- Tell the story “out of order.” Start with why, not with background or with "how," especially when telling a science or technology story. Even more specifically, show "why it matters" and "why now."
- Turn standard marketing collateral into a narrative. This post of mine is explicitly about PR people writing award submissions, but the advice fits other situations, too.
- Think like a business news reporter. Here’s how to package your company’s story as a business news article. This post, too, was written for PR people pitching business journalists, but the advice applies to your direct communications, too.
- Here’s more on thinking like a business journalist. Know the magic question.
- How to write a contributed article. That’s PR-speak for an article in a magazine or trade publication that is written in part by an expert within your company, with improvements suggested by PR people who understand the news media’s needs.
- Learn to ask better questions in an interview by listening for fruitful moments that will yield better than average storytelling details.
- Start with low-hanging fruit. The easiest way to make a low-risk but effective change is to rethink your company’s case studies to turn them into compelling content.
- Write about your audience, not just yourself.
- Check out this great advice from Radian 6. It describes the different types of content your company could produce and how to integrate it into overall strategy. The emphasis is on social media, but the principles apply more broadly. I add my radical two cents at the top.
- Attend a content marketing boot camp sponsored by the Langley Center for New Media. Take lessons in person from “the” expert, Joe Pulizzi of Junta 42 and his Content Marketing Institute. He’s speaking at the Langley Center's seminar-retreat on beautiful Whidbey Island near Seattle on Jan. 13 & 14. Here’s Joe’s blog.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Friday, October 29, 2010
If you want to be a better editor of others’ work, purge yourself of rookie mistakes.
- How many approval cycles has this been through?
- What gatekeepers have already signed off on it?
- How close is the deadline?
- Apostrophe S on end of proper noun ending in S? Edwards’s blog or Edwards’ blog?
- Hyphens in compound modifiers but not proper nouns or “ly” adverbs. Wholly owned subisidary, Philadelphia based company, follow-up call.
- What indirect takeaways should readers be left with? Have a list of adjectives and messages for each of these: industry, company, product, competition.
- What are my company's top three overarching business goals? Where does your company want to be three years from now? (Not this year, not next year, but three to five years out.) Your answer has to be more specific than "drive sales." For example, it might be "shift from primarily commercial to primarily residential," "open new markets in India," "grow expertise in mobile technologies."
- Latinate: construct, educate, consequently, location, initiate, adjacent, appoint
- Anglo-Saxon: build, teach, so, place, start, near, name,
Thursday, October 28, 2010
A ghost story by Lauren Edwards, 11/11/2004
A ghost story by Lauren Edwards, 11/11/2004
How to get the splendid saddle into the coffin had been puzzlement at first.
Nobody questioned its importance. It was just a matter of how. David Woodman explicitly requested he be buried with the silver- and gold-inlaid prize he’d won at the 1942 rodeo in Satin Falls, Oklahoma, then a dusty, has-been of a city that would soon disappear from modern maps.
Some folks remember how Peggy Ann Rice kissed him the day he won. She just up and did it, out of nowhere, and afterward looked as surprised as anyone. She was a pretty little thing with gray-flecked, green eyes and skin the color of wheat in sunlight. David caught the pleasure in her eyes as she darted toward him, and craved it again afterward when she’d lowered her eyelids and clasped her hands lightly at her hip line. She stood there veiled in silence, radiant with an inner stillness that practically drew his heart straight out of his chest, as if it could land smack dab in the middle of hers and dissolve there like sugar in hot tea.
The crowd was buzzing with excitement of its own, and Peggy Ann’s kiss became part of that tableau, felt but a little bit forgotten. David forgot her momentarily when he was being carried on the shoulders of raucous buddies glad to see him win. No hour had been sweeter than that one, not in all the 37 years of the rest of his life.
It was matched like a bookend by the grief-soaked horror that followed. The girl Peggy Ann, this beautiful girl who’d kissed him, was trampled by a bull that got loose. It happens. It’s a thrill, usually, to watch muscle on muscle, and rope against hide, when the cowboys wrassle him back in.
David himself saw the awkward turn of Peggy Ann’s ankle above the lace trim of her white sock. He knew it was broken. He saw that her sun-kissed face was distorted by pain and that she lay unnaturally still, dainty and garish at once. Six days later, she died at St. Mary’s Hospital, in a room sweet with blossoms. Not all had been sent by David, but a lot of them were, and he felt there still weren’t enough in the room when nurses finally insisted he stop bringing them. He wept in the hallway, perplexed by the cruelty of nurses who couldn’t see how deserving Peggy Ann had been of more flowers, more sun kisses, more breezes and more life.
David caressed that prized saddle of his each time he rose in the morning and before he went to sleep at night. Whenever he moved to a new home, the saddle was transported in the front seat of his car, to make sure it wouldn't be left behind or so much as nicked.
Prayerful friends who attended his funeral knew the saddle was a beauty and assumed he’d been proud of his accomplishments. They celebrated him.
Only Brandon, the three-year-old son of the funeral home director, glimpsed the truth. He saw two human figures wink in and out of view near the coffin, which had been sawed out along one length to make room for the saddle.
The bluish-gray vision flickered unsteadily, but Brandon knew what he saw – a man lightly caressing the back of a lovely girl’s neck. Her eyelids were lowered and her hands were clasped lightly at her hip line. She was so still and light and sweet that she reminded Brandon of marshmallow topping on a chiffon pie. But his heart registered unmistakable evidence of this girl’s humanity. Brandon could feel, even more than he could see, the crinkle of pleasure in the tender flesh between her temples and sunlit eyelashes.
Peggy Ann was smiling.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
I wrote this article while a staff writer for The Associated Press. It moved on the wire on Aug. 30, 1996, for release by newspapers on Labor Day weekend. I'm reprinting it here in honor of Spirit Day (today), which is intended to raise awareness to prevent anti-gay abuse.
A Mother's Change of Heart About Her Gay Son's Suicide
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Scared and full of self-hatred, Bobby Griffith took his mother’s advice and prayed his homosexuality would be healed by God.
In his diary, the teen-ager wrote, “Am I going to Hell? That’s the gnawing question that’s always drilling little holes in the back of my mind … Lord, I want to be good … I need your seal of approval.”
On Aug. 27, 1983, at the age of 20, Bobby flipped backwards off the edge of a freeway overpass and toppled into the path of a speeding truck. His suicide became the genesis for a book about his mother’s change of heart over the roots of her son’s homosexuality.
In “Prayers for Bobby,” veteran journalist Leroy Aarons tells how Mary Griffith came to decide three years after her son’s death that God “had not healed Bobby because there was nothing wrong with him.”
Aarons, formerly a foreign correspondent and editor at The Washington Post and The Oakland Tribune, is founder and president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
He came across excerpts of Bobby’s diary in the San Francisco Examiner, which published a 16-day series on gays and lesbians in America.
“My instinct was to grab hold of the boy who was writing these words and shout, ‘No, Bobby! You’ve got it all wrong. You’re OK. It’s the others who are crazy with ignorance!’”
His book, to be published by HarperCollins of San Francisco, begins like a family portrait in which Bobby, his parents, his two sisters and his brother talk movingly about their love for each other as well about as their misunderstandings. It ends with Mrs. Griffith’s transformation into a gay rights activist and a cataloging of recent landmarks in that campaign.
Details are layered to create middle-class suburban family-life scenes that ring so true they may be haunting to readers of similar backgrounds. But Mrs. Griffith’s religious fervor juxtaposed against Bobby’s secret agony make this family’s story particularly poignant and dramatic.
At first, Bobby tells only his diary his adolescent dreams are about men. He overhears conversations at home and at church that hurt.
“They’ve said they hate gays, and even God hates gays, too,” Bobby confided to his diary. “That really scares me when they talk that way because now they are talking about me.”
Bobby ultimately is broken by a raging frustration at a God who won’t “heal” him and a mother who won’t accept him as he is, but the focus of the story is Mrs. Griffith’s shifting perspective on the psychological collapse.
“Bobby’s death was the direct result of his parents’ ignorance and fear of the word ‘gay,’” Mrs. Griffith wrote after much soul-searching and Bible study, guided by a pastor of a church accepting of gays and lesbians.
She is portrayed as the quintessential homebody, whose shyness and lack of self-possession make her an unlikely spokesperson for a movement that draws venomous opposition. But Aarons writes that her lack of polish makes her seem more genuine, and her first-person narratives let audiences see only a boy who needed unconditional love and a well-meaning mother who failed him.
Mrs. Griffith wrote in a letter to her son after his death, "You were the apple of God’s eye just as you were. If we had only known.”
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
A: I mostly help people *develop* compelling content. So the emphasis is on pre-writing, critical thinking, audience analysis, and identifying storytelling elements and news value.
Instead, I encourage business professionals and other writers to "tell the story out of order," to give away the punchline, juxtapose unlike items for contrast and subtle tension, and reduce word count by editing content, not words.
Pre-write, restructure, edit differently
I am happiest when creating new classes to solve problems that people weren't sure could be fixed.Examples of past requests:
- We're changing our brand from heavy engineering to consumer-friendly. Can you help our PR, marketing and analyst relations writers make that switch? (Technology used to be for geeks but became more mainstream starting around 2005.)
- We want our writers to demonstrate more business acumen when writing for executives and journalists -- do you see a way to do that?
- We want people to be self-aware enough to raise their own standards when editing their own work, especially for complex assignments.
- How can we meet tight deadlines for press releases when the people who are supposed to provide the content don't get back to us until the last minute?
- We want our startup's voice to be a cross between (1) inspiring like Obama, (2) smart and irreverent like Jon Stewart, and (3) approachable like Kari Byron (of Discovery Channel's MythBusters). How would we do that?
- Does our writing voice fit our audience? Why are we good at reaching one kind of audience but not another?
- Our staff are seasoned professional writers but even they can do better. What would you recommend?
- Our staff now have to write for audio and visual formats, but their experience is limited to the written word.
- We find ourselves having to re-purpose corporate content for social media and Web use, but it comes out in the wrong tone, lacks zest and is mostly being overlooked. How can we fix that?
Eagle Eye training isn't what you think
I created a two-month training program that teaches copy editors to find what other professionals miss. It's successful in large part because it's unconventional. I teach techniques that I call "brain off," "hot zone" and "professional restraint."
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Analyze the audience the way a journalist would
It doesn't matter that you met your content quota (in this example, one e-book per month) if you don't gain traction with your target audience.
Analyze the audience the way a veteran journalist does by looking for:
(1) the unexpected
(2) info needed for decision-making
-- both from the audience's perspective, not the company's. (There's more to that ... much more.)
Give direct access to sources; a fact sheet won't work
Give the content producer direct access to people with direct experience using and developing the product or service.
They need to see demos and do interviews. It's not enough to hand them a fact sheet filled out by marketing staff (HUGE mistake there).
Process the info, don't just fling it
Allow time for an editing process that isn't just "freewriting," which means the putting of words on the page. Or in the case of video, simply uploading what you caught on the flipcam. Instead, leave time for processing the info in a way that permits storytelling, which will hold your audience's attention long enough to get your gist, giving them the time and a reason to identify with the info and -- ideally -- share it with friends.
Enjoy this presentation (below). I particularly like the metrics, which make it easy to quantify success.
(1) Be sure to tie the metrics to business goals, not just outreach goals.
(2) Consider hiring content producers with enough experience to read the direction of ongoing industry debate, so you can better position your company as a thought leader.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Instead of editing for error, try editing for probability of error. This is the second of our three tenets for Eagle Eye copyediting training. (The first was “brain off” and the third is “professional restraint.”)
We call this second tenet “hot zone” editing.
Where errors tend to lurk
Eagle Eyes in our 25-hour training program (spread over two months) learn to look for hot zones. These are writing situations where errors tend to fall in.
When editing your own work, you can get by not knowing or ignoring certain types of grammar, usage, punctuation and style rules. That’s because you can re-write to avoid a problem, or because you don’t have a particular problem – like which/that or misplaced modifiers -- in the first place.
For example, I usually avoid “lay/lie” on deadline because it makes me nervous and I don’t want to look it up. I also rewrite to prevent awkward-looking punctuation combinations.
When re-writing is a worse response
But when editing the work of others, you don’t get to re-write, especially when proofreading a document that has already made it through an approval process that includes the legal department, a product manager and a marketing vice president.
Good editors know how to find and surgically fix errors that normally wouldn’t crop up in their own work.
Here’s a sample of items from our hot zone list:
- Hone (when it should be home)
- Between (when it should be among)
- Product names (gotta get them exactly right in every reference, but account teams tend to stop looking at them in a document because they’re overly familiar with them)
- Introductory clauses (that may harbors misplaced modifiers)
- Each of ______s (each is singular, even if what follows the “of” isn’t)
- Comprised of (no such phrase; we recommend changing to “composed of”)
- Appositives (often the second comma is left off)
- It’s/its (even people who understand the rule still make the mistake)
- VIPs and other plural acronyms (no apostrophe)
- No “Mr.” in AP style
How to get sensitized
Trainees do exercises that sensitize them to these words and situations, kind of like Pavlov’s dog, minus the saliva. When EEs see these words, a little bell should go off in their head, reminding them that it might look fine on a fast first read, but there might be a hard-to-find error embedded there.
At first, they go over documents with a highlighter, marking hot zones without asking themselves whether the usage is correct. Then they use the highlighter on a first pass, and edit on a second pass. In time, they don’t need the highlighter.
As I explained in a previous post, our brains are wired such that we are all inherently bad proofreaders. So we have to learn to “turn off” our brains and scan for probability of error, not actual error.
More on the third tenet in a future post.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Saturday, July 17, 2010
- Instead of learning proofreading and grammar, Eagle Eyes learn the "brain off" and "hot zone" techniques, which attack root causes of errors.
- Training includes "muscle memory" exercises in which trainees learn to enter the right mindset on demand.
I call this special brand of magic the "brain off" and "hot zone" techniques. I'll describe one now and save the other for a later post.
"Turn my brain off? Where's the switch?"
Notice that you can understand what's below even though it's rife with errors.
To keeep up wth th wolrd and the ecnomy, innoavtion ins't enoguh; creatviity is aslo rquired, he says. "Innovtaion is suvrival in the prceivd wrold--maikng somtheing new in the exstng sistym. To be creativ is to thnik abuot a neew systim," said Luc de Brabandere, athuor of "The Forgtten Half of Chnage: Acheeving Graeter Craetviity Thourgh Cheanges in Percption" (Dearborn Trade Pubilshnig, May 2005). Anti-lock breaks stem from inovation. The comptr muose and Stabruck's and Coka-Cola's use of ther bradns to get into muzik sales come from creativity.
My point: Our brain is designed to keep us from seeing things as they really are. It "fixes" what's wrong so that we can smoothly absorb the gist without getting hung up on glitches.
It's not your fault; DNA conspires against you
This means we are born to be really bad proofreaders. It's genetic. We can't help it. All of us are bad.
To counter this, we need to find our brain's "off" switch and commandeer it.
In the first couple weeks of Eagle Eye classes (twice a week, an hour each time), I give trainees exercises that teach them to "turn their brain off" so that they can see things as they really are. Visual artists do this all the time. Proofreaders must do it, too, but most people don't know that.
Sit-ups, push-ups for "brain off" decathletes
The exercises include reading things backward and circling subsets of letters in paragraphs of gibberish. Immediately on the first day, trainees feel the sensation. It's a lot like driving on autopilot -- you know, where you zone out and don't remember the last couple of miles. Through practice, trainees learn to commandeer the on/off switch and keep it off even though it keeps trying to pop back on again.
There's more, but we'll save it for another post.
Become an Eagle Eye fan
The next training session begins July 22. Check out our Facebook fan page to find out what some of the veterans are telling the new recruits.
Monday, July 12, 2010
- What do you wish you'd known from the start?
- How is the program different from what you initially expected?
- How has EE experience altered your career path or relationships with team members?
- What surprised you?
- What's the biggest misconception about Eagle Eyes?
- What was more fun than you thought it would be? What was harder?
- What else is on your mind?
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
- Social media is inviting marketing executives to take a second look at narrative structure, which is standard in top-tier business press but missing from most marketing collateral.
- A customer case study can be repackaged to show a hero (your customer) overcoming obstacles (with your products and services) and achieving market success (your customer's aspiration).
With little success, I’ve been trying for 10 years to teach storytelling principles to PR practitioners. Workshop and class attendees understand it and enjoy it, but the few who try to apply a narrative structure to their work get bogged down in the approval process.
I rarely recommend it these days as a workshop component or class. My own PPTs and handouts are dusty.
The only time I teach it now is within the context of a class on writing award submissions. This seems to be the one type of document where the marketing department is willing to let go.
I wonder if this will change.
Scary for old-school marketers: audience that "talks back"
If you read trade press for the advertising industry, you’ll recall that the sudden rise of social media and the audience’s new ability to “talk back” in public prompted substantial fear. This was about five years ago.
Since then, I’ve noticed a generation gap in marketing approaches. In my own mind, I’ve come to divide marketing executives into two groups – new school and old school. For a while, the old-school guys were in positions of authority and making decisions that struck me as anachronistic. Meanwhile, the new-school guys were too low-ranking to exert influence and lacked necessary business insight.
In 2010, it appears to me that a balance is being struck within some companies. I picture the old-school guys as Humpty Dumpty, fallen and cracked but alive and powerful. Their strength: They understand business. But they’ve lost their creative mojo and know it, so they yield to new-school concepts and hire people whose skills are unfamiliar to them.
Twitter, FB, etc.
But will storytelling become part of the new mix? Will videos, websites, blog posts and short-form posts (Twitter, Facebook) adopt the narrative structure that turns novelists and movie-makers into millionaires?
Sam Whitmore of Sam Whitmore Mediasurvey, who gives media advice to the tech PR industry, last week sent his clients a report raising a similar question. He pointed out significant obstacles. The details are proprietary, so I can’t share, but I can say that I concur, for reasons of my own.
Start with case studies: affordable way to break the mold
Nonetheless, if companies are interested in a small, affordable way to begin breaking the mold, I can offer one highly do-able suggestion: Start with case studies.
This is the easiest ground to give and likely to produce immediate results.
Here are my contrarian teachings:
(1) Give away the punchline in the opening paragraph. Tell the end of the story at the very beginning. In other words, take a sentence or two from what would have been the results section at the end, and move it into the lead.
(2) Don’t keep the “situation,” “problem” and “solution” in separate sections. Mix them. Instead use this framework: a heroic figure whom we care about overcomes obstacles and gets what he wants, learning lessons along the way.
In a case study, the heroic figure is your customer. The obstacles he overcomes are common to prospective customers, some of whom didn’t recognize the problem as clearly you have articulated it or didn’t know it could be solved.
In the course of overcoming obstacles, the customer uses your company’s tools. But picture the customer as MacGyver, the resourceful TV show character who could engineer his way out of any jam with scotch tape and a tin can. This means the emphasis is on the customer (MacGyver), not particularly on your tools – although the story cannot be told without your tools. Go light. Don’t sell. Just tell.
Your subheads could like like this:
Executive summary – Here you mix the “problem” (beginning) and “results” (end) in one or two sentences – briefly -- just enough to tell “a story of transformation.”
- Show change, not the “situation analysis” or “background.” Customer X had a problem common to your prospective customers; now he has business success. Ignore the middle of the story for now. That comes in the next section.
- Use your best stats in the executive summary. Don’t save them for the “conclusion” at the end, especially since most readers won’t get that far, anyway. Even if all they do is skim the first graf, the readers will walk away with the most important idea.
Problem/solution – Here you tell the middle part of the story. This is your customer overcoming obstacles they have in common with your prospective customers, with your tools in hand.
By juxtaposing problem and solution, you gain tension. When you separate them, you have static facts. Tension keeps readers reading.
Ideally, the customer is learning along the way. What lessons can he share? What would he have done differently from the start, knowing what he now knows? What can other businesses learn from his experience? What’s replicable about his success?
When you mix the problem and solution, you are telling a story. When you separate them, you are writing a conventional case study. Which do you think will get higher readership?
Results – Here you amplify the phrase or sentence you pulled out for use in the executive summary. You list business results, if possible, that were outgrowths of the problem’s being solved. You give more stats, while reminding the reader of that super-great one stat you included in the executive summary.
Why adopt this storytelling framework for case studies?
- An image of business success will now be associated with your company's products or services, even if the reader was a skimmer who quit reading after the first graf.
- A skimmer is less likely to stop after the first graf because you’ve added an element of suspense (the missing middle), and rewarded him from the start. It’s silly to think that a reader will patiently wade through static facts in hope of a possible reward at the end. Give him confidence from the start that you aren’t wasting his time.
- People remember stories more readily than they remember facts.
- Your reason for writing isn’t to tell the world about your customer; it’s to draw in prospective customers who will recognize themselves and their problems in the story. Your customer is a stand-in for your prospective customer, who can now visualize himself succeeding, thanks to the concrete specifics of your story.