Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why Email Isn't Dead or Dying Anytime Soon

Five years ago the Wall Street Journal declared the end of the reign of email in the article Why Email No Longer Rules...  They were not the only people to announce the death of email. At the time everyone thought that email was finished and that soon the stuffy old timers who persisted in using it would see the light and move to new tools. Some said that we would all be using new communication tools like GoogleWave, launched with great fanfare in 2010 as the future of mail but then shut down three years later. Others said that we would all use Facebook, Twitter or other social sites. They were all wrong.

Now more than forty years after it was introduced email shows no signs of going away and indeed there is no credible alternative on the horizon. You could, people argue, use Facebook messenger instead, except that not everybody has Facebook messenger. You could, others say, use WhatsApp, except that not everyone has WhatsApp. You could use instant messaging, a few argue, but there are dozens of incompatible messaging systems and the lack of a permanent "paper trail" makes them unappealing for business use.

And therein lies the problem.All of the common alternatives to email are products that you can only use if you install the client or the app. In most cases they can only be used with a limited range of hardware -- try, for example, installing WhatsApp on a Linux desktop or an old Windows laptop. Most if not all also rely on a single service provider that might go out of business or simply discontinue the service, as happened to the now-defunct Shortmail service.

Email is different. It is and never was a product. It is instead a suite of standards -- like the World-Wide Web -- that simply define how messages should be exchanged between computers. As long as your email software respects these standards it can communicate with any other device that follows the same standards. This means that you buy hardware from any vendor and install software from any vendor and you will still be able to communicate with everyone. As an added bonus you have the time-machine effect that equipment from different eras can also communicate thanks to these standards.

You can send an email from an old Windows desktop to a new MacBook Air. You can send a message from an old Handspring PDA to your iPhone 6, or even to wearable devices not yet on the market. And you can, of course, send your mails anywhere in the world and at least one off-Earth location -- I understand that the International Space Station is equipped to send and receive standard Earth emails.

No "walled garden" single product is going to replace this standards-based approach. And today's email standards have such a large user base that it is going to be extremely difficult to replace it with a newer standard -- every single device will need at least a software update. This means that we are effectively stuck with email as a universal mean of exchange for quite a while yet, though in the meantime we can use better tools to contact the people around us. Effectively email has become another of these immortal standards like QWERTY that could have been replaced many years ago but never will because of inertia.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching, Writing

These thoughts about the immortal life of email are taken from a workshop Writing Effective Emails in a Global Business where I teach people how to use traditional email is the most effective way possible. This is available in half and full day versions plus a shorter lecture format. For details of this and other communication workshops, lectures, one-to-one coaching and writing you can contact me at, through my website or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 pr 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Practical PR Tips: Ghost Writing for High-Level People

When you work in communications you will probably have to ghost write a quote for a press release, a blog post, a social media comment, an article or maybe a speech for a top-level manager in your organization. Often it must be approved by the manager you are ghosting but you have limited access to them; you might also be uncomfortable trying to be the voice of someone you don't normally interact with.

Luckily there are some simple techniques you can learn to make this task easier and faster, minimizing the stress and optimizing the results.

LEARN THEIR STYLE. Before you attempt to write something in the style of someone else you need to learn how they talk and write. Prepare by reading things that you think they wrote themselves and watch them speak to get a feel for the style and tone they use. You don't have to identify all the style markers because your brain can automatically learn to recognize someone's style.

IMAGINE THEM SAYING THE WORDS. When you have written something try imagining the person you are writing for saying the words out loud. Does it sound like them? Or does it sound more like you or, worse, like PR speak? Revise your draft to make it sound more authentic, using a style, words and expressions that the person is known to use.

GIVE THEM MULTIPLE CHOICES. When you are just writing a short quote for a press release or a critical social media post it saves time to offer alternatives. If you write just one version and the boss doesn't like it you will have to start another cycle and each cycle takes time. I often provide initially five different alternatives, adding that they can mix pieces from these, giving many more choices. This way you can usually get approval in one cycle. Most people also appreciate having this choice. Watching which alternatives they choose also gives you more clues about their preferred style.

MAKE THE DRAFT EASY TO READ. Try to find out how they like to have the draft. Do they want to read it on their tablet? Do they want a paper copy? Do they use markup? Do they want to just tell you what to change? The first time you might get this wrong but there is no excuse the second time. And if they do ask for a paper version make sure that you choose a large enough font. Sometimes people struggle to read small fonts in an uncertain light and don't like to be reminded of this all the time.

Ghost writing for important people is just part of the job when you work in communications. At the beginning this prospect can be a source of anxiety, but the upside of this is that you will get more access to senior people than many people in the organization that outrank you. If nothing else this is good for your network and also a useful learning experience. Being able to talk to busy leaders is a useful skill to acquire.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching & Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on this and other communication topics you can contact me by email on, through my website or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Using the Source: When it's Important to Use Source Documents, Talk to Authors

Though every person with Internet access has the possibility to check facts without a trip to the library I still see old myths being repeated in articles, lectures, workshops, videos and TV shows. Hardly a day goes by without me seeing someone saying that we use only 10% of our brains, or how only 7% of communication is in the words, or the old myth about Henry Ford and the "faster horse". Two years ago I wrote about this problem in The Creation of Levi's: Why Writers and Speakers Should Always Check Facts. In this piece I recommended that everyone should at least run a quick Google check before repeating these myths. In search results the popular mythbusting sites are always on the first page. Wikipedia articles usually debunk common myths, too.

But there is another technique careful writers and speakers can apply to avoid repeating or even creating myths and misinterpretations: go to the source. I was given this advice as a student. Some professor whose name I have long forgotten once suggested that the best way to avoid misunderstanding research is to bypass all of the secondary interpretations and to read the author's original work.

Many sources, for example, have reported that science-fiction author Arthur Clarke invented the communications satellite. When you read his original October 1945 article in Wireless World magazine you discover that this is not exactly true. What Clarke envisioned was not a communication satellite in the usual sense but a satellite for direct-broadcast TV, something which did eventually emerge. And by satellite he meant what most people would now called a "space station", since he envisaged that the men on board would be needed for maintenance.

Another common misunderstanding is the oft-repeated claim that words only contribute 7% to any communication -- the other 93% being body language and facial expression. You can easily demonstrate to yourself that this is plainly nonsense by watching a TED lecture with the sound turned down. This myth is, in fact, a horrible distortion of research conducted by Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s and his conclusions were not that 7% of communication is in the words but that 7% of feelings or attitudes -- likes and dislikes -- are linked to the words. You can read about Mehrabian's original 1967 experiments for yourself in Decoding of Inconsistent Communications, Mehrabian & Weiner and Inference of Attitudes from Non-Verbal Communication in Two Channels, Mehrabian & Ferris.

Reading original papers is an excellent way to avoid repeating misinterpretations of research results, but there is also an even better way that is often available: ask the author of the original paper what it meant. This is much easier than you might imagine yet it is a very effective way to verify facts.  Recently I found an old question on the Quora question and answer site that asked "Once a culture becomes totally advertising friendly it ceases to be a culture at all: Do you agree."  Several people had attempted to answer the question but without really being sure what the quote meant.

A quick Google search revealed that this quote comes from Mark Crispin Miller, Professor of Media, Culture and Communications at New York University. Google also provided more context in the form of the complete quote but to be sure of the meaning I asked Professor Miller by email -- his email address is on the university website. He very kindly sent me an email explaining exactly what he had meant by that quote:

"In any case, a culture that's totally advertising-friendly would be one in which all contrary or dissentient content, whether it be news, art or entertainment, must be suppressed or forced out to the margins; since advertising is a form of propaganda, whose makers always want, and do their utmost to create, "a good environment" for their output. That means no contradiction, and no contiguous material that might somehow detract from the appeal. Thus the force of advertising makes itself felt not just positively—i.e., through its overt stimuli—but also negatively, through the censorship it necessarily entails."

Myths and distortions are easy to avoid. You can read the source documents for almost any claim simply by googling them and in many cases you can also ask the author what he or she meant. There is no excuse today for people to repeat the same myths again and again, yet they still do. Check everything, even the things you think you are sure about, and remember that in cases where secondary documents are not convincing you can always use the source.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching, Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching or writing on this or other communication topics you can reach me by email at, through my website or by phone at 0033 6 79 61 42 81 or 0046 730 894 475