A capital debate

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To capitalise or not? It’s an often frustrating argument on which we’re constantly asked to adjudicate. Accountants, engineers and – especially – lawyers like capitals. Readers don’t. In fact studies have shown that when the eye has to navigate up and down a line of text that contains too many capitals, it mars readability.

At best, too many capitalised nouns can give writing a ‘legal tome’ feel; at worst, they can make an otherwise worthy piece of text seem like an excerpt from a railway timetable.

Recently a client called us. “Help,” she said. “Remind me what I need to say to win the argument against having too many.”

So here goes . . .

Modern day usage favours minimilisation of capitals for a number of reasons, mostly to do with readability, consistency and clarity.

When organisations’ names are reduced to a generic element (group, company, bank, department, commission, division), the capitals are dispensed with. They’re only retained if the shortened version still carries the specific element. For example, the Attorney-General’s Department becomes Attorney-General’s but if you only use the department it becomes lower case.

If you find yourself fighting for the lower-case camp, it may be useful to remind your opponents of the history of the capital letter. They first came into use in English to mark the start of a chapter (those beautiful illuminated documents that monks spent years upon). Then they were used to start a sentence. Then, in the sixteenth century, someone suggested we use capitals to distinguish “important” nouns like names. The trend became so popular that over the next 100 years some writers began to capitalise every noun. But by the nineteenth century the capitalising mania had been dampened down, restricted to the start of sentences and proper nouns that name a unique person, place, publication, title, date or institution.

Here’s what the federal government style book says about capitals:

“Traditionally, a capital letter has often been attached to a proper name to signify respect for a particular position or organisation or to draw a distinction between two entities with the same generically abbreviated title. [eg Company, Bank etc] . . .  With the move to fewer capitals, this practice is rapidly declining. Apart from the apparent inconsistencies that such distinctions can create throughout a document, the practice also gives the impression of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude that is inappropriate in material produced for an external audience. Further the practice does little to aid clarity: if the context does not make the meaning clear, a capital alone will rarely do so.

The style book then gives examples of how to handle names of organisations:

In the full official names of organisations, all words other than articles, prepositions and conjunctions are given initial capitals: the Department of Finance and Administration.
When names of this kind are abbreviated to just the generic element for subsequent references,leave them uncapitalised:

the Department of Finance and Administration . . . the department

the Academy of the Humanities . . . the academy

the Royal Commission on the Constitution . . . the royal commission

the Regional Australia Summit . . . the summit

So there you have it. From the horse’s mouth, as it were. And hopefully enough powder to fight the good fight.

 

 

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Posted in Sustainability communications

Keep it simple – you’ll be in good company

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Why do so many people smother their prose in clouds of unnecessary words? Most would agree that writing simply is the best way to get their message across, but they find a sense of security in verbiage.

That’s why for many writers in business, being short on time translates into being long on text. It’s easier to fall into the comfortable ruts of stock phrases (please do not hesitate to contact me with any queries, concerns or considerations you may have . . .) than to think of snappier alternatives.

Supporters of the more-is-more school of thought argue that dense text suggests you’ve got your subject surrounded, literally. You mean business and you sound knowledgable. Some think if you pack it in and include strings of adjectives you improve your chances of hitting the mark at some point along the line.

You can make your written word as palatable as possible for readers by heeding the advice of great writers. Make a conscious effort to strip clutter.

Like most people, your readers are short of time. Keep them in mind at all times! They’re not waiting to be impressed by your seniority or erudition. They’ll be grateful if you tell them what they need to know clearly and quickly. As Churchill once said: “Short words are best.”

True, some people find it more difficult to be disciplined in their writing than others. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words ring true when he said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.”

And simplicity is just one aspect of good writing. Joseph Pulitzer expanded on the theme when he suggested we “put it to them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”

Or perhaps you should refer to Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers: 1. Find a subject you care about. 2. Do not ramble, though. 3. Keep it simple. 4. Have the guts to cut. 5. Sound like yourself. 6. Say what you mean to say. 7. Pity the readers.

Posted in Sustainability communications

How to communicate in a crisis

Our hearts go out to all those Queenslanders who have lost homes, lifetime mementos and, most tragically, loved ones.  As business owners our thoughts are also with the small to medium businesses whose livelihoods may well be affected for months to come.

But as always in times of tragedy and devastation there have been some beacons of light. Anna Bligh for one. Aspiring politicians – and most of those currently serving, including our Prime Minister, could learn some valuable lessons from the leadership she has demonstrated and the way in which she has communicated with the people of Queensland. It’s a text book study on how to communicate in a crisis.

In recent days – and on a more prosaic level, we’ve come across another excellent example of crisis communication – from a small technology company (20 employees) that provides web design and hosting services.

Here’s what they wrote:

Email subject: Service status in the Qld flood crisis

Dear Magicdust Clients,

Some of you are aware that our hosting servers are located in our datacentre in the Brisbane CBD and we want to give you all an update in light of the flood situation in Brisbane.

We wish to assure you that our datacentre is safe and secure. Not only is the datacentre on one of Brisbane CBD’s more geographically elevated areas, but is also a number of storeys up in the building. Our power infrastructure is also elevated and is located above the carpark, which remains dry.

Equipment is safe from the water, and we have no concerns of that changing.

Reports from Energex indicate a high chance of power grids running close to the river being brought down to remove risks associated with power and water. As the datacentre is not located in any zones specifically addressed so far, we do not believe there is a cause for alarm, however, we remain fixed on updates and ready for action.

In the event that our power grid is selected for shutdown, we will be taking steps beforehand to transfer power consumption of the facility to a diesel power generator. Our current diesel availability will allow the facility to continue operating for around 24 hours.

At this time we would appreciate that you only submit urgent email tickets to our support desk because we are currently experiencing an abnormally high volume of ticket enquires, and some delays may be expected. We appreciate your cooperation with this.

We would also like to apologise for the recent inability to login to the  eWeb content management system. Our delays with correcting the errors were due to technicians at our datacentre not being able to get to work because of the flood, and the data centre subsequently being understaffed. The errors, however, have now been fixed and you should be able to edit your website as normal.

We wish you the highest safety if you happen to be in one of the troubled flood zones.

Take care

Magicdust Support and Operations Team

This letter gets it right: it explains the problem, provides reassurance, explains why alternative solutions, if required, are the logical way forward,  shows empathy for those negatively affected and ends on a note of hope.

It also deserves high marks for structure, content and style – starting at the top with a clear email subject line.

Since we collect examples of good communication for the business writing courses we teach, one of our writers contacted Magicdust to find out the memo’s origins. She was impressed to hear it was an inside job – a collective effort by the data room team and others in the operations and support area.

They decided to write the letter after getting anxious calls from clients, many of them small businesses, worrying whether their websites were safe and concerned because they hadn’t received a reply online.

The message got a great response. Many clients emailed back thanking them.

As far as we’re concerned this is a great example of practice validating communications theory.  We also note the memo was from the support and operations team. Those who initiated it were on the front line and understood exactly what people needed to know.

Finally, its clarity and directness come from being created for clients, not shareholders and the media – those elements that often lead to corporate strangulation of announcements.

Well done Magicdust!

Posted in Sustainability communications

Five tips on speechwriting

The first speech I ever wrote was for a chairman of a bank. I’d written the letter to shareholders in his annual report and he asked me to prepare his speech for the annual general meeting. I accepted with alacrity. When the day of the AGM arrived, I snuck into the back of the hotel function room where it was being held and settled down to listen to him deliver my pearls of wisdom.

It was dreadful.

Why?

Being new to the game, I had broken one of the cardinal rules in speechwriting. I had written for the eye not the ear. The way the chairman wrote. Not the way he spoke. To add to my other sins, the speech was too complex, it had too many numbers and tongue twisters like particularly, peculiarly and familiarly.

Many years have passed since then and I’ve written more speeches than I can remember. I’ve trawled countless books, attended courses and conferences and have gleaned a host of tips and techniques.  Here are some of them:

Tip #1. Show don’t tell

Anyone ever see the eulogy Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian Prime Minister delivered at Ronald Reagan’s funeral? Here’s how he began:

In the spring of 1987 President Reagan and I were driven into a large hangar at the Ottawa Airport, to await the arrival of Mrs Reagan and my wife Mila, prior to departure ceremonies for their return to Washington. We were alone except for the security details.

President Reagan’s visit had been important, demanding and successful. Our discussions reflected the international agenda of the times:  The nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union and the missile deployment by NATO, pressures in the Warsaw Pact, challenges resulting from the Berlin Wall and the ongoing separation of Germany and bilateral and hemispheric free trade.

President Reagan had spoken to Parliament, handled complex files with skill and humour – strongly impressing his Canadian hosts – and here we were, waiting for our wives. When their car drove in a moment later, out stepped Nancy and Mila – looking like a million bucks. As they headed towards us, President Reagan  threw his arm around my shoulder and said with a grin, “You know, Brian, for two Irishmen, we sure married up.”

Mulroney is employing one of the oldest tricks in the books – and he’s doing it brilliantly. The British poet T. S. Eliot once said that the key to successful communication is “show, don’t tell.”

This is especially true in speech-making and this is exactly what Mulroney is doing. Instead of telling us about Reagan’s character, he’s using this anecdote to show the aspects of the man he wants the world to remember: his humour, his warmth, his love for his wife Nancy and – despite the many criticisms to the contrary – his grasp of world affairs.

Great speakers always illustrate their key messages with examples or anecdotes. They don’t tell the audience about a character or an idea and expect them to take their word for it. They show what they mean and in this way supply the evidence to back up what they’re saying.

Tip No#2: Timing is critical

Great speakers also know that timing is critical to success. That anything over 20 minutes runs the risk of diminishing returns. This is the most overlooked advice in speech-making. Ever since Romans stood in the sun to hear Caesar and his senators drone on through the day, ordinary people have had to suffer speech bores. The 9th US President was William Henry Harrison. He’s remembered for two things. The longest inaugural speech in US history. And the shortest time in office. The two are related. He delivered his staggering one hour and 45 minute speech in a snowstorm with his jacket off. The cold he caught turned into pneumonia and he died one month later.

Death is perhaps too severe a punishment for long-windedness, but it’s worth noting that some of the greatest speeches in history have lasted a few minutes. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was four minutes long and Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was five. There are reasons that these great orations have stood the test of time, and brevity is one of them.

So once you’ve written or prepared your speech, go over it again and again – at least three times – to see what you can cut out of it without losing the sense or meaning of what you want to say.

Tip No#3: Do your research

Financial presentations are among the hardest to keep interesting. Here’s a  great example of a speechwriter rising to the challenge:

By coincidence I’m speaking to you today on the anniversary of perhaps the most famous report to investors of all time. It was on this day in 1493 that Columbus had to report back to the King and Queen of Spain and explain how he’d spent their money. The text of Columbus’ report still does exist and a translation of a portion of that text reads: The reports of monsters are greatly exaggerated. And the basic message I have to bring you regarding our performance last year is that reports of monsters are greatly exaggerated.

The writer had consulted a book called Chase’s Annual Events to see what historical events occurred on the day of the speech. As well as historical incidents, Chase’s also lists famous people born each day of the year. It’s a great technique to use – for speeches on any topic.

But you don’t need always need to go to international publications. I once wrote a speech for a black-tie dinner to celebrate Arnott’s 130 years in business (an iconic biscuit maker, no longer Australian owned). To research the speech,  I went through the company’s publications and found this little gem:

One day Harold Arnott was mowing the grass around his imposing house at Homebush. The weather was warm and Harold wore old pants and a singlet. One of his arms was paralysed – the result of a sporting injury – and he held the arm across his body as he manhandled the mower around with his good hand. As he worked, a passerby stopped to watch him. Eventually the chap called him over to the fence. “So who owns this big flash place?” “One of the Arnotts, the biscuit people,” said Harold, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I thought as much,” said the chap. “It’s no wonder they’ve got so much money, having a poor, crippled old bastard like you mowing their lawn.”

Tip No#4: Become a master of verbal variety

Of the current crop of world politicians, Barack Obama would have to be among the most accomplished of speakers. Like all great speakers, he is the master of verbal variety. His language is clear and concise. He uses short words and sentences. He paints word pictures and poses questions. Instead of saying there are three reasons, he’ll say: “Why do we do this? There are three reasons.” He adds texture to his speeches by varying his pace, volume and vocal tone.

And he truly understands the power of the pause.

Tip No #5 Work on your ending

Like a good novel, a great story or moving piece of music, if you finish on a rousing and uplifting note, you will reinforce your speech’s messages and you’ll leave your audience with a strong impression they’ve heard something worthwhile. Your conclusion or a call to arms doesn’t need to be complex. It can be short and very simple.

A useful rule of thumb is to have three points, three being a number that many orators and educators recognise as having most impact.

Posted in Sustainability communications

Starting the conversation

Six years ago I attended a remarkable event in Washington – a gathering of 200 speechwriters from America’s corporate, political, academic and military establishments (and a handful of us from further afield).

In Australia most speechwriters toil away isolated and unrecognised in corporate affairs and PR departments. Only a few political exponents of the craft gain a profile. (Think Don Watson, Graham Freudenberg and Bob Ellis.)

In the US it’s different. There speechwriting is afforded the same status . . . well, nearly the same . . . as fiction or play-writing. That’s why the conference I attended attracted a stellar line up.

There was pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly’s senior writer Rob Friedman who urged us to find our material – anecdotes, analogies, images, figures of speech – from weekly news magazines. They’re fresh, bright and current, he said, and quoted as an example a description of North Korea clinging ‘to its isolation like a drunk to a lamppost, a pathetic but determined gesture by a man who’s told the world to go to hell.’ Get the picture?

There was Bill Lane, chief speechwriter for former GE legend Jack Welch, who made it clear that great communicators don’t become that way by chance. Lane recalled working on one CEO letter with Welch that went to 100 drafts. On another occasion Welch spent eight hours working on an eight-minute speech. Why? Because he was outraged by speakers – including his own management team – who disrespected their audiences by being dull. Hear! Hear!

John Kador, author of 50 High-Impact Speeches & Remarks: Proven Words You Can Adapt for AnyOccasion, used Bill Clinton’s apology to the nation on the Monica Lewinsky matter to frame his address on what not to do when crafting an effective speech of apology (more of that in another blog).

And ConocoPhillips speechwriter Hal Gordon who once worked for General Colin Powell cited examples of how poetry can help speakers rise to demanding occasions. Poetry, he said, added beauty to speeches. Adding beauty to public discourse was half the job of a speechwriter. The other half was to add meaning.

As stimulating as the proceedings inside the conference rooms – at the historic Mayflower Renaissance which Harry Truman once labelled Washington DC’s ‘second best address’ – were the events outside. One in particular I recall: an exhibition at the Library of Congress which displayed the original manuscripts of Winston Churchill’s famous speeches and proved just why they were so great. Churchill was his own harshest editor.

I returned back to the office with my head spinning. What to do with all the ideas? One thing was certain. I wanted to share with my corporate colleagues and clients that writing in the business world need not – should not – be dull.

After months of work and discussions with my fellow writers at our publishing company Businesswriters & Design, we came up with a course: Better Business Writing and a journal The Business Writer. Subtitled rather grandly, A forum for views on writing and communication, the journal started life as a paying proposition, but these days is sent free to anyone who visits our website (www.businesswriters.com.au) and subscribes. Seldom a day goes by without a new subscriber.

But the problem with a journal – even one that tries to be a forum – is that it’s a one-way street. Us talking to you rather than with you.

So this blog hopes to do what I wanted to do all those years back. Start a conversation about language’s beauty, power and potential – even, and especially, in the world of business. And how to make it work with great design.

Can’t wait to hear your views.

Posted in Sustainability communications

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