Write with authenticity

The recent return of the MP expenses scandals, and the following, almost unbelievable graphic from @ConradHackett (which I stumbled across via @JoeSarling), got me thinking about authenticity in politics.

First of all, that incredible graphic.

Falsehead face-off

Without doubt, there can be no authenticity in politics if the spin doesn’t tally with the truth. And voters remember if you’re seen to go back on your word, just look at Nick Clegg.

While we should absolutely run this lie detector test on our own political leaders, I want to focus on how they say what they say, rather than what they’re saying.

Having worked in both journalism and PR for a while now, I’ve both received and written my fair share of corporate quotes. But what’s the trick in making them feel real? How do you make a connection with your audience?

Here are some quotes from three politicians. You may recognise some of them, but do they feel authentic?

“When Donald Trump says there are parts of London that are ‘no go’ areas, I think he’s betraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him frankly unfit to hold the office of President of the United States.”

“Extending the grant in a sustainable way ensures more than 100,000 people will benefit from financial support when purchasing these cheap-to-run and green cars. We are determined to keep Britain at the forefront of the technology, increasing our support for plug-in vehicles to £600 million over the next 5 years to cut emissions, create jobs and support our cutting-edge industries.”

“Treat people with respect, treat people as you would wish to be treated yourself. Listen to their views, agree or disagree but have that debate. Cut out the personal abuse, cut out the cyber-bullying and especially the misogynistic abuse online and let’s get on bringing real values back into politics.”

I’m obviously being a bit unfair here, comparing two big characters with strong voices to a quote from a government press release, but you can see the stark difference.

Writing authentically is so important – whether in the political, B2B or B2C arena. It can build or erode trust, it can win or lose votes or sales.

So, whether you’re writing for a politician, a CEO or a housing officer, here are my five tips to create authentic quotes:

1. What are you trying to achieve?

Whatever else you do, be clear on your objectives from the start. What is the main message you want people to take away? What are you hoping people will feel, think or do having read your piece?

2. Know yourself (or the client)

We can’t, and shouldn’t, all talk like Boris Johnson. But you can hear him saying his quote. And if you’ve read something that doesn’t sound like him, it immediately feels false, undermining the message. Know your (or your client’s) stylistic flourishes, use them, sparingly, to make it feel like personal and real. And always read your quotes out loud, do they sound authentic?

3. What’s the point?

It’s pretty standard practice to weave the main messages, facts and figures into the quote; simply because the journalist can’t mess around with that bit. But trust the journalist to do their job and write a decent, balanced story. They will, rightly, chop out anything that’s not useful or interesting to their audience.

And don’t overload the quote with facts and figures, don’t try and chuck everything in. While the eye is naturally drawn to numbers within copy, which can be a useful trick, be ruthless about what makes the cut.

Just include the best figure, one that supports your story the strongest – otherwise people will just drift over the quote and not take anything away at all.

4. Know the customer

Remember the old saying that you can never please all of the people all of the time. So be really clear about who you are writing for, what do you want this person to think, feel or do? What tone and language resonates with them?

5. It’s a conversation – what are people saying back?

In the modern, digital world, feedback is pretty immediate. One-way communication is over.

So don’t just evaluate the reach of the message, evaluate the impact. This is easier of course if it’s linked to sales uplift or potential leads, but don’t forget to look at the tone of the article. Take a deep breath and go ‘below the line’, see what the reaction is like in the comments section.

Check out what people are saying on social media, they’ll soon tell you if you or your client are not being authentic.


Answers: In case you weren’t sure the quotes were from Boris Johnson, Andrew Jones and Jeremy Corbyn.




Me, my dad, and dementia

Knitwear is back in right?  Memories are worth passing on.

Knitwear is back in right? Memories are worth passing  on.

As 25-year-old memories go, it’s pretty vivid.

We were in Portugal. It was baking hot. My cheeks ached from my goggles, which were too tight and had been on all day. I’d been diving in and out of the swimming pool, scooping up coins from the blue and white tiles. I’d found enough to buy a small wooden sail boat I’d seen in a gift shop in town.

And my dad was proud of me.

We went together to buy the boat, I remember the coolness of the evening, the cobbled streets, the whitewashed walls along narrow alleys and the scrawny cats that looked like they’d not eaten for months.

But what if someone took that memory away from me? Would I notice? Would I know something precious was missing?

Four years ago, my dad was diagnosed with dementia with lewy bodies. You’ve probably never heard of it and to be honest when my mum told me I struggled to get past the word dementia.

And he was only in his 60s.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. He’d struggled with driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road when we’d travelled to the United States to see my brother, and he’d got frustrated and annoyed at Christmas when the dust was blown off the board games.

But we didn’t. Whether it was because these things ‘don’t happen to us’ or because it was so gradual, I don’t know. Maybe both. But in the end it had been years in the making, until one weekend, suddenly, he hallucinated. He just didn’t trust my mum, he thought it was the morning, when it was 10 o’clock at night.

It was terrifying. For him, for my mum, for me.

Quick medical lesson. Lewy bodies, named after Dr Frederich Lewy, are tiny deposits of an abnormal protein in nerve cells in the brain. No one knows why they appear, but they can build up in the areas of the brain which are responsible for muscle movement and memory. Apparently scientists think they disrupt chemical signals between brain cells, but no one is sure.

And my dad is one of the 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia. As we all live longer, this figure is expected to rise to more than 2 million by 2051.

There are more types than you’d think. Dementia with lewy bodies accounts for up to 10% of all dementia. The actual number is vague because it is likely to be missed or diagnosed as something else. It affects everyone differently but it is basically a mixture of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, with a few surprises that are unique to dementia with lewy bodies.

So, for my dad, puzzles have become complex. For a man that was once a chief financial officer, my dad now struggles to use analogue clocks. For a man that taught me to drive with surprising patience, my dad can no longer get behind a wheel. A roundabout has become tougher than a fiendish Sudoku.

We’re in the early stages. His movement has slowed some, his mood, understandably, can get low sometimes. It’s knocked his confidence. I think he worries more about social situations or going anywhere where he may need to walk too far.

But he keeps going, keeps trying. He is still my hero.

And his long-term memory is amazing. We still joke about silly family stories, like when the time a fridge door fell off in our holiday apartment and, always prepared, he had a screwdriver set in his luggage ready to save the day.

For us, the NHS has been its usual blend of the indispensable and the indescribable. It felt like it took a very long time to get dad diagnosed, for many year’s depression and denial masked the symptoms. But when we’d finally got past the bureaucracy, endlessly chasing referral letters and faxes and waiting…when we got the news we didn’t want to hear, I can’t fault the care he’s received.

We’ve been especially lucky to have an amazing group here called Wokingham’sYounger People with Dementia, who have been an invaluable source of support and friendship for both my mum and my dad as they face a life as carer and patient, as much as loving wife and husband.

I have to say my mum has been amazing throughout, brave, resilient and unbelievably adaptable. She cares for dad in every sense of the way. Of course she’ll do anything for the man she loves, but it’s the daily list of little things she does, with a smile, that I admire most.

While I know it can’t be enough, I’ll do what I can. Be there. Whether that is a shoulder to cry on, someone to shout at about how unfair it all is, or someone to put stuff up in the loft.

But more recently I’ve started to think how to talk to my own son, who is not yet four, about granddad. My boy, and his 9-month-old sister, will surely have their own questions one day. What would you say?

I hope I’ll be brave enough to be honest. I hope I’ll tell him that granddad just gets confused sometimes and that while he’d love to play football he can get tired quickly or lose his balance. That he was great at those things, but that a part of the brain that helped him do all of that isn’t working quite as well as it once did.

But I’ll also tell him how much he loves his grandchildren, how they light up his day.

So we’ll carry on, enjoying every moment as best we can, and taking pleasure in those little things, enjoying reliving old memories and making new ones.

Dementia can be a dirty word, but we’ve got to talk about it more. It’s great to hear government lay down the challenge of finding a cure for dementia by 2025. We need to take it seriously, and funding for research into dementia stood at just £74m in 2012/13. I say just because in the same year we donated more than £132m to the RSPCA and spent more than more than £500m on cancer research.

If you’ve read this far, whether because it affects someone you love, or you’re afraid of what the future holds for you, my one piece of advice is that you try not to fear it. Remember that an inheritance includes passing on and treasuring great memories with those you love, not just things and money. It’s a cliché, but don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

I’ve kept that little wooden sail boat, and all the memories I’ve made with my dad, safe. I’ll keep adding to them and, one day, I’ll be sure to pass those memories to my children too.

10 things about dementia you probably didn’t know

  • £26 billion spent on dementia, with around half of the bill picked up by people with dementia and their families
  • £73.8 million spent on dementia research in 2012/3. Compared to £502.8 million on cancer research
  • 47.5 million people living with dementia in the world
  • 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK
  • 225,000 people develop dementia each year
  • 40,000 people under 65 have dementia
  • 44% of people with dementia in England, Wales and Northern Ireland receive a diagnosis
  • Every three minutes someone will develop a form of dementia
  • Two in three people with dementia are women
  • One in three people will care for someone with dementia

Source: Alzheimer’s Society and the World Health Organisation


Last night I met Mike. He was sat on a bench outside a Marks and Spencer’s store, he was in a grey hoody and a black baseball cap lay upside down in his lap.

He was homeless. And had nowhere to go.

He’d put together a makeshift bed in a car park. His cap had £18 in it and he told me he was trying to get £30, so he could get a room at a nearby B&B. He hoped to get enough before it started to rain.

I’ve worked in social housing for about six years now, not that long really, but when I meet people like Mike it makes me realise why what we do as a sector is so important, and getting more important all the time.

But, with all the talk of the government (and the Office of National Statistics) changes making it harder for housing associations to achieve their social purpose, I wanted to ask what really is the housing association sector, and what is it here for?

What is the housing association sector?

Housing associations are not-for-profit businesses that provide social housing. Simple. Right?

Housing associations look after more than 2.7m homes/bed spaces (government’s words, not mine). That’s a staggering number. Think of all the people that have made those places a home, or benefited from a warm bed on a cold night when they needed it most.

But the beauty of housing associations is there is just no one-size-fits-all description.

There are over 1,500 housing associations across the country, but around 80% of them are smaller, local charities that own less than 1,000 homes each. Meanwhile the top 5% own more than half the stock.

At one end of the alphabet you have A2Dominion, a 35,000-home association and major property developer. At the other, Zebra, a smaller housing association providing homes and support for international students and their families that come to London, particularly those from developing countries.

So what are we here for?

Social purpose is a big, broad phrase – but what does it mean?

Some build, a lot. Last year just the 50 largest developing housing associations built 40,213 new homes.

Many don’t. But all do amazing things for their community.

Some provide thousands of beds every night to those in greatest need, others have safe places for single women or homes for the over 55s. There’s specialist mental health care and support for people trying to get into work.

That’s not to mention affordable homeownership, something the government is pretty keen on right now.

So when we talk about a housing sector, I don’t think that phrase does justice to the diversity, the reach and the impact these organisations have.

What’s the future?

Even after just six years, it feels to me like times are changing fast.

More welfare reform, rent reductions, Right to Buy, pay to stay, local authority spending cuts, the reclassification/deregulation/privatisation hokey-cokey.

It’s a complicated and potentially toxic policy cocktail.

It’s making everyone, across the sector, think hard about what their social purpose really is – and how they can deliver it.

Is it about putting an affordable roof over the heads of those in work, but struggling on a low income? Is it to support the homeless? Is it to help the elderly live independent lives? Do we fill the service gaps that our local authority partners can no longer fill?

Today is #housingday, a rare opportunity for the sector to come together and celebrate the difference these 1,500 organisations make every day. I’m really looking forward to seeing the variation and diversity in the stories, to see the scale and breadth of that social purpose.

And the challenge for each business, given the intense pressure from government, will be to find the sustainable balance between that simple definition of providing affordable housing – and going further, offering something extra.

But let’s not forget about Mike, and so many like him, who don’t have a safe, secure place to call home. Yet.

The others

Last night I sat down to write my first blog. It was to be about something called ‘othering‘, a phenomenon where rhetoric and society can, often unconsciously, single out a specific group that’s different, and see and treat them as less important.

I was going to write about housing, particularly social housing, a topic close to my heart. I was to argue that possibly this ‘othering’ was happening in our society. And that welfare and housing policy played on this, making life even tougher for a specific group of people.

Sadly, many in society view those families affected by these policies as lazy, the undeserving, the poor. Other people. I guess understandably, in tough times, you look after your family first.

But then Paris happened.

Innocent people killed. Terrorists. Suicide bombs. Muslims.

Horrific and terrifying scenes.

Headlines we’re sadly getting used to.

My thoughts are with those whose lives have been touched by this terrible crime, in Paris, and around the world.

On Twitter there was outrage at an Arabic hashtag, which translated as #parisonfire. Some were using it to gloat, but many were using it to send prayers too, from all places and people.

But it shows the depth of the divide.

Earlier that day ”Jihadi John’ was reportedly killed in an armed drone strike. What he did was inhuman and unforgivable. But he had a name, Mohammed Emwazi, and he had a family. Who despite everything, also lost someone in this war.

So, both sides are guilty of othering the other.

A survey earlier this year showed Britons most associated the words ‘terrorism’, ‘extremist’ and ‘misogynistic’ with Islam.

What happened in Paris, and the hashtag, showed starkly what a few think of the West.

Barack Obama said immediately after the attack: “This is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share.”

He was possibly more right than he realised. This needs to be about all of humanity. Not a race, a religion, a class or a nationality.

We need to find those truly universal values of the majority, that cross geographic, cultural, racial and religious boundaries. We all need to respect every individual, and their right to a decent life.

It’s definitely the most difficult course, and one that’s hard to stomach after a tragedy like we saw yesterday, but maybe it’s the only way we’ll ever have a safe, inclusive and peaceful society.