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This was published in the May 2013 Auctioneer Magazine. Used here by permission. Here’s a PDF of the article. — Carl
By Carl Carter, APR
Your mother was right. It matters how you present yourself. Sit up straight. Be courteous. Speak correctly. Show up in clean clothes, and shine your shoes.
The same applies to our marketing materials. When people read our brochures, press releases, web sites and even emails, they don’t give us a pass because we aren’t professional writers. In their minds, they compare our work to that of people who are professionals, and that puts us at a disadvantage.
But we can at least follow the same general rules of grammar and style the pros use. Here are some resources that will help you do that.
Associated Press Stylebook
Nearly everybody reads the news in one form or another. And when you consider that the news is written and edited by thousands of different journalists in widely varying environments, the style in which they write is remarkably consistent. That’s because most of them rely on “AP Style,” as defined in this book, which has been the style “Bible” for decades.
You can get a copy for about $12, so there’s really no excuse for not having one.
Here are a few examples:
- It’s email, not e-mail or electronic mail. Don’t capitalize it.
- Don’t capitalize a title unless it precedes the name.
- Numbers. These get complicated. In general, spell out one through nine, and use numerals for 10 or more. But you’ll want to read the entire entry for the exceptions.
- It’s percent — not per cent or %. And it’s 6 percent — not six percent. This is an exception to the numbers rule above. See what I mean about it getting complicated?
Nobody can remember every rule, and you shouldn’t even try. I’ve been using the Stylebook daily since the 1970s, and I still have to refer to it constantly. Just keep it handy and get in the habit of checking the style whenever there’s doubt. You’ll probably find that it’s best to make some exceptions. For example, tight ad and brochure space might dictate that you abbreviate “square feet” and other terms that are spelled out in the Stylebook. Or you may decide to use “percent” rather than %. That’s fine. Just decide on a style and stick with it throughout all your materials.
(Note that the Associated Press stylebook is updated every year as the language changes, but you don’t really need the latest edition. A three-year-old copy that you actually use beats a current copy that sits on the shelf.)
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk & E.B. White
You’ve heard of this book. You probably even have a copy, though I bet you can’t lay your hands on it. Next to the Bible, I don’t know of another book that gets more lip service and less actual use. I’ve given away a lot of copies over the years, and I try to re-read it myself about once a year. Here are a couple of my favorite nuggets, along with comments from my own experience:
- Omit needless words. I love the way Strunk & White explain this: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects in outline, but that every word tell.”
- Keep related words together. In writing about upcoming auctions, resist the temptation to put any words between the subject and verb. If you’re saying “The home has a full basement,” you’ll weaken it by putting any phrase between “home” and “has.”
I’m not going to dwell on this, because you already know it’s true. Get in the habit of looking up any word that causes to hesitate. There’s simply no excuse for using the wrong word or spelling it incorrectly. Don’t fret over whether it’s Webster’s, Oxford or American Heritage. They’re all good enough if you use them, and they’re worthless if you don’t.
We all want to know who planted the bombs, and why, and how, and what the authorities are doing to find them. But we don’t. This is the paradox of cable news. The nonstop coverage of big events gives the illusion that there is a river of information.
There isn’t. To carry out the water metaphor, it’s closer to a geyser. We will have hours and even days where there’s nothing, then we’ll have a spurt of news, and then nothing once more. But until the story goes stale (usually after a couple of days), the networks will continue to show pictures, conduct entire newscasts from the site of the blasts and round up their experts (many of whom are kept on retainer) to talk about everything from world terrorism to bomb types to the likelihood of headaches and PTSD for those who were hurt in the blast.
None of this should be confused with news. So if you’re feeling stressed about time, here’s a tip: Turn off the TV. Check your tablet every few hours if you just can’t help yourself. You’ll still know everything that’s actually knowable, and your mind won’t be cluttered with all the guesses, false leads and misinformation that get shoveled into your set to preserve the illusion of nonstop news.
There. I just gave you a day. You’re welcome.
I just read my Sunday Birmingham News, the last remnant of the newspaper I grew up with. The one where I spent the first decade of my career. The one where I learned to write. Advance Publications, which owns the newspaper, also publishes print editions on Wednesday and Friday, but I dropped all but Sunday a while back.
In retrospect, it’s all about habits. Let me explain.
Advance’s logic was sound as far as it went. Keep producing the news daily, but only print it three days a week. Save megabucks on newsprint, ink, trucks, pressmen and such. For a while, I thought the industry would follow their lead, because Advance has a strong history of success.
The problem is that you don’t take a seven-day-a-week habit and break it up — getting the news three days in the driveway and four days a week on the computer or tablet. A lot of people just aren’t wired that way, and from a reader perspective, it makes no sense.
I quickly found that my tablet brought me the news very nicely. It was never wet, and I didn’t get ink on my hands. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays — the three days the physical paper came — it became an inconvenience. My habits had been formed in a different direction. Now I’ve cut back all but Sunday, and it’s hanging by a thread.
It now looks to me like we know the right direction for the newspaper industry. Newspapers that have begun charging readers for the news are stabilizing. We don’t know how the Advance papers are doing, because they’re privately owned and don’t have to publish financial data. The Advance way (primarily relying on cost cuts an online advertising growth) may or may not be working. But the path of charging for the news apparently is turning out to be successful.
Pew’s annual State of the Media report came out a few days ago, and they found that digital pay plans (aka paywalls) are being adopted at 450 of the country’s 1,380 dailies. Along with the return of some classified advertising and an improving economy in general, paywalls seem to be producing good results. Savvy investors — notably Warren Buffett — are buying newspapers. It’s true that they’re getting them on the bargain counter, but they see opportunity on both the digital and the print side of the business.
The New York Times rolled out a plan last spring that allowed visitors a limited number of stories per month, after which they had to pay. There were a lot of holes in their paywall by design, but now they’ve tightened it up. The Washington Post and San Francisco Examiner have also announced paywalls. Other papers charging for online news include most of the Gannett papers, Lee’s 47 papers, McClatchy’s 30 and E.W. Scripps’ 14.
And why not? If you hired reporters and paid them to do the hard work of interviewing sources, sitting through meetings, going through files and writing stories, wouldn’t you think it was reasonable to be paid for their work? If publishers can’t make enough money to pay the journalists, they’ll have to keep letting them go. There’s still plenty of that happening. Pew estimates that 1,000 newsroom jobs have disappeared each of the last two years, and newsroom employment is down 30% since 2013.
For years, we were in the habit of reading our local paper, and paying for it — although at a price heavily subsidized by advertising. As news began to appear on the Internet, we all expected that online advertising to cover the cost of unlimited online news. For a lot of reasons — not all of which are clear — that hasn’t happened. So now we have to break the habit of having unlimited news from unlimited outlets. Many of us will have to pay a bit, especially for local news. That seems like a reasonable habit to me.
Originally published in December 2012 Auctioneer magazine
By Carl Carter, APR
Years ago, when there were still Volkswagen beetles on the road, I saw one on which someone had installed a Mercedes hood.
It made me laugh, but the image has stayed with me, because it strikes the balance we all need as we brand and communicate ourselves and our businesses. The guy wasn’t trying to be somebody he wasn’t. But he was signaling the world that he intended to be something bigger. I never actually met the owner, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up driving a real Mercedes.
Most of us face tough choices in communicating our businesses, but my most reliable guide over the years has been a bit of advice I got from my dad as a kid: Be who you are. We want to present our best face to the world, but it still has to be our face, or we may regret it later.
It’s not an easy principle to follow. We see a piece of business that would really put us on the map, and we worry that “who we are” won’t be enough to get it. We’re tempted to reinvent ourselves, even if that means turning away from what’s always worked. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for evolving, growing, and updating our image. But I’ve learned over time (sometimes the hard way) that the best way to build an identity is to make sure it reflects the reality.
Here are a few checkpoints to help you put the “Be who you are” principle into practice:
Know who you are. Step back and get the big picture to understand what you do best, how you’re perceived, what works for you and what doesn’t. Being an SEC football fan, I’ve enjoyed watching the rivalry in recent years between LSU Coach Les Miles and Alabama Coach Nick Saban. Between them, they’ve won three out of the last five national championships. But their styles differ markedly. Miles earned his nickname of the “Mad Hatter” because he loves to run trick plays and flake kicks. He’s good at it, too. Saban, on the other hand, has little patience with that sort of thing. He’d rather have his guys run straight at you, and when he tries a gadget play, it frequently has a tragic outcome. Two great coaches, each doing what he does best, and winning a lot of football games by being who he is.
Check your alignment. Once you have a handle on who you are, assess whether you’re communicating that or something else entirely. (You may be surprised.) Spread your brochure, web site content and other marketing pieces out on a big table and ask, “Is this me?” (I’ve even been known to scatter them all around the floor of a big room and walk around until I was convinced I had a handle on it.)
Don’t fake it. I’ve never seen a company prosper over the long run by misrepresenting itself. (I’ve seen quite a few make a big splash and vanish into thin air.) Folks do some funny things to try to match the swagger of a competitor. I’ve seen them rent fancy cars (locally) and hire temporary workers to look busy when a prospect is coming to visit. I even knew of one who chartered an airplane just so he could say he “flew private.” Give your prospective seller a little credit. If he sees through the fakery, you’re probably dead in the water. On the other hand, if you’re up-front about your track record and resources, he may be just wise enough to take that into account.
Don’t let your reach exceed your grasp. You don’t want to end up looking like a cocker spaniel that’s caught himself a truck, so don’t promote capabilities you don’t have. If you’re going after a piece of work and you’re not really sure you can pull it off, consider letting somebody else have it. But if you’ve done the homework and you’re sure you’re up to the task, don’t be afraid to step up in class and go for it.
Don’t worry too much about your competitor. Of all the mistakes I’ve seen — and made — one of the easiest is to get off the playbook by overreacting to what we perceive as a competitor’s advantage. When we do that, we’re letting the competitor dictate the rules of the game, and that’s a good way to lose. Play your game, and let him play his. If you’re better, you’ll win more often than not.
Make a commitment. Expand the “be who you are” principle to your entire business, even beyond your communication. If “flash and dash” is your style, don’t try to be the buttoned-down executive type. By contrast, if your success comes from low-key hard work, make sure your brochures, web site and proposals reflect that. If who you really are isn’t enough to sell the prospect, he’s probably not going to be happy with you anyway, and you’re better off moving on to more fertile ground.
Be who you are.
Copyright 2012 National Auctioneers Association
By Carl Carter, APR
Originally published Feb. 2013 Auctioneer Magazine, used by permission
I rarely meet an auctioneer who doesn’t have a story (or 10) about a reporter who misquoted him or garbled the story of a high-profile auction. I just smile, shake my head and say something like “unbelievable.” I’m sympathetic, because there are a lot of ways an incorrect story can hurt an auction or a company — just as a “good” story can help bring in bidders or future sellers.
At the same time, I can usually see what went wrong. There are a lot of potholes to step in when talking to journalists (and I’ve stepped in a lot of them). But you can avoid the most common mistakes simply by understanding four basic things about reporters and letting your common sense guide you.
1. He doesn’t want to hurt you — or help you. The single most helpful thing to keep in mind is that a reporter is just a guy doing a job. He’s not controlled by corporate advertisers or political bosses. He’s not looking for a scalp. At the same time, he’s not looking to do you any favors, either. If he’s a competent reporter (and believe it or not, most reporters are), he just wants to do a good job — and that means getting a good story that meets the needs and standards of his publication. He wants to get his byline, get home to see his kids and collect his paycheck at the end of the week. So follow the old Dale Carnegie advice and think in terms of his interest. He needs a good story, so tell him one!
2. He’s overworked, underpaid and probably scared. From the New York Times to your “Mom & Pop” weekly, newspapers have been shedding reporters at alarming rates. So that reporter you’re talking to is likely looking around at a lot of empty chairs. According to the Paper Cuts blog, more than 1,850 newspaper jobs disappeared in 2012, and that’s been going on for more than a decade. The reporters who still have jobs are often expected to write more stories, take their own pictures, and promote their stories on Facebook and Twitter. Some are even being handed camcorders and told to post videos. And many have taken pay cuts as well. He doesn’t want your sympathy, but he’d appreciate your being cooperative and making his job a little easier. In short, he’s human.
3. He’s thinking local — VERY local. When I first started publicizing auctions in the 1990s, local media were still making money hand over fist. A mid-sized daily newspaper would typically cover news from a city 80 or 100 miles away, or more. But as readers have turned to the Internet for their national and regional news, local media have realized that the only thing they have to sell is strictly local news. And that usually translates to news about a single city, county or metro area. An editor in Memphis probably isn’t going to even glance at a press release about that property you’re selling two hours away in Little Rock. (If there’s a solid “local” angle that directly affects his readers — for example, if the seller is a prominent Memphis business leader — you have a chance. But if your pitch for the Little Rock sale is that “we’re hoping to attract bidders from Memphis,” you may want to just back off and try again another day.) Show respect for his needs, and you’ll score points that will earn you the benefit of the doubt in the future.
4. He wants the basics, but not much more. You live with the details of the auction business. You write contracts to cover all the things that could go wrong, because the wrong language can turn into a no-sale or a lawsuit. The reporter lives in a very different world — one where his editor’s expecting two more stories before quitting time. And his story needs to be short. He has no time for your detailed explanation of the difference between a sale that’s “reserve” and one that’s “subject to confirmation.” He doesn’t want to know the sale price with and without the buyer’s premium. He just wants a number. The simpler you make things for him, the more likely he is to get it right. Trying to explain too much just opens the door to confusion and problems.
Reporters are people too. If you remember that, your dealings with media will go a lot better.
Copyright 2013 by National Auctioneers Association