My ninja secrets to a faster, better approval process

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Over the last two weeks, I’ve written about why and how to paraphrase. If the thought of this still makes you nervous, here’s a guide to a faster, better approval process from the people you’ve interviewed… 

Many corporate communicators go crazy with what’s known, euphemistically, as the “approval process.” Usually, a more accurate title would be the “disapproval process,” when sources change their quotes wholesale and vice-presidents nit-pick stories to death.

I seldom have difficulty with any approval process, however, because over the years I’ve learned a series of strategies that really work. Let me share them with you.

Here are three important DON’Ts:

DON’T ever use the words “approval process.” Instead, call it “fact-checking.” This puts the emphasis where it belongs — on correcting errors, not on tweaking copy. Even though my superiors might call it the approval process, I steer clear of that term as if I’m avoiding a gigantic spoonful of cod liver oil.

DON’T attach the story to your “fact-checking” email as a Word document. This makes it too easy for reviewers to use “track changes” and rewrite your entire document. Instead, copy and paste the story into the body of your email. (Yes, your sources can always copy and paste it back into a Word document, but this will take more time and create more work for them. I find most people won’t bother to do this.)

DON’T necessarily accept all of your sources’ suggested changes. If people try to change the text (to make themselves sound smarter and better educated), I always phone them to discuss the changes with them. When I tell people that their quotes need to sound like the spoken rather than written word, they usually understand what I mean. (And, if necessary, I read the quote back to them, demonstrating how it doesn’t sound like the spoken word.) Generally, we can negotiate a quote that will make both of us happy.

Now, here are some DOs:

DO put the deadline for feedback in the subject line. It might read something like this: FACT-CHECKING new product story: DEADLINE, June 6, 5 pm. Senior people such as CEOs and Vice-Presidents especially appreciate the clear specificity of this kind of subject line. And typically, I find, they respond to it. Adding the time — 5 pm —  is a little fillip of mine. It’s not necessary but I find it makes people take the deadline more seriously.

DO be polite. I never act as though I’m the boss of the company. The people who talk to me are doing me a favour! I appreciate that they’re willing to review the story to help ensure its accuracy.

DO ask them to remove words if they are going to add any new ones. (I always ask for them to remove at least the same number they have added.) This will strike most people as reasonable and it will usually prevent them from changing your copy too drastically.

DO give explicit instructions for how they should give you the kinds of changes they want. Here, for example, is a template that I use (you’re welcome to save it and use it yourself):

Dear XXXX,

Thanks so much for speaking with me recently about XXXXXXXX.  Here’s an advance copy of the article. I’d be grateful if you could read it and get back to me no later than Friday, June 6, letting me know whether there are any factual errors in the story. 

If so, please write the corrections directly into the piece (preferably in another colour, or in CAPITAL LETTERS, so I can spot the changes easily.) If there is text that needs to be removed, please place it between square brackets [like this].

Please note that the story is at its absolute maximum length already, so if you need to add additional words you should mark an equivalent number of words to be deleted.

If you want to speak with me, I’m at 604-xxx-xxxx. Thanks! –daphne

Note that my detailed and very specific directions, including how to use square brackets, spell out exactly what I need my sources to do. I give them the opportunity to correct mistakes but I don’t make it super easy for them. 

I know this process is unnecessary (and unwanted) for traditional freelance writers. But for anyone working in the corporate world, this kind of clear, open communications with the people you’ve interviewed can go a long way to making the (old) “approval process” something that’s more likely to have a positive result.

What’s the biggest challenge with getting approvals at your company? How do you deal with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section. (If you don’t see the comments, go here and then scroll to the very end.) And, congratulations to Bob Eldridge, the winner of this month’s book prize, Stumbling on Happiness for his May 2nd comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s blog post (or any others) by June 30, 2014 will be put in a draw for a copy of  Simon Sinek’s intriguing non-fiction book Start With Why