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30 Days to Better Business Writing 17

30 Days to Better Business Writing 17

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key point: well-written press releases are more likely to get you favourable coverage in

the media

Forgive me if I go on at some length about this but I have strong feelings about press releases. They

could be much, much better.

In my former life as full-time journalist, I received (and ignored) thousands of press releases. I’ve seen

editors scan through a hundred email press releases in fve minutes and delete the lot. Before that, as a

CEO, I paid tens of thousands of pounds for shiny press releases that got us no coverage whatsoever.

Why are they so dreadful?

Press releases suffer from committee writing that turns steak into baby food. Not only that, but

marketing people compensate for lack of bite by adding hype words, jargon and self-important throat

clearing.

The worst sin is ‘Frankenquoting.’ Here’s an example:

“Nortel has established a legacy in innovation and will continue to push the envelope in delivering faster

and more effcient wireless capabilities with industry leaders like QUALCOMM,” said Jean-Luc Jezouin,

vice-president, GSM/UMTS product line management, Nortel.

Nobody talks to their friends like this but PR people think that they can excuse purple prose by

pretending that someone with a big title said it.

How to make them better?

Here’s my recipe for better press releases. I’d like to think that any company that adopts this approach

will stand out from the pack so much that they will be overwhelmed with gratitude and coverage.

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write descriptive headlines that explain why the story is interesting.

1.

If you can’t, it isn’t. So don’t

put out a press release.

keep them short and factual.

2.

250 words should be the upper limit. By all means link to a website

that contains more detailed information.

Make the frst sentence and the frst paragraph work for their living.

3.

Always include contact details.

4.

Many don’t. What’s the point of that?

If you quote anyone, do a real interview and pick a good quote.

5.

Customers and independent

experts are more interesting that company notables.

One writer, one subeditor, one proofreader, one lawyer.

6.

Everyone else has an opinion but not a

veto.

Try writing a letter

7.

to your grandmother explaining why the news in the press release is important.

Bingo, there’s your opening paragraph.

Alternatively try telling a story.

8.

What, who, where, when, how and why.

Make sure you

9.

redact any version control history from Word documents. There’s usually a better

story for journalists in the stuff you removed at the last minute than in what you actually wrote.

Try a new medium such as podcasts or blogs.

10.

If nothing else, it will force you to abandon the tired

old press release template.

There are many voices calling for the death of the press release. What is needed is not execution but

reform. Here are my tips and suggestions for doing it:

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21preparation

Have something interesting to say.

1.

A press release implies something newsworthy. A press release

that isn’t is another form of spam. Don’t cry wolf when there isn’t one.

remember your audience,

2.

forget your client. A press release that your client loves is not as useful

as a press release a journalist (and her editor) loves. Make sure your press release will help sell the

story and get you coverage.

Yes, journalists are cynical and lazy.

3.

Deal with it. Be uncynical. Work harder. Don’t assume an

adversarial position. Don’t stoop to their level. (See The top ten lies of PR companies.) Trust me;

you’ll get back what you put in.

Look at bad pitches.

4.

Studying bad pitches is a great way to learn about what mistakes to avoid.

Sign up for some press release services such as PR Newswire. Also check out the Bad Pitch Blog.

read the blogs and magazines of the people you are trying to reach.

5.

This is the best way to

understand what they are looking for in a story.

Use surveys sparingly.

6.

Surveys are the traditional standby for a PR company in want of news. They

can be effective, but I think the public and journalists are getting increasingly sceptical. See my blog

post: Surveys: uses and abuses for writers and PRs.

write it well

We have covered many of these lessons earlier in this course:

Be brief.

1.

Most press releases would be more readable, more credible and more memorable if they

were about 25-30 percent shorter.

Get to the point.

2.

Most press releases start with a paragraph of pious throat-clearing about how

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great the company is. You need to open strong and get straight to the point.

killer lede

3.

. As with any article, the frst sentence is the most important. You should aim to put as

much work into the frst sentence as into the whole of the rest of the press release. It needs to

convince a busy, cynical journalist to read on.

Eliminate words.

4.

You can cut out about a third of the copy in a typical press release and it will read

better and more convincingly.

Be scannable.

5.

Press releases are very temporary documents. Readers don’t give them a lot of time

because they are not, usually, a high priority. This is a lot like websites and one of the key lessons of

writing for the web is to be scannable. That means using bullet points, sidebars, pull quotes, bold,

underlining, lines and other page structures to make it easy to scan the page rather than read it

from start to fnish.

Tell a story.

6.

Human beings tell stories. They don’t go to the coffee house and share press releases

or soundbites.

Construct an argument.

7.

As an alternative to the story-telling approach, construct a compelling

argument using The Pyramid Principle: state a problem then explain how your product or service

solves it.

Create a sense of place.

8.

Was the product invented somewhere? Did you make an important an-

nouncement in an interesting building? Try, somehow, to anchor the press release in a real place. It

will ground it and add credibility because most press releases seem to take place in the corporate

ether.

reveal personality.

9.

Again, it will enhance your credibility and make the press release more

authentic if you can capture a sense of real people. What are they like? How do they talk? Do they

have any experience, hobbies, interests etc. that relate to the subject of the press release? Details

matter. Three or four words that give life to a name will animate a whole press release.

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Echo your company’s tone of voice.

10.

If it doesn’t have one, help it fnd one.

relax. relax!

11.

For heaven’s sake won’t you people RELAX! Press releases don’t have to sound like

a lawyer’s letter or the small print of an insurance contract. Imagine explaining the subject to an

intelligent friend.

Use everyday words and phrases.

12.

This is important. Somehow, people think that corporations have

a dull, wordy, formal voice. Why? Their employees don’t. Use the language of everyday speech. So,

do, get, make, build rather than develop, obtain, maximise, construct.

Understate rather than hype.

13.

This needs a touch of humour and good writing but it can be very

effective. I loved that Virgin ad that said, “British Airways don’t give a shiatsu.” As well as being a

cheeky attack on a rival, it was a cunning way to mention the free massages in Upper Class without

actually mentioning them. Another good example is Ronseal, the varnish company that advertises

its products by saying, “It does exactly what it says on the tin.”

pick short, apposite quotes.

14.

The tendency in press releases is to quote whole paragraphs (usually

made up) from VPs. Much better, I think to quote three or four words but pick really good ones.

Look for quotes that include metaphors, comparison, individuality, character and which get to the

heart of the matter. If you, as a writer, can say something better than the quote you are using, don’t

use a quote.

Eliminate hype.

15.

For an example of how hype words (e.g. prestigious, leading) don’t work, read

the worst press release ever. Readers don’t just discount hype words when they read them, they

assume the opposite of what you said. Hype words are road blocks on the journey to credibility.

Eliminate jargon.

16.

Jargon is a vocabulary used within a specifc company or industry. It is often

meaningless to outsiders, including journalists. If your gadget can do 48 circumfudels a second,

you had better explain what this means in English and why it matters. Don’t assume anything about

what the reader understands. The same applies to little-known product names. Even Google, with

its massive brand awareness, had to change Froogle to Products because people didn’t understand

what it did.

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Eliminate acronyms.

17.

Acronyms and abbreviations are another kind of jargon. They assume that the

reader knows something. People often use jargon and acronyms to sound big and clever, without

realising that it actually has the opposite effect on most readers.

Avoid buzzwords.

18.

These are phrases that mean more to you than they do to the reader.

Throw in the occasional frework.

19.

A one-sentence paragraph. A killer quote. A spectacular analogy.

A powerful statistic. An appropriate use of an everyday expression. Always try to add a little fzz

and ginger to everything you write.

Close with a kicker.

20.

Go out with a bang. The last sentence needs to be thought-provoking and

memorable. It needs about half the work of the opening sentence. A typical magazine way to end

a piece is with a memorable quote from an objective source, some kind of paradox or a tiny detail

that illuminates the whole story. A short, pithy summary of the whole thing would do as well.

Be human.

21.

Used sparingly and in the right context, the pronoun ‘we’ can be very powerful and

authentic, as well as helping you avoid the passive.

Box out the key points.

22.

Have a sidebar titled ‘If you read nothing else, read this’ and summarise the

story in three very short bullet points. Yes, you’d like people to read the whole case study, but only

10 percent will do that. Wouldn’t be great if another 30 percent at least knew something about the

contents.

write a Google-friendly headline.

23.

Write a headline that summarises the story (not what the PR

wants you to think about it). This will help with search engine optimisation.

Include contact details.

24.

Don’t leave this information out. It’s astonishing how many press releases

stored on company websites have no contact details at all.

write a factual, one-paragraph summary for email.

25.

Most press releases go out by email as Word

or PDF documents. Most journalists delete them without reading them. A one-paragraph email

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summary (like this one) means you have more chance of converting recipients into readers.

Check then double-check

Don’t beat about the bush.

1.

Don’t hedge your bets by overqualifying sentences (e.g. ‘Many

companies fnd they have different kinds of problems with certain email viruses”). Be more

assertive: “Email viruses hit companies hard.”

Use a spell checker.

2.

D’oh! But it happens. I sometimes see fnal draft press releases for my clients

that have two or three typos.

Use readability stats.

3.

Aim to score under 50 in the Flesch Reading Ease, under 8 for the grade level

and no passive sentences. Journalists in a hurry have a reading age of a 12-year-old.

Check facts.

4.

Especially names and titles. Most magazines are obsessive about this and you should

do the same for a press release. It’s worth keeping a separate document tracking all the sources for

the different information in the copy so that you can go back and check who said what.

redact hidden content.

5.

Word hides a lot of version control changes, including copy you would

prefer journalists not to see. You can eliminate it easily by following this advice from the US

National Security Agency (PDF). Read my blog post, Unintended press release disclosures, for

an example of what happens when you don’t.

tODAY’s EXERCIsE

Today’s homework? Guess what: it’s to write a 250-500 word press release that

will grab an editor by the greasy lapels of his worn-out jacket and get him to pay

attention to your company.

BADLANGUAGE.NET

30 DAYS TO BETTER BUSINESS WRITING

“i don’t believe in email. i’m an old-fashioned

girl. i prefer calling and hanging up.” –

sARAH JEssICA pARKER

DAY

22WRITE BETTER
EMAIL

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