As I write in The Public Relations Practitioner’s Playbook for (all) Strategic Communicators our best communicators write and speak to be understood — to express, not to impress. Former presidents Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt adhered (whether subliminally or intentionally) to the adage: “simple-relevant-repetitious.”
Two quotes, which have lived on for more than half a century are Roosevelt’s “Today is a day that will live in infamy,” responding to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” from his inaugural address.
Becoming a good writer takes practice. Becoming an excellent writer takes experience. Earning the reputation of being an excellent strategic (and persuasive) writer takes both. Writing is effective only when the transmitted message evokes the intended response from the receiver, which is a partial definition of clarity. Strategic communicators strengthen their position by becoming their organization’s writing resource — helping colleagues understand the value of writing copy that gets read and achieves its objectives — changing, maintaining or reinforcing behavior. That is why we get paid.
While some might argue that strategic writers must embellish to persuade, look no further than the daily newspaper (traditional or online) to prove them wrong. A goal should be making molehills from mountains rather than mountains out of molehills.
Strategic writers are not creative writers. Strategic writers are not novelists. That doesn’t preclude using dynamic, action verbs — words — that (in editors’ terms) make a story move. Avoid using so-called “weasel” words.
Strategic writers must be persuasive in crafting and delivering an organization’s key message points (KMPs). Excellent writers are adept at preparing news releases, media advisories, fact sheets, backgrounders, op-eds, pitch letters, position papers, etc.
NFL Films founder Ed Sabol and CBS 60 Minutes founding producer Don Hewitt built their success on four words:
“Tell me a story.”
Here are some rules followed by the best writers — journalists and strategic writers — compliments of the “Writers Digest School”:
- Prefer the plain word to the fancy.
- Prefer the familiar word to the unfamiliar.
- Prefer nouns and verbs to adjectives and adverbs.
- Prefer picture nouns and action verbs.
- Never use a long word when a short one will do as well.
- Master the simple declarative sentence.
- Prefer the simple sentence to the complicated.
- Vary your sentence length.
- Put the words you want to emphasize at the beginning or end of your sentence.
- Use the active voice.
- Put statements in a positive form.
- Use short paragraphs.
- Cut needless words, sentences and paragraphs. (Better writing through self-editing.)
- Use plain, conversational language. Write like you talk.
- Avoid imitation. Write in your natural style.
- Write clearly.
- Avoid jargon.
- Write to be understood — not to impress.
- Include The Associated Press Broadcast Stylebook in your “toolbox.”
- Revise and rewrite — edit, edit, edit.
- Re-check for spelling, grammar, sentence structure, syntax and punctuation.
If public relations and strategic communicators follow Sabol and Hewitt’s credo and the above rules, their goals will be achieved and professional success will follow.
M. Larry Litwin, APR, Fellow PRSA teaches at The College of New Jersey after retiring as associate professor from Rowan (N.J.) University where he spent 42 years. He’s also an award-winning broadcast journalist who has authored eight books including The PR Practitioner’s Playbook, The ABCs and More ABCs of Strategic Communication (visit www.larrylitwin.com).