Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Science Translation Tips from Prof-Turned-Filmmaker: Motivate Then Educate, Concision Not Dumbing Down ...

Book Review: Helping Scientists & Engineers Talk

A just-published book by a professor-turned-filmmaker raises a question that tech PR people have long asked: How can we help science and technology guys (& gals) communicate with the mainstream public?

I offer a zillion tips and tools for this in my writing workshops, but that's not what this post is about. Instead, let's look at the biggest problem of all.


Even when a scientist or engineer decides he wants to speak effectively with outsiders, peer pressure works against him. His resolve can't last.

Randy Olson's book, "Don't Be Such a Scientist," is written from the perspective of a scientist. And that's what makes it valuable. A Harvard-trained biologist with an MFA from USC's School of Cinema, Olson deals with the scientist's psychological fears about compromising accuracy, for example, and speaks the language of scientists while offering alternative structures for packaging info.

Tough, cheeky & confrontational

At the same time, Olson isn't forgiving or hand-holding. Four of five chapter titles are criticisms (e.g. "Don't Be So Unlikeable").

His tone is almost a free-association account of his personal experiences in both worlds, a stylistic choice that gives him plenty of leeway for being flippant. On balance, he's throwing down his glove and challenging scientists to a duel.

His conversational tone and cheeky attitude are also what makes this a good read for tech PR people. You won't feel like you're in school.

Some of his tips are useful sound bites. For example, "motivate, then educate" and "concision, not dumbing down." I like these because they eliminate negative connotations that in my opinion are unfounded.

As a science reporter myself for three years, I've interviewed plenty of great scientists who were also great communicators. There's no reason to believe there's a trade-off. Scientists can be both, and the world will be all the better for it.

Will scientists read it?

But getting back to that question of willingness: Most scientists aren't there, and probably won't pick up this book in the first place. So it behooves all of us in tech PR to read it for them. We'll gain better understanding of their psychological obstacles and of the core values that they worry are being laid on the chopping block. We can learn how to make them feel safe while taking necessary risks.

Incidentally, two other books I can recommend are:

"Richard Feynman: A Life in Science" by John & Mary Gribbon (Dutton, 1997) -- Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist who could tell a good story. One caveat, though, is a big one -- he fudged the truth and the authors go too easy on him for that. Still, the bigger takeaway is important: He was influential because he could talk.

"Field Guide for Science Writers" by Deborah Blum & Mary Knudson (Oxford University Press, 1997) -- Super valuable collection of lessons that the best newspaper reporters on science beats have learned at the school of hard knocks. Very practical advice. Very applicable to PR writing. In fact, I've just now decided to re-read it myself. It's that good.

You might also search archives for news stories by Keay Davidson, my all-time favorite news reporter on a science beat. He wrote for the San Francisco Examiner when it was awesome (no more) and more recently for the San Francisco Chronicle. He has published six books. I haven't read them, but they must be good. He exemplifies science storytelling at its best.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Editors, build a powerful writer through self-restraint; don't track changes

Here’s another way to help a new writer grow without resorting to tracked changes. Try highlights.

On Oct. 8, I riffed about bad editors being bad for business. For the purposes of this blog, “bad editors” means “people who re-write the work of others.” Let me say it again: Re-writing is not editing.

Today, I’ll show you an example of a new employee’s work and what I said to influence her second draft. I didn’t touch a hair on her document’s head. She wrote every word of both versions herself.

From: Edwards, Lauren

Sent: Thursday, [Month XX], 2009 11:54 AM

To: [Name Removed – I’ll call her Sarah]

Subject: suggestions here FW: Draft Pitch on Acme SmartTech

Hi again, Sarah. If you have time before we meet, try restructuring this slightly so that the yellow is the first line of the pitch and the green comes soon after that, and then the blue. (See below.)

Also consider writing as if to a blogger. Did you take the class on writing for social media? Write to a person, not so much “about” something.

Talk to you later.


The "after" version is concise, newsy & to the point

Here’s the first line of her original:

For years, families with autistic children lived with frustration, despair, and little chance of any substantial treatment.

Here’s the first line of her second (and much improved) draft:

Non-verbal autistic children no longer have to suffer in silence.

I like Draft 2 better because it’s shorter, shows a break in the normal flow of events (“news”), and gets right to the point without wasting words on setting up what she’ll say before she says it.

Here’s her second sentence:

Original: New technology from Acme is offering hope for these families and empowering autistic kids to communicate in ways once never thought possible.

You don’t care, right? I mean, you’d like to think you are a caring person and all, but really …do you care while reading that sentence? Her writing mechanics are fine, but this is not compelling.

Here’s her second draft’s second sentence: For the first time, they can tell their teachers, “My head hurts,” or communicate that they are hungry or tired, thanks to technology from Acme being used at the Ryde Technology School in San Francisco.

I’d include video links to the broadcast hits that resulted from this pitch, but in this blog I’m deliberately masking identities to preserve confidentiality. In these excerpts, I’ve changed the names of the city, school, client, technology and writer. I’ve also left out the exact date.

Aside: [I can't resist, however, sharing one line of a particular broadcast story about an autistic teen who had never been able to speak until he began using this new technology. He said, "I'm funny, but nobody knows it." He gave a wry smile. My heart broke open and I said, "Awww."

Can you imagine these kids going through life fluent and with things to say but unable to say them!! This is why I love my job. Our clients really do make the world a better place.]

"Sarah" is now powerful, successful & motivated

From my perspective as writing coach, the best outcome is not the hits. It’s that “Sarah” is now powerful. She’s stoked, successful and knows how to do better from the start next time. She feels ownership, pride and hope -- all of which are energizing and motivating.

If her work had been re-written, or if she’d been told to “make it more compelling” or some such vague advice, she’d be some combination of confused and demoralized, whether she fully realized it or not.

If you want to see the yellow, green and blue highlights referenced in my e-mail, here they are. You’ll see that she grasps the point of my highlights, but provides her own words, pacing and content decisions for the re-write.

Original w/ highlights (but not tracked changes!):

For years, families with autistic children lived with frustration, despair, and little chance of any substantial treatment. New technology from Acme is offering hope for these families and empowering autistic kids to communicate in ways once never thought possible.

The Ryde Technology School in San Francisco is now using the Acme SmartTech device with voice recording technology to make progress in teaching non-verbal autistic children to speak. By using the SmartTech, students who have never verbalized their thoughts are finally given a voice. For the first time, they can tell their parents “I love you” or communicate to their teachers that they are hungry or tired.

This is a testament to the amazing potential of technology to help people overcome special needs and improve lives. For years, Acme has been committed to developing products and services that are accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities and age-related impairments. …

It goes on, but that’s enough to show you what I mean about using highlights. Amazing what a great substitute they can be for tracked changes.

It’s also worth noting that her first version was an overly long 312 words; her second, 186 words. And I didn't even have to ask her to "be more concise," which is another thing bad editors often say. (If writers knew *how* to be concise, they already would have done that. Be more specific.)

Anyway, atta girl, “Sarah”!

Editors, try this yourself and please let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to Evaluate PR Writers -- Five Criteria

"Is So-and-So a good writer?"

Early on, my response to this question was a paragraph in an e-mail. But we eventually came up with a chart for evaluating everyone in the agency (director/VP and below) once a year as part of their annual review. Here it is below.

In this blog, it's a list. But in practice, it's an Excel spreadsheet with ratings on a horizontal axis: excellent, exceeds expectations, meets expectations, needs improvement. It's not a report card.

This is a business, not a school, so we don't grade on a curve or "reward" people with A's. The excellent category is reserved for "go to" people who are agency icons of that particular skill. The good place to be is "meets" and the good place to work toward is "exceeds."

Critical thinking trumps artistry

The most important category is "critical thinking." The least important is "artistry." In winning the attention of the traditional news media, truly useful insights written in crayon on the back of a crumpled napkin will always beat pretty words on pretty paper.

The chart originated from my sitting down with myself and asking, "What are the hoops that my thoughts jump through when I write these e-mails to executives? How am I assessing skill? What skills am I assessing?"

Having been a news reporter for 10 years, I had the news media part down pat. But I needed marketing insight, too. So I started the list, and agency executives added to it. What you see here is a consensus that I truly and proudly stand by, in every detail.

Emerged from downturn with profit & awards

Our CEO at the time, agency founder Bob Angus, made "writer profile charts" mandatory, and I literally shut down for business during the entire month of October so I could churn out a chart like this for nearly 50 people.

It was 2002, the dot-com bubble had burst and Bob had made an unusual decision. He allowed attrition but didn't lay anyone off; if account teams had extra time on their hands, they'd spend it in training. Our writer profile chart was integral to that process. We set standards, measured people, demanded improvement, and got it.

Thanks to Bob's counter-intuitive management style, we emerged from the economic downturn with profits and awards, even as our competitors lost half their staffs or went out of business.

Agency gained a forward-leaning ethic of improvement

After a few years of this, we reduced the number of people we evaluated. New employees or employees who needed attention were the only the ones who got them. Everyone else had clarity about their strengths and knew how to keep improving.

After a couple of years, people came to me for coaching in anticipation of having their chart done, and their first charts reflected progress from the get-go. That was the most fun.

An awesome benefit of this system was our new ability to pair people with complementary strengths. I told them, "You're good at this, and she's good at that, so when you find yourselves in disagreement, make sure you each win in the area of your strengths and acquiesce in the area of the other person's strengths."

This immediately produced high-quality work and the two people unofficially mentored each other. Organically, both became strong.

I suggest you find a writing guru in your office and ask this one person to assess staff on these criteria. Individual supervisors can't do it because they aren't necessarily good at this kind of thing -- that's why they ask me. Choosing just one person provides consistency.

In a "comments" section below the chart, I always copied examples of the writer's work and offered detailed "next steps" for improving.

In this list below, I've called out one item in blue type. It's the most common and most damaging problem among bad editors. I plan to go into more detail about it in an upcoming blog.

As a writing coach, of course, I continue to hate this question. I couldn't do my job well if I really thought there were only two kinds of writers: good and bad. To me, everyone is where they are, and my job is to help them move up.

Not what executives want to hear, I know. So here's the chart:

(1) Mechanics
-AP style
-Grammar & usage
-Active voice

(2) Discipline
-Digs below surface for "meat," insights
-Terseness (no padding, brisk pace)
-Structure (gives order to chaos)
-Client-ready, carefully copyread

(3) Critical thinking
-Considers audience point of view
-Foresees audience reactions
-Drives clients' long-range objectives
-Balances media and client needs
-Asks, researches, finds what matters
-Offers context, perspective
-Sees new wrinkles in familiar situations
-Breaks rules effectively

(4) News judgment (See detail toward end of list)
-Satisfies journalistic definition of news
-Effectively uses "news elements"

(5) Artistry
-Liveliness, flair, spark
-Engages as well as informs
-Advocacy, subtle “salesmanship”

News is…
(1) ... a break in the normal flow of events, an interruption in the expected.
(2) ... information people need to make sound decisions about their lives and businesses.

News elements: Change, timeliness, impact, names, numbers, nearness, unusualness, currency/topicality, life & death, health, human interest, conflict, biggest/smallest, animals, first/unique, sex, sports, weather, scandal, suspense, discovery, humor

For Senior Staff: Editing Skills
-Elevates messaging, objectives, strategy
-Checks/adjusts for correct emphasis
-Strengthens unity, coherence
-Troubleshoots as needed

-Refrains from arbitrary changes (ear, style)

-Avoids introducing new errors
-Cultivates writers' growth

Friday, October 9, 2009

What Changed My Mind? Cultural Change and a Time-Management Tip

Why now?

For years, I emphatically wagged my head and elongated my enunciation while insisting I wouldn't blog. "Nnnoooooooooooooooooooo."

My change of heart came during a free webinar by @hubspot aka Coming across as relaxed, practical and sincere, webinar leader Rick Burnes suggested that when someone asks you a question and you are going to reply by e-mail, instead write a blog post and send the person a link. That way you help more people at once.

That appealed to me because it's time-efficient.

I hadn't wanted to blog because I thought it would be time-consuming. Plus, I wasn't vain enough to imagine I'd have a following. What would I say? I felt vindicated as I heard about people quitting their blogs, saying they'd never imagined it would be so much work. (I was a news reporter for 10 years before becoming a business writing coach in 2000, so I know very well that research, interviewing, writing and editing aren't easy.)

The world has since changed around me. At A&R Edelman (my employer), the corporate culture shifted. We're now encouraged to add our individual voices to the world's chorus. And Twitter's emergence as a news tip service gives readers a way to find me. I don't need a regular following because Tweets and re-Tweets direct the right people to the right topics at the right times. A sporadic following will do.

Someone asked me, "What if you make a mistake? Won't it take a long time to proofread to be absolutely sure you haven't let a grammar or punctuation error slip through?" Well, I'm sure that *will* happen. I fully claim to be human. Even editors need editors. So when someone kindly checks me, I'll thank them and make the correction.

Finally, this blog isn't about me. It's about you.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bad Editors Are Bad for Business -- How to Cope

Your bosses or clients might in fact be the problem. If they are re-writing, sending you a lot of tracked changes, or making vague demands like "make it more punchy" or "make it less like a brochure," you are in the majority.

If I could wave a wand and fix the world in one graceful sweep, I'd make everyone a better editor. Poof! Now people are respectful, appreciative, nurturing and specific. If that's not how you'd describe your boss or client, it's a good thing you met me.

Bad editors are not only bad for morale, they're bad for business. First, there's the immediate waste inherent in over-editing that takes up time on deadline without altering the eventual business outcome. Second, an insidious dynamic develops within the team and poisons efforts yet to come. All kinds of weirdness ensue: blame, apathy, polarization, ineptitude ... don't get me started. For perspective, ask: "Will this edit alter our business outcome?"

So, how to cope with bad editors?

First, don't take it personally. I'm a mercenery myself. I do this for a living, not for my ego.

Second, don't join in the over-reacting.

Third, OK, now it's going to get a little messy. To go on, I need to know more about your situation. Please tell me your specifics, but mask the names of people and companies, of course.

Before getting too far into this, I need to let you know that I only coach smart people. My clients are professional writers at companies that are famously smart. So this blog is not a confessional or ghetto for writing washouts.

Know that your problem is many people's problem. You are just the one with the guts to speak up about it. Take a stand. Be a leader. Articulate the problem. I guarantee you won't be alone in experiencing it.

That qualifier aside, here's a bit of generic editing advice, in case you are able to suggest something like this to your taskmaster of the moment.

1. Try side-by-side editing. This means the writer sits beside the editor as he reviews the document. The editor thinks out loud, so you can hear his thoughts immediately rather than try to guess later what he was trying to get at when he made the entire page bleed.

It also takes no extra time. The editor doesn't have to make an appointment with you to "walk you through the changes," as so many bad editors tend to put it. Instead, you just sit there in real time, observing while it happens. Both parties will learn from this exercise, painlessly.

2. Step back and look for patterns. Rather than fixing every little thing, reacting one by one to each micro-episode of mental discomfort, the editor distances himself from the document. He looks for repetitive choices or a missing perspective.

He sends you a note with two or three questions that get you to think differently about the content. He sits back and waits, then gets a pleasant surprise. The quality ratchets up about 200 percent. And he didn't do a thing.

3. Decide what really matters and let the rest go. Sometimes your editor is horrid simply because he's gifted -- at writing, not editing. It may be that you will never be as good as he is.

Your editor needs to accept this reality, even if it hurts. He needs to make a list of two to five things that are really important to him and let the rest go (crying or gnashing his teeth, fine, but he needs unloose those white knuckes).

Once you can do everything on his list, he can add other items, one at a time. He needs to let you evolve over time. You can't be him. You'll never be him.

Editors with this problem always say to me, "Yes, but I need to uphold quality standards for the client's sake." Yes, but some quality standards matter more than others. Choose.

4. Proofreading is a separate issue. It's something to be done at the very end and done surgically. That is, the editor removes only the tumor while leaving all healthy flesh intact.

Yes, your grammar and punctuation need to be impeccable. That's a credibility issue. And yes, your business needs to convey credibility.

But senior people shouldn't be doing this particular task, so I'm not counting it as editing in this particular blog, which is about edits by bosses and clients.

Change is hard, I know. A mantra that can help you keep this advice in mind while under duress on deadline is the question I posed earlier: "Will this edit alter our business outcome?"

If you are the writer, this question can help you steady your emotions. If you are the editor, it can help you keep your eye on the ball. A red sea of tracked changes helps no one.