Thursday, March 25, 2010

How not to lose control of your own words

When I was a college undergraduate, I was constantly surprised by one of my professors who made a habit of dissecting everything I handed in. No matter how rigorously I worked on improving my writing, the documents were returned with editing corrections, with seemingly no end in sight.

It got to the point where I thought this guy was just going overboard nitpicking, and frustrated in my progress, I met with him after class.

He explained to me that words were like "little knives" that "could cut, like surgery." Every one had a specific definition and purpose, and I had to think in those terms when choosing my words.

Here I am, many years later, where words are the currency of my profession and it's hard not for me to feel like that professor. As a matter of fact, the proliferation of online blogging and news reading has made word choice almost a blood sport. Not just for me, but clearly for others as well.

It's not difficult to understand why -- the words we say and write, the ones we use to respond to everything from simple questions to accusations, are magnified and there forever online. Tabloids sensationalize the most innocuous comment that the best choice of words may be to utter none of them.

Very often, our words can bury ourselves because we did not choose correctly or another set of eyes and ears did not evaluate them. Sometimes we can not even be the gatekeepers of our own words.

Take, for example, IGN president Roy Bahat's recent company memo that leaked across the Internet.

In one sentence he says "We've had to reduce the size of our organization and are eliminating roles today in every part of the company." Then in another sentence, he states that the company has grown "40% over last year in the total size of our audience."

The cherry on the cake comes at the end: "It probably goes without saying, but please keep this absolutely confidential to IGN."

I find it hard to believe that every CEO doesn't assume that any company memo will appear on the Internet. If you're going to commit to those words, you may as well make sure that every one makes sense and when you string them together, a reader won't scratch their head in puzzlement or roll over with laughter. Words can come back and slap you every time.

When it comes right down to it, we have to be more vigilant about our words when we're under a social media microscope, and any e-mail we send may be just a forward button away to somebody's blog.

It's time to do a little self-examination and staff discussion about when we finish our first drafts (and yes, there should be first drafts), we should ask ourselves, "Is this what you really want to say? There's no way to misinterpret this, right?"

Take a deep breath, close your computer, walk outside, buy your lunch, stop by the local bookstore or magazine stand, observe what's going on around you, and then go back to your desk.

Look again at what you just wrote. Make believe a total stranger was about to post it the web -- would you change your mind now?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The PR Store has gone out of business

Driving up Route 111 in Smithtown, NY the other
day, I saw this storefront in a strip mall and had to pull over and snap a photo.

Did people pull up in their car and order a Coke, fries and a press release?