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.