The Importance of Style

12 years ago

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In an edited extract from his book Effective Writing Skills for Public Relations, John Foster demonstrates the essential role of clear, consistent style in compelling communications.



Style changes fast. Compare, for instance, a magazine or newspaper of today with one printed only a few decades ago: overuse of capitals, stilted phraseology and solid slabs of type unrelieved by subheadings were all commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s. Even now, it is not hard to find press releases ridden with banalities, boring headlines, ‘label’ headings devoid of verb and verve, poorly punctuated reports and letters; and, probably worst of all, inconsistencies in spelling (let alone howlers like ‘one foul swoop’ from a BBC newscaster early in 1997).

The ignorance which surrounds modern style trends emanates through lack of interest in the subject. For young people entering the competitive world of communications it is essential to have a grasp of the basics: to know, for instance, that media and data are plural nouns, to understand the difference between a colon and a semi-colon, to appreciate that a dash and a hyphen are not the same thing. (It was this last point, incidentally, which led to the first ‘Verbals’ column in the IPR Journal, later titled Profile.)

Some will no doubt wonder what all the fuss is about. But the hyphen masquerading as a dash is symptomatic of the lax attitude towards style; few word-processor and computer typists bother whether style is consistent, or even know what it means. So it is up to the public relations practitioner – in fact all professional communicators – to get the message across that consistent style matters in everything an organisation does.

The way we all write has changed dramatically over the last few years, often without our even noticing it. Information technology has brought scores of new words. Newspapers and magazines have led style changes: hyphens are dropped to make one word, two-word phrases become one. All this reduces clutter, speeds up the copy and helps the reader.

Unless we keep up with style trends we soon become outdated, out of step with everyone else. And a reminder: make sure you edit your copy, follow house style and watch out for inconsistencies as you go along. They are just as important as getting facts and figures right.

Appreciating style

Acquiring a grounding in grammar is not enough: the finer points of style and presentation will often make all the difference between a good and a mediocre publication – between a stodgy leaflet or complex, wordy brochure and one which is lively and appealing. This means printwork that promotes a product or service and turns a glancer into a reader; that tells a story succinctly and in plain language; and is consistent in every respect. If this is achieved then the style has worked, communication has done its job and the public relations effort has paid off.

It is essential for everyone in PR and communications to have an appreciation of style so that the reader, or receiver of the message, is on the side of the sender from the outset. Just as important is visual presentation style: well-crafted slides where the logo is always the same size and colour, and text mirroring the typeface, are but two essential requirements for a corporate identity – the hallmark of a successful and profitable company or organisation.

Packs and display panels with a recognisable type style are instantly identified with the company and product. If that happens, the PR effort has worked and produced tangible results. Clear, unambiguous, concise copy written like a front-page news story is usually the best means of getting your message across and making it work for you, your company or your client. There are other times, however, when a more measured style is appropriate – much depends on the target audience and the marketing objectives.

It is important when looking at your style that you take tone of voice into account. The tone you adopt for printwork, correspondence and all other communications must be warm, friendly, easily understood and free of jargon and technospeak. How you go about this is, of course, a matter for management decision, but once agreed it should be followed rigorously and should be included as a major item in your rules for house style.

Your organisation’s style

Style extends beyond the confines of publications and the printed word in packaging. It applies to the livery for your delivery van or lorry; to news releases; to film; to audio-visuals; to video news releases (VNRs); to radio and TV broadcasts; to how your story is put over in speeches at conferences and seminars; the platform arrangements; product labelling and design; office stationery; the layout and wording of the website; and even to the way your receptionist answers the telephone.

Stick to the style you have adopted in absolutely everything concerning your company or your client’s products and services. Think about it in all the tasks you perform.

Is it consistent? Is it doing justice to your endeavours? Is it, in fact, good PR?

There are a number of style guides to assist you. They deal mainly with the printed word, for that is where style is most important and where guidance is often needed. Journalists are inculcated with a sense of style from the moment they join a newspaper or magazine, and it is helpful to see how the print media treat the printed word. Most newspapers produce style guides for their editorial staff and it is worthwhile asking for copies.

There is, for instance, wide variation between one newspaper or magazine and another in the use of titles, the way dates are set out, and how abbreviations are handled. When writing articles for the press you should preferably type the copy in the publication’s style, so check on the way figures are set; how names are written; when and where capitals are used; how quotes are dealt with; whether copy is set ragged right or justified with both edges aligned; whether -ise or -ize endings are used.

A public relations executive who writes material specifically for a target medium and follows its style has a far better chance of getting material published than one who ignores it.

Press releases should follow the general style adopted by newspapers for the treatment of quotations, for example double quote marks rather than single, with short sentences and paragraphs. If points like these are all followed then the subeditor will be on the writer’s side, and your copy is less likely to be changed. This is certainly a bonus for the public relations executive if the chairman’s favourite phrase remains unaltered!

PR practitioners must also keep abreast of style trends in broadcasting: radio and TV stations usually have their own rules for scripts. The BBC has its own style guide for presenters and contributors; to take a recent example, they are told that it is memorandums not memoranda, an argument with listeners that was settled in a flash on Radio Four’s Broadcasting House a year or so ago.

Keep it consistent

There is nothing sacrosanct about style: it is constantly changing, with spellings, ‘vogue’ words and phrases falling into disuse, to be replaced smartly by new ones. Favourite sayings become clichés, and myths that infinitives must not be split, that sentences must never end with a preposition, and that words that once were capitalised can now be lower-cased with abandon, are now mainly discarded.

On the other hand, some style rules like never starting a sentence with a figure, or numbers up to and including ten always being spelt out unless they are part of a table or figure, are still firmly established in style books. But whatever you decide on, keep it consistent throughout the whole piece.

Points to watch

Be on your guard against repetition, or using the wrong word and putting your reader off for good. Perhaps it won’t be noticed, but mostly it will. Imply is not the same as infer; there are no degrees of uniqueness (something is either unique or it isn’t); fewer than is often used for less than and vice versa (fewer is not interchangeable with less); and so on. Keep it simple and understandable: use short rather than long words, write snappy sentences, cut out jargon and over-worked words, and leave foreign words to the specialist journal. But don’t hesitate, occasionally, to launch into ‘Franglais’ (le Channel Tunnel) or German-English (Die Teenagers) or even ein steadyseller (for the bookshop) to provide a breather and a spot of humour.

Usage differs enormously: English is spoken as a first language by over 377 million people throughout the world (226 million in the United States alone, 56 million in the UK), while almost as many speak it as a second language. As a percentage of the world’s population, 6.2 per cent use English as their mother tongue, second only to Chinese. English is the official language of over 70 countries.

Writers have at their command more than half a million words (there are some 355,000 words and phrases in the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English), yet it has been estimated that most people go through life with only some 2000 words at their command. This limit on the average person’s vocabulary shows there is good reason for avoiding long or little-used words: not only do they fail to communicate, but the writer is felt to ‘talk down’ to the reader.

A number of rules for style and usage have been proposed by journalists, lexicographers and others, but few are set in stone; the advice and examples are based on current best practice, although allowance must be made for individual taste. English is a living language always on the move: today’s style will soon be yesterday’s.

When you are thinking about your company’s style and following the rules that have been established, it is crucial not to be pedantic and overzealous with your corrections. But what is the difference between being pedantic and being correct? Pedantic is being over-fussy, like never ending a sentence with a preposition; on the other hand, there are shades of correctness depending on constantly changing style tenets.

However, there are some points of grammar like verb agreeing with subject on which there can be no argument: they are either correct or they are not. The overriding rule is, follow trends but keep the grammar right.

Language must never get in the way of the message. It is therefore important to be aware of the significant style differences existing between American English and ours, particularly now that so many websites and press releases are targeted to the United States. For instance, while it is acceptable to write ‘shop’ for ‘store’ on both sides of the Atlantic it is wrong for a motoring journalist over there to talk about a ‘bonnet’ when he should say ‘hood’, or put ‘boot’ for ‘trunk’.

Good style is good manners

Good style means good work. It also means good manners: letters and emails being answered promptly, returning telephone calls, sincerity in everything you say and do. If you cannot do something, say so – don’t just leave it and hope that the problem will go away. When Christmas comes, don’t send out an unsigned card, even if your company’s name and address is printed inside.

And when something goes seriously wrong, don’t be afraid to apologise for it, preferably in writing. If you make a mistake in someone’s name or get a figure wrong, a telephoned apology will usually be sufficient. An apology costs little or nothing, but can mean so much to the other person. After all, that is what good manners is all about.

Style is just as important with the spoken word. Few speakers at a conference would think of muttering and mumbling their way through a talk. Carefully enunciated speech without clichés or jargon is essential for avoiding slipshod presentation and ensuring effective communication.

As Sir Trevor McDonald, the TV presenter and newscaster, confirms, well-articulated speech can raise someone from humble origins to the very top. McDonald advises young people aiming for wider horizons to speak their language well. Diction and grammar really do matter. This is particularly true when most people entering the PR profession soon find themselves making presentations – sometimes to packed conferences – and frequently appearing in radio and TV interviews.

Appreciate the need for style – be aware of style trends – and follow it through relentlessly and consistently.

At a glance

• Make good, consistent style your priority.
• Follow style trends. Don’t be old-fashioned.
• Good style means clear, plain, lively, concise language.
• An instantly recognisable style helps to get your message across.
• Build a library of style guides accessible to all.
• Adopt the right tone of voice for your audience.
• Distinguish between being pedantic and correct.
• Never let language get in the way of the message.
• Good style, good manners mean good work – and good PR.

 

 


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The Author

John Foster

John Foster is the author of Effective Writing Skills for Public Relations (endorsed by the CIPR) published by Kogan Page, www.koganpage.com, paperback, 288 pages, £17.99.

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