A mentor and friend of mine once said to me, "When you read a great news article, go back and reread it, asking yourself, 'WHY did I like this story? What was good about it?'"
It's exceptional advice, as it helps you begin to think like a journalist.
A quick read of this morning's Wall Street Journal reveals the following lead sentences:
- "Barak Obama is president of the United States, but Dustin Davis is Foursquare mayor of the Oval Office."
- "In the days ahead, Alicia Guadio will be visited by a woman she has never met to receive a gift she wishes she wouldn't need."
- "General Motors will drive away from the U.S.-government-financed restructuring with a financial gift in its trunk: a tax break that could be worth as much as $45 billion."
- "For Londoner Sean Roberts, a recent morning walk down Oxford Street, from the London Underground to his office four blocks away, was the usual obstacle route."
- "Timber giants, squeezed by the twin tongs of a U.S. housing slump and a global recession, are starting to stir again in Canada's north woods thanks to insatiable demand from China."
Each of these lead sentences is compelling to a target audience. If you're interested in social media, you'll want to know how Dustin Davis became mayor of the Oval Office. Most anyone would be curious to learn more about the gift Alicia Guadio will receive, and from whom. Disciples of tax policy and TARP will want to know how GM secured its massive tax break. Frequent travelers to London might be lured into the story about Sean's obstacle course. The article on the resurgence of Canada's lumber industry uses vivid metaphor to playfully set the context.
All of this is good stuff. Some of it is very good.
Alas, the vast sea of public relations writing looks absolutely nothing like it. Public relations writing typically offers dense, wordy paragraphs filled with passive verbs and hopelessly unfocused points. This happens because news releases and other forms of corporate content are created by committees of people with differing agendas. Out of a group of five people involved in preparing a news release, you're lucky if one of them knows how to write news.
So, here are four suggestions for how your organization can vastly improve the quality of its news content:
- Find the human angle. People like stories about other people. Discover who is impacted by your news, and use their perspective to introduce the story.
- Choose one main point that you'd like to make. People are busy, and their attention is fragmented. Making one point will increase the odds that people will understand what you're saying.
- Write facts in bullet form first. Write and confirm the key facts of your news before you start preparing the actual content. This will separate the editing of facts from the editing of style.
- Write the content only AFTER the facts are confirmed. By the time you have a human angle, a main message and a set of confirmed facts, writing something compelling will be much simpler.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and it certainly is not scholarly. The best news writers hone their craft over years of education, practice and hard-won experience. But, they're a place to start. Read good news content and discover why it's great, then put those lessons into practice in your own organization's public relations content.