house style, interview, media training

You won’t change our style

I had a great afternoon media training yesterday for a client who will remain nameless (nothing untoward happened but I always keep clients confidential unless they give me express permission to do otherwise). I love offering this training because something different crops up in every session, and in this instance it was someone objecting to a magazine’s house style.

The house style is the thing that keeps a publication consistent. Is the first number when you’re counting written as “one” or “1”? It doesn’t actually matter as long as it’s consistent (most publications for which I’ve worked, including the nationals, write out one to ten in full and then move to 11, 12 and soforth). Are companies singular or plural? I’m happier with singular, there is only one Microsoft so it *is* doing something rather than *are*- and it’s an “it” rather than a “they”. However, a colleague in sports journalism tells me that at the BBC it’s always “West Ham are…” – again, as long as it’s the same throughout a publication or broadcast it’ll be acceptable.

Most people understand this – when you’re talking to the press there’s enough that can go wrong without flapping over the odd comma that someone in the office has put in or deleted. That said, I’ve taken calls in the past from people complaining that their job titles aren’t in capital letters; how insecure do you have to be?

Nobody says datum

Yesterday’s query was nowhere near as egotistical . He’d simply written a piece for a magazine and they’d changed every reference to “the data is…” to “the data are…”

I had to think about this. My latin is nonexistent but I believe “data” is actually the plural of “datum” which nobody uses (anyone who knows better is more than welcome to correct me in the comments section). So “data are…” is technically correct in the same way that phone really ought to be ‘phone because it’s short for telephone, but we all know it’s become a word in its own right so nobody puts the apostrophe in.

If you submit an opinion piece and find this sort of change – and yes, “data are” makes my teeth itch too – to your copy or your quotes, there’s only one thing you can do. Accept it. Accept and understand that the sub-editors and editor will be altering everything for their magazine’s house style for complete internal consistency. There is nothing you can or should do about it, it’s a correct thing to do.

Worry about the substance – if they misrepresent your view or accidentally put factual inaccuracies in, you have every right to ask them to stop. And if you’re really worried that their changes are making you look illiterate, you’re not obliged to continue working with them. Just don’t expect a newspaper, magazine or website, with its own brand values and investment, to change its style in your favour. It won’t, even when you’re right!

Information on Guy Clapperton’s media training is here. For help with writing for business, check the courses he runs with the Henshall Centre in London.

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