Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Start with "why," especially if you're talking about science

Executive Summary:

Talking science to lay audiences is difficult because scientists themselves are trained for academic rigor, not public outreach. Examples from Wired magazine, TED talks and the Wright brothers demonstrate that by telling a story "out of order" -- by starting with "why" -- scientists (and their spokespeople) can influence society and invite financial security.

Key Points:
  1. Just by rearranging the order of your presentation or online post, you can reach a broader audience and get peope to lean forward while listening rather than passively sit back.
  2. Start with "why it matters," even if it's just your opinion or if the proportion of your presentation dedicated to that perspective is scant to nil. Let "how" bring up the rear.
Sound Bite:

"Unfortunately, science is underrepresented in social discourse, in large part because scientists are reluctant to communicate with lay audiences."

Read the whole article:

If you're communicating with a lay audience about science and technology, start with "why." For most of us, that means telling the story out of order.

If you don’t start with “why,” you won’t be heard. Instead, you’ll be white noise that people easily tune out. Your audience needs a personal reason for becoming engaged with your “what” and “how.” So first create a sense of purpose, and only then follow up with facts. Give people a reason to listen and they will.

Unfortunately, science is underrepresented in social discourse, in large part because scientists are reluctant to communicate with lay audiences. When they do communicate, their “story” adheres to academic standards in which the lead is buried and the natural drama is drained out.

If you work in science PR or are a scientist willing to reach out and influence someone, this post is for you.

I suggest starting your first draft of an article or speech by asking yourself these questions
from the audience’s perspective:

• Why?
• Why now?
• Why does it matter?
• Why should I care?

Also ask, “What
role does the technology or research play in the larger scheme of things?” In other words, say why it matters to have that particular role fulfilled. Do not describe how it works or what you did to arrive at your conclusions – save that for later.

When you do this the first few times, it feels wrong. You'll argue, "How can I tell them
why they should care if I haven't even told them what they should care about?" That seems logical, I agree. But as it turns out, telling the story out of order is only a problem for you, the explainer. Readers and listeners have no problem with it.

If you’ve got an academic paper on hand, try this: Go to the very end, even past the final summary, to the very short section where the author suggests future questions or experiments. It might only be two sentences and you may not consider it the most important point, but it’s probably there.

Now make this the opening line of your speech or article, even if presenting to an audience of scientists. Why? This is the part of the presentation the audience can act on or make decisions about – in their own lives.

I guarantee they will perk up and listen closely.

By contrast, if you start with your assumptions, they’ll half-listen, waiting with patience for the good part because they have been conditioned to do so – that is, if they’re scientists. Non-scientists will try to listen but fail to find a handle they can hang onto, and eventually their minds will wander.

After starting at the end, now go out on a limb and venture an opinion. Tell everyone why you think they should consider these suggested actions and decisions. Tell them what’s at stake. Describe what could happen if they don’t. Show them how the future could potentially differ from what we expect, and why that would be advantageous.

If it makes you feel better, tell the audience it’s your opinion, and then tell them again that it was your opinion right before you dive into the objective facts.

If you don’t believe me, try it yourself and watch the audience response.

The approach above (starting at the end of the academic paper) is just one way to find the “why.” I’ve got many more up my sleeve, which I can share with you when you hire me for a workshop.

I’m not alone in preaching the virtue of “why first, how later.”

If you look closely, you’ll notice that news stories on scientific topics start with “what’s in it for me,” “why care,” “why care now,” or “why it matters.” The “how” is always near the bottom or at most two-thirds from the top.

Below are similar messages, one from Wired
magazine, the other from a TED talk. (Thank you, Edelman clean technology team (my colleagues), for bringing these to my attention.)

In the Wired article, Jennifer Ouellette – a director with a National Academy of Sciences program – is quoted as saying scientists “feel that the facts should speak for themselves. They’re not wrong; they’re just not realistic.”

Another person quoted in the story – Kelly Bush, CEO of a PR firm called ID – says, “They need to make people answer the questions, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ‘How does it affect my daily life?’ ‘What can I do that will make a difference?’ Answering these questions is what’s going to start a conversation.”

“The messaging up to this point has been ‘Here are our findings. Read it and believe.’ The deniers are convincing people that the science is propaganda,” Bush said.

In his TED talk, Simon Sinek says business leaders need to start with the why, and only later give the what and the how. (My, my! How familiar!) He uses Apple Inc., Martin Luther King Jr. and the Wright brothers as examples of history-changers who started their communications with why.

I’m heavily paraphrasing, but have a quick look:

Apple: “We believe in changing the world and thinking differently. We’re doing that by making products that are beautiful and simple to use. Oh, and by the way, we sell computers. Want to buy one?”

Imagine if the order was reversed and the why was left out: “Want to buy a computer from us? Ours are beautiful and simple to use.”

Not so credible. Not so compelling.

MLK: “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan.”

Wright brothers: “This flying machine can change our world for the better.”
Langley (who made the same effort but whose name we don’t know): “I want to build a machine and make money.”

Tell people why they should care, then backfill with the backstory. If you do it the other way around, you risk losing your audience altogether or – at a minimum – losing an opportunity to engage them in your entire presentation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Writing tips: How to shift from traditional press release to social media news release

Executive Summary:

PR teams are having to adjust the style and tone of social media press releases (also called Smart News Release or Rich Media Release). This article offers granular how-to advice.

Key Points:
  1. Think "info-snacking." Today's readers want visually appealing information broken into smaller bits, including visuals like photos, videos and infographics.
  2. Shorten words, sentences and paragraphs. Use more subheads with verbs in them. Picture sentences as pullout boxes floating in an inviting sea of white space.
Sound Bite:

"Plunk down the snacks as if you're arranging carrot sticks, dip and whatnot on a tray for guests. Journalists and bloggers can nibble as they like, clicking and lifting up whatever bits they think they can use in their online story."

Read the whole article:

Going from a traditional press release to a social media news release requires three big shifts:
  • Length
  • Visuals
  • SEO
I'd say there's a fourth category -- tone -- but the changes you make in length (and SEO) will give you the changes you need in tone. And since this post will focus on "how," I'd rather keep it simple, so you can be like Nike and just do it. No need to impress you with my erudition on the whole enchilada. ;-)

Having said that, though, let me address tone for just a quick minute. You'll see how it leads into length.
Imagine yourself writing website copy, which is a little closer to ad copy. But don't go so far as to write like it's a blog post, which usually includes idioms and strong opinions.

SMNR tone usually isn't as direct as ad copy, which uses second-person "you" instead of third-person "he/she/it/they." Nor is it like broadcast copy because you still have to write for the eye, not the ear, which means catching skimmers with a strong "first three words," not letting the punch fall at the end of the sentence.

But the words and sentences in an SMNR are shorter and plainer (
not boring, just simpler), as you usually see in all of the forms mentioned above (Web, ad, blog, broadcast). So if you've got sentences with introductory clauses ("Blah blah blah -- comma -- blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah."), break them in half. Often you can delete the first part of the sentence altogether.

Likewise, streamline the vocabulary by using more Anglo-Saxon words than Latinate (
next, not adjacent; set, not establish; start, not initiate; build, not construct). And take verbs in noun's clothing, and turn them back into verbs (the deployment of, deploy; the provision of, provide; the implementation of, implement). In other words, shorten everything.
The vast majority of traditional press releases are done poorly, in my opinion. And if you are in PR, you know what I'm talking about. You're sort of forced into a bizarre straightjacket of formality and distance from the customer, which seems contrary to the goal of a press release, but who am I to question decades of entrenched custom?

My advice here is directed at what I know your reality is, not what I think a good press release of either kind (trad'l or social) should look like. So, back to that ...
You've shortened your sentences and words, which has also changed tone. You need to continue deleting or ignoring content that would normally appear in a traditional press release. Most of this will be intuitive. I think you'll choose well, once you know that 50 percent to 85 percent of the words will have to go away. Usually, people I have worked with do this easily, once given permission to cut-cut-cut. So I won't dwell on that here.
Now for visuals. Imagine that you are designing layout not writing copy. Pretend you work for a fashion magazine in New York or you're in the art department at Fortune magazine.

This is really the essence of an SMNR. It's a visual jumping-off point, much the way a resume is a visual jumping-off point in a job interview. People spend time making a resume look pretty at a glance, and it's meant to be glanced at, not really read. It's meant to give the gist, then trigger questions and conversation.

But in the case of an SMNR, it's not questions and oral conversation we're after; it's clicking. You want to give the essence of your announcement, and then let the rest be "snacks" for the new style of reading, which has been called "info-snacking."
Standard "snacks" in this new world are photos, videos, info-graphics and links.

More and more, I'm also seeing slide shows on the top-tier news sites, and I'm liking that trend, by the way. But that's a bigger time investment, and your client may not be able to deliver.

Usually, the PR person doesn't create this kind of content on the spot in response to being assigned a press release. So you need to negotiate for it. You need to ask your client early on for photos, demos and links. Increasingly, clients know they must produce this stuff, so that's no longer as hard as it used to be. But the switch for you is that you must add this conversation to your standard process, and add it early.

Nowadays, the quest for creating visual content should be ongoing, so it's not necessarily related to writing a press release of any kind. The press release is just one more vehicle for delivering what has been produced. This gets into the larger issue of "public engagement" versus one-way communication, but for the purpose of this post, I'm focusing on the needs of a PR person who has been asked for the first time to switch to SMNRs.
Usually, there's a template you can use. BusinessWire has one (called a Smart News Release), and others are also available elsewhere. Edelman calls it a Rich Media Release and uses Adobe software called Contribute (discosure: Adobe is a client).

Just plunk down the snacks as if you're arranging carrot sticks, dip and whatnot on a tray for guests. Journalists and bloggers can nibble as they like, clicking and lifting up whatever bits they think they can use in their online story.

So, going back to content for a moment, remember we talked about deleting a lot?
The words you kept will go into little boxes or box-like chunks floating in white space.

There might be a general intro, then another box for details (perhaps in
very short bullet points but no more than four -- three is ideal), then another box for a quote (or an entire section of quotes strung all together like beads on a string rather than interspersed throughout the text as in a news story), all of which should be shorter than what you're used to.

You might even have a box for customer quotes that link to case studies on a website, for example. Or you might link to a Facebook page.
The Karcher Group puts it this way. I'm quoting from its website here:

- Content separated into different sections, such as Key Information, Facts, Quotes, Links, etc.
- Use of popular social media tools, such as RSS feeds and tagging
- Ability to share content on social networking sites like, Facebook, Stumbleupon, LinkedIn, etc.
- Ability to view/download items such as logos, banners, audio promos
- Include links to blogs and other resources
- Embed multimedia elements like video, photos, and audio

Your links, video, info-graphics and photos will tell some of the story that your now-missing words would have told, only better.
More visuals: subheads and headlines. Just as a resume uses boldface to divide up and call out different kinds of content, your SMNR needs boldface subheads. And just as you did for the body of the text, you'll need to tighten the words and content in the headline.

Your SMNR should be an invitation to delve further by clicking on electronic story elements.

I call this "pogo-sticking." The reader isn't meant to glide smoothly from the first word to the last but to hop around, almost at random.

If you're good at helping your client understand what will have traction with the news media and bloggers, those very same storytelling elements are what should be in your SMNR. If you or your client instead prefer company-centric bragging, those will be your elements.
An SMNR is *not* likely to be any more successful than a traditional news release. Format isn't the point. If you have material that will surprise or delight a reader or help him make a decision about something coming up soon in his own life, you will get pickup. If you don't, you won't. You're either useful to readers or you're not. Format seldom improves relevance.
Which brings us to SEO. I have long advocated what the SEO people are now telling everyone these days: Write in the language of the audience. Please, please, please stop trying to coin new words or market categories, without at least also using the vocabulary already in use among prospective customers.

The SEO people will also tell you that this natural language needs to be in key places (headline, subheads, first paragraph, captions, video description). But I have been fighting that battle and losing it for nearly 10 years now, so good luck with that. I'm hoping that this new SEO/Google world we live in will shake clients up a bit and get them out of their self-absorbed marketing bubbles.

For more on that, check out this post by
Maddie Grant on SocialMediaToday. Her post also links to the now-famous diatribe by Tom Foremski ("Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!").

I recommend going to Business Wire for advice on all of the above. In my dealings, this company has been ahead of trends while well-grounded in ethics and principles that never go out of style.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Can PR ghostwrite client blogs?

Executive Summary:

As marketing departments turn corporate collateral into blog posts, they find the task more time-consuming and difficult than imagined. Should you hire ghost writers? Yes and no. It depends on your audience's expectations. This article tells you how to decide and suggests effective small tweaks to the options you've probably already considered.

Key Points:
  1. Social media experts generally caution against ghostwriting blogs. They say the medium and audience expectations make blogs unlike speeches and contributed articles.
  2. Analyze your audience and ask key questions about your company's goals and resources before deciding which blogs to ghostwrite or whether to write a particular post at all.
Sound Bite:

"The smartest and most trusted people say, 'Don't ghostwrite company blogs.' But if you absolutely must do it, disclose the contributor's real names or only ghostwrite content the company created previously and is simply re-purposing for easy digestibility."

Read the whole article:

Should your PR team ghostwrite your company's blog posts?

The short answer is "no." The long answer is "sometimes."

Let's do the long answer first. If you absolutely insist on having your PR team write some of your company blog posts, proceed with caution. Give ample thought to:
  • your company's goal
  • the degree of expertise/attitude/thought leadership required from the author
  • originality of content
Questions you can ask yourself while making decisions:

(1) Is the content company-created and is the PR team merely re-purposing it for social media digestibility?

If so, fine. Go for it. But avoid packaging overly canned material in a business-neutral voice. If you must include posts like this, consider interspersing it with more personal and authentic pieces by individuals. Otherwise, your audience is likely to tune out, justifiably so.

(2) What are the audience's expectations?

Consider the degree of skepticism and ethical rigidity of a particular audience. What does the audience value most highly? How will they use the information? Are they likely to be forgiving of sterile business content as long as it includes a tip or resource they can use? Are they expecting a CEO blog with business acumen or an app developer blog with technical depth? If you walk a safe middle line, you may turn off the very people you hope to influence.

(3) Is the time and money worth it if the blog isn't influential?

It's safe to say that a CEO blog carries more weight when it shows incisive thinking and passion, even if not necessarily "good writing." In the world of blogs, "good writing" can be icing, since most posts are produced rapidly in response to an ongoing conversation by a person who isn't a full-time professional writer.

Do application developers carry more weight when they are irreverent and independent? Probably. In some scenarios, it's possible that this level of integrity and authenticity is almost more important to the audience than the content. A rough-around-the-edges post that's spirited and technically well grounded might be better than a smooth vanilla offering.

Writing is time-consuming. That's why people quit blogs after a while or try to hire ghostwriters. But what matters most is substantive content that will influence people. If you don't have that, should you be blogging at all?

(4) Can you manage expectations by disclosing who sometimes contributes?

This is the best practice if the author's credentials aren't the main draw. Avoid leaving a post unsigned or just using the company's name. Commonly, companies-in-the-know say something like "Contributors to this blog include Sam Smith, Jessie Jones and Betty Buttons."

But even so, better to sign each post with "Sam S. for Acme" or "S.S." or "B. Buttons" or "Jessie Jones." If you feel like you don't want the audience to see the "man behind the curtain," then you've got a problem, especially since "transparency is the new black," as they say. At any rate, hiding fake wizards behind curtains is bad -- period.

It's OK to say that your PR team creates some of the blog posts. It's better to do it and say it than to do it and not say it. Otherwise, you risk losing trust down the road. Audiences may think you are hiding something other than a writer's name ("What *else* is this company keeping from me?").

Bottom-line as I see it, the smartest and most trusted people say, "Don't ghostwrite company blogs." But if you absolutely must do it, disclose the contributor's real names or only ghostwrite content the company created previously and is simply re-purposing for easy digestibility.

It's not like a speech. Some people argue that a blog post is like a speech. Presidents of companies and nations hire speech writers, right? Yes, but we all know they do that.

Our *expectation* is that a really talented speech writer did the leg work, the president absorbed the content in full, made substantive changes as he saw fit, then practiced for hours, with coaching.

In contrast, a blog post is perceived as a more informal and less well measured opinion, often formulated quickly, as part of an ongoing social conversation.

In 2004, social media purists said, "No ghostwriting."

In 2010, I see a lot of softening in expert opinion.

People now admit there are gray areas where careful consideration can make a ghostwritten blog OK. For more on that, see an excellent discussion led by Toby Blomberg and John Cass. Thirty-nine contributors weigh in. My favorite comments were those by Lynn Anne Miller, who looked at social media from the corporate perspective.

Edelman's Steve Rubel foresaw the debate in 2004 and said, "What we need to do, however, is separate what works from what doesn't and what level of transparency and input is required. Time will tell."

I agree that we are still determining best practices and that they are likely to change as the blog-reading public itself continues to mature and evolve.