I saw an odd quote in a piece about a good Samaritan who helped someone having seizure. The story was heartwarming.
At the end, the writer reached out to a spokesperson for an organization that helps people who struggle with seizures. Here’s the quote: “People who live with seizures have to deal with a pervasive stigma fueled by misinformation and misconceptions about the disorder.”
Kind of ironic, isn’t it? That a sentiment about misunderstanding would be expressed with somewhat formal and less accessible language? I mean, most readers know what each of those words means. But few people actually talk like that in real life. And that makes readers either skim over the quote and not connect with it emotionally.
In a moment, I’ll recommend one possible way to rephrase this statement to make it more effective. But first I want to explore why this type of language is so common among communicators.
There’s a simple but little-known reason for it that you might unintentionally struggling with. If you’ve already overcome it, then that’s great — maybe this post would help you teach others how to avoid it.
In my writing workshops I’ll interact with gregarious, personable PR professionals who then turn into corporatized automatons when their fingers touch their keyboards.
A strange thing about this phenomenon, though, is I actually see it most often among new professionals, who often get stereotyped as being overly casual in their communications. Like most aspects of our business, it’s actually not rooted in skill or technique. Instead, it stems from our mindset.
When you’re not sure of yourself, you tend to overcompensate by trying to speak and act the way you think people want you to. When I started giving speeches at PR conferences, I was guilty of this. Instead of focusing on whether my message was getting across, I was fixated on whether the audience thought I was qualified to be speaking to them. Once I got my feet under me, I noticed much better engagement on the principles I was teaching.
The same principle applies when writing PR materials or crafting statements for media interviews. No need to impress anybody — externally or internally — with your vocabulary or formal grammar. That just comes off as self-important and detached.
OK, I do need to insert what should be obvious — there is a bottom floor to how informal you should be in business communications. I draw the line at emojis and exclamation points. And of course you should speak and write in a voice that’s consistent with your brand. For instance, a playful startup is going to have more fun with media statements than a research hospital probably would.
So a good rule of thumb for your writing is to use the same style you would when emailing your professional colleagues — people who already know you and trust you, where you don’t feel like you have anything to prove.
When you adopt this voice, you translate the statement about seizures to something like this: “People who struggle with seizures get judged by strangers and misunderstood by friends. But once we learn just a little bit about the condition, we are in a much better position to help.”
And then you find that audiences are more likely to pay attention to, agree with and act on your messages. So instead of impressing people, you’re actually helping them.
Michael Smart teaches PR professionals how to dramatically increase their positive media placements. He’s engaged regularly by organizations like General Motors, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Georgia Tech to help their media relations teams reach new levels of success. Get more media pitching knowledge from Michael Smart here.