From columnists and editors to special correspondents and hacks, all of us often go by the simple moniker ‘wordsmiths’ – in itself an interesting portmanteau word that clearly salutes the power words have in the hands of the media.
Words – the lifeblood of politicians and lobbyists – and your business
Political parties and their commentators have always used the power of words – ‘cuts’ versus ‘investment’, ‘inheritance tax’ for the rich, ‘death tax’ hurts us all. Now with COVID comes ‘flatten the curve’, ‘new normal’, ‘super-spreader’, ‘shielding’ and ‘bubbles’. The list goes on.
Time will tell whether ‘lockdown’ and ‘herd immunity’ have good or bad connotations, or whether indeed ‘following the science’ will ever recover now it has been put under a global spotlight on the world stage and we have all seen how fallible science is.
But all these words do more than provide scrabble fodder. They shape our perceptions – about life, about governments, about business.
Words in PR
As a refresher course on effective copywriting for business I recommend a valuable little marketing book by Frank Luntz on ‘Words that Work’. When it comes to PR, the way we use the words also sends signals that shape reader perceptions of our organizations. Here are some quick tips on use of words in your PR output.
Headings speak louder than words
Some words are important, some aren’t. The press release heading, remember, is your two-second opportunity to get a journalist interested – read or trash. The first paragraph needs to tell what’s driving the whole news story in two sentences. A third in exceptional circumstances.
Often clients spend too long on words that no-one other than themselves will ever read – witness the importance some put on paragraph 6 in a press release that a journalist might never get to, while packing their headline with a dog and pony show of themselves by trying to crowbar every idea and buzzword into a three-stack heading.
I recently listened to a journalist from The Economist describing a press release he had received from a company and yet still he had no idea what they did. They described themselves in the first sentence as: the world’s leading full life-cycle data acquisition and retention company for the enterprise globally. Rule of thumb: the longer the introductory one-liner, the more brand trust you lose. The company had lost sight of their brand by trying to differentiate themselves.
Boilerplates – have you just told the world how small you really are?
Here’s another rule of thumb. The longer the boilerplate, the smaller the company. You’re in a competitive market for trust, not for a solution sale. So the boilerplate spells out what you sell, and your success by growth and/or customer spread. Again, three sentences max.
If you have to add a second par into the boilerplate, you’ve just massively downgraded your size in the eyes of your readers. And if you ever feel the need to use a semi-colon, your business skills are definitely doomed. Write a book.
Titles say more than you think
And now we have another rule of thumb to add to the list. The longer or less authoritative sounding the job title, the less important the person – think President, Prime Minister, the Queen which brings us to that all important three letter acronym, the CEO. As a magazine editor I remember meeting a Microsoft executive who explained that he was now vice president, new business markets Northern Europe. I read it that he had no remit, no power and probably soon no job! So I wasn’t surprised when he moved on.
…and now the position of Chief TikTok Officer has been filled!
Rachel Ranosa has more to say in her article on how traditional roles are changing. I quote: “in HR we now have Chief People Officer or its close cousins, Chief Happiness Officer or Chief Experience Officer. Meanwhile, some roles speak of the future of work. For example, Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer”. Officers become Evangelists, others take personal brandings such as “ninja,” “maverick,” “magician,” “guru” or even adding the dreaded “-ologist” suffix.
The question with job titles is what they convey – authority and responsibility or just pigeonhole your company as a ‘type’? Think about it.
Every sea change in the world brings a new vernacular – portmanteau words such as chillax and permaculture have entered our lexicon, driven by increased awareness of stress and sustainability. They can be used to lobby feelings – when the gambling lobby sought to create a more positive public image, it changed from ‘gambling’ to ‘gaming’ – when a group of influential scientists threw doubt on ‘global warming’, the lobby conceded and ‘global warming’ became ‘climate change’.
But some things never change, and as my final parting shot, here are some well-worn words that really get up journalist noses. I mean really, is your client truly ‘pleased/excited/proud/thrilled/honored/delighted/happy to announce’ anything? 😊
Judith Ingleton-Beer is CEO at IBA International.