My foray into the U.S. public relations world dates back to 2000, when I had just moved to this country. Apparently “networking” was the way to go (in India we called it the “old boys’ club”) and, dutifully following the lead of more experienced professionals, I plunged myself into monthly meetings of the San Francisco Bay Area Publicity Club (which we fondly called “The Pub Club”).

Of all the characters – some offbeat, some extremely colorful – that I met, no one left a more lasting impression on me than “Mr. T.” I can’t remember his full name, but I do recall that his first name began with a “t,” was older than the average Pub Clubber (20-something), had worked primarily in Tech PR, and had recently been laid off (we’re talking late 2000/early 2001 here).

Mr. T said to me, “I can’t write, but I don’t think that’s important. I know how to do PR, and there are enough writers to go around.” (Or words to that effect.)

I remember being quite taken aback by that pronouncement. However, being a (fairly) well-brought up Bengali girl, I smiled politely and moved on to exchange pleasantries with the less-outré attendees at the event. But Mr. T’s words stayed with me. Every now and again, I wondered if he was right.

I don’t think so.

If you’re a journalist, author or successful blogger, you already know why.

PR professionals – especially those who are new to the industry – if you ever had doubts about the importance of being able to write well, consider:

Your communications with clients, the media and internal constituents invariably comprise a high volume of writing. How will you convince them of the validity of your plans, pitches or whatnot if you can’t express yourself well in the written medium?

We live in an age where short attention spans are not just the norm, they’re “ADOS,” as Peter Shankman famously describes himself. Lose your audience before your first paragraph is complete, and you risk the possibility of losing their attention for good.

We are trying to survive through a time of record job losses and the fear and self-questioning that accompany them. If ever there was a time to showcase the diversity of your talents, it is now.

Getting Started on Writing Well

Being able to write beautifully may be a gift, but being able to write well – both succinctly as well as with meaning – can be learned. Here are just a few ways:

Give yourself a précis exercise. One of the most useful high school English classes I had to go through was “précis,” or the practice of distilling several, often long-winded, paragraphs, into a finite number of words without losing the essence of the original writing. Try it: create a table in Microsoft Excel of “x” number of cells, and allow yourself no more than one word in each cell (punctuation marks can be included after a word). How good are your compression skills?

If you haven’t already jumped on the bandwagon, get thee on Twitter. What better exercise in expressing yourself succinctly than in being restricted to 140 characters?

Capture your soundbites. While this word may have been bequeathed to us by audio-visual media, there is nothing more potent than a catchy phrase that rolls off the tongue, that not only captures the essence of what you’re trying to say, but can be used across many mediums, be they press releases, op-eds, or messaging documents.

You may be well ahead of me and, if so, please do share your tips. If you’re still trying to figure out the skills you need to hone as a public relations professional, though, don’t dismiss the ability to write well.

It might make the difference between being – well, Mr. T and you.

Image courtesy Debbie Ridpath Ohi.

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps purpose-driven brands bring big ideas to life. She teaches at The Johns Hopkins University, has gone back to school herself with the Harvard Business Analytics Program, and is creator/lead instructor at The Social PR Virtuoso® online training hub , where ambitious PR pros learn how to unleash their inner Social PR superheroes. Owned by Lola the Basset Hound, she's mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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