Thursday, December 01, 2005

Wanna be quoted? Try speaking English

The old adage “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” rings quite true for us PR pros but in a slightly different way. We can get a client an interview, but we can’t talk for him. Therefore, it is imperative that we teach him or her how to communicate best with reporters.

Let’s face it, it’s not easy for most techies to come down from their high cloud of Mbps, throughput, platforms, solutions and integrated, interoperable patch panels, but if you’re going to talk to a reporter, you have to put it in a language we all understand – English.

The reason a corporate spokesperson or press release writer at a company needs to speak this very basic language is because the audience, while certainly tech-savvy, went to journalism, not engineering school. They are the gatekeepers to the audience you ultimately want to reach – potential customers and partners. But you must get through them first, and if they can’t understand a word you say, they might nod politely, but you will not reap the rewards of their pen.

To illustrate how far the jargon-world has gone, I pulled a few quotes from recent press releases off PR Newswire. Observe.

"Bottom line, these test results exceeded all of our expectations," stated <>. "The performance in terms of throughput and latency met our most stringent network requirements and it is the first Ethernet Wireless Platform to match our QoS requirements for the delivery of voice, video and data services to the end users."

And another poor soul…

"Our FTTP and FTTN solutions provide operators with the flexible platform they need to economically drive additional revenue now while providing a seamless migration path for the future."

Now, while I actually understand what these people are trying to communicate (my nerdish tendencies are showing, I realize), it is clear to me that these people need HELP! Most technology company executives think that their news releases, pitch letters and press statements are going directly to the engineers who might buy their product and actually understand what they are trying to say.

They are sorely mistaken.

The purpose of any public relations piece is to get a reporter to call you for an interview. That’s it. It’s not your opportunity to tell the entire world the innermost workings of your company or product. It is not your opportunity to wax eloquently on all the virtues of how this silicon chip is going to revolutionize the semiconductor industry for decades. Keep your mind focused on the purpose of these communication pieces.

One quick rule of thumb is to let your 80-year-old grandmother read your press release. If she can understand it and grasp why this news is important to the world, then you have succeeded. If her eyes glaze over and she asks you to get her a cocktail, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Another tip is to stay away from words that are so overused that they no longer have any real meaning. The top picks for this category include words like “solution,” “revolutionary,” “world-class,” “best-of-breed” and quickly climbing the ranks … “elegant.” Every company thinks it has the best solution and a revolutionary way of approaching a problem. Also, most tech reporters are still nursing snakebites from the last time they wrote about a company that was “revolutionizing” something and closed their doors soon thereafter, so the fact you are touting to do the same scares them a little.

Just remember that the proof is in the proverbial pudding, so make sure you speak in clear terms that do not over-hype the value you bring to the market. Ask yourself what sets you apart. Why is your company or product better – in real terms? Do I have customers or partners that will validate what my company does?

One other really good practice is to come up with juicy sound bites long before you get an interview with a live reporter. These are phrases that sound like an actual person speaks. They clearly communicate the value (not the speeds and feeds) of your company and product. Here are a few examples of quotes to get your brain going.

“When Santa brings little Johnny a new Web-enabled phone this Christmas, we’ll make sure he’ll be safe to surf.”

“When someone dials 911, they need to know someone will be able to find them – even if they’re on an IP phone. Let’s face it, it could be the difference between life or death, literally.”

“When a doctor needs to download an MRI file, he usually doesn’t have time to wait forever. That’s why we make sure hospitals are equipped with cabling that can handle these kind of large file transfers. It’s just the right thing to do.”

After reading those, you probably can figure out what the companies do in general terms and the value each brings to the market.

If you have trouble learning how to translate technology jargon into plain English, there is no need to fear. Just hire a translator who can understand what your company does, how best to communicate your value and one that can help craft messages to guide you as you learn how to use this wonderful new language. It won’t hurt much; we’ll even speak slowly.