rycote Softie/Handle

If you’re feeling really indulgent or have a huge budget and are planning to record a lot of sound effects – especially outside – then what’s called a gun mic might be a worthwhile addition. The Sennheiser K6 System with ME 66 Shotgun head and Rycote Softie/Handle is excellent and comes complete with a wind guard (see below) but will set you back £379 plus the VAT. See it at http://www.jigsaw24.com/Default.aspx?IP=&ITEM=JIGSG178AHA

WIND GUARDS are fluffy coats or foam covers that fit over the business end of microphones to prevent, as the name suggests, wind ruining the recording. For what they are – a bit of foam or a dead cat – they’re expensive little blighters but well worth investing in if you’re going to be recording outside because even the lightest breeze can spoil a recording. So too can shaking hands (think nerves or cold) which can be cured by SHOCK MOUNTS. These, in essence, are like pistol grips that hold the microphone in a rubber band cradle to give your poor old microphone a rattle free ride.Have a browse at http://www.dolphinmusic.co.uk/category/recording/microphones/mic-accessories/wind-guards/ and at http://www.dolphinmusic.co.uk/category/recording/microphones/mic-accessories/shock-mounts/ Wind guards and shock mounts tend to be microphone specific so if you’ve got three mics you could well need three wind guards.

Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 80 ohm headphones

HEADPHONES are essential to check the quality of the recording as you go along. The best ones are those with padded earpieces that cut out, or rather muffle, the ambient or background sound and let you concentrate on what the microphone is actually “hearing.” Beyerdynamic is a good brand and the DT770 Pro 80 ohm costs £118.84 at http://www.dolphinmusic.co.uk/product/16774-beyerdynamic-dt-770-pro-80-ohm.html

I find a foam-filled FLIGHT CASE useful for keeping everything together and safe. I got mine from Machine Mart for under £30 http://www.machinemart.co.uk/shop/range/guid/F0EF10AF-B1F1-4BA8-94BB-03006FB10F0A A better option if you’re travelling a lot is a Lowe Pro soft kit bag. They come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes some that are worn like rucksacks and some over the shoulder. Whilst designed for still and video cameras they’re perfect for audio recording equipment too. Check out the range at http://www.lowepro.com/

M-AUDIO Fast Track Pro 4 X 4 Mobile USB Audio/Midi Interface with Preamps

The only other thing you might need and something I recently added to my kit is an AUDIO INTERFACE. This enables you to plug professional microphones into your computer – not a bad idea because the built in microphones are hopelessly tinny. Think of the interface as a middleman – the black box (some of them are pink!) plugs into a USB or Firewire port on your computer and the microphones plug into it. I got the M-AUDIO Fast Track Pro 4 X 4 Mobile USB Audio/Midi Interface with Preamps (sounds more like an car doesn’t it?) which set me back £125. But this bit of kit is no longer available new so instead I’d go for the Tascam US 200 which as far as I can see (without road testing it) does exactly the same job http://www.dolphinmusic.co.uk/product/57920-tascam-us-200-usb-audio-interface.html for £129.

If you’d like us to take away the hassle we can source all or any of the above at the most competitive prices and supply it to you under a single invoice with a day’s face-to-face set up and training. Please contact me for details via http://www.acmtraining.co.uk/contact.asp or post a comment below.

And remember we offer podcast training workshops to either mixed groups or in-house. Find out more at http://www.acmtraining.co.uk/podcasts.asp

Posted on

New Year’s Eve

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

The church clock strikes midnight. Each chime counting out the old year and ringing in the new. But it’s the sounds in between the bell that are our celebration.

One…The hoot of an owl borne aloft on white wings.

Two…The unoiled gate that squeaks as it swings.

Three….The bark of a collie disturbed from his rest.

Four…The plumping of plumage in the cold blackbird’s nest.

Five…The alarm of a fox-bothered moorhen or coot

Six..Ratty incisors gnawing wind-fallen fruit.

Seven…An insomniac crow awake in the ash.

Eight…A snow-laden fir branch that snaps with a crash.

Nine…The willow tree weeping, low boughs locked in ice.

Ten…The pattering feet of a dozen chuch mice.

Eleven…The whoosh of a rocket as nine becomes ten.

Twelve…My heart beating faster as I kiss you again.