I got a brutal culture shock when I gave up an 11-year career in PR to become a freelance translator, but it also came as something of a relief. No more office camaraderie, or free drinks and (mostly useless) merchandise to take home. But nor did I have to explain to one more client why the Financial Times was unlikely to do a full-page interview with their CEO, or sit through another buzzword-stuffed presentation about targeting Millennials. Phew.
As time went by, I saw my previous career as less of a bizarre prelude to life as a translator, and more of a decade-long Basic Training. Partly because I was used to having a job that is little understood, since both involve beavering away in the shadows to make our clients look good, but more because of the excellent writing training it provided. A PR person relies on their ability as a writer at least as much as a translator does, and every day I get to call upon the skills that I learned on the Dark Side:
- A flexible writing style
PR stands for public relations, but most PR people spend their days doing something more specific: generating advantageous publicity in the media on behalf of organisations or individuals. When PR people write publicity materials in the ‘house style’ of their target media, they not only increase the likelihood that a journalist will use those materials, they also lend credibility to their clients. As I learned, writing for a lofty technical journal one minute and an irreverent men’s lifestyle magazine the next is excellent training to unlock that ‘cloak of invisibility’ level in the translating game.
- Grabbing the attention in the digital age
The press release was invented over a century ago so that publicity-hungry companies could mirror the structure of the most important media outlet of the age: the newspaper. Newspapers were designed for ‘selective reading’: because readers rarely bothered to read the whole article, the headline and first few lines needed to capture the gist of the story. Sounds familiar? That’s because the ‘news style’ of writing is alive and well today as millions of media outlets compete for the eyeballs of ever more attention-deficient Internet users. Once you’ve mastered the art of press release writing, you have a useful weapon in the war for attention.
- Creating a watertight argument
I’m not the world’s most detail-oriented person but repeated grilling by crotchety journalists about my clients’ revenue figures or environmental claims helped cure me of that. Because we understand local context, translators are in a unique position to add value to clients of all kinds, by rigorously checking every fact, claim, and regulatory issue – for example, the strict rules on alcohol marketing in the UK – and ensuring that messages will resonate with the target audience. Translators are often the client’s last line of defense before launching communications that are at best irrelevant and forgettable, at worst, the cause of a costly legal or reputational issue.
- How to sell
One of the most important writing lessons that translators can learn from PRs is to get comfortable with the concept of ‘selling’, and I don’t mean in the direct, commercial sense. ‘Selling in’ is the term PRs use when they pitch a story to journalists, just as journalists call effective writing ‘selling the news’. It’s a much better description of what PR writing is actually for than the overused term ‘storytelling’, which I think lets us off the hook. Stringing words together in a pleasant-sounding way might achieve what our clients are paying us to do, but only if we’re lucky. No matter what sector they’re in, our job is to land an idea or message in the mind of another group of people who currently do not know, understand or agree with it. In other words, we’re in the business of selling ideas and information. Once we get our head around what we’re selling and to whom, it’s much easier to create a case that actually persuades.
Whether or not you translate PR materials (or would like to), I look forward to sharing the useful lessons I’ve learned about writing and much more, in my course for translators next month. See you there!