Thursday, January 28, 2010

Talk like Barack?

Want to talk like Barack Obama? Or do you prefer a little Jon Stewart? It’s easy to change your writing voice to fit the occasion.

My No. 1 advice here is that you write in your own voice first. Focus on content. Only after you know your content is relevant and compelling should you then begin to apply a final varnish.

Voice is varnish, the glossy finish you apply at the end of your creative process.

To talk like Barack, do this:

· Add sweeping references to time

· Emphasize continuity and evolution

· Make all efforts and problems collective

· Use colloquialisms like “look,” “you’re going to see,” “you’re going to have”

· Use multi-syllable words unless talking about human beings

Let’s say, for example, your company is introducing … um, well, let’s call it a tablet computer. The PR team is asked to pitch a case study about the “Smart Tablet” being used by teachers in the classroom. But someone says, “Can you make it inspirational, kind of like an Obama speech?”

The marketing department will hand you this:

Fireside Inc., the leading provider of innovative computing technology, today announced that the Springville Central School District has become the first educational institution in Texas to deploy the innovative new breakthrough Smart Tablet computer with elegant form factor and intuitive interface featuring the X-Blast 1400 operating system, potentially revolutionizing the delivery of classroom instruction.

To Barack-ify it, say goodbye to leading provider, form factor, intuitive interface, deploy, breakthrough, revolutionize and delivery.

Add Abraham Lincoln, use the word “kids” for the human recipients of the instruction, and replace Fireside and Springville with “all of us.”

New version:

I think Abraham Lincoln described this best. And perhaps I’m paraphrasing a little bit here, but he basically said, look, I think it is very important to acknowledge that we can collectively give our kids a decent education much more effectively than we can individually.

Sounds like him, doesn’t it? Problem is, the person who told you to sound like an Obama speech didn’t really mean quite that. To get through the approval process, you’ll need to reel it back in.

My suggestion: Keep much of the original lead paragraph (minus the jargon and hyperbole), but replace multi-syllable words with one-syllable words where possible – for example, say school, not institution.

Let your executive sound like Obama in a quotation. Delete Abe Lincoln, but keep the feeling of “we’re all in this together.”

“I’ve got kids of my own and, as a parent, I recognize the enormous potential for the technology industry to lend a helping hand to schools. Collectively we can do a tremendous job of helping youngsters acquire the education they’ll need to carry the dream forward in the decades that stretch before them.”

At the end of this post, I’ve listed Obama words.

But now let’s look at Jon Stewart, host of the satirical news program “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Maybe your marketing department likes the fact that he’s smart and funny, and wants to appeal to consumers who would like to think of themselves as smart and funny, or wish they were.

Unfortunately, you might end up with something like this:

Speaking of education – and someone’s got to – a mentoring program in Texas is giving teachers new tablet computers. Some believe the tablets are smarter than the teachers.


OK, so now you realize that you don’t really want to sound like Jon, though it was a nice idea.

Still, you can capture a bit of his smartness, if not his humor at the expense of others, by doing this:

· Focus on the “why”

· Add connotation

· Emphasize contrasts

· Use highly precise vocabulary

It might look something like this:

Looks like a clipboard. But a tremendous amount of ingenuity makes the Fireside Smart Tablet an eloquent new contender in a teacher’s instructional arsenal. Traditional textbooks and ordinary notebooks are at a disadvantage in several respects. For one thing, the Smart Tablet’s infrared sensor captures the notes scribbled in the margin and files them. And a built-in microphone matches the notes to the lecture. So in terms of accuracy, it is, well, impeccable.

Many companies fear this degree of clarity and attitude in a product comparison. And key people in the approval process tend to appreciate formality and decorum.

So what I’m really saying is: Voice matters less than you think. People hate it when I say this. They miss a beat in the conversation as their eyes quickly shoot directly to mine, then dart away and soften while they censor their thoughts. It's like I've taken something from them. They love to feel they are writing in “the client’s voice” or “a cross between the voice of Barack Obama, Jon Stewart and Sandra Bullock.”

But what matters more than words are deeds. Keep it plain, keep it clear, and keep your customers’ needs front and center. Actions do in fact speak louder than words.

Barack Obama: enormous, important, recognition, if you have, then you’re going to see, you’re still going to have, we’re going to see, and once we’ve completed that assessment, then I think that we take a look at, and the question is, that tells me we’re probably in the right place, legacies of the past, certain amount of lag time, transition period, formative years, acknowledge the degree to which, perpetuity, continued grievances, unsentimental, pragmatic, mutual, meeting of the minds, provide social justice, system that works, complete disorder, allow people to advance based on, pursue prosperity, being thoroughly scrubbed, point number one, individual determination, relinquish capacity, mechanisms of, cut out, whole bunch, consistently spoken out, civic institutions, again we are tested, and again we must answer history's call, the spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in you, the people

Jon Stewart: maniacal, eloquent, upsetting, vexing, indicted, obtuse, periphery, penetrate, dictate, credibility, disparage, fake, intervention, vociferous, scandal mongering, unpunished fraud perpetrated, theatrical farce, cahones to stand up to him, distinguished gentlemen, being swayed, lawns to mow and kids to pick up from school, hiding things, why is…, why are…, fractured mirror to reveal greater truth, play craps, bet with the table, ended up losing

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Put pretty tops on contributed articles

PR people are lousy at contributed articles. I have noticed this time and time again. I often find that – for contributed articles – most of a first-timer’s first draft must be deleted. This is seldom true of a first pitch, press release, speaker abstract, award submission or coverage report.

Contributed articles are by far the worst.

I’m saying this very bluntly because I need you to completely clear your head of what worked for you in the past when undertaking a contributed article.

I’ll break this topic into several mini-topics over multiple blog posts, but for now let me give you some structural concepts that will change your approach from the outset.

You need three parts:

  1. A pretty top – a first paragraph (or as many as five paragraphs) that really sing
  2. A mundane list – your content broken up into three to seven mini-categories, none of which has to be riveting, colorful or remarkably well-written
  3. A kicker – a visual and/or memorable catch phrase that makes use of the imagery and tone of the pretty top, preferably something from the very first paragraph (or within the first three)

Imagine your Word document is now a bucket with three compartments. Begin tossing content into each of the three compartments, starting with the middle one – the mundane list.

Start in the middle. The middle compartment is the easiest. Everything your client gave you goes here.

The first compartment is next – the pretty top. This requires your own particular brand of genius. You need to locate or do your own research about your client’s customers, understand their problems from their perspective, and begin collecting words they actually use when talking with one another. You also need “scenery,” a backdrop or set of props that accurately captures their world.

To begin writing the first compartment, you should not write. Yes, you read that correctly. No writing allowed. Instead, you need to search. Online searches generally work really well. But if you have firsthand observations about customers or more detailed research about their problems, that can be better still, though not necessarily essential. It depends on the content and circumstances.

One of my workshops is on what to look for, but for now I’ll give these quick tips:

1. Humans – Look for specific categories of humans among your client’s prospective customers.

Not: users, customers or even “health care providers.”

Instead: specifics like auditors, nurses, network architects, golfers, mechanics, photographers, executives, party-goers, IT managers and piano teachers.

2. Verbs – Look for verbs of your humans in action. They don’t have to be jazzy, but they should be specific to the industry. Like: design, restore, configure, spend, recruit, survey, draw, add, shoot, sound, read, play, send, talk, broil, scoop, swim, march, show, collate, refute, verify, record, persuade, manage, enlist.

After you collect data, detail and imagery for the first compartment, then look again at your middle compartment. Cross-compare the two sets of information and find commonalities. Circle or highlight the commonalities. These are the words you will use in your first draft of your first paragraph. Literally copy and paste them at the top of your Word document. Don’t write yet. Just move the words into the first compartment, helter-skelter. Let this jell. Ruminate for 15 minutes or take a walk. If possible, ruminate overnight.

Come up with an angle that makes sense for both client and prospective customer. Be helpful to readers. Don’t sell. Don’t describe your client or its products. There’s more to this part, but we’ll do it another day.

Now that you have an angle, look at the middle compartment again. Find advice, actions or insights that you can give to readers. Sometimes it works to suggest criteria they can use in making an imminent decision. Organize accordingly.

Now write your pretty top. It sets up the reason for reading the middle. It gives context while hooking readers with info that is truly relevant and helpful from their perspective (not the client’s perspective).

Finally, write your kicker, summing things up in a memorable way that comes full circle with the beginning of your article.

Then comb through the entire piece, fixing and finessing the three parts into a cohesive whole. If possible, let it sit overnight and return to it with fresh eyes the next day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to get business press

To hit a home run with the business press, you need to answer this question: "Who will make money from it?"

If you merely describe your product, its benefits and the problem it solves, you're going to strike out. If you offer an industry analyst's forecast about the size of the market in the coming year, you're still out. If you add a happy customer, you're still out.

Pick up a Fortune magazine and thumb through it. Look for an article that doesn't answer the magical question. You won't find one.

Tech PR newbies don't know this. They generally have more success with trade press, who ask, "How does it work?" Technology clients happily provide that info, so it's an easy pitch. [Mainstream press answer the question "What's in it for the reader" and look for quirkiness.]

PR veterans always do a competitive analysis before putting together a business pitch. In particular, they look for a new or changing answer to the magical question. If they're really on top of their game, they pull out the unconventional wisdom, counter-intuitive lesson, or otherwise unexpected tidbit, and lead with that.

Your pitch doesn't have to be an explicit answer to the magical question. But the answer needs to be an underlying element within the larger body of info.
  • Should you mention competitors in your pitch? Yes.
  • Should you mention peripherally involved industries? Yes.
  • Do you have to include data and dollars? Not always, but that adds credibility, and helps nail down in specifics a trend that may be vaguely felt but not clearly understood.
  • Do you need a crystal ball? No. In fact, uncertainty of outcome increases your chance of success. Think of a suspenseful book or novel. Not knowing how it ends is a plus. That's what makes people lean in and begin listening for more info.
What if you don't have "news"? No problem.

Journalists define news differently than most clients do. Most clients mistake an announcement as news. The announcement may be a new product, an industry award or survey results. But none of those are news in the mind of a journalist. Why? Because those are expected outcomes. Companies make products, win awards and publicize data -- that's business as usual.

Journalists look for:
  • Info readers need for decision-making about their own lives or businesses
  • A break in the normal flow of events, an interruption in the expected
So anything that makes a moderately informed person say, "Huh, no kidding!" is news.

I recommend doing a competitive analysis with your head first, then scanning it with your gut second. Any mild sense of surprise will do; pluck that detail up and make it the first line.

If one pitch needs to work for all three genres of press -- business, trade and mainstream -- then make sure you have implied answers to all three questions:
  1. Who will make money from it?
  2. How does it work?
  3. What's in if for the reader?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Listen for these moments to find client content that you can pitch

You can’t count on your client or your client’s customer to give you the storytelling fodder needed to catch a news reporter’s interest.

So you need to listen.

And ask questions, but at the right moments.

The following moments are storytelling gold mines. Listen for:

  • surprise
  • emotion
  • lesson learned
  • obstacle overcome
  • counter-intuitive decision
  • point where no one knew what would happen next

These are the places in a conversation where it pays to tune in extra carefully and ask “micro-questions.” By that I mean highly detailed questions that you normally wouldn’t pose elsewhere in the conversation.

Sample micro-questions:

  1. What color was the cap?
  2. Do you remember his exact words?
  3. What was the first thing that he did next?
  4. It sounds like that upset you. Why did it hit a nerve? Did it remind you of something? What?
  5. What else was happening at the time? Who was doing that? Why?
  6. What do you mean by “tough”? What problems were you having? Why was that such a problem?
  7. What were you doing in the moment when you changed your mind?
  8. What do you think would have happened if you’d done it the other way?
  9. What made you think it could work? Why didn’t you quit? What were others saying?
  10. Hindsight’s 20-20. Is there something you’d do differently if starting from scratch today?

Here’s the rub. Most PR people I know will hear the right moments and instinctually fall silent. Reporters, on the other hand, hear those same moments and ask more questions. My personal impression is that most of the PR people I know well are talented at putting people at ease. One way they do this, I believe, is to give people plenty of personal and emotional space when the conversation veers toward the possibility of pain or embarrassment. This is nice, kind, gentle, thoughtful, etc. I appreciate this in them.

But I also believe that these innately diplomatic people would also be good at asking tough questions gently. If they instead fall silent, no story will appear.

As a journalist, I learned this from experience. I was embarrassed many times when I was new because I often had to call sources back to ask for extra detail after I’d returned to the office. In time, I learned that the detail I needed always seemed to center around one of these turning points.

Storytelling is different from exposition (explaining) in that it involves personal transformation. Think of the last novel you read or movie you saw. A character for whom you felt sympathy overcame obstacles in pursuit of something he wanted, and learned something along the way.

This isn’t artifice. It’s really how human beings live their lives.

To make a technology story palatable to a mainstream audience, you may need to locate characters that the audience can care about and reveal some of the trials and errors they encountered along their road to success. Here’s an example of a software story that became a human interest story. It ran in Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle. When you read it, see if you can find any of the above “moments.”

Stories create community when they’re about real people we can care about and learn from. So if you find yourself feeling nosy and inappropriate, remember that if you’re nosy in the right way, you can create bridges among members of the human family who previously didn’t realize how much they had in common. Plus, your client’s name and contribution will get some good digital ink.