February 1, 2013
It happens on a weekly basis. Your boss or a client wants you to write something that you’ve written (or read) a million times before — an announcement or news item that is as routine as your morning half-caff and buttered bagel.
But writing doesn’t need to be routine. Use the following tips to engage your readers and move beyond the “lather-rinse-repeat” approach to PR writing.
Roy Peter Clark, author of “Writing Tools,” advises writers to know the distinction between a story and a report. “Use one to render information and the other to render experience,” he writes.
What’s the difference? A report would tell us that Joe Smith has been appointed as the CEO of ACME Automobiles, while a story would lead with “Ever since playing with toy cars as a child, Joe Smith dreamed of working in the auto industry one day.” Reports can, and often should, contain storytelling elements to make them more compelling.
“The human mind is hard-wired to appreciate stories with a beginning, a middle and an end,” says Daphne Gray-Grant, Vancouver-based writing consultant and author of the Publication Coach e-newsletter. “This also can provide a source of tension to your story.”
Kevin Dugan, APR, director of marketing at the Empower Group, says that you can combine stories and reports to make writing more compelling.
“Stories are part fact and part emotion,” he says. “They need each other, so don’t forget to put both in your articles.”
Often, the best combination is an article that starts with a narrative, provides the factual details (the report) in the middle and ties back to the anecdote as the piece concludes.
I tell my PR writing students that it’s best to interview someone in person — ideally in their office or home. Why? This setting gives writers a chance to collect rich details about the subject that they’d never get via email or at a coffee shop. I arrive at the person’s office early to soak up the scene.
Interview with all of your senses, not just with your ears. I take a good look at the person’s desk and ask questions about what I see. I remember interviewing an executive that had five random playing cards on his desk. When I asked what they represent, he said: “to remind me to play the hand you’re dealt.” Suddenly the CEO had a soul.
“I think it’s so important to get in-person or telephone interviews whenever possible,” Gray-Grant says. “You might think there’s not much difference between a phone interview and email responses to questions, but it does make a huge difference.”
Often you will find new angles or sidebar material during the course of your interviews. Allow this process to help drive the direction that your article takes.
“While it’s true that not all stories are created equal, there is usually a human angle or an interesting facet to an otherwise dry story,” says Chris Cole, marketing communications director at Northern Kentucky University. “Don’t lock yourself into a story idea — explore your topic and seek out the interesting or unusual. Ask yourself: ‘If I were the reader, what would I be interested in?’”
Early on, PR pros learn that journalists love conflict or a question to help drive a good story. We should try to apply the same standard to our writing.
You could tell employees about a new benefits program or policy, or you could provide a behind-the-scenes look at the questions that led to the decision. For example, which is more compelling: an intranet portal article telling everyone in the office that they are limited to 50 color printouts per month or creating mystery and suspense around how to save the company $200,000 annually?
You can use this technique in press releases by framing your article around the problem and explaining how your product or service fixes it.
“Provide a solution or resolution,” says Michelle Crawley, a senior writer at gyro, a B2B marketing and ad agency in Cincinnati. “If your story is to show how a product can solve a problem or make something better, be sure to lead up to what that solution may be [and] how to get there. What were the results?”
Too often, particularly in corporate communications, information comes from an unnamed, faceless entity. People rehash quotes from earlier releases or announcements, which fail to sound like they came from a real person.
Why not center your article on a hero? When I rolled out new corporate characteristics at an international company with more than 60,000 employees, I found front-line associates who exemplified the characteristics and wrote feature stories on them for internal newsletters and Web portals. Store associates are more interested in reading about one of their own than hearing about the characteristics from an executive. The same is true for experts you use in press releases.
“People should be able to relate to your subject or expert,” says Crawley. “If this expert is knowledgeable, colorful or interesting, that makes reading even better. Do they have interesting facts to share that the reader may not be aware of or may be surprised by?”
Go beyond merely quoting someone and try to find out the story behind the story — the struggles along the way, why this is an important milestone for him or her and what this means to the average person.
The tips above should help you break the cycle of rehashed copy to bring your readers stories that are fresh and clean without the soapy residue of stale copy.