Tailoring the written word for our audience

February 1, 2012

I remember the first memo that I ever wrote as a professional.

My boss, a wonderful gentleman, asked me for a situation analysis.  As a new MBA, I was eager to impress, and labored for several days and late evenings producing a long memo.  After he read the three pages I submitted, my boss told me that, as much as he liked my prose, I could have said it all in half a page.

He sent me back to my office with a red pen, where I started cleaving away whole sections to find the essence of the problem.  Years later, our organizational CEO demanded that his memos were never more than a single page.

I’ve often reflected on those experiences in subsequent years. I remember how, as a student, my professors would insist on a paper of a certain length. For better or worse, those dictates would inadvertently encourage many of us to be verbose (and to adjust the margins on our typewriters to stretch out the page count). 

After years as a student, my natural tendency when writing was to prefer length over brevity:  There wasn’t a penalty for submitting a long paper, but a short one resulted with points off instantly.

My initial lesson about writing for the business environment — learning to trim it back — embodied the old adage “Time is money,” though perhaps a more appropriate adage these days is that, “Time is our most precious resource.”

Channeling our message

The challenge for organizations that seek to communicate to a large audience is that everyone wants different things and prioritizes their time differently. 

Here at PRSA, we start to address this diversity by respecting the fact that we are writing for busy professionals. With this in mind, we keep our blogs, articles and columns short, to the point and on target.

We know that everyone has different values, interests and priorities. If most of our readers want the story short and quickly, then there will be others who want the details. And since our readers are also our members, we want to do our best to give the most detail-oriented people in our audience the information that they need. 

One way for us to do this is by tailoring messages for our different communications channels. A PRSA tweet — with 140 characters or less — may only flag an issue and a position, but it offers a link back to our blog, PRSAY. At 500-700 words, the blog will provide a more robust discussion. The blog itself is likely to link to other posts, outside articles and previous writings. Our quarterly magazine, The Strategist, goes even deeper, with articles of 1,500 words or more.

When there is a need for further, in-depth conversation, an issue can move to our Discussion Groups, which provide endless opportunities for dialogue, information sharing and exploration. 

By using all of these channels, we can not only present our audience with different amounts of information, but we can also repeat a message — valuable in a world of information overload, where people may miss something the first time around.

So by reacting to time constraints and personal preferences of our members, we strive to present a topic in a variety of formats. 

There’s a second issue related to deadlines and writing — one without an easy answer.  The only way for any of us to become a good writer is to work at it. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” 

And while PRSA cannot create the time that we all need to practice writing, we can help you find mentors, obtain advice about writing and give you access to tips and tools that can help you once you find that time — just like we’ve done in this issue of PR Tactics.


William (Bill) M. Murray, CAE, is the chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
Email: william.murray at prsa.org


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