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Seven ways to improve your writing

By Francis Moran

Like my friend Ian Graham over at The Code Factory, I subscribe to what he calls “the law of three.” That is, if something is mentioned three times in a short period, you should do something about it. Well, two different people over the past week asked me for advice on how to improve their writing. I shared some of my usual tips and I pointed each of them to a couple of posts on this blog where I previously wrote about our fondness for the The Chicago Manual of Style and about my personal approach in quizzing job applicants to determine if they are real writers or not.

Then this morning, my regular email from the excellent Daily Writing Tips was all about online style guides, making it the third mention in short order about ways to help improve your writing. So I thought I’d share some good counsel from my own experience and from Daily Writing Tips.

1. Read a really good newspaper every day

I’ve been telling eager writing students this for years, especially if they’re looking to get into the journalism or communications professions. But it holds true for any writer because excellent journalism is a daily lesson in effective writing. Journalists are trained to impart solid information in very quick order while avoiding superfluous wording and hyperbole. I can’t think of a better definition of what ought to constitute good writing in almost any business context.

Here in Canada, we are extraordinarily fortunate to have the Globe and Mail, in my opinion one of the top five English-language newspapers in the world. While the Globe and the others make my list mainly for their journalistic strengths, the Globe is my personal favourite because of the consistently high quality of its writing. My other top writing pick, London’s The Guardian, is now within easy reach for all of us, thanks to the Internet. Read either — or, even better, both — of these newspapers every day with a critical eye for how the stories are written and you’ll not only become a better writer, you’ll also be very well informed.

2. Practice makes perfect

If you want to be a writer, you must write. Malcom Gladwell in his book “Outliers” suggested that besides talent and opportunity, it takes a lot of hard work to become proficient at something; in fact, 10,000 hours of hard work. If I have spent just one quarter of each working day writing — and many, many days I have spent much, much more than that — then I have logged in excess of 15,000 hours at my keyboard. So maybe by now, I’m getting good at it! How many hours have you put in?

A fascinating study out of Stanford University suggests that text-messaging and Twitter updating are actually improving the literacy standards and writing skills of today’s young people, a sharp contradiction to conventional wisdom that would suggest the shortened words and fractured syntax usually employed in these communications forms would erode writing skills. Turns out, according to writing and rhetoric professor Andrea Lunsford, it’s a simple matter of practice — young people are spending a lot of time using text online, honing writing skills that they otherwise would have abandoned with their textbooks and essay assignments. “We’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” Lunsford is quoted as saying by Wired magazine.

3. Everyone needs an editor

Anyone who has ever worked with me knows this is one of my utterly intractable rules. Nothing, including this post, leaves our shop without at least one set of eyes reviewing it. A good proofreader catches the typos and what my wife likes to call the “thinkos” that always find their way into our copy, and this is hugely valuable. But a good editor does for your writing what going up against a better tennis player does for your tennis — she or he improves your game. Invite that challenge.

4. Have a good library of reference books

I have often mentioned how my copy of “The Pocket Oxford Dictionary” that always sits right beside my keyboard bears testimony, through its missing spine and generally dog-eared and bedraggled appearance, to the regularity with which I consult it. In the same short stack of references that I always keep at hand can be found “CP Style Book” and “CP Caps and Spelling” as well as a basic French-English dictionary and an ASCII character table. These are the tools of my trade.

If I swing my chair around to look at the bookshelves that line my office wall, I estimate that a good 10 feet of shelf space are devoted to other dictionaries, a thesaurus or three, and many other textbooks, references, style guides and general-interest books about writing. (One particularly treasured volume, even more ragged than my own Pocket Oxford, is a slim little work of ink-stained and yellowed paper titled, “The Educational Dictionary.” It has no date in it so I don’t know when it was published. But on the otherwise blank first page, it bears, in Gaelic, my late mother’s signature and the name of the school she attended in the early 1940s. Both for what it is and, mainly, for who owned it and gave it to me, it bears pride of place on my bookshelf.)

The rest of my top 10 list refers to specific sources either that I use or that were recommended in this morning’s Daily Writing Tips.

5. The Chicago Manual of Style

This is probably the definitive bible of American-English writing. You can buy it for about $50 or, even better, subscribe online.

6. The Canadian Press references

For we Canadians living between the American and British versions of the English language, the various references published by our domestic news-gathering service, The Canadian Press, are indispensable. You can subscribe online or buy dead-tree versions here.

7. When using the Queen’s English

I have never used them but Daily Writing Tips recommends the free, downloadable “The BBC News Style Guide” and “Guardian Style”, available free online and for sale as a book.

Kudos for empowered customer service

By Francis Moran

Regular followers of this blog will know that lousy customer service is one subject certain to get my rant on. My consistent points are that the cost of acquiring customers is almost always far higher than the cost of keeping them, that effective customer service is the only sustainable competitive differentiator, and that most customer-service operations fail by forcing their agents to be powerless automatons more interested in getting the customer off the line than actually servicing them.

So while browsing through the WhyHire.Me blog of my pal Andy Church today, I was delighted to come across his happy experience with what he called empowered customer service from Canadian cellular carrier Rogers Wireless. The fact that he gives a shout-out to what, in my experience, is one of the least helpful categories of customer-service providers in existence, cellular telephone companies, makes it all the more necessary to give his experience a broader airing.

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United broke more than a guitar, it also broke Francis’s first law of competitive differentiation

By Francis Moran

When baggage handlers for U.S. air carrier United Airlines manhandled and broke Dave Carroll’s beloved, custom-made, $3,500 Taylor acoustic guitar while he and his band-mates looked in impotent disbelief from inside the aircraft, and then refused to compensate him for it, the Canadian musician didn’t get mad, he got even. He wrote a song, “United Breaks Guitars,” posted it on YouTube and, nearly five-million viewings later, Carroll has become the lyrical poster-boy for disgruntled airline passengers everywhere and United is learning very difficult and expensive lessons about the power of the individual in the age of social media.

The key lesson United needs to learn here is that it broke much more than Carroll’s guitar. It broke the cardinal rule of customer service and it broke my first law of competitive differentiation. That law states that the only sustainable competitive differentiation for most companies in today’s economy is superior customer service. In an era where a technological advantage lasts only as long as it takes competitors to reverse engineer your product or leap-frog over it with an innovation of their own, and where a price advantage erodes just as swiftly as your competitors can off-shore their own manufacturing, keeping your customers happy is the sole long-term strategy you can employ to develop and sustain a sharp differentiation from those competitors.

In the challenging world of airline travel, where every operator goes to the same places at the same time for much the same price, it’s the only differentiator.

Canada’s WestJet Airlines, which used to be an upstart little operation out of Calgary, has stolen fully 37 percent of the domestic airline business right out from under the nose of the once-monopolistic Air Canada by emphasising and delivering on a promise to treat its customers better. Air Canada’s reputation for lousy customer service is so well established I have named my annual award for the worst customer-service experience of the year after the airline and one of its (surprise!) baggage people who displayed the same indifference that drove Carroll to song.

Superior customer service doesn’t mean nothing will ever go wrong, and you’ll never have a disgruntled customer on your hands. However, if you assume an orientation from the outset that says your customers will be well treated, it’s amazing how many fewer things will actually go wrong and how forgiving those consumers will be when they do. And when something does go wrong, superior customer service is all about setting it right again. It’s all about how you treat customers in good times and in bad.

When I awarded the 2008 edition of my “Air Canada-Harold McGowan Memorial Award for Truly Egregious Customer Service” to the Canadian online DVD-rental service Zip back in November, the post I wrote on our blog unleashed a fury of responses the likes of which I had never before or since experienced. I had to block most of them because they were simply frothing-at-the-mouth irrational and offensive. And they completely missed the point. My complaint was much less about my actual experience with the service, which, in my view, had deteriorated substantially over the few years I was a subscriber, and all about the utterly indifferent response I got from Zip’s customer-service people.

One more recent responder, whose slightly more reasonable comment I now wish I had actually allowed, told me I wasn’t the centre of the universe. How completely wrong. As a customer, I am exactly the centre of the universe since no company will have a universe without customers.

Taylor Guitars, by way of sharp contrast to United, offered to repair Carroll’s guitar for free and further capitalised with a YouTube video of their own directing viewers to their web site to learn more about how to protect your guitar when travelling.

The singer himself has shot to newfound stardom and is booking new gigs left, right and centre, and the world awaits the second in what he promises will be a trilogy of songs about his experiences with United. He has also turned down all new offers of compensation from United, saying it had its chance to deal properly with his complaint. (In fact, the second song promises to be all about United customer-relations agent Ms. Irlweg who, Carroll says, was the last person at United to tell him he would be receiving no compensation.)

And United? Well, the Times of London claimed the fallout delivered a 10 per cent hit to United’s stock price, costing its shareholders about $180-million. It would be nice to think a consumer backlash of this nature could cause that kind of real pain to an unfeeling global corporation, but the stock-price dive probably had more to do with lousy second-quarter results that were released as Carroll’s video was going viral. Still, the airline and its utterly indifferent front-line agents, whom Carroll names and shames in his catchy and witty song, have become the laughing stock of the world wide web.

Update: The second in Carroll’s trilogy of revenge hymns is now up on YouTube.

We were on a blog hiatus at inmedia

By Francis Moran

It’s been an interesting spring and summer here at inmedia.

The global economic downturn undoubtedly had its impact on us. Although we are headquartered in Ottawa, Canada, we have not been an Ottawa agency for a long time now. Over the past few years, we have worked for clients in Kelowna, Calgary, Toronto, Montréal, Halifax, Fredericton, Moncton and St. John’s. Outside Canada, for many years we have had a substantial footprint in Scotland, where we have clients in Glasgow and Livingston, and we have worked for clients in Farnborough and London in England. In the U.S., we’ve had clients in Boston, Jersey City, Chicago, San Jose and Phoenix.

Based on this extensive geographic diversification, we thought we might be able to better weather the economic storms that began to rage last year.

We were wrong.

Though our clients might be almost everywhere, they are, in the main, selling into just one market — the U.S. enterprise. And that market is a very badly wounded beast that is only now, and very tentatively, beginning to get back on its feet. As our clients cancelled or delayed programs, their spending with us fell and we found ourselves once again in an adjustment mode that, after nearly 11 years as a technology-focused public relations boutique, is not unfamiliar territory to us.

Our response was three-fold.

First, we’ve gone virtual. We’ve put our servers and shared resources in the cloud, locked the office doors for good and given back the key. With clients all over two continents, we’ve essentially been virtual to most of them anyway. We believe it makes us the kind of agile and responsive service offering this new economy demands.

Second, we focused our PR business development efforts on opportunities where we believed we would be given a real chance to demonstrate our differentiation. This has paid outstanding dividends, with four new clients engaging with us over the past 60 days. Two others have renewed their programs, and two more that had reduced programs are again spending a bit more with us, albeit on an ad-hoc basis as they continue to sharply evaluate every dollar and pound. And our pipeline is fairly robust.

Third, and most critically, we also began to focus on areas where our unique capabilities would gain us higher-value work. Public relations is a terribly commodified business, and the buyers of PR-agency services are still too-often wedded to ancient notions to which our approach simply fails to pay homage.

(This is not a universal truth, let me hasten to add. Our most recent account win saw us triumph over three U.S. boutique agencies and a large and experienced agency with extensive feet on the street on both sides of the Atlantic. The final round, between us and the big guys, offered the client a sharply differentiated choice, I believe. Entirely to their credit, they gave us every chance to show them a clear foretaste of what they would experience if they hired us, and they obviously liked what we showed them. Far too often, however, we never even get the chance to show how we’re different, or the prospect simply fails to grasp how that difference might change the PR agency game in their favour.)

In addition to this long-standing commodification of PR, the economic downturn has created a new class of competitors and made all existing competitors even hungrier. There are now legions of one-person PR shops staffed by perfectly competent former agency and client-side types whose practically non-existent overhead and sometimes-lifestyle approach to business make it impossible to compete. At the other end of the scale, we have bowed out of agency-selection processes where large multinational agencies were offering more services at a lower cost than we could manage as they struggled to at least cover their infrastructure costs.

It’s enough to make any wise business person look to new opportunities, and we have, with considerable early success.

So where are we going? We will continue to seek out high-value PR opportunities where our value proposition as a small but very senior band of sharply focused players with global capabilities can compete. But we’ll also look for opportunities to work with clients on a more strategic level, where the broader marketing and even business decisions get sorted. Although much of the last 10 years has been about guiding technology companies through the specific challenges of harnessing media and analyst coverage, we have a broader and more strategic pedigree that we’re keen to put to work.

In short, we bring technology to market. Stay tuned for more on this as we renew our commitment to this blog.

RIP Kodachrome

By Francis Moran

I have often said that my first job in this business was taking pictures, and it’s quite true. The very first money I made in the media-communications racket came from squinting through the viewfinder of a single-lens-reflex camera and capturing what I saw on a strip of plastic coated with a light-sensitive emulsion that was then run through a couple of baths of chemicals that turned the latent image in the emulsion into a visible image. Light was then projected through that image onto a different kind of light-sensitive medium, photographic paper, and a picture emerged.

It was — and, just barely, still is — a nearly magical process that has been an integral part of my life since before I can remember, thanks to a father who was also a keen shutterbug.

If all this means very little to you, chances are you were born after 1984, when Canon introduced the world’s first digital camera, and taking pictures is for you a cold and disposable affair of rearranging electronic bits on a piece of memory circuitry somewhere.

But for those of us for whom picture taking and print making are that warm, analog and ultimately high-fidelity alchemy between silver-halide and light, yesterday’s announcement by Eastman Kodak Company that it is discontinuing its 74-year old Kodachrome brand of camera film is another — and nearly the final — nail in the coffin of analog photography.

I have been an avid photographer ever since I grabbed my older brother’s little Instamatic and whipped off five or six frames before realising it had film in it. Man, did I get whupped for that. In high school, the year book editor, still a good pal notwithstanding, had to forcibly lock me out of his office because I’d use all the film stock he had. When I worked on the Halifax Daily News, I once overheard our parsimonious owner call up our film supplier to find out how much the masses of black-and-whilte film I had shot the day before actually cost him. (The paper bought its film in 500-foot rolls; the seven or eight 36-shot rolls I had used cost no more than a couple of bucks but he still thought it excessive.)

My older son, who studied photography as part of his fine arts courses at Canterbury High School this past semester, asked me if I had any black-and-white negatives he could use to practice his new-found darkroom techniques. He asked me in a tentative way that suggested he doubted that not even I, grizzled and ancient thought I might be to him, could possibly possess an artifact as old and archaic as a negative! I introduced him to to three very large Rubbermaid bins containing nothing but black-and-white negatives, and he happily selected a tidy shot of a container pier in Halifax that he promptly printed back to front.

My ability to crank through three or four rolls at one sitting when my two lads were so much smaller and so much cuter eventually drove me to buy my first digital. I traded in my top-of-the-line 35mm Nikon gear and bought what was then an advanced – and expensive — point-and-shoot. Every time I pick up that little digital and can’t wrap my hands around the lusciously ergonomic body of that Nikon F4 and manually rotate a lens into the precise focus and framing I’m seeking, I regret the trade.

BUT — I used some of my trade-in cash to also buy a new body for my medium-format film camera and when I want to take real pictures, like an iconic Seine River-framed view of Paris’s most recognised landmark or a sunset shot of the hill-top cathedral in Cobh in County Cork, Ireland, both pictured here, I load that sucker up with colour transparency film and go to town. I, and an ever-shrinking band of film fanatics, believe it is simply not possible to capture a real picture unless silver and other chemicals are involved.

In a terrible twist of irony, however, it is now impossible to make a print from a colour transparency — except through the garish Cibrachrome process that I have never liked — without going digital. Today, I must hand my transparencies over to Jim Lamont, a phenomenal print-maker and incredibly accomplished landscape photographer, who runs my trannies through a sophisticated drum scanner that creates massive 25-meg files from which he then painstakingly makes and frames flawless, gallery-quality prints for me that are weighing down the walls of my house.

Kodak is still making film, including the Ektachrome colour transparency I love so much, but I wonder for how much longer. Already, if I want some, I have to get it shipped to me from Montréal or Toronto because no-one in Ottawa stocks it any more. It will be a sad, sad day when it, too, goes the way of the Kodachrome, a faithful witness to history over eight decades.

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