In friendly circles, it’s probably best not to correct people’s grammar. Your 9th grade English teacher might be really proud somewhere, but in the here and now, you’re just annoying your friends and scaring your significant other.
But just because you’re not holding your friends and family members to a ridiculous grammatical standard doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t hold yourself and your colleagues accountable…nicely.
Let’s be honest, nothing makes you sound smarter than being well-written and well-spoken. You might know everything there is to know about a given topic, but if you can’t get your message across in a compelling, correct and concise way, you’re…well, screwed. Conversely, if you know a little bit about a lot of things and sound incredibly intelligent when speaking or writing about those things, you’re in a great position to win over clients and journalists.
In the simplest of terms, CEOs and CMOs hire PR professionals to say it better than they could. As PR people, it’s essential that we live up to that expectation.
When writing for PR, I keep these two key concepts at the top of my mind.
Write in accordance with AP Style. As a PR person, most of your writing is geared towards journalists or toward the general public. The general public is used to reading news written by journalists. Journalists write in AP style. Learn it. Live it. Love it.
Reporters used to keep AP Stylebooks at their desks. They’d actually go through the trouble of buying a physical book (gasp!) every year to keep up with the latest usage rules for journalists. Now, we have NO excuses, because any question you might possibly have about AP style is Googleable. If you are too lazy to Google the correct way to capitalize something or where to put a comma, you’re in the wrong business.
Write conversationally. Perhaps surprisingly, the one college class that has proven to be most useful in my daily professional life was my broadcast news writing class. Why? Because TV reporters have to deliver stories in plain language. Subject, verb, object. Short, concise sentences.
You’re taught to write as if you’re telling the story to your mom across the table at breakfast. Keep it simple and don’t try to sound smart, because your mom doesn’t care—she “knows” you’re smart and just wants the facts. It will become clear that you know what you’re talking about when you get to the meat of your story using compelling, accurate language and smart phrasing. If your readers are smart—which they certainly are in this business—they will see through your fluff. Avoid using the latest buzz-words as filler, as that’s a dead giveaway that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Instead, use impeccable grammar to illustrate how smart you are, and you will wow them with your shrewd storytelling.
Remember, it’s okay to break the “rules” every once in a while if you’re judicious about it. If you want to start a sentence with a conjunction, go right ahead—but only if it enhances your storytelling and doesn’t interrupt the flow.
So how can you work on your skills? If you’re not familiar with Grammar Girl and the Grammar Girl Podcast, check them out. Also, read as much as possible! The daily news headlines are great, but don’t forget to tackle some long form journalism, too. And read blogs by other PR pros! You can even find great examples of impeccable speaking and writing on TV and film. Don’t believe me? Watch a few episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, and tell me you’re not inspired to sound smarter.