Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Write award submissions in narrative structure

The only PR people I know who write well in narrative structure are SVPs and EVPs, so if you are a VP or below, this is for you.

I’m not going to define narrative structure or say why you need it for award submissions. I’ll go straight to the “how.” For this post, I’ll focus on PR campaigns. But the principles apply to many kinds of award submissions.

If you follow these steps, my guess is you’ll quadruple your chance of winning.

Step One: List business results

Make a bulleted list of results without using full sentences. By results, I don’t mean the number of impressions. I mean: business results or some type of before/after comparison of the business’s prospects for success. Examples:

 Doubled sales leads
 Drove 123,000 visitors to Web site
 Boosted conference attendance by 40 percent

Now forget it for a minute. In the meantime, we’ll move on to a new topic within the submission.

Step Two: Identify the slight tweak

Look for the tweak or new wrinkle in your strategy or tactics. What did you do slightly differently? What was the particular spin that your team put on the planning of the campaign? What did you do that you haven’t seen much of before?

Write down your observations. Now forget about that for a bit. Next topic …

Step Three: List business obstacles

List obstacles overcome. Just as with the first item about business results, don’t write in full sentences. In the PR plan, some of this may be in the situation analysis. Examples:

 No advertising budget and recently reduced PR budget
 Rival unexpectedly one-upped client the week before
 Stock was down, top-tier pub said client was “swirling the drain”
 New gov’t regulations turn time-tested customer relations program into a potential legal liability

Step Four: Contrast obstacles with results

Cut and paste bullets from steps one and three onto a blank new page. Only now should you begin wordsmithing, but keep it loose and rough. Don’t perfect any sentences yet.

Compose two to four sentences that tell a story of transformation. This is where you say that you and your client together found a way to overcome obstacles (one, two or three of them) to accomplish XYZ specific business results. Don’t say how.

This is called juxtaposition. You’ve put two unlike or unexpected things side by side. Juxtaposition is an element of narrative structure. It adds a “wow” factor.

It’s OK if it doesn’t “flow” or even make sense yet. Just show the before/after comparison. Skip the middle.

Step Five: Show effects on outsiders

Brainstorm on *why* the story of transformation just above matters to people who aren’t you or your client. Why should we outsiders care about the company’s plight and remedy?

How is industry or society better off thanks to this change? What can the rest of us learn from the triumph? What does the client’s journey prove? Why does this story matter more this year than last year?

Capture a few of your answers. Then …

Step Six: How did research influence strategy?

Don’t write that you did research or describe your research. Instead say how the findings changed your team’s mind about how to plan for the campaign. Focus on the research findings’ effects on your team’s behavior and decisions.

Put another way: What did you do differently that you wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t done the research?

Write down your observations.

Step Seven: Start composing

Now combine steps two and six the way you did earlier with results and obstacles. So this time, you’re combining “slight tweak” with “research’s influence.”

Then add a phrase or as much as one line from step five (why it matters to outsiders).

Attach all of this to your result from step four (the transformation).

This is the content you’ll need for an executive summary or first few paragraphs, which is going to make or break your submission’s moving on to the next level of screening. This post describes the "pre-writing phase," which means the critical thinking and research needed to get the right ideas in the first place. Good ideas write themselves, so first get good ideas.

You can write the rest of the submission following the usual instructions, filling in detail as prompted.

Here are some thinly veiled examples of strong narrative starts:

Example One:

Five days after CEO John Smith assumed the top spot at Acme Manufacturing, a massive explosion occurred at its historic refinery in the coastal town of Sandy Beach, Calif. Smith was touring the facility and conducting his first meeting with employees at the time and watched as first responders and media descended on the refinery to chronicle the company’s response, which Smith knew would have broad implications.

The board would have to determine if they would rebuild; investors would have to hold or devalue Acme’s stock; regulators and legislators would react to public sentiments; and employees would take measure of his leadership. Smith’s ultimate test would be how quickly he could get the company back on track while tending to the emotional needs of employees, their families -- and the local community.

Example Two:

It is hard to overstate just how negative public opinion was when the Acme Oil Association, the national trade association for Canada’s oil companies, launched a new communications program at the beginning of 2009.

Record gasoline prices – first $3 a gallon, then $4. Record oil prices – almost $150 a barrel at one point. Record industry profits – more than $100 billion, by some reports. Politicians promising to “get Canada off oil” and achieve “energy independence.” All leading to relentlessly negative political rhetoric, public opinion, media coverage and heated online attacks against “Big Oil.”

The fact that much of this backlash was based on serious misperceptions and even misinformation about the industry and global energy markets made our job even more challenging. We needed to first inform, then to change the conversation.

Example Three:

Most of the chemical industry wasn’t aware that sugar, a low-carbon alternative to oil-based inputs, could remove the “petro” from petrochemical. On the supply side, producers weren’t aware that sugar could be used to create chemicals. The two industries were largely unknown to each other, with separate conferences, industry groups, research reports, and media coverage.

Enter Acme, a young company based in San Mateo, Calif., committed to transforming nature’s role in producing chemicals with a novel bio-manufacturing process that uses lower-cost and more environmentally sustainable ways to turn sugar into a variety of industrial chemicals.

An effective PR campaign that could effectively bridge the two industries would be key to Acme’s success and help the company transform itself from startup to credible, commercial innovator.