A lot of writing is online these days, but just because people may spend less time looking at your words as they scroll down screens, doesn’t mean you should take shortcuts writing them. A PR job still demands good writing ability, but as long as you can read, you can learn how to improve. As Stephen Waddington, managing director of PR agency Speed Communications, says: “With the shift in the industry to a focus on online and social media, and 140 character posts, we’re in real danger of losing touch with written language. I had an English teacher who always said that if you wanted to write well you needed to read well. It’s boring but it's true.”
If you want to get noticed on Twitter, you must put thought into headlines. Allan Barr, head of digital and social media at PR consultancy The BIG Partnership says that with more news websites and blogs using social sharing buttons, it’s important that PROs ensure the headlines of press releases also work as a Tweet. His advice is: “It goes without saying that it needs to be captivating, but you should aim for a maximum of 70 characters (including spaces) as this will allow users to add their own comment when reTweeting it to their network.”
Barr also points out that in today’s online world, material lives for years: “When writing your release, try to think about someone reading it 12 months down the line and see if there are ways you can make it more timeless.”
Always avoid jargon and make sure your spelling and grammar is exemplary. Jessica Green, associate director at PR agency Kindred explains: “Journalists see right through guff, so be clear, concise and write in the way that you see it in the papers – giving them as many reasons as possible to put your quote in or write up your story. And always remember: these people write for a living, so bad grammar and typos will turn them right off.”
Five top writing tips
Suggested by Daryl Willcox, chairman of Daryl Willcox Publishing:
Think about your audience. Who is the target audience you are trying to reach? What are their needs? How old are they? How much time have they got? What sort of challenges do they face? Imagine a person who has all the typical traits your audience would embody. Give them a name if you like. They may appear to be a bit of a stereotype (though don’t make assumptions, do research) but this person will help you to focus the content and style of your writing.
Research. Speak to people in your company, or, if you’re a consultant, speak to your client. Don’t just speak to one person. Find out what’s really going on in the organisation. Get to grips with what is different about the product or service you are writing about.
Find the news. It’s great fun when you ask people to define news. People struggle. Actually, we all know what news is deep down, but it’s hard to explain. Think about what people talk about in the pub after work. The first things people discuss are things that make you raise your eyebrows and say “really?”. The first thing you hear in the pub after work is not “the sun came up this morning,” it’s “the boss is having an affair with Kevin in the post room!”.
Keep it simple. Good writing should not challenge the reader. Short sentences are good. Notice that? You’ve just read a two-word sentence. See how easy it is to understand? Avoid clauses, only use commas where you need them for sentences to make sense. Avoid jargon like the plague, readers will fall down dead at the first acronym they don’t understand. If you want your copy to excite, use active verbs.
Stick to facts. If you’ve done research, you should have collected together some strong facts. Facts speak for themselves. People are much more swayed by facts than they are by comment. Saying your customer numbers have doubled in a year is much more convincing than “people love our product”.
Whatever you’re writing, just remember your objective is to communicate, not to show off with language.
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