Basic Writing Tips for PR Pros

My friend Megan Parker of Finn Partners (also an ex-coworker at a PR firm) got in touch with me over email to ask for some PR writing tips. I haven’t had a lot of time to blog lately, so I figured I’d repurpose the content (which she’ll be presenting to her office) here on the old blog.

3 Cardinal Sins of Press Releases

  • Writing without the audience in mind. There must be a rhyme and reason to the release. Too often, press releases list information without forming a cohesive narrative. When you know exactly who you’re appealing to, it’s much easier to present information in order of relevance and tie it together into a narrative.
  • Big words and buzzwords. These can kill your release quickly. Taking a long time to make your point (or making it difficult for the reader to discover the point) is the best way to publish releases that fail. Cut the buzzwords. Use small, clear words. Make your point quickly and use the rest of the release to back that point up.
  • Your release is too long. Seriously, have you ever read a press release past the fourth paragraph? How often do you get past the third? I bet a lot of you don’t make it past the headline in most cases. Stop padding your releases because you think they’re too short. Write only what’s important to your audience and cut everything else.

3 Press Release Musts

  • Always lead with announcement and benefits in the first two paragraphs. This is the timeliness/relevance factor. You’ll only get eyes on the rest of the release if you can answer the questions “Why now?” and “Why should I care?” for the reader ASAP.
  • Bullet crucial points. A lot of readers will scan your release. Splitting important content into bite-sized chunks makes it more likely that scanners will actually retain something.
  • Simplify your boilerplate. Seriously, it’s the 21st century. Your goal should be to point the reader to your (or your client’s) website. If they’re really interested in the announcement or organization, that’s where they’ll go. Otherwise, you’re just cluttering the page with more words, muddying the announcement and increasing the chances you’ll lose the reader before they actually perform the desired action.

3 Cardinal Sins of Contributed Content

  • Longer is not always better. If an editor asks for 800-1,200 words, don’t fret if you just pass that 800 barrier. What’s more important is to have practical, useful content that isn’t padded with fluff.
  • Don’t sell your product, service or brand, ever. Seven times out of 10, the author will ask for edits or ignore you. The other 3/10 times, readers who came for informative content will see through your content and stop reading. Contributed content is only useful if you get the reader through to the end. Then, he may be interested in checking out the author’s organization, product or service.
  • Burying the point. What should reader expect to learn by reading your article? Out with it already! If you aren’t clear with your intentions in the beginning, you’ll lose your reader. A “big reveal” in business writing or journalism only happens in the first few paragraphs.

3 Contributed Content Musts

  • Know your audience to a T. Who does the publication target? Ask the editor if she has a reader persona. Speak directly to them in your post, as though you’re having a conversation. It’ll ease the writing process.
  • Get good at interviewing. If you’re ghostwriting for a client, you need to infuse their perspective. You’ll also be much happier if you have all the information you need right in front of you.
  • In most cases, work with a writer. Effective article writing, especially for well-established publisher sites, takes years of practice to get even a little good at.

3 Cardinal Sins of Pitching

  • Mass pitches. Just don’t do ‘em, even if you’re making it clear that you’re blasting out to an email list. This kills the exclusivity factor and often includes writers who shouldn’t be getting the email.
  • Too informal or formal. Keep in mind you don’t know this person. But also remember that writers are wary of formal pitches because they sound canned. A writer would much rather work with a PR rep who knows the product/organization/industry well. Too many formalities can convey the opposite.
  • Too long. Establish a connection, make your point and make it pop. You shouldn’t need anything else in your pitch. The quicker you make a strong connection with the reader, the better the chance he’ll follow up for more info.

3 Pitching Musts

  • A clear understanding of the writer’s coverage and a clear indicator that you’ve read at least one of her articles. Drop that info early in your pitch to stroke the writer’s ego and establish relevance.
  • A catchy headline. The writer/editor will make a split-second decision whether to open your email based on the headline. Experiment with subject lines and see what kind of stuff gets you the most traction. And for christ’s sake, use email campaign management software that actually tracks open rates!
  • Bold your most important point. Know what will get the reader’s eye? Simplify skimming and make it pop.

Any Questions?

Having PR writing pains? Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.

It’s Hard To Be Yourself Online

As the web matures, are we all facing an identity crisis?

Who am I?

Marketers and writers understand the importance of wearing a facade. To truly become the brand in your communications strategy, you must become the audience. It’s hard to be yourself in the world of communications. In fact, it’s absolutely imperative that you don’t.

Individually, we’re all facing the same conundrum online. Shit, I’ve had to deal with it on this blog. I have two Twitter accounts because I’m worried about alienating my professional audience by sharing content meant for my interest-based peers. Forget sharing literary websites and good reads on Facebook; three quarters of my real-life social network hasn’t picked up a book since college.

Want to please everyone? Only share universal content like funny YouTube clips and national news stories.

The Suffocating Nature of Social Media

Of course, universal content doesn’t go very far in shedding light on your unique personality — what makes you stand out from the crowd to employers and friends. Then again, there are certain personal traits you want a real-world relationship to reveal gradually.

And some traits are best unrevealed.

That’s why countless articles tell you to be careful what information you share online. You’re leaving information out in the open that could help people form a tough first impression. Some employers might not espouse the use of the f-word in every sentence you type. Others may not appreciate your lack of subtlety. Still others may be impressed by your openness.

In essence, social media has turned the entire world into marketers. What we share online is only as relevant as the audience to which we tailor it.

Of course, this role is extremely convoluted. Most of the time, we don’t make friends based entirely on shared interests. Facebook becomes a platform with limited sharing value beyond important life updates, inside jokes and the occasional universally valued piece of content. Twitter users find more value in appealing to a specific interest-, demographic- or industry-based audience.

Any attempt to be your true self over the web, without alienating some of the people in your network, is limited by where you share.

This Is Exactly Like Real Life

Duh. Did you think I’d argue that the web is some alternate universe?

Pictured here: Real life.

Unfortunately, the web is different in one very powerful way: it keeps an unflinching, unforgiving memory of everything you say and do, in a much more public format than most of what you’ve said or done in real life.

A unique voice doesn’t require you to lay it all on the table. Honesty is key, but subtlety is essential.

Trying hard to find yourself online? Follow three simple rules:

  • Know Your Audience: Take a good, hard look at who follows you over various channels. Limit what you share to content your audience finds valuable.
  • Stay Organized: Make sure you have a good, organized understanding of where you have influence.
  • Protect Your Reputation: Work hard to ensure you don’t undermine your reputation on each of your channels.

What Do You Think?

How do you define yourself online? Share some tips with us in the replies.

Is Your Content Missing These Proof Indicators?

It’s so easy to speak your mind online.

In fact, it’s so easy that amateur writers are constantly sharing thoughts that have no basis in anyone else’s reality. You can visit the Huffington Post and flip through a dozen well-written and compelling articles until you find one that accurately cites real proof.

But wait…isn’t proof just for silly old bastards?

The internet is one big op-ed machine. Want to create content that really stands out from the rest? Find ways to prove your concepts.

Prove it.

Anyone can rationalize a theory. It takes proof to build it into a tangible one.

As far back as college (for those of us who remember it), we’ve been trained to present an evidence-based argument. Why have we abandoned this approach? Well…we can say whatever we want, whenever we want on the internet. It’s a whole lot easier to just speak your mind without putting time and energy into research.

A scientific approach to writing gives you credibility. It shows you’ve taken the time to do your research. The scientific method is in place for a reason; observation, measurement and experimentation explain behavior. For writers, truth seeking in journalism offers a great comparison for why evidence-based writing makes for a compelling argument. The Poynter Institute is among the many voices pleading for a science-based approach to journalism, particularly in relation to the web.

Sometimes, experts can get away with conjecturing on experiential theories. Of course, this requires you to prove your credibility on the subject matter. You do that by providing evidence of your experience and success.

Some things are just common sense. Anything outside of common sense — which is what your writing should cover if you want it to stand out — requires proof if you want to offer value to your readers.

Which indicators of proof work best?

On the granular level, numbers are perhaps the most important way to prove assertions. From a higher level, what shapes do these numbers take?

  • Academic experiments: Whatever topic you write about, science can help. Sociological and scientific experiments that apply to your topic can make your argument more compelling.
  • Surveys: A mainstay in the world of marketing, surveys help your credibility by presenting a popular belief or practice. The more the world agrees with you, the more credibility your writing has.
  • Case studies: More granular and specific versions of experiments, case studies offer proof that a strategy works the way you say it does.
  • Interviews & expert testimony: This is a narrower version of surveys. Interviews & expert testimony proves you know what you’re talking about by aligning your point with an established authority on what you’re talking about.

Sharing your perspective can be a powerful thing, but strong evidence builds an even stronger case. Rely on the right proof indicators and your readers will find a greater level of trust in your content.

Read This Now For Better Web Copy

Your web copy is missing something. But you just can’t put your finger on it.

It’s no coincidence that your reader is missing something, too. He isn’t sure what his next step is, so he abandons the page and gets lost for four hours on YouTube instead.

Readers desperately need their hands held. Think of them as suburban teenagers lost in an Amazonian jungle. If only the jungle had clear paths, with signs pointing the way to the next destination…

Here’s your chance to be a sign-maker. Your web copy can be compelling, thoughtful, informative, clear and concise — but it will never, ever convince someone to take the next step without a clear call to action.

A call to action is a command that pops. It’s a next step that drives readers through the sales process. And it’s the most necessary part of creating web copy that sells.

A few good examples of calls to action

All of the web’s most successful brands grab readers with a call to action, gently nudging them in the direction they want to go. Sometimes, they even corral readers with not-so-gentle commands.

Below are a few great examples of powerful calls to action.

Blogger’s Delight

If you visit Problogger.net and aren’t sure what to do next, you’re in the minority. Wherever you go on the site, founder Darren Rowse has placed a clear “subscribe to the newsletter” call to action first thing on the right sidebar. At the end of each article, you’re invited to share your opinion in the comments. Past the article, you have a clearly marked “What Next?” section, paired with related articles for further reading.

Social Community, Decoded 

Pinterest is a great example of the perfect call to action. At the top of the page, the online community tells you what it is, how to use it and what to do next in two short lines and a red “Join Pinterest” button. I’m sure there’s plenty that’s sticky about the community itself — still, they did a good job reducing any barriers to entry for new users.

Specializing in CTAs

HubSpot has grown quite the reputation for its digital marketing prowess. When you visit the company’s site, you can see that they practice what they preach; the homepage hits you with a handful of benefits and an orange “See The Software” call that works well.

Tips for creating your own call to action

We’re all capable of creating great calls to action. And we absolutely must create them if we want to be respected web copywriters.

Most of these tips are pretty straightforward, but it doesn’t hurt to see them on the page so you can burn them into your brain.

  • Clarity is key: Your call to action must stand out from the rest of the copy, whether it follows a thousand words of copy or three sentences. For businesses, this usually comes in the form of a colored, eye-catching button to direct the visitor to the next step.
  • Start with the benefit: If you can work the benefit of the action into the call, that’d be great. For instance, if you want to coerce users into signing up for an email newsletter about beets, you might say something like “Click here for secrets to growing the best beets.”
  • Make it timely: Using words like “today” and “now” can help snag the customer that may not return without a good excuse to opt in that very day. Create urgency so you don’t lose customers that will convince themselves to come back but will never return.

Check out more great tips for creating calls to action. 

Share with us

Do you have a “go-to” call to action that works like a charm? Share it with us in the comments.

In Defense of Content Marketing

It recently occurred to me that some people (and marketers) still aren’t completely clear on what content marketing is and isn’t. Yesterday, I got caught up in a discussion on Danny Brown’s blog about exactly that.

I’d like to address some of the points in the post, but first, I’d like to start from scratch and build a case for content marketing. So what is it, exactly?

Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action. (Content Marketing Institute)

The label is new. The tactic is not.

Because it’s a new term, we like to think of it as a new discipline. But it isn’t. Businesses have practiced content marketing for years. According to That White Paper Guy, white papers made their first appearance in 1922. They became most relevant to marketers in the 80s, pushed forward by the rise of the PC.

I said that white paper guy, not that white paper guy.

Entrepreneurs and other leading voices in business have always used books to help build their brands and the brands of their respective companies. Organizations release research papers. It’s all a part of standing out from the noise of competition and offering valuable information for free. This valuable information points back to your brand and drives new customers into the “traditional” marketing process of evaluating your products and services.

Content marketing manifests itself in many ways, none of which are product-centric, including:

  • Blogging
  • White papers
  • Books & ebooks
  • Research reports
  • Webinars
  • Forums
  • Conferences
  • Videos

What I think the rise of content, social media and conversation marketing in general does is call into question our old definitions of marketing. It turns out this isn’t such a black-and-white field after all.

The show & tell dilemma

Robert Rose’s definition of content marketing is the one that sticks out to me:

Traditional marketing and advertising is telling the world you’re a rock star.  Content Marketing is showing the world that you are one.

As a writer, this definition hits close to home. Showing always builds a much stronger case over telling. First, you gain the lead’s trust by offering them valuable but free information. Then, you drive them into the traditional sales and marketing process. Finally, you retain their business with a continuous stream of engagement.

One of the biggest questions I have for Danny Brown is the motivation behind writing his blog. Before finding this post, I’d never heard of him or Jugnoo, the company he works for. So, his blog increases brand awareness and connects him with potential customers. It raises the value of his own brand. It’s purpose isn’t to tell the world what he does; it’s to show the world that he does it with passion and insight. And that makes it an integral part of the sales and marketing funnel.

After much deliberation, I interpret Danny’s post to be a criticism of content marketing evangelists who say the practice is a standalone discipline. But I don’t hear anyone saying that. It’s an integral part of the marketing experience that acts in tandem with traditional marketing. It flips the old model of jamming your product or service down your lead’s throat by spoon-feeding the pitch.

Danny also appears to make the argument that content marketing has little impact on the post-sale customer. I have clients who would beg to differ. Sears does it. These non-profits increased brand affinity. Mint.com, HubSpot and American Express all maintain wildly popular content marketing channels.

The reason Danny came across 560 million Google results for content marketing is because the term helps businesses make sense of their digital communications. It’s also why “content marketing success stories” returns more than 77 million results of its own. I believe it will continue to be a strong, crucial descriptor for years to come.

Chime in

Think I’m an arrogant blowhard? Agree with what I’m saying? Share your content marketing success (or horror) story in the comments.

The Best Second Draft Writing Technique

Enhancing your ability to write a second draft is key to stepping up your writing game. But turning a critical eye on your own writing is excruciatingly difficult, especially when you have no time to put space between yourself and that first draft.

And it isn’t even an ego thing. Taking yourself out of your own perspective is just really difficult. For many writers, getting through the changes that must be made during the second draft is damn near impossible.

I felt the same way. I still don’t always have the time to do a full second draft without client feedback. When you build rapport with clients, it’s nice to get those second eyes on the draft.

But if you’re trying to make an impression with a new client, you want that “first” draft as clean as possible. And if you need it turned around quickly, you’ll need the best technique available to you: redrafting.

Rewriting is your best friend.

This can be a tough sell for new writers. After all, why would you go back and redo what you just did? It took you long enough to do it the first time.

I’ll tell you why you rewrite what you just did: because there’s no such thing as getting it perfect in the first draft. One-draft writing may produce strong results, especially after you’re familiar with the wants and needs of your client (and your client’s audience). But the perfect first draft is a total myth, a lie we tell ourselves to preserve our natural laziness.

Questioning what you’ve created is important, albeit extremely difficult. When you get in there and do a rewrite, you can skip the questioning part and start from scratch. The content will be fresh in your mind. Even if the rewrite isn’t radically different than the first, you’ll have two documents to mix-and-match the strongest content.

We don’t always get it right the first time. How do you revise? Share your strategies with us in the replies.

Read Good? Write Gooder

There’s no understating the importance of a healthy, balanced diet of strong reading material.

Seriously. It’s one of the best things a writer can do to keep those fingers pumping out fresh material. Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of our generation, says that good writers read four to six hours a day.

Sound overwhelming? Just a tad. That doesn’t mean you can’t set other goals that are perhaps a bit less lofty but still ambitious. These days, we’re trained to think “unwinding” requires you to crash in front of the television with a bag of pretzels.

The next time you plan to do that, imagine Papa Hemingway is standing at the entrance to the room, judging you. Were he alive today, he would be.

On second thought, he’d probably be out wrestling a bear. Or in his study, reading and writing.

Zoning out in front of the television–turning your brain “off”–is a total myth, and one that you don’t need to buy into. Sure, the occasional episode of Breaking Bad may help you hone your storytelling skills. But that’s intelligent TV (or a quick mental break). Zonking for four hours before bed is as unproductive as it is unhealthy.

Wherever you want to succeed in writing, you must read. Lively fiction, engrossing academic, practical how-to–whatever the discipline, it’ll have a positive impact on your writing.

Start small. Schedule an hour a day for reading. Then, scale it up.

To help supplement my reading, I like to try and catch myself whenever I wander to a mindless site. When I do, I shut the tab and read a couple of pages out of whatever book I’m working on.

What kind of books have an impact on your writing?

Turn Off The Noise: How To Deal With Information Overload

Does your brain hurt at the end of the day? Mine sure does. Constantly consuming information takes a lot out of you. The human brain wasn’t meant to digest so much in such small windows of time.

Just how much are we consuming on a daily basis? According to Robby Walker of Cue, we consume some 63,000 words on an average day. That means you finished a short novel today. Go pat yourself on the back, have a beer and brag to your friends.

Where’s your god now?

Don’t have the sense of accomplishment you thought you would, eh? That’s because it’s very difficult to pull the thread of a narrative or progressive case-building out of that mess of words. Each block of content we consume is related to a different area of interest, stimulating a different portion of your brain, causing a new wave of dysphoria and, in some cases, shutting your thought process down completely.

Where does it all come from?

Imagine that your daily routine is an intricate spiderweb shimmering across two tree branches. Now try to follow the path of a single thread from the center to the edge.

This is especially difficult because the lines run so close together. The spider followed a linear path to create the web, just as your day followed a somewhat linear path of its own. But digging up the tiny details that contributed to each new thread of information is damn hard.

We simply aren’t always aware of where the internet will lead us. You start off reading a scholarly article about inner city sociology and end up perusing pictures of Channing Tatum’s new haircut. Unlike the detail-oriented spider, we weave tangled webs.

How did you get from point A to point B? Ask yourself these questions to become consciously aware of how you process information.

  • What are the sites I visit the moment I lose focus? For many of us, the primary answers may be Facebook, Deadspin, Pinterest or Twitter.
  • How much time do I spend on useless information? The best way to measure this is to focus on how much time you spend processing and creating useful information. The rest of the time is most likely spent screwing around.
  • How organized are my social media channels? If you have a Twitter account, for instance, do you split the accounts you follow into lists? This can be an effective approach to focus your browsing.

Focus on focusing.

I usually lose focus when I haven’t organized or structured my day. Here are a couple of strategies I use to stay focused.

  • Create a to-do list and cross off items as you finish them. Closure on each little task is more satisfying than hours spent on “happy information”, or information your brain is magnetically attracted to.
  • Set short and long term goals. This tactic is intrinsically tied to the to-do list. Longer term goals (weekly, monthly) help you get a bird’s eye view of your productivity.
  • Use software features to stay in the zone. I recently discovered the “focus” setting on my MS Word “View” tab. Presto! Your document now dominates the entire screen. Productivity software like Vitalist, Todoist or RescueTime can help in other ways.

Embrace Awkwardness — Your Comfort Zone is Too Small

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

You want stuff to happen for you, right? Let down your guard. Pop that bubble around you. Emerge from your cocoon.

Get uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable just knowing Pitbull can leave his home state of Florida.

People are drawn magnetically to their comfort zones. We’re resistant to change and surprises. Your comfort zone is a magical place where nothing happens unless you expect it to. It’s the place where you dwell when you’re happy with the way things are. It’s also the place you sometimes retreat to when you’re unhappy.

When we go to our comfort zones, we wait for something to happen. And as we established before, nothing happens in a vacuum.

Putting yourself outside of your comfort zone is one of the most enriching experiences life has to offer. It’s why we travel — to explore places that don’t offer the familiar comforts of home. New experiences excite and inspire. For writers, nothing is more important than finding that inspiration.

Pick your ass up off the couch and put yourself into an uncomfortable situation. The new ideas will electrify your writing.

Below are a couple of simple ways to leave your comfort zone.

  • Ride public transportation. You can lose yourself in your own thoughts while surrounded by a whole new world of people and inspiration. Back in Chicago, I took the el and buses all the time. I was harassed, coughed on, preached to, glared at, propositioned, rubbed against — and when action didn’t affect me directly, I got to observe a whole world of new awkwardness and discomfort. I consider myself the better for these experience.
  • Write standing up. Both Hemingway and Nabokov preferred to write standing up. And they weren’t the only ones. We could conjecture for hours on why this strategy is effective and probably still never reach a fully comfortable conclusion. But I’m okay with that, because this post isn’t about comfort. One of the positives here is definitely that you can avoid fatigue by standing up. Your brain is much more likely to shut down on you while your body is in a comfortable position.
  • Say yes more often. It can be hard to say yes to certain social activities that don’t gel with your idea of a good time. Maybe you aren’t particularly fond of the people involved. Or you just don’t dig baseball. If your first impulse is to say no, flip that impulse on its head. Say yes. You may find out you enjoy the experience. Or you’ll find some inspiration. At the very least, you’ll be a better person for riding out your discomfort.

Does Listening to Music Make You More or Less Productive?

Four out of 5 scientists agree that music sounds better when you play in the nude.

I’m a music fanatic. I bet a few of you out there share my passion. These days, we’re so obsessed with multi-tasking that I’m not sure anyone ever stops just to listen.

Seriously: people used to just listen. They used to sit down, put a record on and listen. Who does that?

Like many of my friends, I’m usually spinning something on Spotify during the workday. Not everyone can enjoy a harmonious workday. But writing is a job of isolation, and I’ve met plenty of us who like to type in time to the beat.

But is it good for productivity? I’ve heard different opinions on whether they consider music a distraction or a complement to work. According to the science, it’s actually that complicated: some people can function with music in the background, and some can’t. And the “why” is pretty surprising.

Words vs. Words

Writers who listen to music place their brain in the crossfire. It’s a battle of words.

Clearly, words in their own right are good things for writers. Reading the written word has a powerful effect on how strong of a writer you are. But in a medium like music, they can be disastrous if consumed while you try to put original words on the page.

You require all of your faculties when it’s time to create. A lyrical onslaught buzzing insistently in your ear can hinder that. And it isn’t just writers.

According to studies in Taiwan, “listening to music with lyrics was linked to lower scores on tests of concentration in a study of 102 college students.” It isn’t the music competing for that brain-space. It’s your brain subconsciously attempting to decode the words it’s absorbing. And your prefrontal cortex is fighting an uphill battle where it attempts to block out stimuli unrelated to the task at hand.

It can help, too.

Sure, listening to music while you work can be productive, too. But the benefits are just in your head.

In reality, most of the studies attempting to link music and concentration have proven quite the opposite. The biggest question is whether listening to music helps you block out other sounds. Some argue that wearing noise-cancellation helps block out the noise of the office.

If you’re working from home, outside noise is probably less of a factor. What becomes a major factor is how much you enjoy music. Another study in Taiwan showed subjects with strong feelings about the music they were listening to affected concentration negatively. Indifferent listeners tuned it out.

Here are a couple of tips I find useful in my daily writing experience:

  • Listen to songs you’ve heard a lot. It’s easier to use the tried-and-true songs to as a complement to your writing because it’s easier to block out the lyrics.
  • Try to listen to classical music and other songs without lyrics.
  • Turn the volume down so the tunes aren’t overwhelming your brain.

Hey, you! Check out my article over at the Content Marketing Institute today, Should You Curate Content? The Essentials Every Content Marketer Needs to Consider.