Reviewing, Reporting, Communications - Six Foundational Items that Transcend All

An image of a typewriter next to a Digital Echidna coffee mug

A few weeks ago, I had the honour of teaching a class at Western's Faculty of Information & Media Studies. The instructor, Dan Brown, is a friend of mine and teaches a course on opinion writing. In my off-hours, I do a fair bit of freelance work and that includes review writing.

As I was preparing for the class, I wanted to come up with an easy way to break down the process. And I was not at all surprised to find that much of what I wanted to say to the students also applies to content writing, business communications -- basically everything you could ever want to write.

And that's important, because not everyone in that room will become a journalist. Many of them will join the "dark side" of PR or corp comm. Others may never actually enter into a related field, but the communications lessons they'll learn will translate across the board.

That night, I talked for about an hour and a half straight. I'll be more succinct here.

Six Key Points to Writing (Reviews, Content, Ad Copy... You Name It!)

Know Your Audience

It may seem simple, but many people skip over this step. Remember, you're not writing for yourself -- you're writing for an audience. When I review plays, I'm writing for Joe and Jill Average who are trying to determine if a production is worth them choosing to spend their limited disposable income. When I write about hockey, I'm trying to tell a story to a group of people who want to learn more about the person under the helmet. And, when I'm working with clients, we're trying to find the message that resonates with their primary audiences, which will compel them to act.

You can't be successful at that, unless you understand who your audience is, what their motivations are, and...

Focus on What's in It for Me?

If you've been reading this blog with any regularity, you're likely sick of me repeating this, but I firmly believe that this is foundational to effective writing.

Your content has to appeal to someone on a visceral level. You have to answer one key question: What's in it for me? This can also be phrased as, "Why should I care?" or "How does this impact me?" The worst press releases feature three opening paragraphs about a company describing itself, then burying the offering where it will never get written. That's just egotistical writing.

In a review, the focus is answering the questions, "Why should I spend my money on this?" And, often, that's the same question we're trying to answer in business communications. Why should you choose our product, our service, or our brand over everyone else? What added value do we bring to you?

Find Your Voice

This isn't an easy process. Often it comes with experience. I have found that I do best with conversational English for many reasons -- but it wasn't always that way.

When I started in the industry, I wrote to satisfy my own ego (ignoring parts one and two completely). I wanted to pepper my prose with words of distinction. I believed that sounding smart was important.

Ultimately, I realized how wrong I was. Truly intelligent writing doesn't come from using $10 words when $1 language would work just as well -- truly intelligent writing comes from ensuring that your words are accessible across the board. You want people to quickly and easily consume your content, understand what's important, and immediately know how to act.

Sure, I could flex my linguistic muscles and send people scurrying for the thesaurus. But, ultimately, who does that satisfy? Me? My ego? It certainly does nothing for the reader -- and that's who we're writing for, no matter what the publication or venue.

Write Everything Because Experience Matters

Over my career I've written sports and hard news; I've reviewed theatre and covered junior and professional hockey and football; My first real job was as a medical writer and I spent a few years writing health and beauty content; I've ghost-written hundreds of pieces and have penned speeches for countless more.

Just the other week, on one day, I spent my day job working with multiple clients in different industries, rushed over to write a player profile for junior hockey, watched a play and wrote its review, then completed two more stories on economic development in Calgary. The point? There's strength in flexibility.

I write and read everything I can, because I know each and every experience I have is going to make me a stronger writer and more knowledgeable. In business, we often don't have the luxury of having "a beat," so you have to be able to adjust on the fly.

Writing for web, for social media, or for a print publication all require different tactics, but the foundations are the same. Experience matters.

Friends Respect You

Writing theatre reviews is hard because you're not just dealing with a production in abstract. You're dealing with something that dozens of people have poured their hearts and souls into for weeks and months at a time. Bad plays aren't the result of a lack of effort.

So it's not uncommon -- especially in a smaller theatre market like London -- to be confronted by someone who has taken a review personally. And there are those who don't have the maturity to understand what we're trying to do is be honest and help.

That's no different than what you're going to experience in business. Whether you're dealing with online social media or customer service, you're going to come across people who disapprove of your message.

Some people will be unreasonable about it. Others, though upset, will respect your position and work to come to an understanding with you. There's really nothing you can do about the former group; the latter offers you a world of possibilities.

Online, your greatest critic can become your biggest advocate. They have a passion for your product and they feel you've disappointed them. If you can resolve their challenge, that passion will be turned to positivity.

Above All, Be Honest

This one is vitally important. All we have as businesses, people, and communicators is our honesty. If things go south, be up front about it. If you've made a mistake, own up to it and take steps to ensure it never happens again.

Beyond the fact that honesty is always the best policy, today's social media environment makes it very hard to keep anything secret for long. So it's important to be upfront and honest in your communications.

All we have is our integrity and one lie or creative "truth" can undermine that credibility instantly.