I left mainstream newspaper journalism when I was just 35 after developing repetitive strain injury (RSI as it often called) – caused, ironically enough, when computers replaced typewriters in the newsroom and the necessary adjustments to office furniture were not made, nor any proper training given about how we were to use these new fangled computers.

Nic Mitchell

Nic Mitchell

That was a lifetime ago, but not being able to type or take a shorthand note for months was the spur I needed to move on. So I left newspapers and went into university public relations, or “information” as it was better known in the early 1990s.

At first I was determined to keep a safe distance between me and ‘new’ technology.

Back then, universities had armies of secretaries; and as a reporter I was used to dictating stories directly to stenographers, or copy-takers, over the phone; so it wasn’t so hard to keep away from keyboards.

Even today, I’m convinced that dictating straight from a shorthand notebook is one of the fastest ways of getting masses of information across in just a few minutes.

But we’ve moved on! The secretaries of yesteryear are gone and even academics do their own typing – at least in Britain.

Apple_iMac_Keyboard_A1242I overcame my dread of computer keyboards, even if I still sometimes use voice-activated software; and thanks to an early AppleMac I learnt that ‘new’ technology had many advantages.

All in the digital age!

So, now we’re all in the digital age – and have been for what seems like an eternity. I’m back practising my old craft of journalism after over two decades of working at the ‘dark art’ of public relations, as it is often described in Britain.

A lot has changed with journalism

Today a feature, or more precisely an opinion piece, is now more likely to be called a blog; and instead of appearing in a printed newssheet will probably be read on a tablet or mobile phone. And those short funny paragraphs of about 40 words, or less, that we once called ‘news briefs’, have become tweets or Facebook posts – to be absorbed and discarded, or re-tweeted, in seconds.

Good storytelling

But what hasn’t changed are some of the fundamental truths of what makes a compelling story that people actually want to read, even if they now do so for free on the Internet.

When I trained to be a journalist, it was drilled into us that we weren’t writing for ourselves – but for the readers. That’s something that today’s digital communicators ignore at their peril!

We also used to obsess about the right length for the introductory paragraph. I think we sometimes spent almost as much time trying to get the ‘intro’ right as writing the rest of the story.

And the latest research findings into effective digital communications perhaps show we weren’t wasting our time.

Grabbing the reader’s attention

For unless you grabbed the reader’s attention in the first few seconds, he or she would move on to the next story. Just as today they will pass over your tweet or Facebook message if it hasn’t got that instant impact.

Yes, we are all supposed to be so much busier these days – but the golden rules applied then are still relevant today – with a few caveats thrown-in from today’s social media gurus, which I will come to shortly.

The best news reporting was, and still is, not just newsworthy but also factual, balanced and accurate. If you want to be taken seriously as an online commentator, or blogger, you need to gain the trust of your followers, or readers, and be seen as a reliable source of interesting information.

Distinguish fact from opinion

Making a distinction between the factual side of reporting and giving opinions is still important, perhaps even more so in the fast moving 24-hours-a-day news world we are living in today. But they can be confused!

If you want to put your spin on the conclusions drawn from the facts, that’s fine – but make it clear that it is not news reporting, but a blog or an opinion piece. As long as they are well written, and well argued, they can be a powerful way of getting your message across – and have the advantage of the personal touch – and can encourage two-way communications!

Most good websites make this distinction between facts and features, or news and blogs in today’s jargon. Certainly the websites I’m associated with do; whether it is my own deleacourcommunications.com site or the European Universities Public Relations & Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO.eu website.

University-World-News-420x210University World News goes even further than most by clearly labelling their stories News, Features, Commentary, World Blogs, Student View, etc.,

At Euprio.eu, I do most of the interviewing and storytelling but I love it when one of our members offers to write blogs and do a story about what is happening to higher education in their country. Surprisingly, despite being an association of university communicators, it is still difficult to get people to put pen to paper and normally takes a lot of arm-twisting before any copy appears.

Perhaps it is down to a worry about what their bosses might think if they express an opinion; but I suspect it has more to do with a fear that their English isn’t good enough. I try to reassure them by saying I offer a copy-editing and proofing service; and usually there’s nothing more required than a quick sub-editing job, often no more than I would do to copy supplied by a native English-speaker.

Getting your English right!

Of course, if you are providing news and blogs in English, you should really try to get the English right. It can make you look very unprofessional if you don’t.

One of the first things you need to decide is which version of English you are going to use: Anglo English, American English, or something I call European, or EU English! Most of the articles that I get to proof from universities in mainland Europe are a combination of all three styles.

I’m still amazed how few people realise the significant differences between US and UK English, particularly when it comes to the written word. Proof-reading university marketing material can take twice as long simply because drafts arrive in a variety of English styles and I can spend hours changing all the American Zs and replacing them with British Ss in words like ‘organisation’ because my client says they want the copy in British English!

My advice if you don’t have someone with a good, near native level of English on the team, is to hire a freelance copy-editor like me. If you can’t afford that, then at least put the English (UK), or if you are targeting the American market the English (US) spellchecker over the final version before publication! The Microsoft Word spellchecker also offers English (Aus) for Australian English.

The ideal length of everything online

Now, I hope we’ve got to the best bit, which I’ll call ‘The ideal length of everything online’. I confess that while preparing this blog and an online presentation for the UNICA, the network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe, PR seminar in Vilnius, I came across Kevan Lee’s blog on the science of the length in digital communications.

Kevan is a content crafter at Buffer, the social media file sharers, and he called his blog ‘The Proven Ideal Length of every Tweet, Facebook Post, and Headline Online’.

So what did he say, and how does this relate to university communications?

Tweets should ideally be just 100 characters

twitter logoYes, I know we always talk of Twitter’s 140 characters; but that’s the absolute maximum and if you’ve got a fairly long twitter handle like my own @Delacour_comms, you’ve used up 15 in your title. For re-tweets (RTs) add another three. So, if you would like people to add something like a “Great read” or some positive remark it is best to leave ten or more character spaces. Hence, 100 characters!

Ideal Facebook posts should be 40 characters or less

facebook-iconIf tweets are supposed to be no more than 100 characters, what about Facebook posts? Social media guru Jeff Bullas says they should be even shorter. His research has shown that ultra-short 40-character posts receive 86% higher engagement than longer ones. But, as only 5% of posts qualified at this length, his next piece of advice is to keep post to 80 characters or less, where he says you get 66% higher engagement.

Most Facebook posts have a length of about 103 characters, according to Quintly Research.

I tried out the advice on the EUPRIO Facebook page, where – for research purposes, obviously! – I posted two versions of very similar news with links to stories on our website. The ones with 30 words or more got a fraction of the ‘clicks, likes and shares’ compared with posts I kept to around ten words. See the reference section at the end of this post for what got liked and what was largely ignored.

Write for the right readers!

But whether you always manage to keep within such guidelines or not, the key thing to remember is that you are writing for your readers – and to make sure you are using the ‘right’ media channel to reach them. More serious stuff may be better for twitter or LinkedIn than Facebook, etc., etc., It is kind of obvious!

Above all, make sure that whether your blog is 500 or 1,500 words, or your tweet or Facebook message is 40 or 140 characters long, it has something interesting to say – and try to capture your reader in that all important ‘intro’ for longer posts.

Now, to practice what I am preaching I must switch-off. For the gurus tell us a blog should only be 1,600 words long, or take seven minutes to read, and an online presentation to a seminar should ideally be just 18 minutes long.

I was given 30 to 45 minutes for my spot at the UNICA PR and Communications workshop in Vilnius, which will be based on this blog, so I’ve allowed a little leeway.

But I’ll stop here anyway and offer some further reading in the reference section, including the link to Kevan Lee’s blog covering the length of everything from online headlines & email subject lines to blogs & social media and what I’ve found out about the best style & length for posts on the EUPRIO Facebook page.

NIC MITCHELL (alias @EuprioNic) writes about UK and European higher education for University World News and is the chief blogger for the EUPRIO.eu website. He also runs his own freelance PR agency, De la Cour Communications.
He came runner-up at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ UK Education Journalism 2013 Awards for Outstanding Online Education Commentary. This was for his blogs about student mobility on his delacourcommunications.com website.



Here’s the link to Kevin Lee’s blog with his infographics summarising his Ideal Length of Everything Online suggestions.

Think of the timing of your posts.

Look at how many they reach for the best time to post for the most ‘Likes’, (or re-tweets).

Similar stories sent at different times and of varying lengths can get vastly different responses.

Look for what works and what doesn’t to find the best time to post for maximum impact.

Repeat messages in a different, usually shorter, format if they fail to generate much reaction first time round.

Use photographs as well to improve hit rates.