Simple Language and Communication Success

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump continues to demonstrate some of the best – and worst – PR practices. Included in the best category: Trump’s mastery of “simple language.”

This recent article exploring the “linguistic” decline of Trump’s language got me thinking about Trump’s repetitive use of simple words and phrases. Some people theorize that Trump’s language style indicates his cognitive skills are slipping. An alternative theory is that Trump has purposively adopted a simplistic communication style because he finds it effective. Perhaps Trump has mastered the art of the deal – or at least figured out how to deal with communicating to the masses.

Trump’s simple language is easy to comprehend and his messages are easily retained. If you are in public relations, or if you are in any way motivated to promote a product, service, or even yourself, a look at Trump’s communication style reveals a few lessons.

Why simple is better in PR

We live in a complex world with a constant barrage of information that we’re expected to comprehend and retain. This is especially true in healthcare, with all its jargon and acronyms. It’s thus no wonder that we are drawn to the simple – things like Southwest Airlines’ no-hidden-fee pricing, the iPhone’s user-friendly interface, and the Keurig’s no-mess system for brewing a single cup of coffee. In the same way, our overloaded brains appreciate plain-language messaging that is clear and concise.

Whether it is a website, a press release or a speech, your audience should not have to read (or listen to) your content multiple times to comprehend its meaning. You don’t want your prospective customer to view your website and wonder what the heck you’re selling or why you’re better than the competition. When you craft your message in simple language, it’s easier to understand and remember.

Unfortunately, simple language content is not simple to create and is arguably harder to craft than jargon-filled messages with run-on sentences and $5 words.

Best practices for keeping it simple

Whether you’re writing or speaking, consider these best practices for simplifying your message:

Use simple words – As Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” It’s more important that your audience understands your message than it is to impress them with your vast vocabulary. Keep the language plain and simple.

Keep sentences and paragraphs short – Avoid trying to communicate too many ideas within a single sentence or paragraph. Target a sentence length of 20 to 30 words and limit paragraphs to two to three sentences, especially when the content is written. Readers will follow and retain your message more easily.

Eliminate the fluff – One way to keep sentences short and sweet is to eliminate unnecessary words and keep the message concise. For example, rather than say “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” Martin Luther King, Jr. could have said “I have a dream that one day all Georgians will eat together as friends.” Okay, okay, my sincere apologies to one of history’s greatest orators, as there clearly is a time and place for fluff – but it’s not within a press release.

Get rid of the jargon –Your target audience won’t assume you are an expert in your field just because you use a lot of industry jargon. In fact, the very people you are trying to impress may tune you out if they don’t understand the meaning of those terms. Replace the jargon with plain language substitutes whenever possible.

Stay active – Use an active, not passive, voice. The passive voice typically requires more words, especially the use of prepositional phrases that can create vagueness. For example, do say, “The company is exhibiting its products at HIMSS,” and avoid saying, “The products will be on exhibit by the company while at HIMSS.” Not only is the first version smoother and shorter, it is also more easily understood.

You may also want to consider running a readability index on your content. Readability indexes, such as Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning Fog, will estimate how easy it is to read and comprehend your text based on word and sentence length, syllable counts and other factors. A message that scores a reading level of grade 7 or 8 is considered to be an easy read and in plain English. It’s also the ideal level for communicating with the masses. Interestingly, the average score for medical information designed to educate patients is a grade level of 10 or higher.

Finally, here’s one more reason to adopt a simpler language style: it can improve your website’s SEO rank. Readability is one of the many signals that Google uses to rank websites. If you want a higher ranking, make sure your text easy to read and perceive.

Adopting a simpler language style may not be simple – but it can lead to greater communication success!

Why Good Clients Are Key for Great PR…and How to Be One

Last month was atypical for sure. I had two clients call and ask me, “How can we be a better client?” Wow! In all of my years in public relations & marketing, I don’t believe that has ever happened before.

One of the clients actually said, “You’ve always been there for us and have done a great job. I know we are the bottleneck right now. We’ve got to be a better client.”

The second client said he was pleasantly surprised at how much we have accomplished since launching our program, was delighted with the traction and volume, and most definitely wanted to sustain it. He added, “But the last thing we want is to be a difficult client!”

Obviously the Universe is hinting it’s time for a list of tips on being a fantastic client…but first, let me underscore how essential it is to partner with a compatible PR agency. I’ve noted before that selecting a PR agency is much like selecting a spouse. For a solid relationship going forward, be sure the foundation rests on good, open, honest communication.

Which leads to my first tip…

Have a dedicated Liaison. Having someone on your team who is responsive to deadlines and requests for interviews and information is paramount to our success. If we uncover a media interview, chances are the editor will want to interview your executive or client that day or that week. We need our liaison to respond with availability so we can firm up the interview and prep all parties. Email, phone, text is fine – just someone who responds in a timely fashion.

Available/Engaged company and client spokespeople. It is so helpful when the passion, enthusiasm and commitment comes from the top. The positive energy will trickle down. In addition, access to thought leaders helps to shape messaging, priorities and sets the tone for the entire program. We can be more successful when we have ongoing information and communication from your team’s visionaries. On a related note, be sure your company is actually cultivating thought leaders.

Treat us like a member of your team. We are family now, right? We view ourselves as an extension of your team and would like to be in the know on what’s going on. Keep us informed and be transparent. Share your ideas, corporate initiatives, new customers gained, upcoming events, marketing campaigns, and important timelines. Keep the line of communication open – and remember, it flows both ways. So ask us for advice, or run ideas by us—we love to collaborate with our clients! Please invite us to talk to your internal stakeholders, especially those in product strategy, sales and other key team members. We appreciate consistent, open communications about the company’s business activities, developments, successes, and milestones.

Prep before your media/analyst interviews. We will do our part to arrange a prep for your interviews but please come prepared. We’re here to help with that, too.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – Communication is the foundation to any relationship. If you are too busy to respond, let us know. If you are going to be out of the office, let us know. If you need extra support because your biggest trade show is coming up, call us NOW. There is no smarter way to leverage an expensive investment in tradeshows than through public relations.  If you love our writing, let us know – a little positive feedback goes a long way! By the same token if you don’t like the writing style, let us know – we have multiple writers and can quickly make a switch. Lastly, we appreciate hearing (and acting!) on your interesting, timely observations, insights and thoughts on industry trends and developments.

Be open to feedback on positioning and strategy for media relations and thought leadership. You are hiring us to provide you with strategic guidance and counsel. You are hiring us for our expertise. And you deserve honesty. We have a great sense for what is newsworthy, what messages resonate and generally what works/what doesn’t. We are not shy. If you are open to it, we will tell you what we really think…so ask away!

Set realistic deadlines. In our world, we are used to dealing with fire drills. Everyone wants everything yesterday. However, if you really don’t need the press release by the end of the day, then give us the proper time that is needed to give you something that is top notch.

Bring your positive attitude/energy. PR is one of the most exciting aspects of doing business. We love what we do, especially when we get to work with collaborative, upbeat people. It’s a close relationship, so let’s get comfortable, roll-up our sleeves, and do great things…together!

6 Tips for Making Your Customer Success Stories More Compelling

Everyone loves a great customer success story. You can talk features and benefits in the abstract all day, but nothing brings home the concept that those features and benefits will actually solve the problem you’re trying to address than hearing it already did the same for someone else. It’s the ultimate sales tool.

Of course, getting customers to agree to participate in a success story isn’t always easy. Some aren’t allowed to participate by corporate edict. Others are afraid to because they don’t want to admit that anything in their organizations was ever not hunky-dorey. Some just don’t want to spend their time that way.

So when a customer does agree to tell their story about their experience with your organization, you definitely want to make the most of the opportunity. Here are a few tips that will help you make that happen.

Start with your organization’s contact(s)

This is a step that often gets skipped. Someone fills out a form, usually in a hurry, and assumes that’s all the background the writer will need to interview the customer. Not true!

It’s always helpful to speak with the people who work with the customer every day – salespeople, customer service, tech support, trainers, or whoever is most germane to the story you want to tell. They often have perspectives to share that they wouldn’t think to add to a form but that come out in the course of a conversation. Especially if the person doing the interview is experienced at drawing out those types of thoughts.

Gather the background from the internal contact and let that help guide the customer questions.

Always speak to the customer

Some people in the organization (read: salespeople, usually) may be reluctant to have anyone speak directly to their customer for fear the new person will do something crazy that hurts the relationship. Not sure exactly what they’re expecting, but if you’re working with professionals there is very little chance of that happening.

It is important for the writer to speak to the customer because that is the best way to get the “real” story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on an interview and the story the customer tells differs substantially from what the company insider thought had happened. It’s not that either is untrue – it’s simply a matter of perspective, and what is important to each.

Ultimately, you want it to be the customer’s story, and it’s the customer who has to give final approval. Best to get the story they think you’re there to write directly from them. Trust me, it will save a lot of time on the back end.

Prepare good questions ahead of time

Once the conversation with the customer is set up, it’s important to prepare a very targeted set of questions to draw out the story in vivid detail. You can start with a template, but you really need to think about the story you’re hoping the customer tells and prepare the questions accordingly. Otherwise you may end up with a lot of uncomfortable pauses and not much information to build a success story.

While the details may vary, all great success stories consist of four basic elements: who the customer is, what their problem was, how the problem was solved, and the results. You then want to drill down to specifics of that instance within each of those sections, including why the customer chose your solution and how they liked working with your team.

You may not always be able to “stick to the script.” I’ve worked with customers who pretty much launched into the whole story after being asked what issue they were facing. But those are the exceptions.

Often you will have to draw the story out, especially if you’re talking to a technical person. They usually don’t think like marketers think; they’re more likely to recite facts. But a good set of questions can help them get beyond the black-and-white, ones-and-zeroes world they usually live in so they can add a little color to the story.

Must have results

This is another rookie mistake I see from time to time. Someone gets excited that a customer is willing to talk and wants to get him/her on the phone right away. Love the enthusiasm, but…

The credibility of a customer success story comes from results. Hard results in the form of numbers are best – money saved, hours saved, additional revenue captured, measurably improved health outcomes, etc. That’s the Holy Grail.

Unfortunately, not every customer has that information. Sometimes they failed to document the starting point, which makes it hard to measure the difference the solution made; they just know it’s better. Sometimes there is nothing to measure, or there isn’t an expedient way to measure it.

Soft results can work when no hard results are available, but those results must be something with which other organizations can identify. Employee happiness/reduction in burnout, noticeably reduced noise levels, greater collaboration between clinicians, more time to spend on patients, and other factors can be powerful statements – if that’s what your target audience wants to achieve in their own organizations.

If there are no results to report, it’s best to hold off until there are. After all, what’s the point of a customer success story if there’s no successes to report yet?

Find the human element

Some organizations really like to focus on the facts and figures of their customer success stories. They are important, but they are not the story.

The human element is the story – how what you did impacted whoever you were trying to impact. Until our robot overlords take over, the decisions are being made by people. People like stories that make them feel good.

This is true even when your audience is made up of clinicians or IT people. Yes, they are analytical, and they like their facts and figures. But they are not Vulcans making all decisions solely based on logic. If they were, luxury automobile companies and sellers of other big ticket consumer products would have more statistical information and fewer shots of attractive people doing cool things in their ads and commercials.

If they relate to your story on a human level, they are more likely to get excited and view you favorably. All else being relatively equal, they will lean toward the solution they feel best about – even if they’re not quite sure why.

Give it a great graphic treatment

Great graphics can make even a mediocre story more interesting as well as making a great story stand out.

Break up the type with pictures, or diagrams, or screen shots, or some other visual element. If you have facts and figures to highlight, make little infographic-style illustrations out of some of them. If you’re posting a written case study online, see if you can add a GIF or other video element to it, such as demonstrating the product at work.

The more attractive your final form is, the more it will draw the reader in. And the easier your success story is to read, the more likely it is the people who matter to you will read it.

Realize the full value

Customer success stories are one of the most valuable marketing tools your organization can possess. Frequently, they’re also one of the most difficult to obtain, which is why you should treat each one like it’s gold.

Put in the time and effort to dig beyond the basic elements and you will be able to create compelling stories that yield huge dividends for the entire organization.