Friday 19 August 2011

I wonder what?

Why do we not all realise that questions are probably the most important tools in the communications toolbox? They can be catalysts for highly productive change, they open doors, they make people think harder and better, they set the direction of travel, they engage others and enable contribution, they spark creativity and propel reform, they can impress, they achieve clarity and understanding, they help us marshal our thoughts and make plans, they…

Actually, I must go further than this. Questions are life-changing. If we don’t ask questions about what we are doing, how we are feeling, why we are feeling this and what the hell’s going on our there, we are likely to remain with the foot soldiers and never put our heads above the parapet, or never even consider that there are other ways out of this beleaguered place. In fact, without questions people may not even realise when they are in a beleaguered place – that there is better, there is more, that they have talent, that they do play a part, that they are special too.

Questions are the fundamental motors behind major scientific, technical and political change. “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask, for once I know the proper questions I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” What would we do without the Internet? If we bother to look we can trust Albert Einstein to come up with a thigh-slapping quote.

Thank you Albert, that’ll do for life-saving science but what about politics? Surely, the first Arab Spring question for a great many people in Tunisia and Egypt was “Why are we all putting up with this tyranny?” Then others must have asked themselves “if they can do it why can’t we?” And look what happened in the space of a few weeks. Alongside those questions sprung others such as “is freedom worth dying for?” and “shall I take part?” These are profound, activating and empowering questions that have moved nations and continue right now to do so – questions that spike the adrenalin and make our hearts beat.

My job as a communicator, trying to help businesses sort out the things they want to say to their various audiences, involves a lot of questions. They start with ‘why’ questions and they move on to a few ‘who’ questions and they do some pretty hard fact-finding – seeking out the detail, background, agenda, nuances – with a nice helping of ‘what’ questions. Notice that these are all ‘open questions’, the ones that start with interrogatives – why, what, who, how, where, which, when. They are the best questions generally because they promote fuller and more thoughtful answers. Closed questions, which mostly start with a verb – do, is, are, will, may, can, does and so on – tend to be used to extract specific information. “Do you like red cars?” Or they bring a negotiation or meeting nicely to a close, “Do we all agree?”

What I didn’t realise until quite recently is that we can, and almost certainly should, learn how to use questions better, that we should try to ask more questions, that there are lots of different types of question that if properly understood will strengthen our armoury in debate, discussion, general communication and just about every aspect of business activity. Added to this, there are good ways and bad ways of asking questions and we fall prey to the bad ways time and time again. But if we raise our knowledge and awareness levels a little we can transform the effect that we have individually by practising the better use of questions. This will help us to contribute more to the achievement of business targets and visions – and assist our personal relationships too. And it’s all right in front of us, if only we knew.

My enthusiasm for this subject has been sparked by a client of mine coming to me to ask if I would ghost-write a book for him. What about? I asked. About the power and importance of questions, he replied. Hmmmm, I considered. Tell me more…and he did.

My client is a business consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience. He is invited by businesses to help in a great many consulting roles. He and his company assist with difficult negotiations, train people in this skill and also in customer service, leadership, selling techniques and much besides. Over the years he has observed and learned a lot about questions and clever questioning techniques. As he realised the power and the variety of questions, he started to examine and isolate the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of questions themselves. When and why to use them to achieve greatest effect? Who will benefit from what kind of question and how? He became fascinated. Models on good questioning technique form an important part of his company’s training courses.

So my client thought a book on the subject was well overdue and 40,000 words later I cannot help but agree. There is a lot to say about questions, and much to learn.

As I write this I am taking a temporary break from editing the near-final draft of this book (so I’d be a bit previous to say to any reader that you can buy this book here or there; in a few weeks, I may give details but I am obliged to be tactful until my client and the publisher wish to get promoting). But even as I was editing, just earlier, I realised that editing – something I’ve been doing for years – is a constant process of asking important questions about structure, intonation, rhythm, tenses, voice and so on. I wanted to share my sense of wonder at this simple revelation. It was a bit like noticing a door for the first time in a place that I visited frequently and wondering what lay behind.

What do you think lies behind the door?

Monday 9 May 2011

Writing for business – How to do it better

Many things stop us from writing well. The pace of business life is such that few people can afford the time to prepare a well-structured business letter or report – telephones ring, meetings loom, deadlines approach, expectations gather like vultures, in-trays fill, clients demand. And the one person you need most of all to check your copy has just gone on holiday. Emails flurry about, texts beep at you. Too much information, too little read, too many people hiding behind their own closed doors trying to shut out the noise. The act of writing a report, letter, speech – which should be continuous and achieved in one’s own reasonably free space – is interrupted. And because of so many interruptions it is often the case that the conviction, tone, flow, logic and argument are lost.

It is small wonder that, with so many conflicting pressures, the language used in business writing is generally poor and confusing. It’s like munching cardboard. Just one quick example of the language problem: pomposity. The writer has been asked to reply to a letter from a client whose trade is important to the company. What can often happen at this point is that the writer starts to puff and blow. He has always been quite ready with words, good at getting his ideas across in management meetings. Now he has to write something important and potentially valuable. He develops pomp and circumstance in his expression; he prefers the long word to the short; French derivatives to the Anglo-Saxon. He will start delivering deliverables, offering value-creating propositions (usually without the hyphen), and monetizing potential forecasts. Compound nouns formed of business-speke start to stretch out like weak elastic; the risk of grammatical error increases and where on earth do you put the comma?

Or he might fall into the comfortable habits and conventional wisdoms of his profession. If he is a solicitor turning out documents by rote, it is likely that each unending sentence will be riddled through with strings of provisos and qualifications which so often hide or confuse meaning. They also reduce accountability.

The reason for this poverty of expression is, in some ways, the result of a desire to close doors of communication rather than to open them. A good deal of external business communication is defensive. Companies seldom genuinely explain what they do and how their business model really works – for good reason. They explain how they have met and exceeded targets, what their profits are, how they are performing. They will always try to offer their better profile. In this way, they are like all of us. But by doing the same thing in the same way, over and over again, and by marketing themselves through cliché, their brand or message can lose its impact.

A short aside here. We live in a volatile world where all trade has become enmeshed and interdependent, where banks have failed, where people’s savings have eroded and where share prices escape the forecasters. The net result is confusion about ‘strategy’, ignorance about ‘tactics’, and sometimes hopeless inadequacy when it comes to ‘operations’ – from the bottom line to the board room. And because the public sector has for some twenty years been run on increasingly corporate lines, aping business structures and principles, government too is finding it very difficult to explain itself. This has led to a lack of trust and a thoroughly disengaged electorate. Cynicism pervades all sectors. Poor, ineffective or self-defensive communications tend to smother any spark of creativity. It is easiest to go to the cliché box and get home to the kids as soon as you can.

This is very general and perhaps too gloomy. The important thing to note is that we can all communicate better and it is well worth attempting. There are a few techniques which will help you marshal your thoughts when you sit down to communicate something you consider to be important. Not only this, you can learn to enjoy writing for and about your company or organisation and in so doing you can develop your own talent and creativity.

First, let’s narrow the focus a little.

The purpose of a business letter or report is to communicate facts, an idea, an opinion or a recommendation. The readers of reports are usually decision-makers. They too are busy men and women. When they are reading your reports, they too have telephone calls, interruptions and a mounting in-tray. If the communication is not clear – immediately and transparently clear – it will be put to one side for that free time that never comes. Or binned.

It is easy to write turgid prose. It is easier, for example, to write a leader for The Times than it is to condense the main elements of a story into 100 words for consumption by a reader of a red top paper – say, The Mirror.  The leader of The Times is, incidentally, normally written very clearly and well – the style affords greater sentence length and complexity of expression. But to produce The Mirror piece, the writer concerned must understand what the The Times leader writer also understands. He or she must then express this knowledge in the most accessible terms.

One of the problems which we have to overcome is the way we were taught to write at school – or the way that our bosses were taught at school, which means that they will have a sharp eye for what they consider to be mistakes. Well into the 1990s, some teachers – but fewer by then –  sought style, grammatical perfection and climax in our essays. Some of them confused expansive language with style – and some of the subjects they gave us to write about were an excuse for waffle.

Frankly, we have to forget about all that. Business letters and reports are business tools. They must communicate in precise and easily understood terms. They have to be designed to save time.

Seven golden rules

There are seven ‘golden’ rules that will help you to write more simply and clearly:

Rule 1:             Use familiar words - favour Anglo Saxon rather than other derivatives, such as French. e.g., ‘send’ rather than ‘transmit’, ‘carry out’ rather than ‘implement’ (or at least as an alternative to ‘implement’, which is one of those words that crop up in reports time and time again).

Rule 2:             Avoid words of three or more syllables as far as possible unless they are in common usage. They tire the reader.

Rule 3:             Avoid clichés - they are often too loose as expressions and can be misunderstood.

Rule 4:             Avoid professional jargon - your reader may not be an expert in your field. If you need to use a professional word which is standard for you but may be obscure for others, explain it.

Rule 5:             Keep your average sentence length to between 15 and 20 words. This does not mean that every sentence must be 15 to 20 words long – that would be boring. People need variety and short sentences can provide real impact when required. If the average is substantially higher than 20 words, the readability of the document drops alarmingly.

Rule 6:             Sentences should contain one thought or idea. Paragraphs should contain sentences about related thoughts or ideas. Start a new paragraph with a new idea or concept, or one that leads on from the last idea. Sometimes long paragraphs are inevitable because of the density of closely related ideas. But try to keep paragraphs short, with an average of four or five sentences.

Rule 7:             Be consistent. There are many different house styles – look at spelling styles: organise or organize, focus or focuss, benefiting or benefitting; be careful when presenting numbers: three and 13, or 3 and 13?; make sure you use headings and sub-headings consistently. Inconsistency throws the reader and can make a text hard to understand.

 If you are in need of creative copy writing contact Words Professional Writing Services today.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Giles Emerson - Professional Writer for Government and Business

Giles Emerson, established Words Professional Writing Services in June 1990. Previously a writer for the Central Office of Information and for Extel, a leading PR company in London, he is a well-established professional writer working at the corporate frontline in the UK for private and public sector clients. He researches and provides internet content for websites and all kinds of print media, prepares articles for national or trade press, scripts for films and presentations, speeches for business and organisation leaders. He also offers advertising copy. He writes occasionally in his own name for leading national papers, often on the subject of effective writing; also books (see below).

Government: Giles has substantial experience of researching, writing and producing information on behalf of central government departments and agencies. The work might include editing and project managing White Papers, Command Papers, inquiry reports, annual reports, business plans and other high profile documents. Often it involves translating complex or technical ideas into accessible language for specific audiences and for the general public. Giles is a contractually approved supplier of writing and editorial services for most major government departments and agencies.

Commercial: Major recent clients have included Shell and Shell Global Solutions International, Brady Corporation, Alamo Europe (UK) Ltd, and Visa Europe. Recent commissions have involved speech-writing, presentations, case studies, award submissions, technical and commercial web copy, in-house and external newsletters, annual and other company reports and direct mail. This breadth of experience gives Giles rare insight into the communication needs and challenges of international businesses. They include finance and investment, manufacturing, dot-com, technology, mobile and telecom, petrochemical and renewables, retail, distribution and property. He also has commercial clients in the USA. This diverse workload is unified by a drive to communicate important information and business strategy clearly, to persuade consumers, shareholders and businesses and to sell ideas, products and services.

Communications training: Under the ‘Words for Business’ brand, Giles offers training in effective writing to small groups of staff. The day-long courses are tuned to client requirements, however specific.

Author/ghost-writer: Primarily a ghost-writer for his clients, and via publishers, Giles has also written non-fiction books in his own name, including: Sin City: London in pursuit of pleasure, (London, Carlton Books, October 2002) and Sainsbury’s: The Record Years 1950 – 1992 (London, Haggeston Press, January 2006).