Four Maxims of Communication

Every now and then I try to introduce a little bit of communication theory into practice. This time, we’ll be dealing with Gricean maxims of communication. They fall into the area of pragmatics and there are four of them – quantity, quality, relevance and manner.

In terms of practical usability, these things will come in handy in a face to face conversation or when talking to a journalist over the phone.

Quality

Be truthful to the journalist. Don’t add any speculations disguised as objective information to your news release. That’s lying, and even though you might get away with it once, it will greatly damage your reputation in the long run. Just stick to writing about what you have sound evidence for or believe it to be true.

Here is a classic example of breaking the maxim of quality. Imagine you are writing a news release, and the journalist has a soft spot for companies that win awards. Your firm has never won one, but you really need to get the news release published, so you get the much coveted coverage. Will you lie?

What’s the danger? The journalist may actually check the factuality of the news. In case it slips through and gets published, the annoyed organizers of the competition will complain. Next step: kiss your relationship with the journalist goodbye.

Quantity

Say only as much as you need to say. The journalist’s time is limited and you have to make it short. Luke Sullivan, a copywriting legend, put it well in his book “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This!

Keep your pre-ramble short and unless your client insists, omit it completely.

Tell the facts wrapped into a story, not just a story or just facts. The facts will help you to gain the reporter’s attention and the story supports credibility of your information. A press release should not be longer than one page, however, if the information is truly amazing and won’t fit on one page, feel free to break this rule.

Relevance

This maxim is the most difficult to describe. You have to know what the journalists are after when writing a story and then be as helpful as you can be. There is no general advice I could possibly give. Adherence to this maxim has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Specifically, you have to connect with the journalist and get to know him or her. Then find out what he needs and make his life easier.

Manner

Clarity is the name of the game here. Do not use words from hell like innovative, solution, proactive, groundbreaking, thought leader and other puffery. Bear in mind that not everybody has a thesaurus in his head, so simple language is a must. It makes the story easy to read and easy to remember. You will thank me later for this rule when you start measuring key messages recall.

Stick to Orwell’s rule:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

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About the author: Honza Felt is neither cute nor funny. To compensate for these tragic flaws, he writes about marketing, analytics and communication, so more gullible people think he is smart if nothing else. Well, at least he’s honest…