6 Techniques for Better Press Releases

Over the past half a decade, there’s been a lot of scrutiny over press releases. Turns out many of the articles going over the wire weren’t saying much of anything at all.

Think about it: how many press releases do you see that call the company “cutting-edge” and the product “innovative”? Meanwhile, the quote starts off with, “We’re really excited…” The boilerplate offers a bunch of useless details or, worse yet, is three paragraphs long, detailing the numerous accolades of the company.

For instance: “We’re so hipster that we typed this press release on an honest-to-god typewriter.”

Keep in mind that press releases were initially intended for members of the press. Unless you’re a major player in the tech space, don’t expect many journalists to find your release and run with a story. No, nowadays, you need to consider your potential customers and clients your target audience. Your press releases are now available online and serve a drastically different purpose than they used to.

Those same five or so years have brought a reanimation of press release writing. They’ve brought about a return to simplicity. Many writers now understand that the shorter you can get in and get out while saying what needs to be said, the better. (The real problem is convincing an older client who thinks he/she knows press releases.)

Press release writing really isn’t an art. Just follow some of the tips below and you’ll immediately start improving your releases.

1. Lead with benefits, differentiators and the timeliness factor. There are three simple rules of thumb for your nut graph (and the following paragraph). I tend to follow this pretty closely for most of the releases I pen. In the opening paragraph, lead with the newsworthy (timely) element of the story. But make sure to weave in the benefits to the audience in that paragraph, even if it’s just a high-level overview. (Why should the reader care? They want to know immediately.) Finally, what makes this news different from what other organizations are doing in your space?

2. Use bulletpoints. A lot. People are busy and don’t like reading something that looks intimidating during the work day. Every chance you have, use bulletpoints to summarize crucial main points. It breaks up the narrative of the release nicely. But more importantly, it attracts the lazy reader. The ‘lazy’ reader may not always be lazy, but when several tasks are attracting her attention at once, she’ll only look if you give her the facts upfront and highlight the most important information.

3. Stay away unprovable claims. Listen, you make think your company is the best at what they do. Still, if you have no quantifiable proof of that claim, why are you labeling your brand the “leading” one of its kind? It sounds pompous. People will see right through it. Journalists will delete your release. Give us the facts only. And don’t tell us your window cleaning solution is ‘unparalleled’ in the field. That’s just silly, and it’s sensationalized. People are much more conditioned to pick that stuff out than you think.

4. Quotes should actually say something. Alright. When you describe your excitement, thank your new partner or tell the audience that something is ‘interesting’, just what in the hell do you expect to accomplish? Of course you love your new partner. That’s why you partnered with them. Don’t insult your reader’s intelligence. Tell us something useful about the announcement — something perhaps that resonates better coming directly from a human.

5. Keep your boilerplate simple. Businesspeople like to talk about their business. Hey, that’s great! You love your work and you feel a sense of kinship with your brand. The problem is that no one loves your business as much as you do. When you write a boilerplate about your company, you don’t have to put every important fact about your organization down. Keep it short and sweet, just the facts, and direct the reader to your website. There they can read up on your brand if they so choose.

6. Tie in keywords. It’s SEO time. You have control of your destiny here. Work in SEO keywords and phrases to get more bang for your buck. Link your most important keyword to your website. But make sure to follow search optimization best practices. You don’t want to get blacklisted for keyword stuffing.

How To Prioritize Big Rewards Over The Little Ones

The human brain is a complex masterwork of evolution. It’s also a total bitch when it comes to exercising those writing muscles.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to writers. If you’ve ever held down an administrative gig — or practically anything that involves a computer — you’ve done battle with your stubborn brain before.

Two men breakdance-fighting their brains in the forest, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For creative types, however, your brain’s compulsion to do everything except what you want it to do is especially strong. It craves an activity that requires it to process and store information. What you want it to do is pull up archived information to influence the creation of something new and previously unknown to it.

As a result, you’ll find yourself drawn magnetically to Facebook, YouTube, news sites, blogs — anything that takes you away from the task at hand. We’ve pointed out in the past that these types of mental stimulations cause little shots of dopamine in your brain.

It’s All Hyperbolic Discounting’s Fault

One of the most difficult tasks in my daily life is seeing the future good in everything I do. In fact, humans are hardwired to take the cheap thrill. It provides immediate rewards and, as a result, often destroys the bigger rewards that you see in your mind’s eye but never truly pursue.

This is a human behavior called hyperbolic discounting. We want the smaller rewards now. Our modern culture of pleasure-on-demand doesn’t help things, either. As a result, we tend to ignore the bigger rewards available to us down the road if we could just focus on the damn blank page.

Hyperbolic discounting results in procrastination and a failure to reach those big goals we envision in our minds’ eyes. The more we procrastinate, the more we reward ourselves for that behavior, causing a Pavlovian response that reinforces it.

Classically Conditioning Your Way Out of the Rabbit Hole

To rise above hyperbolic discounting, we have to condition ourselves to focus on the bigger future benefits. You’ll need a bit of self-deprecation and a shitload of discipline. Up to the challenge?

It actually isn’t all that challenging. Simply reward yourself every time you take positive steps towards long-term goals. Maybe you’re writing that book that will break you to the mainstream one day. Give yourself a daily goal of 500-1,000 words. The first time you reach that goal, reward yourself by taking the rest of the afternoon off, grabbing a beer, watching your favorite movie — whatever gets your juices flowing.

Have a nondescript beer on me, courtesy the righteous and forthright tap that is Wikimedia Commons.

Setting daily goals and channeling the discipline you require to meet them is another way to focus on the future. Planning ahead, your rational brain can set out a successful path for you. It’s in the heat of the moment that we tend to lose sight of our goals. That’s why scheduling your day is such a powerful way to find success as a freelancer.

Start off by making a to-do list that includes your daily goals. Build those into separate weekly and monthly goals. Put a little order to the chaos and you’ll find yourself more motivated to go after those big rewards.

Why It’s Important for A Writer to Keep An Open Mind

Recently, audiences across the nation were enthralled by my post on cultivating creativity. Now, I’d like to talk about one of the strongest factors in creativity.

Open-minded people are hard to come by. Many of us try to be more open-minded on a daily basis. But we all have bias. As humans, we tend to put too much weight on first impressions. We make judgments based on those impressions, closing ourselves off to further contact and experience.

Wait, what does this even mean? These are just masks glued to a wall! You call that art?

But creativity is heavily rooted in open-mindedness. Neuroscientists have tested the connection. After all, creativity requires new ideas. And new ideas aren’t often the product of a closed mind.

Cynicism and Aging: How Do We Curb It?

Part of the challenge of staying open-minded is age. It follows naturally that the more experience we gain, the more firmly rooted we become in our beliefs. Getting older and growing cynical pretty much go hand-in-hand.

Have your parents changed their political affiliation over the course of your life? Does your stubborn uncle think technology is the downfall of America? The older we get, the harder it is to adapt to change. After learning and relearning ideas, technology, social norms and the like for years, your brain eventually gets to a point where it says “Enough’s enough!”

These factors and more lead to a natural decline into closed-mindedness. The best ways to avoid this are to challenge yourself and make changes on a regular basis.

Of course, staying open-minded is a conscious decision in itself. Prioritize it above other firmly-rooted beliefs and it’ll help you keep your creative flair.

Stay In Touch with the Weirdness

A little weirdness lives inside all of us. It’s what makes us truly unique as human beings. Sometimes, you have to suppress that weirdness to make friends, get a job and live a normal life. Highly intelligent creative people recognize that the best way to express weirdness is to channel it in outlets.

Too weird, scale it back!

Of course, you can’t let that weirdness get away. That’s what separates the leaders and the followers. Some people stay in touch with their weirdness and are more open-minded as a result. Others get dry and cynical. Whatever happens, you must not only hang onto it but nurture it as well. To accomplish this, consider things like:

  • Take an introductory class on something you have no experience or interest in
  • Watch a show you’ve vowed never to watch (as long as it isn’t Jersey Shore)
  • Try to learn a new language
  • Perform some mental gymnastics regularly (like these exercises)

Keep it weird, my friends.

5 Poetic and Outrageously Funny Twitter Accounts

Not on Twitter yet? You’re missing out on a goldmine of inspiration.

Some folks who don’t use Twitter imagine it as a channel into the menial tasks of their friends’ boring lives. And yes, plenty of people use it that way. You don’t have to follow them, though.

Courtesy Mashable.

No, what Twitter offers the writer is a smorgasbord of hilarious, provocative, contrarian and literary art. It’s a shame that so few people have realized the artistic and entertainment value of the medium. Today, I’m doing my part to let people know.

Check out 5 of the most genius and inspirational Twitter accounts for writers below.

1. Rob Delaney (@robdelaney): Rob Delaney is THE stand-up comedian leading a whole new generation of Twitter comedy. At times, it feels like his brain is firing off random neurons. But just about everything he tweets turns to gold.

 

 

Part of his charm is his delivery. This guy knows how to pack a punch every time he spits out 140 characters. From harassing corporations to detailing his strange turn-ons, Rob Delaney keeps me in stitches all day long.

2. Cranky Kaplan/Wise Kaplan (@CrankyKaplan/@wise_kaplan): Bonus!! Here’s a two-fer any self-deprecating writer will love. Based on former New York Observer editor-in-chief Peter Kaplan, the two accounts are bipolar parodies of a man I’d love to make friends with.

True to his name, Cranky Kaplan spends his time berating followers, bad-mouthing Manhattan and detailing his strange, gin-fueled exploits with capitalized fury. Half random tweets, half inspired narrative, following Cranky Kaplan is a roller coaster ride of angry laughs.

Wise Kaplan is an insightful parody that focuses more on a narrative cadence. Wise Kaplan is out of touch with a fast-paced social media world and pontificates on modern life in Manhattan.

3. Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks): There’s no real method to Horse ebooks madness. According to Wikipedia, the account “is a widely followed spam Twitter account and internet phenomenon” that “is intended to promote low-quality e-books about horses.” To keep Twitter from shutting the account down, the owner posts random snippets of text that arrange in a strangely avante-garde entropy.

4. Horton Atonto (@crushingbort): While Mr. Atonto’s bio reads “Freelance photographer for plus-sized cats clothing catalogue”, there seems to be little other information on the web about this tweeter. In fact, Horton Atonto has yet to attract a large following. But it won’t be long before people recognize the genius of his timely and hilarious societal commentary.

5. Sarah Beattie (@nachosarah): Sarah is a lovely cosplay enthusiast. That’s about all I know. Her tweets lack punctuation, delivering an urgent laugh every time she lets loose.

Honorable Mention: bog tity (@BogTity)

6 Reasons Why You Should Be Very, Very Careful What You Read Online

By now, you should know you can’t trust everything you read online. Newspapers are on the brink of extinction. Tuning into CNN or Fox News…well, just don’t tune into CNN or Fox News. Media has gone haywire, and it’s all thanks to this little thing called the internet.

Ironic masks aren’t helping, either.

Of course, the internet is also a repository of useful information. I won’t deny that I find most of the information I’m looking for online. Still, if an article looks biased or opinion-driven, it’s best to at least follow up on the facts encountered. Media outlets are businesses trying to drive revenue. Some have insightful content. Some don’t. Here’s why you should be wary of what you read.

1. Websites will say anything to draw you in. Remember how important your headline is? Plenty of people use headlines to sensationalize stories. A lot of these headlines might take advantage of trending stories. Cracked has an excellent article on how tons of journalistic outlets used the zombie bath salts phenomenon to generate traffic.

Many of these types of stories may be based in fact. But plenty of stuff you read may throw facts straight out the window because…

2. The web is a gigantic opinion-machine. TechCrunch is an excellent source of tech-related information. Working near Silicon Valley, I hear the name of the popular website many times a day. TechCrunch is popular because it brings a flair for opinion-based reporting that livens up stories and gives the outlet spunk.

And that’s why things like this happen. TechCrunch contributor Mike Butcher takes a step away from the news to ramble about an ‘entitled’ PR rep, riling up the website’s community. Fortunately, many readers pointed out the irony of Butcher describing the poor dude as ‘entitled’.

An article like this is doubly scary because…

3. Journalistic integrity has gone out the window. The golden days of journalism brought with it certain codes and ethics that writers should always follow. Now that anyone with a friggin computer can share their version of the news, tons of untrained amateur journalists are taking the web by storm.

As a result, fact-checking has been debased to Wikipedia entries. Writers across the web have bastardized the old norms of fact-checking in lieu of making a quick buck. But that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to journalistic integrity because…

4. People are paid to embellish. There are plenty of different iterations of this one on the web. For instance, software providers often pay writers to become affiliate marketers. They’ll set up a software review site, for instance, that covers a specific market but favors the company they’re working for.

Independent bloggers get free stuff from companies all of the time. If a business sent you a free product, would you be inclined to write poorly about it?

The really scary part is that people get away with everything above, much of the time because…

5. Anonymity is easier to achieve. Sharing an inflammatory opinion or scamming your audience is simpler when you can do it without a face. Writers who produce poor writing don’t necessarily have to take credit for that writing. It’s a problem that web has dealt with since its beginning. And, as a result…

6. Search engines don’t always take credibility into account. SEO searches for strong content. A strong writer produces strong content. But strong writing does not an accurate piece make. Articles that show up in the first page of web results are just as susceptible to providing inaccurate (if not downright dangerous) information. Right, Fox News? Right?

5 Reasons Freelancing Sucks Ass

Courtesy Eloquent Science.

Yesterday, you were treated to some of the positives of the freelancing experience. As previously mentioned, freelancing is a double-sided coin. To keep a positive spin on the post, I’ve included possible solutions to each of the 5 reasons freelancing sucks ass.

1. Self-motivation is tough. Ever had trouble scrounging up the energy to leave the house? Take a shower? Make your bed? Put pants on? If you’ve ever been unemployed (or just really, really bored), you probably understand that the power to create your own schedule can also be the undoing of your schedule. It’s great to have that freedom, but there are days when self-motivation is tough.

Solution? I try to solve this problem by visualizing benjamins. I’m not some greedy, money-grubbing bastard. But everyone likes a little extra cash. Because your income is tied directly to how much work you do, you can use this fact to kick your own ass into gear.

2. Taxes. Taxes are perhaps the single worst wake-up call in the history of freelance writing. As a freelancer, you’ll love getting massive paychecks with no withholdings. The problem? You’ll have to pay those withholdings quarterly or at the end of the year. Of course, you can write off a world of new expenses. But that comes with hours and hours of administrative and accounting work.

Solution? Pay diligent attention to your finances. Be sure you’re putting away at least a quarter of your monthly earnings every month. Work with a professional accountant as soon as you go freelance so you know what to expect based on your state’s tax laws. SAVE EVERY RECEIPT.

3. Less social interaction during the day. Freelancing doesn’t exactly imply psychosis-inducing loneliness. Still, you’re going to have fewer meaningful interactions with a human throughout the day than you’re used to working in an office.

Solution? Get out of the house or apartment a couple of days a week. You’ll exercise your social skills buying coffee. You’ll surround yourself with other people at the library or a coffee shop.

4. More distractions. Sometimes, the opposite of having no motivation is having too much motivation. If you’re trapped in your house or apartment all day, you’re bound to think of things that need to be done around the house. Errands are a popular way to distract yourself from working. Whatever the activity, you’ll find things you’d usually save for nights and weekends to do during the day.

Even working for too many hours can become a hassle. If you’re a super-awesome self-motivator, you may be tempted to work into the night to get that paper.

Solution? Make a to-do list and take distractions one at a time. There are positives to having the day to yourself; if you can stay disciplined enough to take care of business in piecemeal, you’ll be able to keep yourself on schedule for work. Plan night activities with friends to keep yourself from becoming a workaholic recluse.

5. Access to alcohol. Let’s face it: writers tend to enjoy the drink. It’s inevitable that you’ll hear the call of that six-pack in the fridge before the day is done, especially if you’re working with stressful clients.

Solution? Simple. Don’t stock your fridge with booze. If you’re aching for a beer after work, force yourself out of the house or apartment. The convenience factor lowers, reducing the chances you’ll start to get your drink on too early in the day.

5 Reasons to Go Freelance Immediately

Courtesy SummerBrew Films.

Freelancing is a double-edged sword. But it’s a lot of fun and games. You take the good with the bad. In this case, let’s take a look at the good. Here are 5 reasons to go freelance immediately.

1. Make your own schedule. I’ve riffed on this one before. Freelance includes the word ‘free’, which makes it the most ‘Merican occupation in the country. You’re free to define your own schedule. Work all day and all night. Or don’t work at all. The power is in your hands.

2. Get more monies. When you’re locked down at a company, higher pay isn’t an easy thing to come by. With freelancing, you determine your own net worth. If the potential client doesn’t want to pay you what you’re worth, you find someone who will.

3. Expand the breadth of your portfolio. If you’re writing anywhere other than an agency, you’re focused on one topic. It’s great to become an expert. But if you’re stuck in a market you don’t particularly enjoy, it’s difficult to move elsewhere with a narrow portfolio. Play around in other fields until you land on something you love.

4. Break your chains. Reporting to clients can be a hassle at times. Still, you’re ultimately your own boss. No more corporate drama. No more managers looking over your shoulder. Break free from your cubicle. Explore your new space.

5. Become a mercenary. Don’t like where you’re at? Move on. Find the highest bidder. Take part in a commission program. Write about a new market. Try to sell articles to your favorite magazines. Your world is a gyrating glowworm of opportunity.

Why Would You Hide One of Your Best Attributes?

A small business owner once approached me for a copy project. We talked a bunch about the themes and messages he wanted to run throughout.

“What I want,” he explained, “is to give the impression that we’re a big company.”

This wasn’t the first or the last time I got this request. I responded: “Why would you want to hide one of your company’s best attributes?”

Alright, I probably didn’t word it that perfectly. But you get the drift. Time and time again, executives want to give the impression that they’re bigger than they are.

Guess which one Apple sponsored.

By projecting a big company feel, they think:

  • Customers respect a company that’s obviously been around for several years
  • A big brand equates to reliable customer service
  • Doing it longer means doing it better

In reality, customers don’t necessary want a big brand. They want big accomplishments. They crave reliable customer service. They want a reliable product or service. Big companies tend to assume small competition. As a result, companies like GoDaddy, Comcast, Best Buy and AT&T have customer service problems. Because they know they can get away with it. They’ve cornered the market. They put their big budgets into marketing and ignore things that customers care about.

Why project that image? Why not tout the benefits of a small company feel? Successful small businesses offer a more personalized experience for customers. Try carving out a niche on which you can actually deliver.

Small businesses imply:

  • They’ll work harder to get and keep their customers’ business
  • They’ll offer personal, human interaction
  • They’re trying something new that will advance the market

Your copy should embrace your aesthetic. Customers will thank you for your honesty. And maybe that honesty will result in massive growth. Then, you can start ignoring what your customers want. *rolls eyes*

Cultivating the Creative Mind

What’s happening with creativity?

A fair question, is it not? It’s suddenly lost on Hollywood. You won’t find it in the widening gulf of politics. Today’s popular literature literally shuns creativity. Everyone is rehashing the same old ideas. And there are no twists.

You could make an argument for creativity in tech development. But then again, aren’t we just pushing ideas that require us to think less? Is that intellectual evolution?

This guy could have created you out of existence with a snap of his fingers. (William S. Burroughs, circa some time after a heavy heroin binge)

As our collective knowledge grows, it’s become clearer that the constant stimuli surrounding us are killing our creative juices. We have the answers at our fingertips. Thinking is unnecessary. When faced with a blank page, today’s writer is super efficient. Unfortunately, most of that efficiency comes from borrowed content. It’s a necessity sometimes. But as a writer, it’s important to exercise your creativity from time to time.

Take a second to breathe. Here are some simple ideas to get your mojo back.

Disconnect. Every time you interact with technology, you’re shooting up. Kick the habit for a day or two. Go the old-fashioned route: carry a notebook and a pen and jot down ideas for later.

Read. Sit down with a good book, a magazine or an honest-to-god newspaper. You’ll find it’s a lot easier to process information when you have a single focal point.

Escape. The traffic. The late night drunks. The texts and calls. Get out of the city. Go enjoy the outdoors for a bit. And remember to bring that good book (and notebook) with you.

Simplify. If you’re like me, you have 50 browser tabs open. In addition to 33 documents. Add Skype, AIM and Gchat to the list and you’re going nowhere fast. Close everything and put Microsoft Word into “focus” mode.

Exercise. It’s taken me a long time to finally get into this. But I’m surely reaping the benefits. Exercise is an important part of getting in tune with your body and clearing your head.

Mute. I’m a gigantic music geek, but it can add a layer of overwhelmingness to your brain. Turn it off and work in silence for a few hours so you can focus.

Additional reading: check out this recent article in Fast Company for psychological perspective into the world of the creative process.

Watch Your Tone: 5 Tips on Brand Voice

Everyone has a unique voice.

Some voices are simple.

Some voices are terribly verbose and sometimes boisterous!

Some are confident bordering on cocky. Others are gentle and sympathetic. But whatever your brand’s voice sounds like, it must be consistent. It must fall with impact upon the ears of your target audience.

Easier said than done. How do you define your tone and ensure it resonates with potential customers?

No no, not a voice that irritates. One that resonates.

The answer to that question is complex. To get started, take a look at five tips on brand voice and tone.

1. Carefully defining your audience is central to ALL marketing. How do you know how to talk to potential customers if you don’t understand them? Narrow your audience down to people who actually have use for your product. Once you know who you’re targeting, you’ll have a better grip on how to talk to them.

2. As always, keep it human. You know…unless you’re targeting robots. During some sort of robot apocalypse.

3. Keep it simple. Planning to tell a story? Keep it short. Include the details that resonate most with your audience. Simplicity is the best policy for the diction you use, too. Just because you’re targeting a group of rocket scientists doesn’t mean they want to waste precious brainpower reading clunky words, phrases and sentences.

4. Speak like a peer. Companies that speak down to their audiences tend to lose them. Yes, you have the solution to your customer’s problem. But you’ve been in their shoes. What they do is just as important as what you do. And don’t you forget it.

5. Get specific. You can speak more effectively to a narrower audience. Use words, phrases and inside jokes that only your readers understand.