Thought Leadership on Integrated Marketing Communications presented by RMR Associates.
By Robyn M. Sachs
President, RMR & Associates, Inc.
There are some simple steps that can make your writing more readable and your press release more likely to be noticed by a reporter.
- Writing is all about strategy.
Think of the evening news anchor who drops hints before a commercial break about the weather forecast without giving away the goods. Or a really good movie trailer intended to get you to pony up your $10 to see the film. The approach is no different than for any other professional writing, particularly for a press release. It’s all about strategy.
You want an editor, reporter or potential customer to pay attention to you, right? Then every word you write should answer this reader’s question: “What’s in it for me?” That’s the question that media consumers subconsciously ask themselves when they look over your VNR, radio spot or press release to determine whether to do the work and keep going. All the spam we filter out these days means that you have less time to keep them from “changing the channel.” Remember that your press release is always just one click away from oblivion.
- Think electronically: Apply the ‘preview approach’
Reliance on email is strong and is not going away. (Trust us on this one, folks; we talk to journalists every day!)
This affects your writing strategy. A reporter recently mentioned to me to think of the little “preview” window we all use with our email programs. He said, “I use this viewer as a filter, reading only the copy that makes it into this tiny window. I open few messages, and I keep the window small (I have a made-for-TV attention span, even though I hardly watch it). If you don’t get me in those first five lines, you’re deleted. Sorry. It’s not personal. It’s time management.”
- Work, then rework your lead. Then rework it again.
Apply this approach to ALL your writing, especially news releases; ensure that the first five sentences can (a) stand on their own and (b) convey the bare-bones theme of your release. Work and rework the headline and lead; if they’re broken, no amount of beautiful prose following will fix it.
The preview approach is most important for the lead of a release. Your release will sink or swim based on two elements: the lead sentence and the subject line.
Pop Quiz: To illustrate, which of the following would you rather read?
(a) Cheap Tickets today announced an unprecedented savings program that would enable the traveling public to leverage their buying power to maximize savings on a number of airfares.
(b) Summer’s almost over, but Cheap Tickets is offering super savings to keep the heat on.
Needless to say, it’s (b) right? It’s shorter, less formal, and more relevant to you. But we see more releases worded like (a) in the corporate communications/PR business. And don’t think that because you’re talking about share prices, load balancers or wireless networking that the editor on the other end is less likely to appreciate reading something warm-blooded. You’ll stand out.
- Edit out the junk.
I used only one exclamation point in this article, and even then I took some liberty (can you find it?). The point here is to tone down the hype. Reporters see it every day and they are as ‘over it’ as you are. If you read back through this copy, you’ll also note a conservative use of adjectives and adverbs.
For example, I initially opened this paragraph with “I used exactly one exclamation point in this article” and edited out ‘exactly’ because I didn’t need it to make my point. Hype is obvious and gives the reader another reason to stop reading.
Another word to avoid: “very.” Nine times out of ten, the word you would have modified is enough (or it should be replaced with one that does the trick).
- Be conversational.
Notice how I set a tone that’s conversational in this article. I make my point without being stuffy (again, if you’re still reading, I hope you see my point). Put yourself in the shoes of whoever will read your release. With few exceptions, you can convey the necessary information as though you were talking to them over dinner and remain professional.
Some practical suggestions:
Use a few contractions. “I’ll” instead of “I will.” “We can’t” instead of “We cannot.” This will take guts in some organizations, where you may have to fight against managers who can’t let go of decades of frumpy, corporate-culture writing. It’s worth it. Tell them more people will read it. They’ll get that.
Alternate sentence length. Sometimes you need to use a long sentence because there’s just no other way to convey a number of concepts together without separating their meaning. But follow with a short one. Good for the attention span.
Avoid jargon and buzzwords. Proactive. Utilize. Leverage. Just reread the beginning of this article for lots of them. You don’t need these words. What’s more, lots of news organizations now employ filters to weed out those oh-so-tempting buzzwords. Write as though you’re explaining it to your aunt at the holiday dinner table.
- Edit and revise everything.
Any corporate communications or PR leader worth their salt does this anyway, but make it a habit to edit and revise everything that’s meant to see the light of day. There’s NO SUCH THING as a finished first draft; the best practice (in the ideal world) is to write something, leave it alone for a while, reread and revise it, then give it to someone else to edit. I would emphasize that one pair of eyes is NEVER enough, and client or agency eyes (depending on where you’re coming from) don’t count.
This should seem self-evident, but run your spell check and grammar tool on everything. Turn it on and leave it on for all your correspondence with clients, managers, coworkers, everyone. You want to be taken seriously, don’t you?
One of the best ways to edit something is to find a quiet corner where no one will think you’re crazy and read aloud to yourself. Does it sound right or is it awkward? Chances are if it doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t read right, either.
In every office there’s someone who’s known as an effective editor. Find that person and establish a relationship with them. If they’re good at editing they also care about how something reads. They will be willing to help you when you really want it to shine.
Robyn M. Sachs is the President and CEO of RMR & Associates, Inc., the recognized leader in integrated advertising, marketing, and public relations on the East Coast for fast-track companies. RMR has developed direct mail campaigns for companies including ACL, Texas Instruments, and Deutsche Post Global Mail.