Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Become a verb warrior. Try this writer's resolution for the new year

Key points:

- Find out whether you're verb-impaired.

- Fix wimpy, vague writing that induces the MEGO effect. (MEGO = My Eyes Glaze Over)

- Use this list while in recovery.


The one way to most immediately see the biggest possible improvement in your writing is to choose higher quality verbs. For this reason, I’m suggesting this as your New Year’s writing resolution.

First, self-diagnose to find out whether you're verb-impaired. Then set out to become verb-talented.


Print a hard copy of a document you wrote and circle all the verbs. Read them aloud as a list. You may realize without prompting that they're generic or repetitive. But even worse, your verb choices may be alienating readers. To objectively evaluate the strength of your verbs, ask yourself the following questions and compare with the following lists.

1. Are your verbs so precise that they aren't easily interchangeable with their neighbors?
2. Do they evoke one of the five senses? Can you picture, feel or hear them?
3. Do they have motion?
4. Are they …

… wimpy ?

§ Do
§ Have
§ Is, was, be, been
§ Serves to (another verb)

… vague?

§ Address
§ Affect
§ Impact
§ Enhance
§ Expand

… overused tech verbs? (fine to use, but other verbs may be more descriptive and precise)

§ Implement
§ Provide
§ Deliver
§ Deploy
§ Establish
§ Enable

Multi-syllable for no good reason?

Initiate (start), utilize (use), facilitate (help), educate (teach), designate (name)

Or are they active and precise?

Before ending this post with a list of super-hero verbs suitable for business writing, may I suggest that you begin harvesting your own favorites from an article or book that you recently enjoyed. My fave verb source is National Geographic magazine.

Secondly, I suggest you develop your ability to capture verbs in the moment of activity, rather than conjure them after you’ve returned to your desk. More on that in a future post.

And if I haven’t convinced you yet that college verbs (often derived from Latin) aren’t as good as plainer verbs (often derived from Anglo-Saxon), ask yourself whether this time-honored saying would still be with us today had it been stated less plainly.

Memorable and to the point: “A stitch in time saves nine.”
Not: “A sufficiently early suture eliminates the necessity for subsequent multiple interventions.”

Ring in the new year by becoming a verb warrior. Challenge yourself to choose verbs well.

Strong one- syllable verbs


Also OK


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

For Christmas, my interview with Maya Angelou: "All Human Beings Try to be Beautiful"

Key points:

- Teach tolerance
- Examine other cultures without fear
- Give every newborn a membership card to the UN

"Just let them know they’re born a member, and that they have all the privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining."

- Maya Angelou

I wrote this article while working at The Associated Press in San Francisco. It moved on the national wire on Sept. 13, 1995. I tweaked the version below just a teeny bit.

At the time, Angelou was promoting a new book of poems called "PHENOMENAL WOMAN” and had just read “A Brave and Startling Truth” at the United Nation’s 50th anniversary celebration.

This story was the second of two. The first I wrote on deadline about what I thought I was supposed to write about. This second I wrote between assignments later about a question close to my heart:
"What advice can you offer a mixed-race child struggling with his identity?" I was asking about my nephew, then 12.

Guess which story got more pickup. Yep, this one.
Lesson learned: Questions close to your heart yield the best stories. Sometimes what you’re “supposed” to do is wrong.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – If Maya Angelou could give children a single luminous insight to help them do their growing, she would deliver it gift-wrapped in poetry and wait for the children to fold back the words to reveal tolerance.

A sampling from Japanese haiku to American inner-city rap could show that “everybody loves flowers or everybody has some fear of the dark,” Angelou said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I would encourage the child to look at her/his world, at the people in their world, and to try to examine the cultures in their world without fear,” the poet said. “I would try to lead the children into seeing that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.”

Author of 12 best-selling books, Angelou has consummated her reputation for wisdom, particularly regarding a child's emerging sense of identity in a fractious world. Now 66 [now 81], she wrote “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings” about her childhood self-revulsion as a black girl growing up in 1930s Arkansas. By contrast, her newest book, “PHENOMENAL WOMAN, celebrates self-possessed women in maturity.

Her life speaks well to the history of racial tension in America. She protested alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, prospered on her own merits during the shift from Jim Crow laws to affirmative action, and journeyed to Africa and back only to discover that a person’s search for roots may have little to do with race after all.

“It’s the striving in itself that is delicious,” Angelou said, explaining her buoyancy amid adversity and pain.

It’s hard to decide if she thinks people survive and forge ahead because they are courageous, inspired or just downright bullheaded.

“We have to kill to eat, and eat to live – and yet we want it,” she said. “If we dare to love, we might be devastated – and yet we want it.”

“The contradiction is so intriguing that very few of us willingly give it up,” she said.

When Angelou speaks, one gets the sense that more of her attention goes into hearing her words than speaking them. She’s alert and listening as she produces the sounds. She enunciates slowly. Her facial expression subtly registers expectation, uncertainty and then something like satisfaction.

Her life story offers hope that even down-and-out youth can pick themselves up and realize dreams of their own making.

Angelou was 16, pregnant and unmarried when she watched ambassadors and diplomats file by on the sidewalk on their way into a San Francisco hotel 50 years ago to sign the United Nations charter. She remembers feeling too black, too female, too tall and too alone to think about following them inside.

But she was invited inside this summer for the anniversary celebration of the charter’s signing. Angelou read her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” on the same stage with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

A few days before the event, Angelou reflected on how far the “united nations” have come and how far they still have to go. She said children’s singing star Barney and Sesame Street’s Big Bird give her hope.

“I mean, look at today’s children loving a purple dinosaur who doesn’t look like anything raised in their homes. And a bird that is 10 feet tall and speaks with a very strange voice,” Angelou said.

"It’s rather natural to fear those things we don’t understand and those people who might look different from us,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s very easy for people to overcome.”

She suggested promoting world peace by giving every newborn a membership card to the United Nations.

“Just let them know they’re born a member, and that they have all the privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining,” Angelou said.

Her solution includes showing children pictures of the human family’s varying forms of ornamentation: intricately scarred torsos in Central Africa, bamboo-pierced noses in the Amazon, tattooed biceps in San Francisco and diamond-studded earlobes in Paris.

“Let the child see that all human beings try to be beautiful,” Angelou said.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Four lessons from mentors (& tormentors) at WSJ, AP & SF Chron

On the brink of writing a warm, fuzzy appreciation for my favorite writing mentors, I realized that I grew the most as a journalist only after having been insulted.

Will this post be about my mentors' fine contributions? Or my resilience? Let's find out.

Mentor No. 1: Urban C. Lehner, then of the Tokyo bureau of the Wall Street Journal, taught me that the most important question a news reporter can ask is “why.” The insult: “You’re a better writer than you are a reporter.” I hated him for this comment, for about 10 minutes. After that, I delved deeper into every story to find the back story, the precursor events, the underlying dynamic.

That worked for me. I immediately became a Page One regular at the small-town daily I worked for at the time and soon thereafter won first place for feature writing in California’s newspaper equivalent of the Academy Awards. I didn’t get to accept the award in person because no one told me I’d won. That’s because I’d left the little daily to go work for The Associated Press.

Lesson 1: “Dig, dig, dig until you find out why.”

Now a writing coach in the high-tech PR industry (Yahoo, Intel, Google), I’ve changed this to “dig below the surface for insights” and “look for causal factors.”

Mentor No. 2: Rob Haeseler, then of the San Francisco Chronicle, never insulted me. But people who worked for him did. One of them completely re-wrote one of my stories and made it really bad while leaving my name on it. Another gave me wrong info in a confident tone of voice that I later passed along and got called on. It was embarrassing.

But when Rob spoke, it was like finding precious, tiny rivulets of gold. I rather felt like a spy when we talked on the phone. He would utter a seemingly simple one-liner so rife with impact that it was almost like he was speaking in code. Here’s an example: “At the Chronicle, we have a rule. Every lead must have conflict or tension.” That was it. Conversation over. I took that and ran with it.

Rob’s advice, combined with Urban’s, led to my getting a memorable note from a Chronicle reader. He said I’d turned “a sow’s ear” of a story into “a silk purse.”

At the time, I was still at the small daily and stringing for the Chronicle on the side.

In PR, I’ve repackaged that nugget as “look for subtle tension.” I’ve even got a two-page handout with examples. It’s important in pitches and award submissions in particular and sometimes also in e-mail subject lines.

Lesson 2: Look for contrasts and juxtapose them. That's one way to achieve subtle tension.

Mentor No. 3: Joe Bigham of The Associated Press was the most kindly, even though he was a gruff, old-school guy. He was personally conservative but stunningly tolerant of others. It’s like he knew how to flip a switch in his brain. In professional mode, he could accept any aberration of humanity and tell his/her/its story with accuracy and compassion.

He never insulted me, either. But we worked in a two-person office for about 14 months and I was reminded every day by his example that I was a flea to his dog, Hamburger Helper to his beef bourguignon, a bead of water to his tidal wave.

He sometimes asked me to stand over his shoulder and watch him write. He sometimes narrated his thought process. It was from him that I learned the technique I call “first three words.” This came from the fact that Joe would type three words on a blank screen and then pause. It was an unconscious habit, not an intentional lesson. But I would then gasp because he had already captured the essence of the story.

Adapted to PR, I call this “making the best use of the best real estate.” My spiel includes a reminder that we write nowadays for skimmers, not readers, so you have to put your best stuff in a location where the skimmer will see it: the first three words. (The opposite is true if you're writing for the ear rather than the eye.)

There’s more to that, but I need to be brief.

Lesson 3: Start fast. No need to set up what you will say and then say it. In fact, you are likely to lose readers if you do.

I learned so much more from Joe that this little anecdote almost does him a disservice. He’s also the reason I advocate what I now call “side-by-side writing,” which has been extremely popular at A&R Edelman (my employer). It lets you guide writers with your questions while capturing their thoughts as they speak them aloud. You can capture the writer’s threads and weave them into fabric. The writer in turn learns to weave.

Mentor No. 4: Dennis White of the Manteca Bulletin (the small daily) told me my writing was “wooden.” I angrily examined my work in search of examples of how wrong he was.

After all, I’d been praised for writing all my life. I got my first prize for writing in third grade when I submitted what I did on my summer vacation to a comic book. They sent me $25.

Professors read my essays aloud in class and said, “This is what I’m looking for.”

Wooden? Me? How dare he!

Of course, he was right. In my analysis, I discovered that I had acquired the bad habit of using college verbs. Generic, multi-syllable, Latinate. Yuck.

To cure myself, I made lists of verbs I found in stories I liked and kept them at my keyboard. That was good but not good enough. I soon realized that I had to capture the verbs while still out on the scene, that I couldn’t conjure them after getting back to the office. So in the office and out, I became a verb collector.

Lesson 4: Choose highly specific, one-syllable verbs. For example: tug, flip, lock, find, build, send, flow, choose, dig, start, bring. Not: establish, initiate, enhance, construct …

Naturally, there are as many lessons as there are editors and stories, so I could go on. But now you have a sense of what I mean when I sometimes say in my classes, “I’m not telling you anything new. I’m just channeling the wisdom of the forefathers.”

All of this advice and more is available in my favorite book on writing, which was intended for journalists but works beautifully for anyone. When I was at The AP, we got quiet-looking copies of it with “The Word” printed in gold on a brown cover.

I recommend “The Associated Press Guide to News Writing” by Rene J. Cappon. It's the same book with a different cover. You can find it on Amazon and elsewhere.

It’s even a little bit insulting. So I know it will work for you, too.

Just remember to be resilient.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Advice menu: Which situation is yours?

What kind of writing and editing help do you need? Check out this menu of constructive tips to see if any of these situations apply:

(1) You're distraught over a supervisor's consistently voracious re-writing of your work. This post suggests alternatives that he/she might go for.

(2) You need to evaluate team members' writing and hold them accountable for improvement. This post includes a chart and recounts our success using it.

(3) You want to give feedback that supports writing growth. This real-life example demonstrates an alternative to tracking changes. (Also see No. 1 above and No. 6 below.)

(4) You're a solitary, introverted writer or editor coping with grief and could use a little understanding and even a bit of advice on managing the winter holidays.

(5) You get dinged for grammar, usage and style errors. This post describes how we trained a super-star proofreading team that finds mistakes most people miss.

(6) You want to step back from overly reactive small edits and keep the big picture in mind. This post lists eight questions that help you keep your eye on the ball.

(7) You want to start off a new account on a good writing foot or need to find out why a client appears to be irrationally unhappy with your team's writing. This post helps you begin creating a cheat sheet on your client's unconscious writing preferences.

(8) Your press release approval process takes too long and results in jargony mush. This post offers guidelines for assigning roles and responsibilities. Or check out's nicely abridged version, minus questions for writes/mediators.

(9) You sometimes freeze and can't get get anything good onto a blank page. This post suggests that you break a rule to break through the gridlock.

(10) You wonder why I agreed to blog, even though for years I said, "Nooooo."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

News releases: Fix your broken approval process

The worst thing about news releases is the approval process. Too many cooks, as the saying goes, right? After too many iterations, what comes out in the end often looks like something that's been through a trash compactor.

Does it have to be so painful and unproductive? Can we fix the broken process?

The solution, my friends, is discipline. Or baseball, if you prefer. By that I mean each player needs to play his assigned position in accordance with his strengths -- and no one else's. You can't have the shortstop sprinting to first base or the pitcher standing in center field.

Here are some guidelines to help each approver play to his strengths:

(1) Choose one person to write. Everyone else should be hands-off. Hands-off people should comment and give direction but not write, re-write or edit.

(2) Set parameters for each approver's contribution. Here are the roles I suggest for marketing managers, product managers and lawyers.

Marketing managers should ask, "Does it support the brand and long-term business objectives?" They should comment on messaging and emphasis.

Common overstep by marketing managers: Reciting messaging verbatim in the headline, subhead, lead or quotes. Instead, consider messaging an indirect takeaway.

Some explicit recitation of messaging may be OK, but only if blended with vocabulary and scenarios that are familiar and compelling to the audience. Try to balance messaging with empathy and authenticity, as seen through the audience's eyes. Otherwise, you lose credibility and induce the MEGO effect (My Eyes Glaze Over).

Product managers should ask, "Is it accurate?" They should comment on the technology, features and benefits.

Common overstep by marketing managers: Deleting or moving down social context. Instead, let the top half of the press release answer "why" and the bottom half answer "how." In other words, first establish relevance in the lives of the audience, then explain how it works.

Lawyers should ask, "Could we be sued or penalized?" They should comment on potentially negative consequences related to the SEC and other regulators, intellectual property (trademarks, patents, copyrights) and whether the company can deliver on promises.

Common overstep by lawyers: Changing punctuation and capitalization to meet style standards for legal contracts, and deleting social context for the announcement. Instead, let internal experts use AP style, the industry standard for news media and PR. Look for compromises that prevent legal problems while allowing social context.

The best way to avoid problems is to pay more attention to the pre-writing process. There should be substantive input before creating a first rough draft.

Don't even bother to write a "shell." It's a futile time-waster that creates needless frustration for all.

Instead, ask the approvers to do these tasks in advance:

Marketing managers should:
-prioritize target audiences and messaging
-weigh in on correct emphasis
-explicitly state what long-term business objectives are being served

Product managers should:
-demo the technology for the writer
-provide detail on specs, features and benefits
-weigh in on correct emphasis

A VP- or higher-level PR person on the agency side should "frontload" the writer. By that I mean provide context for the assignment. This should take less than 10 minutes and cover:

-news release's role in overall strategy
-detailed description of intended audiences and problems the product or service solves
-intended effect on audience (including actions to be invoked)
-competitive differentiators and indirect takeaways about the industry or audience, not just the product/service or company
-desired emphasis

Who writes? Usually a mid-level PR person, often an AE or SAE, who understands the task is to balance competing interests while appealing to external audiences. This person is more of a relationship broker than a writer because he won't be using his own voice or acting on his own priorities. The writer is really a mediator.

The writer/mediator does the following:
-receives content and other inputs
-looks for holes and asks questions
-consults with PR team members for frontloading, to find out what's been done in the past and for a mid-point check-in on content and structure (but not wordsmithing)

Ideally, the writer/mediator has access to:
-the sales department’s internal PowerPoints on customers and competitors to better understand the overall business and how to dovetail with parallel campaigns
-internal company and agency research, including Search Engine Optimization, aka SEO, and key initial findings that informed the PR plan in the first place

In many cases, the writer/mediator must develop the context that hooks the immediate announcement into the ongoing conversations of key influencers (while remaining within the parameters of branding and business objectives). A good way to do this is an audience analysis technique I call PDAs (Problems, Decisions and Actions). More on that in a future post.

Why add context? That's what makes it a "news" release. News is info that surprises people or helps them make decisions.

News = announcement + context

If you want to write solely about your product, that's OK, too, but -- technically speaking -- that's more of a backgrounder or fact sheet. Journalists do appreciate those and the SEC may require them, so have at it. You don't have to include context if you are talking primarily to beat reporters who already know your company well.

Throw out 95%

Now the writer has a big pile of inputs and must select the most compelling and relevant 5%, looking for intersections between disparate topics and resources.

Notice I said 5%. Writing is really a matter of deciding what to leave out. The writer should plan on deleting 95% or more of his source material.

Sometimes people ask me if it isn't more efficient to just collect only what matters in the first place. The answer is no because your final product will be shallow if you do. It will lack resonance. It won't have a shelf-life. And it will falter in the approval process.

Good writing comes from good content. First get the best ideas, then simplify and package them for easy absorption by strangers.

OK, getting back to process ...

The writer's unique contribution (separate from that of the others who gave early input) includes appropriate vocabulary and scenarios that will be familiar to audiences.

This last part -- audience vocabulary and scenarios -- is extraneous to what the marketing and product team may have had in mind. It also might feel superfluous and imprecise to lawyers.

However, it's the link to the audience, so please let the PR person proceed with this small contribution. When approving these few phrases, keep in mind your position and expertise. If you're the first baseman, stick to playing first base. Comment and compromise, but don't delete and re-write.

Ideal situation: Get PR, marketing, product and legal to agree in advance on appropriate vocabulary and scenarios. Key point: Look for language your audience really uses and delve into problems they actually talk about among themselves.

This is the same logic behind search engine optimization. But it has always been true, even before there were search engines. Know your audience and speak their language. Be useful to them, from their perspective.

Does the writer have to work alone? No, preferably not. Others on the PR team can help by providing:

-a speedy midpoint check-in to approve content and structure (not wordsmithing, which can still be rough and wrong at this stage) Time: 5 minutes
-a hands-off look by someone who didn’t draft the release and can provide outside eyes as to whether the information is clear to outsiders and mechanically sound (grammar, etc.), and to say what indirect takeaways they picked up on
-a hands-on look by a senior person who can finesse the small stuff while keeping in mind the big stuff (but please read my other blog posts for advice on this)
-submission to the person who will oversee the approval process, perhaps with a note explaining reasons for certain decisions and listing possible alternatives

Questions the writer should ask:
1. What are my client’s hot buttons, preferred vocabulary and customs?
2. What approved language from previous releases should be included to provide continuity and help beat reporters and analysts distinguish new info from background?
3. Have I added context that connects the client to the outside world without becoming distracting or irrelevant (and while remaining within parameters of brand and business objectives)?
4. Is the “why” at the top and the “how” at the bottom of the release?
5. Will the first paragraph appeal to relevant outsiders and make them lean in to listen?
6. Have I blended messaging with news value?
7. Have I met both the client’s and audience’s needs?
8. Are customer types specifically named in the release and generally in the fronts rather than middles or backs of sentences? (not users; instead educators, physicians, Web designers, network architects, business professionals, families …)
9. If I delete the quote, will I have to rewrite the release to fill in the missing content? (If not, then rewrite the quote. The speaker should add substance or remain silent.)
10. Have I added white space through effective use of subheads, bullets and short paragraphs? (White space is inviting.)
11. Do my subheads have verbs in them? (If not, consider rewriting. Drill down deeper. Be more specific.)
12. What is my gut saying that I’m ignoring? (Don’t ignore it. Honor your instincts.)

Discipline and self-restraint are make-or-break factors in fixing your broken approval process. Everyone needs to know their position and respect their teammates.