28 May 2021

Lyrical comms

We all draw our inspiration for effective communications from different sources, and in our latest blog Senior Account Executive Tom Stewart-Walvin explores where he finds the best lessons on finding just the right word or tone: poetry.

At first glance, it seems as if poetry and professional communications have very little in common. Few press releases are written in rhyme or metre - although those that are, are certainly memorable - and few poems contain the phrase 'we'll arrange next steps'.

However, our skill as a sector in communicating effectively is drawn from various wells, and there are indeed lessons that can be learned from poetry.

The most impactful message is often the one that's worded just right, or that resonates on an emotional level, and there is no genre of writing more concerned with conveying emotion, or more exacting in word choice, than poetry.

Glimmer or glitter?

'To get the right word in the right place is an achievement', said Mark Twain. When it comes to communications, this could be gospel. For example, 'recognising' an issue will be read differently than 'acknowledging' a problem, despite that you'll see the terms next to each other in a thesaurus. The former suggests proactivity, while the latter can seem as though the writer is backing down from an argument.

Choosing exactly the right word to convey what you mean reduces the chance of a miscommunication, sets the desired tone or register, even serves to persuade the reader of your message. It's one of the first principles of communications.

In poetry, the skill of selecting just the right word is equally paramount. For instance, the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' reads:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

At the risk of stating the obvious, try changing any single word in the above line, without ruining its sound and sense.

The symmetry between kingfishers catching fire and dragonflies drawing flame, in combination with the metre, is impossible to recreate without choosing the exact right word. Just so in comms; a well-crafted communication can hinge on word choice - are you 'following up on an email' or 'chasing for a response'? There is most often a definite right answer.

Tone, rhythm and flow

If choosing the right words is like looking at the bricks in the wall of your message, considering the tone is taking a step back to review its curve.

The tone of soundbites and commentary can vary significantly depending on spokesperson and audience; comments on new regulation from a legal expert will always appear too dry for a consumer title, but soundbites from a wellness guru aimed at end-users will appear informal in a business-to-business setting. It's about matching the tone to the situation and thinking on the exact message and nuance you're aiming to convey.

Similarly, soundbites that don't flow smoothly are unlikely to find much purchase in the papers, but a series of comments that interlink between sentences prevent journalists from quoting a single line, if it refers to previously mentioned points or arguments. Flow is about more than smooth copy, it's about the journey the reader follows.

On a deeper level, it's also worth considering rhythm of your sentences. Varying length between short and longer sentences prevents a message seeming either curt, or long-winded.

Similarly, a softer sense of self can be conveyed with muted consonants. Or, take a tougher tone with plosive, compact sounds.

A time for everything

One of the poetic techniques that you certainly won't find in professional communications is enjambment, or the continuation of a sentence across a line break.

But enjambment is largely about timing, and this is certainly central to all communications.

Just as the poet considers when to leave

A line unfinished,

So should the comms professional consider the pauses between emails, or when to follow up with a journalist after a promising conversation.

Indeed, clients often have such busy workloads that managing the timing between comment opportunities or article commissions often means the difference between buy-in or standing down an idea.

It pays to consider your correspondence as a whole, as well as each individual communication. Does the client or journalist respond better on a certain day of the week (deadlines are an immovable object in many a schedule), or at a certain time of day? If you secure interest in an idea, has this individual historically preferred quick correspondence, or time to think between emails?

Ultimately, we can find inspiration for making our comms better from myriad sources, and it's always interesting to hear how our colleagues' lives and hobbies have affected how they communicate.

For me at least, it's poetry that provides that prompt to think deeper about how exactly our meanings are received.

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.

(Photo credit: Laura Chouette, Unsplash)