October is training month!

Good communications helps your bottom line. You have news to share, a story to tell, and so many ways to share it. Join us for one these communications workshops this month to make your company’s communications clear, effective and engaging.

  • October 10: Communications Planning for Small Business Success, 6:00 pm – 8:30 pm at Selkirk College
  • October 15: Communications for Small Business Success, 10:00 am – 11:00 am, at Community Futures Central Kootenay, in Nelson. Free!
  • October 17: Media Relations for Small Business Success, 6:00 pm – 8:30 pm at Selkirk College

5 Handy Writing References

Do you use colour or color? Affect vs effect? Capitalize your president and CEO’s title?

(Answers: colour; depends whether you’re hoping to affect an outcome or create an effect; and, despite what presidents and CEOs want, no.)

Do you need to check on the correct punctuation, capitalization, title or other style questions? Here are five helpful reference guides you should bookmark.

  1. Canadian Press Style Guide – It’s what the media uses, so work in their style and you’ll make them happy.
  2. Government of Canada Style Guide – If the government deems this the correct usage, why fight it?
  3. The federal government’s Collection of Canadian Language Resources isn’t as scary as it sounds and has links to many university style guides, French and Indigenous language resources and other useful writing tips and tools.
  4. Take your pick of online dictionaries. I’ve always been partial to Oxford.
  5. While this article is written with fiction writers in mind, the discussion about audience, context and geography is valid for business writing as well. Basically, who’s your audience?

Let me know in the comments if you’ve found other helpful writing references online.


How to Tell if it is News

Some good discussion came up at a lunch and learn workshop I hosted recently with my local chamber of commerce. The topic was communications for small businesses, and the question was, “How do you determine whether or not it is news?”

Good question! We were talking about working with media and writing news releases that get attention. Start by asking yourself, is it news? It might be news to you, but is it news to your audience? Is it news to someone who you don’t even know might be your audience?

The media run stories that are of interest to their audiences. As readers and listeners, we are constantly asking ourselves, why does this story matter to me? Why should I take the time to read or listen to it? When we’re writing our news releases that we want to get attention, we have to answer those questions.

One person from a nonprofit organization mentioned that when they write a news release about receiving some funding, the media never picks it up. Let’s pick this one apart. Is that the news? How often do we see stories announcing funding? How often are they very compelling?

We want to know how it matters to us, and the human element is much more compelling than a funding announcement.

The funding announcement is news to a small segment of the audience. What that funding will do, who it will affect, how it will matter to a larger audience, that’s the news. We have to think of the outcome when we are sharing our news. The heritage building will be spared because of this funding. We can build a new playground because of this funding. We can make a difference in someone’s life because of this funding.

Identifying the segment of the population that will benefit from your announcement is one step. Sharing the story of someone who is affected by the news, there’s the real gold. That someone represents the segment of the population yet adds a name and a face to the news. It makes the news a story.

Move the story from “XYZ organization is providing funding to ABC organization” to “ABC organization is launching a new anti-bullying program thanks to funding from XYZ organization” to “A new anti-bullying program is creating a safe place for teens in our community.” Then share the news through the voice of someone who represents the audience of the program, someone who illustrates the outcome.

You’re still sharing a funding announcement. You’re simply showing why it matters. You’re giving it a human voice.


Why You Need to Stick to Your Story

Who knows a line from Gone With the Wind? Or Casablanca? Or any other classic film?

Gone With the Wind started as a book, published in 1936. Then it was a movie in 1939. On film. Actual film.

Casablanca started as a stage play that was turned into a screenplay. The movie came out, on film, in 1942.

Eventually, these movies appeared on television. Then they became available on VHS tape, and probably Beta tape, as well. That was followed by the next big thing in home entertainment, the laser disc, if anyone remembers those 12 inch, high priced video discs.

DVD followed, then Blu-Ray, and now we can download the digital copy of these classic films. Or watch them on YouTube.

What has stayed consistent through all these different types of media? The story. We can remaster the images, add or delete colour, clean up scratches and enhance the audio files to make them look and sound better for today’s technology. Yet none of that affects the story or the storytelling.

Every business and organization has a story to tell. Sharing that story is about narrative, characters, emotion, and connecting with your audience. We need to focus on the basics of telling a story before we worry about what medium we will use to share it.

When Casablanca was made, they weren’t thinking about the special features for the DVD release. Twenty years ago we weren’t thinking about how to tell our stories online. Ten years ago we weren’t thinking about Instagram or Facebook to share our stories. And we don’t know what medium we will be using 10 years from now to help tell our stories.

Yet our stories won’t have changed. How you struggled in your first year of business; what gave you the inspiration to create your product; when you made the decision to expand. These are parts of your story that you can tell to connect and engage with your audience. That information doesn’t change.

Who you are and what you’re sharing doesn’t change other than finding the right format to fit the medium, and that’s just the mechanics of using a particular vehicle to share your story. Social media, just like any other media, are tools, tactics. Newspapers had their heyday. Television had its heyday. Facebook? Maybe it’s past its prime. Only time will tell.

Your story will grow, and new chapters will become part of the history of your enterprise. But if you don’t know what that story is, or don’t know how to tell it, how can you expect your audience to understand what you do? How do you expect to keep them engaged if they can’t understand your story?

Your story is more important than the medium you use to share it.

You are an expert at what you do. You have a story worth sharing. Focus on telling your story, and worry about the ever-changing media you will use to share it later. Tell your story effectively, and it too could become a classic.


Let’s Make Communication Simple & Clear

My crusade is to make communications human, clear, simple and engaging. Included in that is the process of communicating.

I submitted an opinion piece to a well-known online news site recently. They responded that they didn’t look at unsolicited pieces but would be happy to look at my ideas if I wanted to pitch an idea and send along my resume and some past writing samples.

This response has irked me for the 25 years that I’ve been writing for various media. The piece I submitted was about 600 words. They could have read it much faster than they will need to read my CV and other samples–which have absolutely no bearing on the topic or quality of what I sent them.

What if my CV has no relevance to my writing? What if I’ve never published anything like this anywhere? I read articles on their site regularly and have a good idea of what they publish, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have thought that this was a good article for them.

How often do we get hung up on process rather than going with our instinct?

How do we instill common sense into how we communicate?

How do we fix the communications process?

My example is similar to the can’t-get-work-without-experience-but-can’t-get-experience-without-work conundrum that people have faced for ages. (Human resources is another area in bad need of fixing, but I’m happy to leave that to Liz Ryan.)

Imagine if at a networking event we stopped to ask each person for their background and evidence that they’ve spoken with authority on a topic before we engaged them in conversation. Or before I let you show me a picture on your phone I ask to see your earlier portfolio to make sure you are qualified to have taken the picture you want to show me.

Sounds pretty ridiculous.

What if someone sent you something–a pitch, a campaign, a letter, an essay, a resume–and you looked at it on its own merits and gave it due consideration. If it’s a good fit, run with it. If it is a good fit that needs a bit of tweaking or editing, then run with that message. Move the process along instead of sending the person back to start.

Think of the time everyone would save.

Common sense and simplicity aren’t bound by a framework or process.

Steve Jobs was talking about process when he said, “innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.”

Make the communication process simple and clear. Give it a dose of common sense. Engage with it. Help move communication forward.

Oh, and one more thing. Steve jobs also said: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

Let’s be innovative and make communication simple, clear and relevant.

A checklist for every time you send a news release

Have you ever sent a news release only to realize you forgot an important piece of information? Or forgot to attach the backgrounder you said was attached?

Once it is out there via email or on social media, it can be tough to get the correct information the same exposure as your first message.

It’s a bit embarrassing.

We’re only human, and I strongly believe communications has to have a human voice to be heard. Still, it helps to say it clearly and correctly the first time.

Use a checklist before you post your news to make sure everything is in order. The media will appreciate and come to rely on your accuracy and professionalism.

Some key things to include in your News Release Checklist:

  • Do you have a catchy headline? Use this in your subject line as well: it’s the first thing reporters and editors see and the best chance to get their attention.
  • Include the date and your location—you want media to know your story is relevant to them.
  • Do not include the words ‘For Immediate Release’; once you send it, it is released. If you’re embargoing it, make that clear in your email.
  • Include contact information (phone and email) of someone who will be available to talk to the media and is knowledgeable about the topic.
  • Include hyperlinks to your website and email in the text of the release.
  • Send the release from the email that you want media to respond to so they can just click reply to ask questions.
  • Provide a pronouncer for difficult-to-say names or words.
  • Do you have good quality, relevant photos or video that you can include?
  • Can you offer a photo opportunity with the release?
  • Double check your spelling, contact info and all links!

Whether you send news releases once or twice a week or once or twice a year, it is always a good idea to have a checklist so that each release is the best it can be.

I’d like to hear what you would add to this checklist.

How a story carries your message

The importance of a story in your news release struck home recently. I was working with a client, a nonprofit, who was looking for a quick turnaround on some key messages, social media posts and a news release to promote their latest fundraiser. I knew the client well, and we both knew what worked for them. The client was a humane society, and their social media usually lit up when they shared the stories of the animals that came to the shelter.

Nothing like a heart-wrenching story of a cat rescued from the bitter cold winter, needing immediate vet care, and still losing its ears, nose and tail to frostbite to make your audience want to read on. And open their wallets. This campaign was to generate sales of a new lottery fundraiser.

We shaped the news release and key messages around the high number of cats and dogs that the shelter rescues each year, the high cost of veterinary care to ensure all of the animals are healthy, and the ongoing care costs of this no-kill shelter.

The key messages revolved around the shelter’s belief that every animal has value, and they care for them until they are adopted, no matter how long that takes. The costs add up. So we pushed the new lottery fundraiser and where to buy tickets. We emphasized the size of the cash prize.

Yet something was missing. The hook of all those pets looking for homes was compelling, but it lacked that one story that would engage supporters on an individual level. Who hasn’t visited an animal shelter and wanted to take every pet home? But we can’t. We have to focus on one that we can connect with and open our heart to it. The story in your communications works the same way. Find the one that connects with people.

So we asked the shelter for a story about one of their recent cases, and they shared the story of Frosty, the young cat who came in from the cold. It made all the difference. It gave the key messages, news release, and most of all the social media posts, a story worth sharing.

Unfortunately, the shelter has too many similar stories to share. Often we have to search a little harder for the story that connects us to our news releases or campaign. The example of the humane society simply illustrates the importance of the story that connects our message to our audience.

Frosty’s story has a happy ending: she was adopted by someone committed to continuing the high cost of her veterinary care, someone who connected with her story.

Read about all the good work of the Moose Jaw Humane Society at their website and on Facebook.

Grab Their Attention! Tips for Effective News Releases

I once had to send a news release that a new play was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. The play was called The Invisible Girl. The title of the advisory seemed obvious: “The Invisible Girl will not be seen.” Every media outlet in the city ran the story, talked it up on the radio, and probably gave the cancelled play more coverage than the originally scheduled performance!

A news release can be an effective way to get your story out. Whether you’ve written many or none, these tips can help you get your best message in front of your audience.

  • Your first question needs to be, is it news?
    • (Clue: changing your menu isn’t news; hiring an exciting new chef is.)
  • Is it clear what the story is? Will it be clear to your audience?
    • Upgrading to a new software that allows you to collate inputs three times faster is not likely to make a clear story for your audience. That you’re now the only shop in town with same day service because you’ve invested in new technology, that’s a clear story that has relevance for your audience.
  • Answer the five journalist’s questions: who, what, where, when & why (and sometimes how).
    • Often answering some of these is easy, they’re obvious, and that’s why it is easy to miss an important piece of information because you missed one of the five (or six) questions.
  • Include a quote from someone involved that furthers the story. Please, please don’t use a quote that says, “We are very pleased to announce…”
    • Obviously, you’re pleased or you wouldn’t be sharing this news.
    • Instead, share your key messages in the quote. (Writing key messages is a whole topic of its own!)
    • The quote is a valuable part of the narrative, so make it worthwhile. (Writing good quotes is a whole topic of its own!)
  • Do you have a catchy headline? (See: “The Invisible Girl will not be seen.”)
    • Use this in your email subject line as well: it’s the first thing reporters and editors see, and if you want them to open your email, it needs to catch their eye.
  • Stay on topic: one newsworthy item per news release, please.

I’ve put these tips in a convenient infographic on the Writing Tips page. Have a look to download it.

There are many more tips for writing effective news releases. Please share your thoughts on what makes a good news release.

Communications isn’t about you

Crafting good communications is about… everything except you. It is about your audience.

It’s not about you. It’s not about your product or service or the information you have to share. It is about the person using your product or service or information. It is their story that unfolds. That is what you need to communicate. Help people tell their stories.

Which of these news releases catches your attention better?

“Company ABC is pleased to announce that they have donated 300 coats to kids this winter…”
“No child will go to school cold this winter. Every child who needs a coat now has one, thanks in part to Company ABC’s donation of 300 coats to kids this month…”

The first example is about the company only. It’s about an output (boring!). The second tells the story of the kids first—the outcome—as well as the company’s story (compelling!).

The donation of 300 coats is newsworthy. Is that why the company donated them, to get some PR? Or was it to ensure every child has a winter coat? Hopefully, it was the latter.

That’s the news you want to share. That’s the story that will get media attention because that’s the story that will resonate with their audience and with your audience.

Next time you start writing a news release, ask yourself, whose story am I telling here? And then remind yourself that it’s not about you.

Please share your examples of great opening lines for news releases that tell about outcomes rather than outputs.