Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Food for Thought for Speechwriters from E. B. White

"It is not the written word, but the spoken word, which in heated moments moves great masses of people to noble or ignoble action." This observation by E. B. White in his essay "Freedom," published in July 1940, captures the mood of the U.S. in that difficult time. We were still 17 months away from joining in the war, but we were watching it unfold throughout Europe. To understand the enemy, White read and analyzed Mein Kampf. Although not a speechwriter himself, White fully understood the power of spoken rhetoric--especially when it is mouthed by tyrants.

White advocated equally for the "written word, [which] unlike the spoken word, is something which every person examines privately and judges calmly by his own intellectual standards, not by what the man standing next to him thinks." One wonders what he'd make of our age of hyper mass media.

My favorite part of White's essay: "I am inordinately proud these days of the quill [pen], for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic which inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Mary's, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example."

For speechwriters and corporate history writers, White's "Freedom" provides excellent food for thought during Thanksgiving week. It appears in One Man's Meat (a collection of his essays for Harper's Magazine), which is still in print -- as is the anthology Essays of E. B. White. That's something to be thankful for, this week or any week. Happy T-day!

Monday, November 12, 2012

“About Us” Evaluation: CNET Gets a C plus

CNET publishes news, reviews, blogs, and podcasts on technology and consumer electronics. Its unbiased experts are known for their ability to demystify technology. Founded in 1994 by Halsey Minor and Shelby Bonnie, CNET was acquired by CBS Interactive in 2008. The company’s About Us page is here.


Products/Services: B
We like the home-page overview: five headings, each with a teaser and a link. The only flaw is (unfortunately!) on the very first item, “Who we are and what we do.” That phrase promises at least a smidgen of business history. Instead we get a teaser -- “CNET is a collective of the tech-savvy and tech-obsessed” -- which doesn’t indicate what CNET does or why it’s unique. CNET’s strengths are set out clearly and concisely on the Press and Investor page: they need to be stated here as well, where far more people will see them.

CNET has the unusual challenge of listing categories, criteria, and winners of awards they give, rather than trying to impress us with awards they’ve received. Here and elsewhere on the About Us pages, we’d like to see more images of the wide range of products that CNET reviews – perhaps a slide show of the latest winners in major categories, changed weekly or monthly.

Personality: C
When we rely on reviewers for high-end purchases, we like to know something about their background and qualifications. The concept of CNET’s individual pages on each editor is great: comments and reviews the expert has posted on the left, short bio with interests and activities on the right. We would have given CNET an A for personality, except that two of the four reviewers highlighted on the CNET Editors page didn’t bother to submit bios. This is the sort of detail we’d expect tech-savvy and tech-obsessed people (or their editors) to pay attention to.

Accessibility: C
Via links at the lower right of the About Us page or on Where to Find Us, we can follow CNET nine different ways. Each of the editors has an email contact. But what if we don’t know which editor we want to contact? There seems to be no general email or online contact form.

While we admire (for esthetic reasons) the uncluttered look of CNET’s pages, we’d like more information: more photos of items reviewed, better bios of the people who write the reviews, and a bit of corporate history that reflects CNET’s well-deserved reputation among users of all tech stripes.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). Contact us if you’d like to have your site evaluated—there’s no charge and no obligation. Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pratt celebrates 125 years with style

Pratt Institute has educated and nurtured some of the world's most amazing artists and designers. Great to see, then, how execs at the Brooklyn-based school have marshalled not just talent but impressive resources to commemorate Pratt's 125th anniversary. The celebration has included Alumni Days, a gala, and an online and physical gallery of works by alum ranging from Tom and Jerry cartoons by Joe Barbera, the clean-lined Cuisinart by Marc Harrison, and the Dunkin' Donuts logo by Lucia DeRespinis. Visitors to the Web gallery can vote on their favorites.

Cool videos, too: the historical reel lacks narration but features superb historical photos and quotes from such Pratt champions as Beverly Pepper (sculptor, class of '42), Patti Smith, and Ellsworth Kelly. Nice touch to include a second video with Jared Bell, designer of Pratt's 125th logo (pictured here). No corporate history book per se, alas, but the alumni magazine produced a huge school history issue that can be perused online.

The entire organizational anniversary campaign feels very authentic and is a huge treat for the eye. Congrats, Pratt!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Light Reading on a Heavy Subject

Corporate communications wouldn't seem to be a likely subject for comic mystery writing. But Simon Brett's novel "Corporate Bodies" pulls it off brilliantly. Brett's mysteries featuring the hapless, B-list actor Charles Paris are my favorite airport reading. I can always count on him for an out-loud chuckle by page 3 and flat-out laughter by Chapter 2. Brett is the Oscar Wilde of a genre -- formula mystery -- that otherwise leaves me indifferent.

In short, "Corporate Bodies" finds Charles playing the role of a forklift driver in a corporate video for Delmoleen Foods. Forklifts lead to accidents, and that leads to murder, launching Charles into motion once again as an amateur sleuth. Brett skewers the excesses of corporate jargon-speak, as well he should. He brings the case to a blistering climax at a conference jam-packed with overwrought speeches. Charles's last-minute narration of a slide show (PowerPoint precursor) that goes devastatingly wrong had me gasping with laughter and rue.

I won't ruin the plot, and I'm not sure if this early 1990s volume is available for download ... but check your local library or bookstore, and treat yourself to some well-deserved light reading that may help you lighten up your own corporate history and speechwriting excesses. It's been a good reminder for me to write more plainly and to keep Ppt excesses to a minimum.