Big Fish Training Blog

Techniques for dealing with imposter syndrome – part 1
Techniques for dealing with imposter syndrome – part 1

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,”
  - Eleanor Roosevelt

Isn’t that the truth? I love to apply this quote to imposter syndrome. If you can accept that the feeling of inferiority comes from the inside, then it follows that you can overcome it from the inside, too.

In my last piece, we established that imposter syndrome is far more common than you might imagine, and we covered two primary sources: feeling that we’re not as good as others and placing unreasonable expectations on ourselves.

So what can we do about it?

If you can accept that the feeling of inferiority comes from the inside, then it follows that you can overcome it from the inside, tooLet’s look at the first of those sources: feeling that you’re not as good as others around you.

Firstly, it is not your fault! We live in a comparison culture. From the age of five, we’re labelled “academic”, “sporty”, “arty”, “disruptive”. We're given school reports that tell us where we need to step up. We have tests, exams and competitions that very “factually” put us in our place compared to the rest of the field. We look at our peer group and assess their professional success against our own. We wonder at the beautiful people and Instagram influencers and can’t help but ponder the gap between how fashionable/beautiful/fit they are and our own realities.

It’s absolutely ingrained.

Inspired or intimidated?

Forgive me for showing my age a bit (a lot!) here, but I vividly remember the weekly ritual of watching Take Hart with friends when we were about 10. This was a TV programme where children submitted really fantastic drawings and paintings along with their age. Honestly, we all somehow thought that, if another 10-year-old had pretty much recreated the Mona Lisa and all we could manage was a scribbly bonfire (my masterpiece of choice), then we were total artistic failures. We used the “a ten-year-old can draw this” as our yardstick of what we SHOULD have been able to do.

But how many 10-year-olds can draw the Mona Lisa? Not that many.

And yet I don’t attempt to draw to this day.

I don’t suppose I’m alone. What may inspire some, will intimidate others.

Maybe you had a little brother that was always “the sporty one”. So you didn’t try that hard at P.E. because you were never going to be as good?

Or perhaps you’ve just come out of a meeting where you thought everyone else was cleverer than you and would just roll their eyes if you opened your mouth. So you kept schtum and left the room thinking “that’s an hour of my life I won’t get back”.

The trouble is, if you do that too often, people will stop asking you to join those meetings. They’ll stop giving you opportunities in favour of those who are speaking up and adding value. And eventually you get passed over for promotions and pay rises.

So what can we do to ensure imposter syndrome doesn’t hold you back?

1. Be kind to yourself

We compare ourselves to the wrong people. We don't use the whole field, just a subset of people who look like they're doing brilliantly.

The voice in our heads says: “I should be like that, I should be able to do this by now, why can’t I do that?”

But we wouldn’t say that to someone else because it would be demonstrably demotivating. A good manager would ask for high standards but do it in a way that's supportive, achievable and acts to motivate.

We usually give other people the benefit of the doubt that we don’t offer to ourselves. So that’s my first piece of advice: be kinder to yourself and become a decent self-manager.

2. Recognise when you’re playing the comparison game

When did you last walk into a room and rank everyone in it? We all do it, mostly on autopilot.

But knowledge is power. So become conscious of doing it. Make a mental or physical note every time you play the comparison game and come off worse. Ask yourself: is that helpful for me?

Believe it or not, if you can see that it’s unhelpful, that’s a spectacularly useful starting point. You can then choose not to play the comparison game that time. And one time becomes many times until the autopilot stops the game altogether.

3. Stop comparing your insides with other people’s outsides

Couldn’t she see that inside I was a quivering wreck, desperate for approval, terrified of failure?For me, the penny started to drop years ago when I was an account manager in a tech agency. At the end of a meeting about a fairly significant launch our client said to me: “Well this should all be straightforward Emma. I can’t imagine anything phasing you.”

I was absolutely struck dumb. Couldn’t she see that inside I was a quivering wreck, desperate for approval, terrified of failure? Clearly not! And yet it took years of this kind of comment for me to realise that the outside Emma was giving a great account of herself that the inside Emma could only dream of.

This is happening all the time. You're seeing outwardly confident people and, if you're feeling insecure, you'll tell yourself they aren't feeling out of their depth like you. I'm willing to bet good money that most of the time they are. You simply can't judge by their outsides.

4. Become aware of the way in which you externalise success

Marketing and PR/comms people tend to externalise success: it’s not enough to say to ourselves that we’ve done a good job; we need someone else to say so.

Yet we’re actually rather good at setting KPIs. So, as well as setting the usual KPIs at the start of a campaign or project, try setting a few extra personal ones that sit within your control. You can't control the outcome so, although most decent campaign metrics should be based on the results, set yourself some private action-related metrics where you do have control. Ask yourself: "how can I measure my own success here? What do I need to show that I've done in order to convince myself that I've tried my best?"

Over time, this process helps to redress the balance between self-validation and external validation. Unfortunately, it does take a bit of time to internalise success so please don't give up!

5. See yourself how others see you

And finally, it’s normally pretty hard to see how you’re viewed but one thing that can help is to get a colleague, friend or co-conspirator to write your professional bio, even if no one else is going to see it.

get a colleague, friend or co-conspirator to write your professional bio, even if no one else is going to see itYou know how hard it can be if you’re getting your CV together or need to pull a speaker bio together. Doing it yourself, if you suffer even a tiny bit of imposter syndrome, can feel like an exercise in BS. Yet often, if you can ask someone you trust to do a mini interview and create a bio that covers your career, skills and highlights, you’ll get the chance to see the professional version of yourself that others see.

This helps, I promise. And when you get it, for goodness sake read it and acknowledge it: “This is me.” Hide it in a drawer and peek at it if you need to. Keep a copy on your phone and check it out when you start to get that sinking feeling.

Unrealistic expectations – coming up in part 2

I really hope the advice here is useful. I’ve got bags more “stuff”, if so! And the next logical step is to look at ways of overcoming imposter syndrome when its root is in your own impossible standards, so I’ll tackle that in my next piece.

In the meantime, let me know what you think. Have you used any of these techniques? Have they helped? How have you been labelled and what were the effects?

How to find the source of your imposter syndrome
How to find the source of your imposter syndrome

There was an incredible response to the photo I posted on LinkedIn last week that alluded to my own struggles with imposter syndrome. Let me tell you, it’s way more common than you might imagine. Even the people you meet who seem outwardly confident probably worry privately about being outed as some sort of fraud.

So I thought I’d do a short series of articles on this widespread phenomenon to try and help anyone who's holding themselves back. In this first piece, we’ll look at the problems it can cause, and the likeliest sources of imposter syndrome.

But first, a definition. This comes from Megan Dalla-Camina, a leadership expert from Australia. She says:

“Imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Not an actual disorder, the term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, when they found that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome remained convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have. They call their success luck or good timing, and dismiss it as others’ believing they were better, more intelligent, and more competent than they actually are.”

Is this starting to sound familiar?

What problems does it cause?

While it might not be an actual disorder, the problems that imposter syndrome causes are incredibly real. Do you recognise any of the following?

  • Not speaking up
  • Being bland/safe with your advice
  • Being inauthentic and not revealing thoughts/ideas
  • Seeking approval and external validation
  • Not going for opportunities or promotion
  • Feeling under confident or extremely uncomfortable in situations that raise imposter syndrome in you
  • Avoiding those situations that you think might trigger imposter syndrome.

That last point is really key: imposter syndrome is situational.

a hit of anxiety that somehow you’ll be found out being incompetentBy definition, most people with imposter syndrome have achieved a great deal of outward success, so imposter syndrome isn’t an overall lack of confidence. It’s more that there are specific situations that deliver a “here comes the hammer” moment and a hit of anxiety that somehow you’ll be found out being incompetent. For some people that situation may be a meeting or a public voicing of opinion. For others, it’s justifying a decision or course of action.

To get a grip on the slippery beast that is imposter syndrome, it can really help to understand what the particular source of these feelings are for you.

What’s YOUR source?

There are a couple of culprits that are worth looking at in the first instance. The first is when you feel you are not as good as others, and the second is when you hold yourself to impossible standards.

This is how they typically manifest themselves:

“I’m not as good as others. They are more accomplished, experienced, wiser, have won more awards, perform better and smell nicer than I do!"

“I’m not good enough. I should have made it as an international human rights lawyer with fancy apartments in London and New York and a villa in France, have raised £50m for charity and be a concert pianist in my spare time. Oh I should never have made a mistake in my entire life.”

So what can you do?

you're either feeling inferior to others or you're holding yourself to a standard that simply can't be reachedRight now, the most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to start tracking what's setting off those imposter moments for you. Every time an imposter thought starts sapping your confidence, you can catch it in the act and ask yourself "What's setting THIS off?". Sometimes that very act of self-enquiry is enough to stop the downward spiral of self-defeating thoughts.

But, if you're like me and imposter syndrome is pretty ingrained, you're probably going to have to get more systematic.

It might take a while to get to the heart of the reason your heart is pounding or your inner critic has turned into the nastiest saboteur, but if you drill down far enough, you are likely to find that you're either feeling inferior to others or you're holding yourself to a standard that simply can't be reached at that moment.

Or it could be both as, like a pair of headphones you've jammed into your coat pocket, they like to get intricately tangled up.

Untangle your thinking

For example, if you've been asked to speak in front of your organisation, you might feel imposter syndrome popping up. If you ask yourself what's setting it off, it might be that you say something like – "Well, I don't really know enough about this project to really provide value." That sounds totally plausible, right? Except that it masks something. If you go a level deeper, one reason for saying this might be that you think the people you're presenting to will know more about the subject and you will be exposed as a fraud. One tricky question and … takedown! Total humiliation. That reason is probably, "I am not as good as others".

“I need to be perfect and never make a mistake”However – and this is pretty subtle, like so many things to do with human behaviour – if you go a level deeper you might find that underneath all this is a desire to know absolutely everything about the project and to never get “caught out” by a question that you don't yet know the answer to. In which case, the underlying reason is “I need to be perfect and never make a mistake,” mixed with “I am not as good as others.”

Wow. Look at our brains. They love to make us feel unhappy sometimes!

Make a start

For people on both sides of the coin, there are plenty of things you can do to help yourself. None are easy fixes, though. Like all things worth doing, it can take time and needs to be systematic.

So in the next article, I'll give you suggestions for preventing imposter syndrome. Right now, though, have fun playing your own inner detective and discovering which source your imposter syndrome is coming from. I promise it will help, even though it probably sounds a bit vague right now!

Give yourself the gift of reflection
Give yourself the gift of reflection

I love our industry but life in the PR, comms and marketing world can sometimes feel rather like being on a treadmill without being able to reach the controls: running as hard as we can at a speed dictated by someone else, but feeling like we are getting nowhere. We are always waiting for someone else to turn the speed down, tell us we’ve reached our goal and reward us accordingly with a promotion, pay rise or even just a “thank you for your hard work”.

take a break and take controlIt’s time to stop the treadmill, take a break and take control of your own career. Forge your own path that leads to where you want to go.

“I’m too busy”

If I had a pound for every delegate that said this, I’d have retired years ago! But – gosh - it’s true, isn’t it? We are all so busy. There is very little time allocated to constructive conversation around career progression. Objectives are typically a bit woolly. Appraisals are often less a meeting of minds, and more of a joust between two people with very different perspectives:

“I need people to step up and take responsibility.”

“But I want to step up and no one is giving me the opportunity to do so.”

make more time for reflecting on what has gone wellIf you want to make those opportunities for yourself, a good place to start is with this list of ten career management questions. My advice would be to think about those at the beginning of every calendar year, and in advance of any formal appraisal or review meeting.

But what else can help you to feel like the master of your own destiny?

PR, comms and marketing people need to make more time for reflecting on what has gone well. But we rarely do. Being – by nature – good problem-solvers, we graft, achieve a good result, and immediately move on to the next job or project without pausing to reflect on what we’ve done well.

And yet we tend to be very good at post-mortems. Hours are spent analysing why we didn’t win a pitch, or why our sales team doesn’t feel supported in the right way.

I’d argue that, unless we take a moment to properly reflect on the positives, to consciously notice what we’ve done well, work out why it went well and knowingly repeat that behaviour, we do ourselves a serious disservice.

Give yourself the gift of reflection

start to build evidence of your own progressionHalf an hour a month is time we can all find, no matter how hectic our schedules. It’s just a question of prioritising our own personal development over the other demands on our time.

So diarise it now. When the time comes, make yourself a coffee, find a quiet spot and ask yourself the following questions.

  1. What have I done well?
  2. What do I need to do more of?
  3. What do I need to do less of?
  4. What conversations am I having?
    (Think about who they are with, whether they are the right people and what those people are interested in.)

Note down the answers and look back at them next month, and you will start to build evidence of your own progression and a business case for advancement. After all, if you don’t reflect or recognise your own progress, is it really fair to ask someone else to do it for you?

One final point: this is not a selfish act, even though it may feel like it at first. In fact, this process of regular self-reflection will also benefit the organisation you work for, whatever your job title or level of experience.

Ten questions to future-proof your career
Ten questions to future-proof your career

Happy New Year! Who’s made New Year’s resolutions? And stuck to them so far?

one thing I’d suggest you should all be working on is a career planI confess - I really enjoy being inspired by other people's new starts, but it's not for me! I rebel against the pressure to make sweeping changes in what's typically a grim, dark and anti-climactic month. I wait until the Spring for that, when I have half a chance of seeing the sun, the birds are singing and there is new growth all around.

But I DO face up to January by planning for the rest of the year. That’s different. And regardless of your level of experience or authority, one thing I’d suggest you should all be working on is a career plan. You can use the ten questions below to start this process off painlessly. Career planning is particularly important for those people in a communications or marketing role because you may not have a readymade career route ahead. In fact, it can sometimes feel like you're playing a gigantic game of Snakes and Ladders.

Create your own roadmap

I’m not asking you to start with where you want to be in five years’ time, or to articulate your strengths and weaknesses. They are quite rightly outdated when asked as interview questions and have limited value in this context too.

But it is worth interrogating your motivations and ambitions to help set goals; as well as identifying any holes in your skillset or knowledge that will help you to meet those goals. There is merit in revisiting these questions at the beginning of every year, and in advance of any formal appraisal or review meeting as they can provide an invaluable framework for objective-setting.

unlock some really useful insights I’ve adapted these ten questions from Target Setting and Goal Achievement by Richard Hale and Peter Whitlam. If you’re interested in further reading on this topic, it’s worth looking at this and other books they have published between them.

  1. What do I consider to be the most important aspects of my job?
  2. What help do I need to ensure that I succeed in the future?
  3. In what ways do I see my role changing?
  4. What are the external influences on my performance?
  5. What areas am I particularly interested in?
  6. Which technical aspects of my job are important?
  7. What skills do I need to help me develop further?
  8. What knowledge do I need to acquire?
  9. What contribution am I particularly qualified to make?
  10. What are my short-term, medium and long-term priorities?

 

My favourite is number nine and I've seen people unlock some really useful insights when they sit down and take the time to think through the implications of their answer to that one.

A two-way street

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned input from your line manager so far. Clearly a manager has a big role to play when it comes to formal objective-setting and review meetings, but the you as an individual can – and should – take the lead when it comes to your personal development.

Answering these questions comprehensively will help articulate to your line manager that you are invested – not only in your personal progression – but in what you can bring to your team and your organisation. It will also provide an opportunity to ask for any training and support you need to help you reach your goals.

I guarantee it will lead to more constructive conversations, and to a better partnership between you and your manager in the longer term.

Are you climbing the right ladder?

While we’re on the subject of formal appraisals, it’s not uncommon to approach these with promotion in mind.

If you think you’re in line for one, go back to those ten questions again and work out whether it will actually give you what you want. A pay rise and a new job title are always nice, of course, but will they change the way you feel about your career for the better?

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen people single-mindedly climbing the career ladder, only to reach the top and find that it’s leaning against the wrong wall.

Visualise your ladder: where will it take you and do you still want to go there?

Next steps

I really hope this is useful, and I’d love to hear what you think. What do you do to take ownership of your career? Which questions will be the most useful ones to ask yourself? And what additional questions would you add?

Four steps to fruitful client-agency relationships in 2020
Four steps to fruitful client-agency relationships in 2020

We’ve made it to the final furlong of 2019! It feels like we should be winding down as the year draws to a close but, by all accounts, there are still a lot of briefs to tackle, and pitches to get through before we can down tools and usher in the next decade.

New agency-client relationships will form and new campaigns will commence in the New Year, with all the optimism of a fresh new romance, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

But it’s a depressing fact that the honeymoon period is often all too short. How long before the agency starts saying, “We’ve got all these great ideas, but our client just isn’t listening to them”? How long before the client thinks, “The agency team just keeps asking the wrong questions”?

Strapped for time, we rarely take a step back and have the conversations that are necessary to address early frustrationsStrapped for time, we rarely take a step back and have the conversations that are necessary to address early frustrations. Instead they fester and infect the relationship…sometimes indefinitely.

Long-term versus short-term

The thing is, we are all in it together. And, ultimately, we all have the same long-term goal. Whichever side of the table you are on, you’re invested in doing great work that hits the right objectives and earns you a virtual high-five from the people that matter.

However, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the longer term goals. Agency teams quickly develop a laser focus for detail, for hitting weekly and monthly KPIs and diligently report back on regular calls. But it can feel like the client isn’t really listening. In-house comms managers have got other balls to juggle, targets to hit and budgets to play for. And it can feel to them that the agency doesn’t really understand their pressures.

If matters do come to a head, it’ll probably be around a meeting table when one party is least expecting it. At which point, the agency will most likely vomit solutions onto the aforementioned table with embarrassingly little consideration of the end goal.

I’d hate anyone to interpret this as a general criticism of agencies not being strategic enough. That’s absolutely not the case. But it is easy for agencies – and in-house comms teams, for that matter – to get caught up in the weeds.

Step away from the day-to-day

It’s fine to say: “This is my response right now, but I don’t have all the answers.It would be easy to say the answer lies in listening better. It does, of course. But it’s more than just keeping one’s mouth shut for a chunk of the next conference call or meeting.

The canny account handler needs to think about building time into the programme to ask questions and genuinely listen to the replies. That probably isn’t during the weekly conference call or even the monthly meeting or quarterly review. It might be a separate 1-2-1 call or coffee and a chat. The point is, we need to identify the opportunities to have an actual two-way conversation, not just deliver a download on the progress we’ve made towards hitting the KPIs.

Lose the game face

Such a conversation requires confidence. So often, it’s too scary to acknowledge a failure; that something we’ve done hasn’t worked as well as we thought it should. And that we don’t have all the answers. So we ignore it, and try to move on. Then it comes back to bite us around that meeting room table when we’re least expecting it, so we slap on the game face and try to solve the problem in the room.

Slow down.

Hemingway said: “The first draft of anything is shit.” So much truth in that statement.

We need to give ourselves permission to be honest. It’s fine to say: “This is my response right now, but I don’t have all the answers. Give me time to reflect and I will come back to you with them.” And then go away, consider the problem and work out all of the possible solutions. Only then should you try to discuss them.

Collaboration is what you need

Once you take away the pressure of delivering an immediate “wow moment” response, the relief is palpable, and true discussion can take place. That’s the point at which true collaboration begins between client and agency, and where each has mutual respect for the other. And surely that’s the mark of a good relationship.

Good luck with all of those pitches, and make sure you take steps to ensure the honeymoon period isn’t over by Valentine’s Day in 2020!

How to write quotes that journalists will actually want to use
How to write quotes that journalists will actually want to use

If you find yourself writing the words “We’re delighted/proud/passionate” in quotes, delete them. Journalists don’t give two hoots about how pleased you or your clients are. All they want to know is what you’re doing to please or support their readers.

We are not delighted

“We’re delighted...” is the most commonly used quote in press releases and it is a total waste of space.

You might just about get away with it in a live interview where someone has achieved a remarkable feat and is clearly very delighted.

Putting it in a press release says to the journalist: “We need to get the name of our MD/CEO/Big Important Client in somewhere, but they weren’t available to talk to – and they’re a bit sceptical about the media anyway – so we’ve used the old, safe cliché, which is actually true because this contract is worth a fortune to us/which is actually a lie because we’re being ripped off but don’t want to admit it.”

Can’t touch it

Far from being ‘fillers’, quotes are arguably the third most important parts of press releasesFar from being ‘fillers’, quotes are arguably the third most important parts of press releases. They’re the only parts of a release the media cannot change. So, don’t waste them with bland niceties.

Use quotes to express valuable opinions, explain the benefits to users, add credibility to claims or add a human element.

In my opinion

Quotes are also the only parts of press releases where you/your clients can express opinions. The rest of the release must be factual and impartial. The quote gives you the opportunity to be a bit ‘edgy’ or controversial. And there’s nothing the media likes more than controversy.

Forget missions, visions and values

Quotes are not the place for extolling the virtues of an organisation. Keep visions, values and mission statements for internal comms. Tell the media something useful. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How will it benefit customers/users?

Don’t ask for quotes

If there’s one way to get a really dull quote, it’s to ask for one.If there’s one way to get a really dull quote, it’s to ask for one.

As soon as you ask someone for a quote, they give you words they think they should say. You end up with well-rehearsed, meaningless, safe garbage.

Don’t ask for quotes – ask for answers. Go back to the six W questions and ask things like ‘what impact will this have on our customers’, ‘what challenges did we face and how did we overcome them’ and ‘why are we doing this – how will be it benefit people’.

Quotes are spoken words

No journalist will believe that somebody actually said: “It is envisaged that the upwardly trend will continue beyond this current period.” Even if it is true. Far better to write: “We expect things to keep getting better.” While you don’t want to make your man/woman sound thick, you do want to make them sound real. So, read quotes aloud and if they sound too good, too well written, they probably are.

Ideally, talk to the person you’re quoting, listen to how they speak, what words they use, and try to copy their speech patterns and vocabulary.

Give me more

Above all, quotes need to add something to a press release.

Don’t use a quote to repeat what you’ve said earlier. Add to what you’ve said. Explain it in more detail. Say why it’s a good thing. If you’re opening paragraph announces a new product, service or event, use quotes to explain why you’ve launched it and how it will help someone.

Use quotes to give a different view – better still, a different person’s view. Quotes give your stories a human element. But be wary of ‘satisfied customers’ and ‘positive testimonials’. Journalists will just think: “Well you would say that, wouldn’t you?”

Customer quotes need to talk about experiences and need to be a real and as detailed as other quotes.

Answer the question

If you’re in doubt on the usefulness of a quote, make sure it answers a question. If you can’t say what question the quote answers, it’s probably not a good quote.

And finally...

If you’re in doubt on the usefulness of a quote, make sure it answers a questionDon’t leave quotes to the end of the release. This might be where you were told to put them but if something is important in a press release, it should come near the beginning. Leave them until the penultimate paragraph and you give the impression that they can’t be terribly important.

Generally, the first paragraph sums up what the story is about, the second paragraph gives important background detail that puts the story in context and the third explains why the story is important. This third paragraph works well in the form of a well-written, detailed quote from someone important and relevant.

Ticks all the boxes

And there you have it. Don’t waste quotes. Ask questions. Write the answers. And make them sound like a real person said them. Done

5 most common proofreading mistakes
The the 5 most common proofreading mistakes

There are ten deliberate errors in this article. See how many you can spot.

If you didn't spot the 'double the' in the subject line, don't beat yourself up. You're in good company. Very few people spot a 'double the'. In fact, very few people are good at spotting most of the common proofreading mistakes, particularly in their own writing.

Not wired for proofreading

The human brain isn't geared to notice detail. It's very good at spotting what it needs to see — a mate, food, danger (not necessarily in that order) — but unless told otherwise, it tends to miss the little stuff.

If you've never seen The Invisible Gorilla test, have a look now:

Incredible, eh?

Spot the gorilla

So, when it comes to proofreading, stop working on instinct. Train yourself to look for gorillas.

1. Homophones

Homophones (from the Greek words homos, meaning same, and phone, meaning sound) are words that have the same sound but different meanings. They occur when we type quickly and because they don't look wrong, we don't see them. Unfortunately, spelling and grammar checkers won't spot these. Your on you're own here.

Some commonly overlooked homophones:

Anti/ante
Break/brake
Compliment/complement
Hear/here
Its/it's
One/won
Principal/principle
Sight/site
Stationery/stationary
To/too/two
Bare and bear
By/buy
Fair/fare
Hole/whole
New/knew
Peace/piece
Right/write
Steal/steel
There/their/they're
You're/your

2. Inconsistency

There are so many potential inconsistencies, its hardly surprising we miss a few. We don't spot them because individually they're not wrong. It's only when they occur again later in the document in a different form that a problem occurs.

Here are some classic inconsistencies to look out for:

Dates
4 July 2017, July 4 2017, 4th July 2017, July 4th 2016
Compound words
proof-reading, proofreading, proof reading
American and British English
colour/color, programme/program, licence/license
Headings
Title case (Second Quarter Report), Sentence case (Second quarter report), Uppercase (SECOND QUARTER REPORT)
Times
3.00pm, 3pm, 15.00, 3 o'clock
Numbers
3, 5, 9/three, five, nine
Symbols
%/percent, +/plus, &/and
Layout
one or two space after full stops, hyphens (-) used instead of dashes (—)
Double and single quote marks
"We're delighted with the result." 'It was a tough campaign — but we did it!'

3. Apostrophe problems

With apostrophes being used to show possession (belonging to something) and contraction (missing letters) it's know wonder some people get confused.

Common apostrophe problems:

Wrong:
Its uncertain whose to blame.
Right:
It's uncertain who's to blame.
Wrong:
Childrens' clothes are usually cheaper than adults clothes.
Right:
Children's clothes are usually cheaper than adults' clothes.
Wrong:
I'm selling my old DVD's.
Right:
I'm selling my old DVDs.
Wrong:
We're going to Paul's and Joe's party.
Right:
We're going to Paul and Joe's party. (when Paul and Joe share a party)

4. Poor syntax

Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. Poor syntax is often due to missing a key word; sometimes it's simply the right words in the wrong order. Poor syntax is easy to miss because even poorly constructed sentences can still makes sense.

Examples of poor syntax:

Poor:
She served sandwiches to guests on paper plates.
Better:
She served sandwiches on paper plates to guests.
Poor:
After eating my lunch, the waiter seemed keen to talk.
Better:
After I'd eaten my lunch, the waiter seemed keen to talk.
Poor:
For sale: bed for cat shaped like a dustbin
Better:
For sale: dustbin shaped cat bed (or 'dustbin shaped bed for a cat')

5. Double or missing words

Double words aren't a problem if you're using Word with the the Spelling & Grammar Checker running as you write, or if you run a check the end. (Why would you NOT run a check?)

But if you're not using the checker, or you're reading a print out, watch out for double or missing words. They're easy mistakes to make if you type fast but not so easy to spot.

Did you spot the ten deliberate errors in this article?

If you'd like a marked-up version showing the 10 mistakes, please email lorraine@bigfishtraining.com using the subject headline 'Answers to the 5 most common proofreading mistakes'.

5 Time Management Tips That Have Little To Do With Managing Time
5 Time Management Tips That Have Little To Do With Managing Time

When everything in your life is screaming "I NEED ATTENTION NOW!", no time management tool, mobile app, project management system, wall planner, organiser or 'to do' list is going to help. What you need is a reality check.

I used to have a boss whose only answer to my workload problems was "work smarter". I don't know if you've ever had anyone tell you to "work smarter" when you've been working 18 hour days, living off vending machine snacks and snapping at family and friends for months, but my response was to punch him in the face. Or rather that's what I pictured as I smiled through gritted teeth.

Working smarter is the only effective way to manage time. Or, as I prefer to think of it, 'use our waking hours wisely'He might not have expressed it well — or at the appropriate time — but the "work smarter" philosophy is pretty much the only effective way to 'manage time'. Or, as I prefer to think of it, 'use our waking hours wisely'.

A finite resource

Let's start with some obvious facts. Time, like money, is a finite resource. No matter how diligent you are with it, there's never enough of it to do everything. But while few of us waste money on worthless goods, many of us waste time on worthless tasks.

We take on everything that's thrown at us. Come in earlier. Stay on later. Skip lunch. Avoid socialising. Write lists. Work harder. Juggle more. Tick things off our lists. Start new lists. Get more things done. And get little or no thanks for our efforts.

Busy doing nothing

The only way to achieve goals is to set themBeing busy doesn't equate to be being effective.

You can reply to every email. Take every phone call. Produce beautiful spreadsheets and grow your own quinoa. But if your goal is to double your income, run a small holding on the Isle of Mull or play bass in a rock band, you're not 'using your waking hours wisely'.

So, let's state another obvious fact — the only way to achieve goals is to set them. Set them. Plan how you're going to achieve them. And stick to them.

Fixed goals, variable means

I learnt the phrase 'fixed goals, variable means' on a training course many years ago. It's a bit like 'work smarter' in that it gets your back up. It's too convenient. Too simplistic. But like 'work smarter', it makes sense.

If you're constantly grabbing at everything, starting new stuff and going with the flow, you'll do lots and achieve little.

Stick to a few big goals, try different ways to achieve them and you're more likely to get the right results.

5 steps to using your waking hours wisely

Okay, there's probably a lot more than 5. And you've probably heard them all before. And even if you follow them to the letter, there's no guarantee they'll work. But at least you'll stop kidding yourself that the panacea to all ills is time management.

1. Know what you're supposed to be doing

If your life's ambition is to be the busiest person in the psychiatric ward, carry on trying to do everything.

If, on the other hand, you want to keep your sanity, talk to your line manager/partner/best buddy/psychotherapist and agree what you're supposed to be doing with your life.

Then write yourself some goals. Goals remember, not tasks.

2. Give yourself permission to fail

Very few of us achieve our big goals. Life/work/people/sickness/laziness gets in the way.

If you're holding down an important job; looking after kids, pets and elderly parents; and trying to maintain an element of romance in a relationship, you probably need to dump/delay that novel you've been trying to write since 1992.

Give yourself a break. Give yourself permission to let something go.

3. Never say "I've got until Friday"

You know that job that's only going to take a couple of hours so you've plenty time between now and Friday to do it? No. Never. Forget it.

Experience shows that it will take at least twice as long as you thought. You won't have the info/resources you need. Somebody will add/change something. Nobody will be around to proofread it/quality test it/deliver it. And you'll get dragged into a three-hour meeting you didn't know about.

Don't just stick deadlines and appointments in your diary/planner/project manager thing. Go through every element of the job and put those in the diary too.

4. Plan for the unexpected

Even if you're dead good and plan in every element of a job, you have to be realistic about how long you can spend on it at any one sitting. Email. Phone calls. Colleagues. Customers. IT systems going down. Interruptions are part of life.

Don't fill your planners with just what you're working on. Plan in time for problems, reactive tasks, interruptions. If they don't happen, it will be like winning the time lottery!

5. Recognise the difference between urgent and important

When we're under pressure, everything seems urgent. The deadline we've known about for weeks is suddenly on top of us. There's a shit load of stuff that needs doing. And everyone wants everything yesterday.

Something isn't urgent just because someone says it is.

Urgent tasks are things that if they don't happen immediately people will die. Or millions of pounds will be lost of the stock market.

When you're sinking, stop thrashing about, take a deep breath and ask yourself what's important?

What will be the consequences of not doing something immediately? What one thing among everything else you have to do will have the best long-term effect?

Important tasks are tasks that help you achieve your long-term goals.

Changing the habits of a lifetime?

I appreciate than none of this is easy. A few tips and mantras aren't going to change the habits of a lifetime. But while it sounds crass, doing the same thing will get you the same results.

Take a risk. Don't reply to that email immediately. Be realistic about how much time to spend making a PowerPoint slide look good. And try to consider the long term effect of your actions.

Remember, nobody ever lay on their death bed wishing they'd spent more time at the office.

Is it a crisis, or a client panic?
Is it a crisis, or a client panic?

After nearly twenty years working in public relations, I've seen my fair share of crises. From websites getting hacked to staff leaking internal emails, from companies caught up in the dot-com crash to health concerns over parabens in cosmetics.

Things can go wrong which appear to be critically impacting your role or your company

I've also seen my fair share of panics from clients and from internal stakeholders. I say "panic" with the utmost respect, because when you work in marketing or sales, and you really care about your job, things can go wrong which appear to be critically impacting your role or your company.

However it's important in a PR or communications role to take a step back and assess these issues from an external point of view. It is an issue if a competitor puts his head above the parapet and criticises your client's product in the media. It could well be a problem if your client is excluded from a major product round-up piece in a key trade magazine. Having to manage a wave of redundancies, or the closure of an office, is a stressful time where care must be taken to communicate sensitively. But these things, which can generate concerns and in some cases panic, are not crises.

They may escalate into crises, and could well cause more serious reputational problems, but with a calm and measured approach from a PR manager the client panic can be defused and the issue dealt with in a way which ensures it never becomes a crisis.

Crises are those incidents which will dramatically impact the company's profitability, reputation, or ability to operate

Crises are those incidents which will dramatically impact the company's profitability, reputation, or ability to operate. Negative media coverage in a trade magazine (probably) doesn't fall into that category — even if it feels that way to you or your client!

In many of the crisis situations I've experienced, I've found that sadly the customer experience can be neglected. In an ideal world, when a crisis occurs you should simply be able to kick into action your well-planned and rehearsed crisis comms plan! But in the event that you don't have one, a tip:

When a crisis occurs you should simply be able to kick into action your well-planned and rehearsed crisis comms plan

Take it upon yourself as a communications representative to understand the customer experience clearly. You will probably find that many integral stakeholders will be involved when crisis strikes — the IT team, the HR people, the business leaders, a sales representative for example — but often no-one is specifically tasked with keeping in mind the customer experience.

Focus on gathering information to develop as clear a view as possible of the customer experience. This will ensure that the main focus of any communications materials you develop will look at how customers are impacted, if at all.

Good crisis communications is rarely seen

It's my view that good crisis communications is rarely seen. By this I mean: good crisis communications is invisible. Some "crises" may well be just "panics" or issues, but the flipside to an issue is a crisis if you don't handle it well. With sensitive handling, keeping the customer at the heart of your response, many situations will be defused before they become a crisis allowing the client to solve the issue and continue operating as normal.

PR Evaluation — You are as good as people think you are
PR Evaluation — You are as good as people think you are

Running a smooth PR Evaluation programme is critical to your success as a PR teamPR Evaluation. Groan. It's so dull, isn't it? Counting clippings, managing spreadsheets of coverage from multiple media sources, generating coverage reports, chasing down elusive coverage hidden behind paywalls. It takes a great deal of time and organisation — and that's before you factor social media coverage into the mix.

But running a smooth PR Evaluation programme is critical to your success as a PR team, whether you are in agency or in-house. Justifying your continued existence or budget can only be done when the business understands the benefit that PR and its outputs is delivering. There are many evaluation methods, ranging from basic clip counting and targets for incremental quantity of clips, right up to using evaluation tools and econometric modelling to assess the value of PR in comparison with other marketing methods.

Despite the differences in methods and goals set, there's one thing that all successful PR Evaluation campaigns have in common — and that's buy-in from the stakeholder. Presenting a deck which states "Quantity of coverage is up 10% y-o-y and we have achieved 15 more reviews than last year" doesn't do anything for a stakeholder who is more concerned with building a B2B brand in the retail media.

Despite the differences in methods and goals set, there's one thing that all successful PR Evaluation campaigns have in commonSuccessful PR Evaluation is more about goal-setting and stakeholder management than it is the nitty-gritty of coverage analysis. How can you state with confidence that you have run a successful PR campaign, proven by your outputs and media coverage, if you haven't debated long and hard about what success looks like?

In addition, the definition of success changes over time. Where two years ago a high quantity of positive product reviews may have been critical, today the business' needs have likely changed. As businesses today pivot and shift on an almost quarterly basis, it's a highly valuable exercise to reassess your PR goal with a client or stakeholder on a regular basis. Each programme or campaign should have clear objectives based on which specific audiences will be reached with which targeted messages, and what PR outputs you expect from this activity.

Each programme or campaign should have clear objectivesStakeholder management and education on the bigger picture of what PR success looks like is critical. We've all been in that position on a Monday morning trying to justify "Why weren't we in that?!" to a senior leader. However, if you have spent the time developing PR goals and defining success together with your stakeholder, this type of request can be batted away by referring to the strategy and success metrics you've previously agreed.

Unless of course you really should have been in that article, and then you're in trouble. But that's another article...

How to write about dull subjects (in an interesting way)
How to write about dull subjects (in an interesting way)

...there's no such thing as dull subjects; there's only dull writingOf the three main reasons people cite for attending my writing courses, 'how to make dull subjects interesting' comes a pretty close top. ('How to get started' and 'how to be concise' are the other two.) So let me say here and now what I tell all my students — there's no such thing as dull subjects; there's only dull writing.

We need to abandon the idea that it's the subject that's dullIt's never the product, service or policy that's the problem; it's the writer's lack of understanding and/or enthusiasm. If the writer's not 'into' the subject, how can the reader be?

Here's a brilliant example of what I mean.

I personally have no interest in engineering so it's unlikely I'd pick up a copy (or go online and read) Popular Mechanics. It's equally unlikely I'd want to read an article on a new engine driven by HYDRA (hygroscopic-driven artificial muscles).

But when I read about the world's first engine with living parts — living parts — I was intrigued. Two paragraphs in, I was hooked.

In his article Here Is the World's First Engine Driven by Nothing But Evaporation, William Herkewitz makes complex bioengineering interesting, accessible and entertaining.

It might not look like much, but this plastic box is a fully functioning engine — and one that does something no other engine has ever done before. Pulling energy seemingly out of thin air, it harvests power from the ambient evaporation of room-temperature water. No kidding.

A team of bioengineers led by Ozgur Sahin at Columbia University have just created the world's first evaporation-driven engine, which they report today in the journal Nature Communications. Using nothing more than a puddle of resting water, the engine, which measures less than four inches on each side, can power LED lights and even drive a miniature car. Better yet, Sahin says, the engine costs less than $5 to build.

To fully appreciate just how good William Herkewitz's writing is, you need to have a quick read of the original paper in Nature Communications.

The headline alone is baffling — Scaling up nanoscale water-driven energy conversion into evaporation-driven engines and generators — and the opening couple of sentences do nothing to tempt the layman to read on.

Evaporation is a ubiquitous phenomenon in the natural environment and a dominant form of energy transfer in the Earth's climate. Engineered systems rarely, if ever, use evaporation as a source of energy, despite myriad examples of such adaptations in the biological world. Here, we report evaporation-driven engines that can power common tasks like locomotion and electricity generation.

So how is it done? How do you make a dull subject fascinating?

Who says it's dull?

First off, we need to abandon the idea that it's the subject that's dull. A new government policy on the rights of walkers to use coastal paths at certain times of year, or the launch of a new compact generator for small garages might hold no interest to me and you, but to the coastal walkers of Great Britain and self-employed car mechanics, these subjects are fascinating.

Rule number one is forget how you feel about the subject and consider the target audience. Why would it be of interest to them? What benefits does it bring? How does it affect their lives? (Of course, thinking about your target audience is the first rule of writing about anything.)

Watch the shopping channel

The next step is to get enthused by the subject. Whether you like it or not.

If you're in any doubt about the ability to get excited over something that doesn't excite you personally, watch the shopping channel.

Not all night, of course. Unless you're into that sort of thing. Just watch it for half an hour or so and see how the presenters talk endlessly about the virtues of cordless drills, magnifying mirrors or reproduction Victorian plates.

How do they do it?

They study the product, learn exactly what it does and how it benefits the viewers, then, not content to just tell us it's capable of drilling into concrete, they show us.

Show, don't tell

If you've ever studied how to write fiction, you'll be familiar with the ancient rule — show, don't tell.If you've ever studied how to write fiction, you'll be familiar with another ancient rule — show, don't tell.

This means you need to stop using so many adjectives (bigger, faster, easier, more convenient) to describe something and start using more verbs.

Verbs tell us what something DOES.

Let's say you describe a new computer program as fast, intelligent and insightful, your readers just have to take your word for it. But if you tell them that the new program transfers data at 100,000 terabytes per second, auto-deletes duplicate files and predicts potential conflicts of interest based on your previous operations, your readers understand what the product DOES and how therefore it benefits them.

Write in appropriate language

This one is also pretty obvious but it's worth stressing that if your target audience doesn't get "Evaporation is a ubiquitous phenomenon in the natural environment and a dominant form of energy transfer..." then it's probably better to avoid it.

Compare those words to "Using nothing more than a puddle of resting water, the engine can power LED lights and even drive a miniature car" and you see the brilliance of simple language.

Turn facts into narrative

Everyone loves a good story. If you can frame information into a narrative, your reader will follow your tale from beginning to end.Everyone loves a good story. If you can frame information into a narrative, your reader will follow your tale from beginning to end.

In his article There's no dull subjects, only dull authors, Brian Adams from PH Creative says that an article about manufacturing latex and neoprene gloves (those used by professionals such as doctors and clean-room techs) could be dry, but if you reframe it with a narrative that follows one pair of gloves from raw materials and blending to molding and quality control, you communicate the same information in a lively way.

Ask the right questions

In How to Write Interesting Content for a "Boring" Topic, Pratik Dholakiya, co-founder of E2M, says that creating compelling content is all down to asking the right questions.

He gives a good example of how you can take the potentially mundane subject of coffee cups and shows how the classic 'who, what, where, why, when and how' questions can be used to dig deep and find a new angle.

He even cites an article on Cracked.com called 4 Reasons Why Fair Trade Coffee Is a Scam that answers the simple question Is fair trade coffee really fair? The article has more than 240,000 views and 6,200 likes on Facebook.

Stop being lazy

There is enough good writing in print, online and in broadcasting to prove there is no such thing as dull subjects. People have written talks about biometrics, books about neutrinos, radio programmes about pensions and feature films about mathematics. The 'secret' to their success is hard work. If you're a lazy writer and you rely on clichés, jargon and a list of features, you'll bore yourself and your audience. But if you take time to study the subject and see it as endlessly fascinating, you'll find a way of making your writing equally compelling.

Is online writing really that different?
Is online writing really that different?

Type the words 'writing for the web' into Google and up will pop around 739,000,000 results in 0.41 seconds. I didn't get beyond the first 30 or so but it was clear from those that just about every academic institution, training course provider and professional writer has an awful lot to say on the subject. But is all of this special attention really necessary? Surely good writing is good writing. Is online writing really that different to writing for any other medium?

Surely good writing is good writing. Is online writing really that different to writing for any other medium?Yes. And no.

No. Because so much that's written about writing for the web could equally be said of other mediums. I repeatedly see the following tips on writing for the web.

  • Be concise
  • Use simple language
  • Know your audience
  • Adopt the right tone of voice
  • Engage your reader
  • Proofread carefully

Good online writing would be good writing if it were on the back of a jam jarIt's not bad advice. In fact, it's good advice — for ANY PIECE OF BUSINESS WRITING.

No. Because good online writing would be good writing if it were on the back of a jam jar — provided it obeyed all the other rules of jam jar writing, i.e. short, interesting and relevant to users of jam.

But yes, it does need to different in some aspects because...

Knowing what MEDIUM you're writing for is a crucial part of being a good writer.

Consider how your words could be interpreted — or misinterpreted — by non-native English speakersRegardless of the subject, you wouldn't approach a radio ad, a conference speech and a how-to manual in the same way. You'd know the rules for each medium and you'd adapt your style and content accordingly.

Equally, you'd be a pretty ineffective writer if you didn't consider your TARGET AUDIENCE.

As online writing has the potential to reach millions of people across the globe, you might need to consider how your words could be interpreted — or misinterpreted — by non-native English speakers.

And yes, because if you're also trying to improve your SEARCH RANKINGS, you'll need to write for two audiences — humans and machines.

However, it's worth pointing out that successful Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has got a lot less to do with blasting your copy with keywords and a lot more to do with throwing money at it.

If you really want to influence your search rankings, write content that humans like, find interesting and want to share.I won't go into all the ways you can improve your SEO in this blog post (I might tackle that one another time) but believe me when I say that the only way the little bookshop in your local high street is going to top Amazon is through some very clever and potentially expensive backend digital work and a very large online advertising budget.

If you really want to influence your search rankings, write content that humans like, find interesting and want to share. Then put some appropriate keywords in the title, introductory paragraph and subheads.

So for those of you looking for the SPECIFIC rules of online writing, here are my...

Ten top tips for writing online

1. Don't band all online writing together

Writing copy for the home page of a county council website isn't the same as writing copy for an online guide to recycling or a social media post on Christmas opening hours.

2. Do repeat your messages frequently

An ad on the back of a magazine can lie around for a year. Unless you write regularly, your posts and tweets will be lost in a sea of billions of others.

3. Don't oversell your products or services

Online audiences can make up their own minds, or ask millions of unbiased people what they think.

4. Do test your online writing on several platforms

Those 300 words look lovely laid out on the big screen. Squashed onto a phone, nobody can be bothered to read them.

5. Don't stuff your copy with obvious keywords

'For all your plumbing needs in Croydon come to Croydon Plumbing, the home of perfect plumbing in and around Croydon' could harm your site's ranking and turn off human visitors!

6. Do involve as many people as possible

If every blog post is written by your product manager you'll give people the impression that he's the only person who works at your organisation or that he's a bit of a control freak. Different points of view make blogs interesting. If you're a sole trader, try adapting your style, inviting guest bloggers or link your posts to complementary sites.

7. Don't be a slave to grammar

Online writing is (generally) scanned not read. If it's easier for people to scan bullet points, phrases and ridiculously short paragraphs, go for it.

8. Do use visual tricks

Such as numbers as figures (1, 2, 3, etc. as opposed to one, two, three) buttons, photo captions and subheads to draw readers to important information.

9. Don't write long chunks of text

Break your narrative up into lots of short non-linear paragraphs — each one making sense on its own.

10. Do add links to other pages and websites

The beauty of the web is NOT having to tell someone everything at once. Give them the bare bones or the teaser then encourage them to go elsewhere for more info.

If you're still hungry for advice, here's a few more good sources:

BBC Academy: Writing for the web
University of Exeter: Writing for the web
Web Wise Wording: 10 Web Writing Tips
Google Webmaster Tools: About rich snippets and structured data

How do you create an atmosphere of Trust?
How do you create an atmosphere of Trust?

Trust is a core value for many people, transcending through all contexts of life; at home, socially and at work. But what does the word Trust mean to you?

Delivering on promises is just the beginning. There is a much deeper level of trust to be gainedFor me, in terms of trusting other people, it is the reliance on the integrity of a person to deliver on a promise, consistently, demonstrated through their behaviour, or ability to perform a particular task.

We would like to feel we are trusted by others, yet how do we create that trust? How easily do you trust those around you, and what do people have to do to gain your trust?

Delivering on promises is just the beginning. There is a much deeper level of trust to be gained, which can transform your relationships, and your business results.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I have been enjoying working with management teams recently, using some great tools to help teams work more effectively together. One of these tools is 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team' model, where Patrick Lencioni states that the first and most destructive dysfunction is the Absence of Trust.

In many teams, few people — including the leader — feel comfortable asking for helpIn many teams, few people — including the leader — feel comfortable asking for help, holding up their hands to say they got it wrong or admit to not having the answer. Why? Well, if they did they would feel humiliated or look stupid, wouldn't they? There is the fear that they would be seen as incompetent, ruining their credibility and it might impact on career prospects.

Surely as a boss you should be making the 'right' decisions and know all the answers!

And yet when others DO share their vulnerabilities, we appreciate their authenticity and we are willing to open up also.

When Andy Murray admitted his mistakes, and shared his genuine disappointment after an early departure from Wimbledon this year, did you judge him for his incompetence, or did your heart go out to him for his honesty?

The Causes of Mistrust

When there is an absence of trust, there can be an absence of honest and open communication.

Top management consultant Patrick Lencioni encourages the team leader to take the first step in sharing their vulnerabilitiesAnd isn't poor communication a major source of the challenges we face in life? (I was going to say 'organisations', but it's not just at work, is it...?)

In Lencioni's model, he notes that mistrust occurs when people at work don't know or understand each other at a deeper level. There is mistrust when others withhold information, and work to their own agenda, rather than the team goals.

When we start to understand each other's strengths, and weaknesses, their personality style and what drives their behaviour, then we can be more open with each other. Lencioni encourages the team leader to take the first step in sharing their vulnerabilities.

Yes, it takes some guts to admit 'I messed up' or 'I need some help with this', but as long as it's delivered with self-respect and confidence, your team will appreciate your honesty. This is part of being an authentic leader.

And in turn, this gives permission to team members to feel safe in being open and honest with you.

Vulnerability-based trust lies at the heart of healthy relationships — whether at home or at work.


Helen Isacke is the author of 'Soft Skills for Strong Leaders; Ten Steps to Management Success'. For over ten years, Helen has been working with managers, leaders and their teams. She is an accredited coach, NLP Master Practitioner and MD of Crown Coaching.

Why Cameron and Suarez need to learn to say 'won't' rather than 'can't'
Why Cameron and Suarez need to learn to say "won't" rather than "can't"

In a week in which David Cameron has been rebuked by Mr Justice Saunders for talking about Andy Coulson before the trial had ended and Luis Suarez is condemned for allegedly biting Giorgio Chiellini, I'm reminded of the benefits of saying "won't" rather than "can't".

Years ago, while studying communication skills, I learnt something that I'd always known but had never really considered. When we say we "can't" do something we rarely mean that it's physically impossible. We generally mean we could do it but we'd prefer not to.

Suarez would do well to stop hiding behind the "I can't help it; it's a bad habit" thing and adopt the "I won't do it again" mantraMost of us, at one time or other, have said "I'm so sorry, I can't come to your party/leaving do/meeting/etc" when what we actually mean is "I don't want to come to your party/leaving do/meeting/etc". "Can't" is great get out. It implies that we want to do something but we are simply unable to. Few people question it and we generally get away without appearing rude or having to make an effort.

But what happens if someone does question it? What if the host says: "Oh dear, that's a shame, why not?" We usually find ourselves making up excuses, or white lies as we like to call them. Fine if the person we are 'white-lying' to accepts our reasons, but woe betide the excuse-maker faced with the Jeremy Paxmans of this world.

Okay, so David Cameron wanted to calm a potential political storm and do that thing that everyone in power does — acknowledge responsibility without actually taking it. But he would have avoided the reprimand, and gained a modicum of respect, if after Andy Coulson was found guilty of conspiring to hack phones he had simply said: "I won't be making any comments until the trial is over."

Equally, Suarez would do well to stop hiding behind the "I can't help it; it's a bad habit" thing and adopt the "I won't do it again" mantra.

By declaring "I won't do that again", you have made a commitment to changeBy declaring "I won't do that again", you have made a commitment to change. It means that you'll find the will to make it happen. "I can't do something" means you've given up even trying.

In my time management and assertiveness workshops, I encourage participants to use "won't" rather than "can't" when they are negotiating. "I won't do this task today; I will do it by the end of the week" is far more powerful than "I can't do it today" and far more effective.

To find out how communication skills training can help you manage personal behaviour, read about our course Improving Personal Communication Skills for PR Account Executives.

Ten ways to beat writer's block
Ten ways to beat writer's block

Even the best of writers experience writer's block from time to time when they cannot think of anything to write — or they ditch what they have written believing it to be 'rubbish'. So here are ten ways that could help you beat the dreaded ailment.

  1. Find the root of the problem — lack of information, bored with the subject, no new ideas and lost confidence through over criticism are just some of the common causes — you need to establish yours before you can start to tackle it
  2. Stop trying to write the piece that's troubling you and write something else — even if it's only an email to a friend moaning about not being able to write!
  3. Keep a writing diary and learn from it — note what happened in the lead up to the good days, when the words seem to tumble out by themselves, and the bad days, when everything was a struggle
  4. Imagine you're talking to a friend or relative and tell them (out loud if you're alone or don't mind being seen talking to yourself in public) what the piece is about — use your own natural spoken words — do not try to 'sound good'
  5. Force yourself to write something (anything) every day — it's the habit of writing, not the quality, that's important — the quality will come afterwards in the editing process
  6. Recognise the difference between drafting and editing — the first draft is not supposed to be good — think of it as the brain dump only
  7. Come at the story/brochure/email/web page/briefing document from a different angle — stop trying to write it from the client's/organisation's/hero's point of view and write it from the customer/employee/villain's point of view
  8. Ask lots and lots of questions — don't settle for the answers to 'who, what, where and when' — the most interesting stuff comes from asking 'why' and 'how' — for most business communications you need to know "why would my readers be interested in this?"
  9. Use fairytales or read 'The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories' by Christopher Booker to see if what you're writing about can be adapted to incorporate the theme or storyline of one of the classic plots
  10. Give yourself a break — it is the clichéd answer but that's because it works — trying too hard or beating yourself up inhibits creativity so give yourself permission not to write — do something different, ideally something mind-numbingly dull, and let the subconscious take over — only be careful not to let this become a habit or you'll then be dealing with procrastination instead!

© Lorraine Forrest-Turner forrest-turner.co.uk

Why 'to do' lists don't work... as well as 'done' lists
Why 'to do' lists don't work... as well as 'done' lists

I'm a very sad person. I love ticking things off my 'to do' list. I love it so much that I actually add things to my list after I've done them just so I can tick them off.

What do we do when we feel overwhelmed by the ever-growing lists of tasks...?It turns out that I'm not alone in this self reward behaviour. There's something in the satisfaction of ticking things off (or, in my case, putting a wavy line through) that makes us feel in control of our workloads and good about our achievements.

Whether we use pen and paper, Microsoft Outlook Calendar, our iPhone or something like Todoist, everyone loves a good 'to do' list.

However, what happens on those days/weeks when we're so busy we not only DON'T tick things off our lists, we keep adding to them? What do we do when we feel overwhelmed by the ever-growing lists of tasks, chores and responsibilities?

Answer — write a 'done' list! Seriously.

I was losing sleep, getting depressed and becoming more and more inefficient...It might sound like a waste of time, but 'done' lists give us an enormous sense of achievement. And that sense of achievement is what drives us on to (eventually) work through our responsibilities.

I discovered the benefits of the 'done' list when I was going through a particularly busy period in my life. I found the sheer amount of work overwhelming and the dissatisfaction of never completing my 'to do' lists utterly frustrating. Worse still, I was losing sleep, getting depressed and becoming more and more inefficient.

So one night I decided to write down all the things I had done that day — rather than focus on all the things that I hadn't. It was enlightening. Yes, I hadn't written a blog post but I had written damned good sales letter for BMW, MINI and Mazda. I hadn't called everyone I was supposed to have called, but the people I did call were the ones who would have the greatest impact on the projects I was working on.

So one night I decided to write down all the things I had done that day — rather than focus on all the things that I hadn'tThe result was a feeling of great satisfaction, a more positive attitude to the next day's jobs — and a decent night's sleep to boot.

My brother-in-law has been using 'done' lists for years. He uses them to record how long he has spent on each task, and at appraisal time to show what value he has brought to the company.

But no, filling in your timesheets is not the same thing. (I actually like those too.) Because noting that you spend 10 hours on the widget launch when you still haven't even broken the back of it is even more depressing. You need to list WHAT you did during those 10 hours to achieve satisfaction.

If, like me, you judge your productivity by how many items you've ticked off your 'to do' list, it goes without saying that you feel a bit of a failure when it just keeps growing. So just take a few moments (and it does only take a few moments) to scribble down everything you've achieved that day, or better still, that week. You'll be amazed at just how productive — and valuable — you are.

© Lorraine Forrest-Turner forrest-turner.co.uk

If your dog does a poo, please put it in a bin
"If your dog does a poo, please put it in a bin."

Have you ever wondered why we often meet people we recognise but can't figure out who they are? Sometimes it's even people we know pretty well, but we still can't remember how we know them. I call it the 'out of context syndrome'..

"Caution Animals Drive Slow" doesn't mean that animals are slow drivers, but it still makes me smile We tend to associate people we know with certain situations so when we see our doctor in the supermarket, or our postman in the pub, we say hello but we can't always place the face and it bugs us all day until we eventually remember.

Context plays an enormous role in communications, and woe betide the communicator who gets it wrong.

Take my headline. We know it doesn't mean put the dog in the but it's a great example of context. We know we're meant to pick up dog mess so we instantly understand the message. We also know that "Caution Animals Drive Slow" doesn't mean that animals are slow drivers, but it still makes me smile every time I see signs like this.

The 'dangling modifier' can provide a highly amusing lack of clarity The Oxford English Dictionary describes context as "the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement or idea; the parts that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning."

The much used, but rarely recognised, 'dangling modifier' can provide a highly amusing lack of clarity. Dangling modifiers (often referred to as hanging or dangling participles) are sentences where the second part of the sentence doesn't refer to the subject in the first part.

Humorous examples include:

  • Fresh from the oven and smothered in butter, my husband loved my homemade bread
  • On entering the surgery, the skeleton immediately caught my eye
  • If found guilty, the FA could fine the players and the club

Fortunately, our common sense tells us what poor writing doesn't!

Imagine your intended audience hearing or reading your words from their point of view... Unfortunately, out of context doesn't always make you smile.

I once attended an automotive awards dinner where the guest speaker (a popular national TV news reader) told several jokes about second-hand car salesmen and sheepskin coats. Not only did nobody laugh, but with each new ill-advised quip, we grew more and more irritated. Humour relies on context big time..

So the next time you're editing a piece of writing, just imagine your intended audience hearing or reading your words from their point of view. Do those words that you so clearly understood/enjoyed really make sense/entertain out of context?

© Lorraine Forrest-Turner forrest-turner.co.uk

Is something broken when it won't stop working?
Is something broken when it won't stop working?

My washing machine is broken. It washes, it drains, it spins and the clothes come out clean.

So what's the problem? It takes far too long to do it!

No-one wants a rushed job, 'rushed' implying that the quality won't be as goodUntil recently, my washing machine had various cycle options, including the so-called 'quick wash' (which took the best part of an hour), the 'normal wash' (over two hours) and the 'if you've got nothing else to do with your life wash'. Now my 'quick wash' takes so long I have to do an emergency 'stop and drain' if I want to keep my sanity. But what has all of this got to do with PR?

It happens to be a pretty good example of something doing the job expected of it but simply taking far too long to do it. In PR terms that could mean missing the news value in a story, sacrificing other work and/or over-servicing to the point where you start to lose money.

No-one wants a rushed job, 'rushed' implying that the quality won't be as good, but equally when the builders say they'll be "finished by Christmas" you do expect Christmas to be the one within the calendar year you're currently in.

...we're not in the business of painting the Sistine Chapel. The lifespan of much of what we produce is so short that there has to be a realistic approach to how long we're prepared to spendI don't remember anyone ever telling me how long I should take to write a press release but I can't help thinking that the two days I spent on my first (over 25 years ago) was a tad on the long side. One boss of mine used to talk about 'commercial reality'. He recognised that while PR and advertising did involve a great deal of creative thinking, we're not in the business of painting the Sistine Chapel. The lifespan of much of what we produce is so short that there has to be a realistic approach to how long we're prepared to spend (and how much a client is prepared to pay) on any one job.

Whether it's time management, client handling or internal negotiation you need to improve upon, something is wrong if you can't remember the last time you left the office before dark. We all have manic periods when we have to burn the midnight oil, we all take on jobs thinking they're relatively simple only to find that we've seriously underestimated how long they're going to take, and we've all over-serviced a new client when trying to impress them with our talents. But in the agency world, we sell time. And if we're giving too much of it away for free, it's not only bad for business, it's bad for our physical and mental health.

In the agency world, we sell time. And if we're giving too much of it away for free, it's not only bad for business, it's bad for our physical and mental healthThere are many reasons why people work long hours. Poor time management, too eager to please, lack of confidence and not wanting to be seen to be slacking are a few of the common ones. But sometimes the problem is more deep-seated and the company simply takes on or delivers too much work for the number of people being paid to do it. Whatever the reason, we can help you work out what the underlying problems are and develop the programme to address them.

Now, I must go and check if that wash I put on yesterday has reached the spin cycle yet.

© Lorraine Forrest-Turner forrest-turner.co.uk

Black Friday? It makes you want to Laugh Out Loud
Black Friday? It makes you want to Laugh Out Loud

When I first saw the words 'Black Friday' in an email from Amazon last week I immediately thought of 'Black Wednesday' (16 September 1992 when the UK pulled out of the ERM) and other equally 'Bad Days' in history. This rich delight of language can lead to problems in the communications business Several 'salemails' later I worked out that 'Black Friday' is yet another import from our US cousins — as if we need any encouragement to spend money this time of year. But it did get me thinking about language and how we use it in PR.

The English language is a positive smorgasbord of words begged, borrowed and stolen from around the world. As a result, Native English speakers smile sympathetically when non-native speakers 'make a picture' as opposed to 'take a photograph' or enthuse 'for sure' when 'okay' would be more appropriate. However this rich delight of language can lead to problems in the communications business — especially if your intended audience, like David Cameron last year, still think LOL stands for lots of love.

Language is continually evolving and we as professional communicators need to keep up to speed. Take the word 'gay'. Having gone from being 'happy/frivolous' to becoming both the noun and adjective for homosexual, it is now being used by some young people as a derogatory term meaning 'loser', 'limp' or 'pathetic'. 'Gay' seems to have become the new 'sad'. Interestingly, it was the gay community who changed 'gay' from a pejorative into an adjective with less power to subdue, which makes it all the more interesting that young people We need to be mindful of how certain words and phrases will be perceived by our target audiences have taken it and made it a pejorative again, albeit in a different context.

Our rich language means we can choose to create very different perceptions. The other day I heard a BBC newsreader describe a 17 year-old killed in a cycling accident as a 'boy' while the same news programme a week earlier described a 17 year-old appearing in court for attempted murder as a 'young man'. Equally, I've heard 17 year-olds described as 'yobs' 'youths' and 'lads'.

While no-one wants to litter their press releases with the dreadful, politically-correct 'skill mix adjustments', 'difficult exercises in labour relations' or, heavens forbid, 'deferred successes', we do need to be mindful of how certain words and phrases will be perceived by our target audiences — particularly so with online copy which can read by audiences the world over. While training a multi-national company this week, one French delegate was confused by an internal email with the subject headline 'snow alert: mind your head'. It asked staff to be careful leaving the building as the recent cold spell had resulted in icicles falling from the roof. 'Take care: icicles falling from the roof' might have been less creative but it would have been easily understood by everyone. The same company also asked staff to get in touch if they had any 'burning issues' they wanted to discuss and were surprised by some of the responses!

We all want our copy to be engaging, even imaginative at times, but unless you are absolutely certain your audience will get your witty puns or colloquial references, stick to good old Plain English.

Stand up for what you believe in — Presentation Skills for PR Professionals
Stand up for what you believe in

I'd like to think that I'm relatively open-minded and willing to embrace change in business (you can feel a 'but' coming on, can't you?) but there is one old rule I refuse to bend on — I insist on standing up when presenting. Sitting down might feel more comfortable but effective presenting isn't about feeling comfortable; it's about persuading a group of people to agree with you. And if you're not prepared to stand up for what you believe, why should anyone else?

Sitting down together both figuratively and metaphorically is a vital part of communicationsFirst off, let me say there are times when sitting down round a table is not just a good thing it's the only thing to do. Sitting down with a group of people, discussing, listening, negotiating is absolutely right and proper when an open and honest discussion is called for and when everyone's opinion is valid. Sitting down together both figuratively and metaphorically is a vital part of communications. It shows (or rather it should) that final decisions have not yet been made and that everyone has the opportunity to have their views heard.

However, presenting is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Presenting is your chance to achieve an objective, impart an important message and bring your audience 'on board'. And whether that's a new business pitch, a launch to the media or reporting back to clients or colleagues on the success of a campaign, standing up gives your presentation the gravitas you simply cannot achieve sitting down.

If you are addressing an audience who are already standing, raise yourself up on a stage, a platform or even a table or a chair if you have to. It does make a differenceA number of things happen when we stand up. Unless your audience are all standing too, standing up immediately makes you taller than everyone else so you stand out and get noticed. You command attention. If you are addressing an audience who are already standing, raise yourself up on a stage, a platform or even a table or a chair if you have to. It does make a difference.

Secondly, your posture changes. Most people tend to slump a little (or a lot) when they sit. While it is possible to stand with your head bowed and your shoulders forward, standing generally pulls your shoulders back, your tummy in and chest out. Whether we're a body language expert or not most of us recognise the standing posture as being one of awareness, assertiveness and a readiness to act. Sitting down is simply too relaxed.

Thirdly, standing improves your breathing and therefore your voice. Your chest expands when standing, allowing you to take in more air, which helps make your voice deeper and louder. Deeper, louder voices sound more confident that higher softer ones so you command even more attention.

Also, standing makes you more self-aware. That slight (or, in some cases, extreme!) nervousness we feel when we stand up to talk is exactly what we need at that time. That extra adrenaline rush gives you the energy you need to deal with being out of your comfort zone. So don't see nerves as a bad thing. It is those nerves that keep you focussed on what you're doing. If speakers are too relaxed they can find themselves saying something they wished they hadn't!

So the next time you're in a meeting and you want to make an important point, stand up. Take control. You won't just look and sound more convincing you'll be giving out a very clear message: "I believe in what I'm saying. You should too."

Assertiveness training for Public Relations professionals
Why on earth do PR consultants want to learn to be more assertive?

Behind this simple question lay a couple of misconceptions that crop up all the timeOne of the things I enjoy about being a trainer is that I occasionally get to send myself off for training. It's fun to swap tips, share knowledge and meet people who have a similar obsession with whiteboards. On one such recent course we were chatting about what we'd been up to the previous week. One of the courses I'd given was 'Becoming Assertive for PR Consultants'. On hearing that, one of our little group almost choked on his coffee as he gasped: "Why on earth do PR consultants want to learn to be more assertive?"

It made me laugh, to be honest. Behind this simple, candidly-expressed question lay a couple of misconceptions that crop up all the time. The first is that 'assertiveness' equates with being bright, sparkly and forthright — often even aggressive — and the second is that PR people are all confident masters of their own ships.

I spend almost all of my professional life working with and alongside PR people. Hell, I even used to be one! You can say many things about our industry, but one thing that we're almost never tagged with is 'shy and retiring'. And yet the courses I provide on becoming assertive continue to attract delegates — a fact which clearly surprised my colleague who prompted today's blog subject.

It's true that if you observe a typical PR assertiveness course alongside one given for a less, shall we say, client-responsive industry, then you would see many initial differences in the behaviour of the delegates. In fact, as a trainer, I rely on it. The delegates that I typically see for this course have no problems in introducing themselves to the group, explaining articulately what they want to get out of the course, and participating fully in the exercises.

Where I've trained people in assertiveness who work in different industries, the picture is often quite different. It's a little harder to ask for upfront discussion and frank exchanges of views. Anyone who's facilitated training will know that you have to work slightly differently to encourage people to participate when the act of getting up and holding court in front of a room is not part of their daily life. With both groups the learning and end results are the same and we manage to have the same amount of fun, but the volume button is slowly cranked up with the non-PR groups, as opposed to starting near 10.

PR people come on an assertiveness course because they need to be performing like articulate, bright and competent people 100% of the timeSo does this tell us anything? So far, not so much. We're still no closer to understanding why a PR consultant would sign up to learn more about assertiveness. But wait, maybe unpicking the reasons why they're there will help. This is where, for me, life becomes a whole lot more interesting. All of a sudden people are describing situations and events where they'd like to become more assertive and exert some consultative control. And they start talking about other people. Yes, some people come on the course because there are certain people, or certain categories of people, in whose presence they become unexpected doormats.

Pushing back on certain clients, delegating to a particular reluctant team member, providing ideas to some managers... can you start to see where this is going? For me, at least, this is where the answer lies. Whilst some people come on the course to learn all-round assertiveness skills, most people sign-up because they are assertive in many situations at work but, with some people or events, they find they just don't make headway and they don't understand how to turn it around.

For me, that hits the spot. Articulate, bright, competent PR people come on an assertiveness course because they need to be performing like articulate, bright and competent people 100% of the time. It's one thing being able to sell-in ideas to the client who's the most like all your friends and with whom you get on well. It's quite another to hold your nerve in front of the client who's least like you and your friends and might, frankly, be a bit scary to boot.

Maybe the true test of assertiveness is being able to behave like a consultant regardless of the situation or the people involved. What do you think?

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