In 1985 British Airways promoted me to the grand position of Sales Information Officer. What did that mean? I don’t think anyone knew. I wasn’t sure myself.
In fact, we were a small department, a colleague and I, who had been recruited to develop the BA Prestel site into an online catalogue. Prestel was the British Telecom videotext system (like Ceefax and Oracle) but more flexible and responsive. 95% of UK travel agents used it to book package tours. BA decided that, as agents already used the system, it should develop its own site to sell scheduled air travel services to agents.
And so we set about developing what grew into a 7,000-screen online brochure with full details of the product illustrated by heavily pixelated diagrams and illustrations. I spent months creating fares tables and editing fare rules for every fare BA sold for travel from the UK to its worldwide destinations. I think the fares section ran to 2,000 pages.
What seemed amazing at the time was to be able to upload pages from our PC network (an IBM AT PC with a 20MB hard disk linked to two twin-floppy IBM XT PCs) via modem down an ordinary telephone line. It seemed magical that one second the page was on my PC and the next it was accessible for anyone to view on Prestel.
It all seemed so exciting. People could even send us messages, which we printed off on a thermal printer.
But Prestel was not the way forward. Few in the airline saw its potential and both my colleague and I eventually moved to other jobs in BA.
We had been 10 years too early. Later, as the internet developed and web sites appeared, I realised that we had built a massive web site before anyone knew what it was.
I also learned a lot about writing for the small screen, on-screen attention spans and other tips that would stand me in good stead as the world moved online.
It may have been crude compared with today’s technology, but it was exciting for us as we made the rules up as we went along.
The North Devon Business Alliance has been established by experienced North Devon business owners and executives to represent the interests of all businesses in the area and, through supporting existing businesses and encouraging start-ups, to develop the full potential of the local economy.
It has been formed by businesses in North Devon to champion business in North Devon and wants the area’s economy to thrive so everyone can enjoy the benefits of living and working in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
The magazine is being formally launched on Friday 28 May 2010 at an NDBA event in Bishop’s Tawton, North Devon where printed copies will be available.
Sometimes it’s easy to think that everything is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with every new development. While there certainly is lots of change, when you look closely often the fundamentals have not changed much, if at all.
In terms of communication, that is certainly true. There are so many twitter and social media tools being launched, some of them very useful, that deciding which ones to use can be a challenge. I know I can’t use them all so I decide which ones offer the features I want and are easy to use.
Ultimately, all these tools are there only to help us communicate effectively. Knowing what we want to say and how to say it so that other people understand us remains the primary task. Everything else is secondary. Yes, tools can boost efficiency and effectiveness, but if the signal we send out is garbled, all they will do is amplify confusion.
What I find exciting about journalism is when I ask someone about their business and they casually drop what seems to them a trivial fact into the conversation which everyone else finds remarkable. Often they don’t realise their own achievements and are surprised at your interest. You ask them more questions to reveal a fascinating story.
It doesn’t always happen that way. So many press releases don’t have a story, which is a waste as someone has spent time writing it or paid a PR person or agency to write it when it is very unlikely be considered for publication.
Most businesses have a story somewhere: the reason they were started, their struggle to develop a unique product, amazing export achievements or performance that bettered all usual expectations. There’s a good chance that personal achievement will play a big part in it too.
What is that? Where is it? When was it? Why was it there? What was the point? Who did it? Is it still there? Is that an inflatable? What gas was used to inflate it? Who chose the colours? Where did it come from? Will it be there again? Is that a mountain or a hill? Is it inland or on the coast? What are those brown patches on the hill/mountain?
That’s already 15 questions in just 72 words, so just think how many questions you could ask in a thousand words.
So does that mean words are more effective for communicating than pictures?
Of course not: both are useful in different ways. A picture or photograph can grab attention specifically because people want to find out more about a stunning image. For example, the BBC England website news page often has an ‘England’s Big Picture’ feature showing a partial image to tease viewers into opening it up to see if it is what they think it is. Stunning photography or images that tease can be useful in PR and marketing to attract people to read accompanying text.
In the same way, intriguing headlines can grab readers’ attention so that they read an accompanying article or text. News papers and websites make imaginative use of words in this way and, within reason, press releases and articles can do the same, as long as they do not mislead.
So what are more effective: words or pictures?
Neither. When applied with skill, one will not be more effective but will complement the other. If anything, a great photo will be let down by lousy writing, while a well-written article can be buried by poor illustration or layout.
When they work well together, the reader won’t take any notice of the composition of a photograph or style of writing but be totally engrossed in the message they convey.
This is a shame, because it’s not such a bad word and originally meant a kind deed or something well done. Then one day people like me got hold of it. Copywriters grabbed it, bundled it together with ‘features’ and tossed both into copy for brochures, press releases and other marketing and PR materials.
The kind, friendly element was drowned by the dressing to ensure the ‘you must buy it because it’ll be so good for you’ message always got through. “Forget features, sell the benefits,” people say.
The more I look at the original meaning, the more I like the word. Perhaps what I don’t like is the approach to marketing that reduces everything to a formula, which when applied automatically tends to fall flat. (Thinks back to weigh up own guilt.)
Another use of the word, to describe state social security payments, hasn’t helped either. With a stronger attachment to the failure of government systems rather than the relief given to genuine claimants, the poor word doesn’t stand a chance.
Now I regret it being in my bad books. I want to like benefits again and restore its benign impact, but this means working harder to find better ways of talking about features and _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ .
It’s that time of year when businesses want to sell . . . by direct mail, by phone, email and online. I’m hearing from businesses I haven’t heard from since the previous January and some I’ve never heard from before.
Some of them are eager to sell, some are very keen and some sound desperate.
So many sales and marketing messages . . . on twitter, in unsolicited emails and phone calls . . . tell me I need to redesign my web site. Why? No one asks how much business our web sites generate? Some even ask if we have a web site – fail for research, chaps.
Now I don’t mind people contacting us if they’re reasonable and prepared to have a reasonable chat, but the caller who wanted to tell me how he could help us develop our business just would not answer my repeated question: “What is the point of your call?” So I ended it politely.
From pressing the top 10 reasons why I need to do one thing to telling me why doing something else will make me so much money, these people don’t realise that beating up your potential customer is not a good start.
We all need to buy products and services and sometimes we need to change suppliers or improve what we’re already doing, but frightening us to death with horror stories doesn’t build a relationship . . . especially when we can see straight through the sales patter: a dead customer can’t pay an invoice.
Please can all sales people and marketers realise that, while usually I don’t mind someone identifying my genuine needs and offering methods to fulfil these, I get angry when forced to buy at gunpoint.
There are also options to edit what’s already written, to cut, to shorten sentences.
More words don’t necessarily make it any easier to understand a message. As the 140-character limit of twitter demonstrates, communicating succinctly can be very effective: it concentrates the mind.
I can remember sitting in an exam and watching someone walk up to the front of the hall for more paper. I worried that I wasn’t writing enough. It didn’t matter: the few words I wrote answered the questions well enough for me to get an A.
I can remember a sales manager worrying about a tender and just writing more and more. In the end, they just repeated themselves to the point of confusion.
When standing up to deliver an elevator pitch, the most effective attention-grabber is often a pause.
Sometimes the words we leave out make those we do write and say even more powerful.
Somewhere there is an answer to every question we could ever think to ask. This is incredibly useful as I certainly don’t know everything in this age of social media experts, specialists and gurus.
And that’s one of the wonders of social media: if you ask a question, often someone will come back with the answer or, at least, a helpful suggestion.
But it can also work the other way: anyone professing to know everything about a topic can be ‘found out’ if their knowledge is deficient. It’s a bit like Viv Stanshall’s character Reg Smeeton whose favourite question was “Did you know there is no proper name for the back of the knee?” Apparently, the term ‘popliteal fossa’ undermines Reg’s claim.
Rather than imposing our knowledge on other people, asking questions can help to develop social media relationships. Many people are willing to share their knowledge and will do so for someone not afraid to ask. A way to pay back this generosity is to answer other people’s questions on topics about which we are knowledgeable.
Will we look silly if we admit to a hole in our knowledge? I don’t think so. My experience is that when someone asks a question others are often glad because they also want to know the answer.
What’s the best tone in which to write? It all depends on what you want to say, who you say it to and what you want to achieve.
Just imagine the response to someone walking into a pub and talking like the press officer of a local council? Probably some strange looks and possibly a phone call for an ambulance to take them away.
Why? Because the institutional language of local government isn’t appropriate in a pub.
So how do you know what voice to use and how to develop a style of writing appropriate for your audience? One way is to read out loud what you write and listen to how it sounds. If you don’t feel you’re good at reading aloud, ask a colleague or associate you trust to read it out and listen to them. Is it language your audience will understand easily? Are they likely to respond to it? Ask what other people you know think of it.
It’s important to remember that words on screen or paper still have to sound right because they are spoken by the silent voices in people’s minds.