Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Eagle Eyes Find What Other Editors Miss

What if you could hit a panic button and have a flock of expert editors fly to your rescue?

A&R Edelman (my employer) actually has such a system in place. The panic button is an e-mail alias that reaches five volunteer “Eagle Eyes” who race one another to be the first to reply to the person in need. In addition, we have eight more Eagle Eyes available on advance notice (usually between two hours and two days).

Every other summer, we train a new flock recruited for talent and initiative. We only allow participants with somewhere between one and three years of agency experience. Less than one year isn’t enough, and anything more than three years is too much.

You’ve probably seen the perfect recruits at your own agency or company. They’re the ones you never have to correct twice, the ones you trust with your own editing, the ones who always seem to have enough time and efficacy for yet another project. They are service-oriented people who enjoy easing the path for others.

I can spot them a mile away.

We train for two months during lunch hours on Mondays and Wednesdays. In addition, recruits spend about an hour a week in solo study or with a buddy with whom they are asked to share whatever they’ve learned that week. We pair each recruit with a buddy but don’t monitor whether they actually meet. Sometimes, pairs meet together as a larger group.

Most people assume we are teaching grammar, style and usage. But we’re not. I ask them to study on their own. I provide a Knowledge Book and they are to come to class with questions about it. We take as much class time as necessary to answer questions.

The rest of the time, they learn to:

1. sense whether they are in the right brain-wave mode for editing (“brain off” mode)

2. recognize situations that tend to invite errors (“hot zones”)

3. look things up frequently (Confidence is bad; only the paranoid survive.)

4. find the hard-to-find references (I show them shortcuts through the woods.)

5. edit surgically (remove only the tumor and leave all other flesh intact)

6. ask the right questions at the right times (Some corrections require a brief conversation.)

They learn professional restraint. This means editing only what’s wrong without re-writing.

In the end, they pass three tests in a row. They can make two mistakes per test. An over-edit (rewriting rather than surgically removing or changing something that wasn’t wrong) counts as a miss. In the beginning, we do exercises, then simulations. The simulations and tests are press releases loaded up with errors, some of which are quite tricky.

You can see why we don’t train senior people, whose edits should be primarily for messaging, strategy, emphasis and business value.

When invited, Eagle Eyes can make further suggestions. Since they are gifted writers in the first place, their suggestions are usually genuine improvements, but they know better than to tamper with a document uninvited.

Eagle Eyes always retain the right to say no. They put their own account work first but take pride in squeezing in customers on other accounts. Nor do they edit sloppy documents. The person who sought their services is expected to have done his or her utmost to make the document perfect. Eagle Eyes find what other people miss.

As Eagle Eyes advance to leadership positions over time, they take their old strengths up the chain with them while acquiring new strengths. Having edited agency-wide documents, Eagle Eyes possess a broader perspective than peers who weren’t given regular exposure to other teams and clients.

Our Eagle Eyes command respect beyond what’s commensurate with their job title, and account teams gain an otherwise unattainable level of impeccability and confidence.