On writing well in public relations

June 17, 2010

CNN.com ran an interesting story this morning that quotes language guru Paul J.J. Payack as suggesting that the reason President Obama’s Tuesday night’s speech about the oil spill failed is that it was written at a 9.8 grade level. It’s the highest grade level of any of his speeches, which average a 7.4 grade level.

This analysis is based on the presumption that most written work, especially that done by the media, is written at a sixth-grade level. It’s an urban legend that I have also been guilty of repeating, at times suggesting that a news release or executive speech needs to be simplified “to a sixth-grade level.”

But the entire notion of grade level communications is a red herring that fails because it breaks down language into discrete parts and then analyzes it by length of sentence and number of letters in a word. So the shorter the sentence and smaller the word, the lower the grade level and the easier it is to understand. Or at least the theory goes.

The entire notion is flawed. If you performed the same analysis on the music of The Beatles, you would come to a similar conclusion. After all, Paul, John, Ringo, and George used only four chords — the same chords that any beginner learns in early lessons. Their lyrics? No greater words than you would expect from four boys from Liverpool.

The reality is that like The Beatles, great PR writing doesn’t need to rely on an endless palette of multi-syllabic words. Rather, it’s the specificity of the words chosen and how they are arranged that give us our power as communicators.

The best lessons of all were shared with me by my book and magazine editors when I was a freelance writer early in my career. Their advice was to get out of the way. Become invisible to the reader. They urged me to take command of readers’ thoughts by not tipping them off that I was controlling and manipulating their consciousness. That meant subordinating my own early tendencies to want to sound smart to the higher calling of imparting the most possible information in the tightest, quickest manner.

This week I met with our firm’s incoming class of interns, 10 young people pulled from the best colleges in America. I asked them, “How much would you pay if I could give you a ray gun that could control other people’s thoughts?” They all laughed and told me it was impossible.

I corrected them, and explained that when you write well, you are taking control of the reader’s thoughts. In essence, a well-written news story, blog post, or news release takes over another person’s consciousness, hijacks their awareness in favor of the ideas, concepts, and thoughts you prefer them to consider at a given time. Pretty powerful stuff. And certainly not the stuff of sixth-grade English class.

Contrary to Paul J.J. Payack’s research, the value of good writing cannot be calculated by simple word and letter counts. Here’s the real way a skilled writer controls the thoughts of a reader:

1. Disguises bias. Great PR writing is opaque in that you can’t see through to the writer’s agenda, opinions, or biases. It reads objectively and news-like in its presentation, when in reality, it quickly instills in the reader’s mind the importance of the facts, news, or story.

2. Appears in a style close to how a journalist might write it. Consider the typical news release with the obligatory corporate descriptors and disclaimers. Would it ever appear in the media in a similar format or style? Never. Whoever wrote the rule that news releases have to start with the company or product name, followed immediately by a tagline or description of the product or company, was a bad writer. Find him. Shoot him. Such notions have failed us in PR, who always champion the easy conveyance of a client’s sentiment or worldview.

3. Succeeds despite optimization. We now have a new restraint of good writing. The need to optimize news releases and blog posts for almighty Google. It’s a necessary evil. But it shouldn’t disrupt the normal flow of language.

4. Uses verbs and facts. Not adjectives. An editor of mine used to demand four facts in every sentence and a fine pruning of all adjectives. He demanded that writing be salted with power verbs (not unlike the word salted). Verbs, not adjectives, propel language. Two sentences can often be reduced to one by combining the facts of each into a single thought.

5. Plays well lyrically. Writing is lyrical. Bad writing is horsey, clunky, and plays poorly to the ear. Good writing is effortless, seemingly dispensable in the moment while lasting a lifetime in intention and meaning. It hits the right notes, clearly articulating all messages.

6. Speaks to the reader. The #1 rule of writing has always been, and will always be, know your audience. Perhaps more than any other principle, this one strikes at the heart of the grade level writing test. A good PR writer knows when to assume the voice of the CEO and speak to an audience of investors or regulators in exacting terms. But that same writer needs to understand when to assume a chatty, more personal style to score meaning with customers and employees. It might not be The Beatles, but it’s certainly not for a sixth-grader.

So I would hasten CNN not to give gurus like Paul Payack and his company, Global Language Monitor, much credence. Speeches don’t succeed or fail because they were written on a 10th-grade level. They rise or fall by the six points laid bare in this post.

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Frank Freudberg
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7 years 4 months ago
Great post, Greg. Again, thanks for all your insight. Another important point about great writing comes from the same thing that’s at the heart of all great novels, plays and movie scripts. Whether consciously or not, when you read a book or watch a theatrical production or go to the cinema, you grant the creative artist your "willing suspension of disbelief." You acknowledge, one way or the other, that you know you are about to experience a story, and that you agree not to say or think "there are no such things as aliens" or "no way could he shoot… Read more »
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