Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tell the story out of order -- here's why & how

Here's an oldie but goodie -- a page from one of my earliest workshop handouts.

I heard from someone today who had taken a class from me in the early- to mid-2000s. He said he kept some of my handout pages pinned up for regular inspiration but now can't find them.

I rummaged a bit in my digital archives and uncovered this advice for telling stories out of order. Move up what's compelling, and bump down the backstory and introduction.

Monday, April 30, 2012

For PR pros: How to read a journalist

Occasionally yelled at and hung up on by journalists on deadline, PR professionals know there are right and wrong ways to persist in pursuit of a news reporter’s attention.

Most mentors tell you to read several of a reporter’s previous articles before making contact. But they rarely tell you what, in particular, to look for while reading

I suggest you ask these questions while doing your research.

(1)  How many sources did the reporter use?
(2)  What’s in motion?
(3)  What remains to be seen?
(4)  What kinds of words did the reporter choose?

1. How many sources did the reporter use?

This question helps you determine whether the reporter poured his (or her) heart into a story. If not, don’t spend a lot of time studying it. Reporters quickly tap out some stories just to get them out of the way. Signs of this:

  • cites just one or two sources (compared to six or so for a good story)
  • lists but doesn't interpret statistics
  • fails to add colorful or emotive language, instead offering facts without anecdote or narrative
Advice: Pay less attention to stories that the reporter himself paid less attention to.

2. What's in motion?

Look for words like "on the rise," “becoming _____er” and “shifting.” Look for depictions of anything that is changing character, shape or approach, or getting bigger or smaller.

For example, an article on phishing (luring Internet users to bogus websites where they will give up passwords) noted that big banks have long been top targets, but lately smaller banks are being targeted, too. Another article said phishers were becoming harder to detect. Another said the approach was shifting from scattershot to precisely targeted.

Advice: Pay closer attention to whatever is changing – the topics that are in motion – than to static factoids. Change is inherently more newsy and likely to remain of interest in the future.

3. What remains to be seen? (This is the really important one.)

Pay extra attention to where the reporter has raised questions, identified obstacles or said something like “only time will tell,” “no one knows if …” or “it remains to be seen whether …”

Look for the edge of the cliff, so to speak, the place where the reporter can no longer acquire more knowledge because there isn’t any, or so he thinks.

For example, one article said IM and peer-to-peer networks might supplant email as the next major vehicles for phishers. Another said efforts to fold phishing security into spam security might not work because spam filters mostly look for previously blacklisted URLs, and phishers dismantle bogus sites within hours or days of putting them up.

When these articles were published (a while ago, I confess), the reporter didn’t know for sure whether there’d be an explosion of phishing via IM and peer-to-peer networks – that remained to be seen. The reporter didn’t know whether new security efforts would work.

Addendum (12/13/12): Here's more recent example from a WSJ story. 
What happens next remains unclear. Some of the industry's top bankers, executives and analysts are puzzling over Mr. Ergen's next move. Dish said Tuesday it will "consider its strategic options and the optimal approach to put this spectrum to use.
Mr. Ergen's next move will be closely watched by the reporters who wrote this story. This is the edge of their cliff. They don't know what will happen next, but the moment they do, they will write about it.

Similarly, keep your eye out for what is anecdotally becoming evident but is not yet backed by a body of supporting statistics or expert confirmation. Look for what's still fuzzy.

Does your client have anything that could help a reporter connect these fuzzy dots?

For example, if your client is an authority on digital signatures and if the "how" behind that technology is an answer to the security shortcomings of simply blacklisting URLs (as in the previous example above), then these details might be a good hook for the first line of your pitch.

Advice: Start your conversation in the middle. The first line of your pitch can pick up where the reporter left off.

4. What kinds of words did the reporter choose?

Look for discretionary vocabulary that reveals the writer's "ear," or literary and syntactic preferences. Jot down examples and listen to how they sound.

For example, one reporter liked bogus, dump, lure and dupe. He could just as easily have written false or counterfeit instead of bogus, jettison or dispose in place of dump, attract or entice in place of lure, or mislead or deceive instead of dupe. But he didn’t -- this writer liked the style and sound of the first list.

Listing these preferred words when you notice them helps you see similarities and patterns that can help you adopt a comparable voice.

Caveat: It's always best to be yourself and write in a style you can consistently maintain throughout your dialogue. Genuine is better than clever, but if you can be both, go for it.

Advice: Notice how his words sound and, when sensible, use words with a similar tone.

What next? How to use what you discovered

The first question (“number of sources/poured heart out”) helps you filter out stories less helpful to your research on a particular reporter. Skip over those.

The second and third questions (“motion” and “unknown”) show you the reporter’s own agenda, the places where he may appreciate your client’s help moving a story forward. Start your email abruptly with those specifics. No need for background or chit-chat. Hook him first with data or observations you retrieved from what he thought was the gulf beyond the edge of the cliff.

The fourth question helps you in the final stage of polishing your email and, to a lesser degree, in the early draft phase. Appealing to a reporter’s own ear may help put him at ease, leaving him slightly more receptive to your thoughtful assistance.

You still need to meet all the usual criteria for a good pitch. But you’re more likely to entice a reporter if you’ve mapped yourself to his agenda, rather than dumped information helter-skelter onto his desk in hopes he will sift through and recognize something of value.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Peek Behind Curtain at Workshop in Session

Lively and hands-on, my writing and editing workshops for PR writers, engineers and others in the high-technology industry involve very little lecture.

There's no critiquing; I don't even own a red pen. I've got something more effective: tools that I created, refined and updated over 12 years to help already-capable business professionals break old habits and speed their creation of anything from blogs to reports for executives.

Your work, not "make-work"

The focus is on process, yours. Attendees bring in their own source material -- usually PR pitches, online news articles, award submissions, case studies or reports. This means you are doing work that is practical and relevant, not "taking a class."

People hire me so their agency or company can make more money or promote a cause. My workshops help you advance your own business goals, gain traction with customers and save time.

By Popular Demand

The outline below describes what has emerged as my most popular four-hour workshop. I cut and pasted it from a document that I sent to a new client just this afternoon. 

I pride myself on customizing classes to suit your team's specific challenges, but this particular class has turned out to be universally effective

The emphasis is on identifying the best content and moving it to the right place in your document, or recognizing what "compelling" is so that you can go get the right stuff in the first place. But the techniques also dramatically reduce word count, so they are excellent editing tools as well.

Check me out on LinkedIn to see some of the other classes I created, all in response to actual business problems.


“Creating Compelling Content” – detailed workshop outline

All three of the workshop sections described below are interactive and include examples. Each builds upon the next; that is, the newsworthiness section is required for the compelling content section, and both are required for the final section on relevance. Similarly, the second section is not complete until the third section has been completed.

In each section, writers will use the tools and criteria described below to arrive at better decisions in their own writing process, while using agency and client documents as source material. Each person will write several times throughout the workshop and receive feedback. The emphasis is on striving for new standards and breaking old habits, not critiques of past work or make-work.
1. How to be newsworthy: Use “binoculars” and “PDAs”
9 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., including a 10-minute break after the first hour

What to bring

Attendees should bring their own team’s collateral with them, no matter who wrote it. We’ll use it as source material. Each person can bring different information, but it’s OK if there’s some overlap. Best choices: PR pitches, speaker abstracts, case studies, contributed articles, press releases, executive memos and fact sheets.

Biggest takeaway

What’s the internal landscape of a journalist’s mind when he or she is assessing a situation and choosing which information to lead with? What can we borrow from that kind of thinking to better promote our own causes in writing? How can we package information for high appeal, even if at first glance it doesn’t look compelling or like “news,” without resorting to hype or giving a false impression?
In this session, attendees will learn and practice:

· Processing information the way an experienced journalist does
· Making faster decisions about what nuggets to move up and which to bump down or leave out altogether
· Recognizing hidden opportunities in your material

2. How to be compelling: Use seven criteria to “pan for gold”

10:55 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., including a 10-minute break

What to bring
Attendees should bring their own team’s collateral with them, no matter who wrote it. We’ll use it as source material. Each person can bring different information, but it’s OK if there’s some overlap. Best choices: award entries, contributed articles, NAPS releases, blog posts, op-eds and pitches.
Biggest Takeaway
What are the seven elements that glue a reader’s eyes to the page? How can they help us radically reduce word count while boosting appeal?
In this session, attendees will learn and practice:
· Objectively identifying the seven elements
· Discovering what’s missing and how to go get it
· Rearranging information for higher impact
3. How to be relevant: Five questions home in on your audience
12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m.
What five questions will keep you on track and help you gain traction?
In this session, attendees will practice:
· Turning excessive background into as-needed backstory
· Balancing your agenda with readers’ “north star”
· Breaking old habits and using new tools in future work