“Most journalism trades in stories so dull and familiar that it makes the world smaller and stupider than it really is.”
Ira Glass, host of This American Life
Why have people fallen in love with this podcast?
It’s been compared to The Sopranos. Before its debut, it ranked No. 1 on iTunes. When its first season was over, fans couldn’t remember what people do who aren’t listening to it.It’s Serial, a true-crime procedural by the creators of This American Life. The podcast follows the story of Adnan Syed, who has been in prison for 15 years for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
What can you steal from Serial?
Why is Serial so popular? The easy answer is, because it’s a mystery: Did he do it? Suspense is the best way to grab and keep audience attention.
But organizational communicators rarely write mysteries. So what secrets can you steal from Serial to make your messages as riveting as The Sopranos?
Juicy details, examples, analogies and other concrete, colorful elements keep listeners captivated. That’s because details drive stories. As The Poynter Institute’s editorial guru Roy Peter Clark counsels: “Get the name of the dog.”
Use these examples from the first episode of Serial to inspire your own messages that glue readers to their seats:
1. Write to the reader.
Adnan’s story boils down to 21 minutes after school one day in 1999. Sarah Koenig, host of the new series, says:
“Before I get into why I’ve been doing this, I just want to point out something I’d never really thought about before I started working on this story. And that is, it’s really hard to account for your time, in a detailed way, I mean.
“Can you remember?
“How’d you get to work last Wednesday, for instance? Drive? Walk? Bike? Was it raining? Are you sure?
“Did you go to any stores that day? If so, what did you buy? Who did you talk to? The entire day, name every person you talked to. It’s hard.
“Now imagine you have to account for a day that happened six weeks back. Because that’s the situation in the story I’m working on in which a bunch of teenagers had to recall a day six weeks earlier. And it was 1999, so they had to do it without the benefit of texts or Facebook or Instagram.”
Want people to pay attention? Place your audience members in the situation your protagonist finds himself in. Write to and about “you.”
2. Prove your assertions with facts.
Just in case having the audience members think about their own experiences doesn’t do the job, prove your point with concrete details. Koenig does this by asking some teenagers to remember one recent day.
Sarah Koenig: Do you remember what you did on that Friday?
Tyler: No. Not at all. I can’t remember anything.
Sarah Koenig: Wait, nothing?
Tyler: No. I can’t remember anything that far back. I’m pretty sure I was in school. I think — no?
Sarah Koenig: That’s Tyler. He’s 18. I asked my nephew Sam. He’s 18, too.
Sam: Not a clue. In school, probably. I would be in school. Actually, I think I worked that day. Yeah, I worked that day. And I went to school. That was about it.
Sarah Koenig: Actually, on second thought?
Sam: I don’t think I went to school that day.
Sarah Koenig: You don’t think you went.
Sam: Yeah, no, I didn’t. I definitely didn’t.
Sarah Koenig: Here’s Sam’s friend Elliot. He seemed to have better recall.
Elliot: Actually, I may have gone to the movies that night later.
Sarah Koenig: Do you remember what you saw?
Elliot: Now that I’m thinking. I’m sorry? Yeah, I think I saw 22 Jump Street.
Sarah Koenig: OK. And did you go with friends?
Elliot: Yeah. I went with Sam and this kid Sean, Carter, a bunch of people.
Sarah Koenig: Wait, Sam, my nephew Sam?
Elliot: Yeah, yeah.
Sarah Koenig: Oh, OK. So Sam says he was at work.
Elliot: Oh, then it wasn’t that night, then.
Notice how much more space Koenig devotes to proving her assertions than to making them. In organizational communications, we tend to make broad claims and never prove them at all.
What if you focused on the evidence instead of on the assertions?
3. Pass the red pen-yellow highlighter test.
If you ran the red pen-yellow highlighter test on this transcript, you’d wind up with way more red (concrete details) than yellow (abstract claims). In organizational communications, far too often our messages are mostly yellow: more abstract claims than concrete details to back them up.
Check out some of the details in this episode:
“Her office takes up the corner of a much larger open space that I think is a Pakistani travel agency, though it’s hard to tell.
“It’s in this little strip mall. Across the parking lot, there’s a new Pakistani restaurant, an African evangelical church, an Indian clothing shop, a convenience store. On the sidewalk outside, I found a teeny weeny bag of marijuana.”
Doesn’t that teeny bag of weed on the sidewalk tell you everything you need to know about this neighborhood?
“He was an honor roll student, volunteer EMT. He was on the football team. He was a star runner on the track team. He was the homecoming king. He led prayers at the mosque. Everybody knew Adnan to be somebody who was going to do something really big.”
Use nouns and verbs to describe people — not adjectives and adverbs. He wasn’t just “nice, active in school and church.” Koenig delivers six specific details in 48 words.
“Adnan’s in a maximum security prison in western Maryland. He calls me at my request about twice a week. He talks to me from a bank of eight pay phones in the rec hall, a pretty large room where other guys are sitting at tables with metal seats attached to them playing chess or cards or using the microwave or watching TV.”
Not just “a bank” of pay phones. The other guys aren’t just hanging out.
“Rabia hadn’t sat through the whole trial. So the first time she fully understood that the case came down to those 21 minutes was during closing arguments, when the prosecutor brought out a dummy’s head and strangled it in front of the jury. That evening, after the verdict, Rabia went to see Adnan in lockup.”
If the prosecutor strangles a dummy in front of the jury, you want to capture that in your piece!
“So there are conceivable strategic reasons why Christina Gutierrez might not have wanted to put Asia McLean on the stand. But what is inconceivable, they all said, is to not ever contact Asia McLean, to never make the call, never check it out, never find out if her story helps or hurts your case. That makes no sense whatsoever. That is not a strategy. That is a screw-up.”
5. Write the way you speak.
This American Life has built its brand in part on Ira Glass’ persona. He’s your smartest, funniest friend — the guy who can make the most technical aspects of the housing crisis entertaining and understandable.
“A maintenance guy who said he’d stopped to take a leak on his way to work discovered her there. He’d noticed a bit of her black hair poking out of a shallow grave.
“The cause of death was manual strangulation, meaning someone did it with their hands.”
We listeners know what “manual strangulation” is. But it’s more visual and colloquial to add the definition.
“I went to go see Rabia. She was surrounded by paper — files, loose stacks, binders, some crappy looking boxes — all court documents and attorney’s files from Adnan’s case. Some of the papers were warped and discolored.”
People say “crappy.” Why not say it here?
“Baltimore County is like this, at least on the west side. It’s where a lot of middle class and working class people go, many immigrants included, to get their kids out of the badass city. Though the badass city is close by.
“Rabia is 40. She’s short, and she’s got a beautiful round face framed by hijab. She’s adorable looking, but you definitely shouldn’t mess with her. She’s very smart and very tough, and she could crush you.”
People say “badass.” Why not say it here?
“Adnan says now that he does in fact remember seeing Asia in the library. The thing he remembers about it is so high school. Asia used to go out with Adnan’s friend Justin. And Justin had confided that Asia was a proper young lady. In other words, Justin wasn’t getting any.”
I love that “so high school.” Please repeat with a Valley Girl accent.
Adnan’s family hired a new attorney, who filed a petition in court based on the Asia affidavit. His argument was that Adnan’s trial could have turned out differently if Gutierrez had checked out Asia’s story. And so Adnan should get some form of what’s called post-conviction relief.
When introducing jargon, don’t just let it roll off your tongue (or pen). Acknowledge that it’s not a phrase we use everyday by saying “what’s called” or “which the lawyers call.”
6. Make it meaningful with metaphor.
Analogies are shortcuts to understanding. Bring your message to life and help readers instantly “see” your points through metaphor.
“I read a few newspaper clips about the case, looked up a few trial records. And on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mash-up — young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge. And the main stage? A regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven.”
Love that “Shakespearean mash-up.” And check out those juicy, juicy descriptions. Who wouldn’t want to hear about “secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched … and a final act of murderous revenge”?
“And the second thing, which you can’t miss about Adnan, is that he has giant brown eyes like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.”
“Like a dairy cow” helps me see, but it’s Koenig’s riff on herself here that sets up the whole serial: You’re gonna think he done it, then you’re gonna think he didn’t.
“Adnan’s trial was a long ordeal. Jay was on the stand for something like five days. A cell-phone expert testified for two days, a lifetime when you’re discussing cell tower technology. There were absences, and some bad weather closed the courts. So it was six weeks before both sides rested.”
But the jury? They moved like lightning. After just a few hours, including a lunch break, they convicted Adnan of first-degree murder. Rabia Chaudry was there in the courtroom when it happened. She says his mother was crying. She was crying.
I like lifetime … lightning. It’s balance as well as metaphor.
What techniques can you steal from Serial to make your messages as riveting as The Sopranos?
Master the Art of the Storyteller
Storytelling is “the most powerful form of human communication,” according to Peg Neuhauser, author of Corporate Legends and Lore. Indeed, stories can help you:
- Get and keep attention
- Enhance credibility
- Make your message more memorable
- Communicate better
- Craft messages that go viral
In my two-day, hands-on writing workshop, Master the Art of the Storyteller, you’ll learn to identify, develop and tell stories that will illustrate your points, communicate your messages and sell your products, services and ideas. Specifically, you’ll learn:
- How to reframe the five journalistic W’s — who, what, when, where and why — to tell a story instead of just cranking out another boring inverted pyramid
- The key question to ask during an interview to elicit juicy anecdotes
- A seven-second rule to apply to determine whether your material is really an anecdote
- How “WBHA” can help you find anecdotes in the making
- The secret to organizing your material into a powerful story
- The best place to start an anecdote — and the worst place
- A quick, easy-to-use template for building an anecdote
Plus, now you can save up to $300 with our early bird discount. But please act now. Discount expires on Feb. 15.
“These few hours spent during the session will have a tremendous impact for our readers.”
Kelly Harding, senior manager, Internal Communication, Wyndham Exchange & Rentals
Reach Readers Online, Make Your Copy More
Creative and Catch Your Readers in 2015
Do you need to get the word out on the Web? Write copy that moves people to act? Master the art of the corporate storyteller? Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand?
If so, please join us at our 2015 writing workshops and master classes. You’ll walk away with tips, tricks and techniques for getting people to pay attention to your messages, understand them and remember them so they can act on them later.
Whether you’re aiming for a raise, a promotion, a big client win or just the satisfaction of knowing you’re writing it right, these classes can help you reach your 2015 goals.
“Visuals are the crucial connection point. Not to value visuals is not to value readers.”
Monica L. Moses, deputy managing editor of visuals for the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Multiply Twitter, PR engagement with an image
What simple element can you add to your tweet to increase retweets by more than one-third? An image, according to Twitter’s own research.
That’s a pretty big bang for a story element that takes up only 23 characters on Twitter.
Plus, there’s more:
- Tweets with photos multiply engagement by 1,272%, according to an analysis from Simply Measured.
- Adding an image to a tweet can boost leads by 55%, according to a HubSpot analysis.
- Uploading images directly to Twitter could generate 94% more engagement than you get with other photo links, according to a MediaBistro study. That’s probably because Twitter displays inline image previews for images with a pic.twitter.com URL.
No wonder the two most-retweeted tweets ever have included photos.
The rapid rise of Buzzfeed and Pinterest are testaments to the power of social image. Photos rank No. 1 for likes and comments on Facebook.
Why not make all of your social messages more engaging by adding a picture?
Images for PR
When Toyota USA communicators decided to produce a visual to accompany a feature on National Coffee Day, they spent $27 on props and a couple of hours on writing, shooting and editing.
The return on this modest investment: Almost 600 page views and pick up by automotive blog AskPatty. On Twitter, the image garnered 23,444 impressions, giving it the highest engagement rate of any content — organic or paid — on Toyota USA’s Twitter channel that week.
That’s no real surprise:
- Images dictate content for 41% of journalists, according to Bennett & Company’s 16th annual media survey.
- Adding a photo to a release increases page views by 14% and almost doubles the release’s shelf life, according to 2011 research conducted by PR Newswire.
- Readers find text more credible when it’s accompanied by an image, according to a new study from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Here’s the Toyota feature and image:
What comes from beans and offers an aroma more addictive than new car smell? Yes, coffee.
It’s National Coffee Day, and we want to honor this pleasing beverage by celebrating the king of all coffee cup holders — the car.
What’s the level of “caffeination” one can achieve? It varies by vehicle. The new Yaris perks along with three cup and two bottle holders. The 2015 Camry gets things brewing with four cup and three bottle holders. The versatile Venza goes venti with a total of 10 beverage holders, four cup, six bottle.
Not enough macchiatos for you? The Highlander really stirs it up it up with eight cup and four bottle holders, as does the stylish new 2015 Sienna (LE grade and above), offering its eight occupants a whopping 12 cup/bottle holders.
But if you crave carrying as many iced cappuccinos as possible, the Sequoia allows you to fully espresso yourself. The Platinum grade of this grande SUV boasts 18 cup/bottle holders.
So indulge in a demitasse to help commute the daily grind.
Want to grab attention and increase credibility?
Why not add a picture to your story today?
Sources: Sam Kirkland, “How to make the most of sharing images on Facebook and Twitter,” Poynter, April 30, 2014
Anum Hussain, “How to Craft Perfect Posts for Facebook, LinkedIn & Twitter [SlideShare],” Nov. 18, 2014
Roger Dooley, “Persuade with Pictures,” Neuromarketing, Nov. 1, 2012
Get the Picture With Social Visual Communication
Transformation happens before our very eyes: Consider the rise of images as a primary communication form. Not only do people consume online images more than online text (Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr and others), they also engage more with images than they do with text.
Fueled by the mobile Web’s integration into everyday life, image communication has become part of the mix for most of Interbrand’s top 100 global brands. In this environment, communicators must know how to craft images that tell stories for audiences immersed in visual channels.
At my two-day web-writing Master Class with Shel Holtz on Feb. 11-12 in Santa Fe, you’ll learn how to:
- Make images a critical part of your content marketing
- Select images easier and faster by using six types of images
- Make sure each image serves at least one key purpose
- Tell your story in a compelling infographic or infoposter
- Reach millions of people who can’t get enough Vine and Instagram videos
“The key to a good story structure is to write a great beginning and a great ending and keep them close together.”
Strathcona County embraces the feature-style story structure
Too many communicators have married the inverted pyramid and made a lot of triangular babies. Problem is, the traditional news structure doesn’t work well with humans.
But in Alberta, Ontario, communicators are starting to flirt with other structures. After attending one of my Beyond the Inverted Pyramid workshops, Elizabeth Tadman-Kickham, communications & marketing specialist at Strathcona County, rewrote a news story into a feature. Here’s the result:
Strathcona County makes over a traditional news story
|Element||Approach||Before: News||After: Feature|
|Lead||The 2014 Canada 55+ Games are coming to Strathcona County, Alberta this summer from August 27 to 30. The Canada 55+ Games is a nation wide program that promotes spiritual, mental and physical wellness among Canadians 55 years of age and older. Not just your average sporting event, the Canada 55+ Games features competition in 24 different sports and events ranging from swimming and hockey to scrabble and bocce.||Florence Storch is a 101-year-old Alberta woman with a unique hobby and a lofty goal. A javelin thrower, Florence has her sights set on winning a gold medal at the 2014 Canada 55+ Games.|
|Nut graph||This summer, Florence and 2000 other competitors from across Canada will have their chance at gold right here in Strathcona County, and you can come cheer them on.|
|Background section||The Canada 55+ Games is a nation-wide program that promotes spiritual, mental and physical wellness among Canadians 55 years of age and older. Not just your average sporting event, the Games features competition in 24 different sports and events ranging from swimming and hockey to scrabble and bocce.|
|Body||Here’s where you tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em. The brisker, the better.|
I like the way Elizabeth got the readers into the story by inviting them to the games instead of just informing readers about the event.
|With 2000 participants from across the country, 300 of their family members and 550 volunteers registered, the 2014 Games are set to be the largest Canada 55+ Games in the program’s 18-year history! The Games are truly a four-day celebration of sport, culture and social well being and feature a number of free events that are open to the public including:|
Opening Ceremonies Fireworks — weather permitting
55+ Health & Wellness Expo
Ardrossan Mini Art Market — weather permitting
Art: Objet de Sport, an exhibit celebrating Canadian and Olympic sport and recreation.
|The 2014 Games will be held in Strathcona County from August 27 to 30 and are set to be the largest Canada 55+ Games in the program’s eighteen-year history. Come out, be inspired, and enjoy the festivities including:|
|Wrapup||Tell ‘em what you told ‘em in this one- to two-sentence paragraph.|
Tip: Copy your nut graph, paste it into the conclusion and massage for a great, low-work wrapup.
|Come cheer on the nation from August 27 to 30 in Strathcona County! For more information on the events listed above and the full Games sport and activity competition schedule, visit our Website or call 780-467-2211.||You can find sport schedules, cultural events and volunteer opportunities for the 2014 Canada 55+ Games by visiting our Website or calling 780-467-2211.|
|Kicker||The great thing about inverted pyramids is you just stop typing. Features require an ending. To leave a lasting impression, go with something that’s concrete, creative and provocative.|
I might add a detail or two to this kicker to make it more concrete. Maybe something like “Come join 2,000 participants from across the country — the oldest of whom is XX” before Elizabeth’s ending.
|Don’t let their age fool you; the competitors in these Games are here to win!|
So which of these stories would you rather read? And how can you use the feature-style story structure in your next piece?
Next steps: Build a solid structure
Want to master a story structure that increases readership instead of cutting it short?
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write compelling copy.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Find out about Ann’s next feature story Master Class. Or work with Ann on developing the feature-style story structure in one-on-one writing coaching.
- Join the club: Get dozens of tipsheets on the feature-style story structure at RevUpReadership.com.
- Get more writing tips: Subscribe to our e-zine for free writing tips every month.
- Learn more: Read more story structure tips.
“We sometimes forget: Every email subject line is a pitch.”
Daniel Pink, author, To Sell is Human
Which words to use — and avoid — from Adestra’s analysis
Is this the world’s best subject line: Alert: Free delivery, 50% off daily? And is this the world’s worst: Fw: Register for our Webinar and report? Probably not. But the words we use matter, and the words we use in subject lines matter a lot.
Enter Adestra, a U.K.-based email service provider. It recently analyzed a random sample of more than 2 billion emails to learn which words work — and which don’t — in subject lines.
“Not all of your emails will get opened all the time,” writes Parry Malm, account director, Adestra. “Even market leaders routinely have less than half of their emails opened on a campaign-by-campaign basis.”
Here are some ways to improve your chances:
Focus on savings.
People like to save money, Adestra’s research found.
“In related news, water is wet,” Malm writes. (Turns out that’s not necessarily true: Have you heard about NEOs?)
So try phrases like Free delivery (+50.7%, +135.4%) or specify a percentage off (+10.5%, +27.4%).
Worried about using “Free”? It doesn’t affect delivery, though it doesn’t necessarily pull a good response, either, according to HubSpot’s research.
You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
“If you used the subject line ‘Free Beer!’ then guess what?” writes Parry Malm, account director, Adestra. “You’ll get a huge amount of opens. But unless the contents of the email actually pour your customers a beer, then you’ll have achieved nothing but short term response gain and long term brand harm.”
Same problem with Re: or Fw: at the beginning of your subject lines. They might get opened the first time, but you’ll get ignored the next time.
Bottom line: Don’t fake it, or you won’t make it.
Marketing content marketing
Presenting a content marketing piece? Take Malm’s advice:
- Rebrand your Newsletter (+0.7% opens and -18.7% clicks). Call it Alert (+38.1% opens and +61.8% clicks) or Bulletin (+15.8%, +12.7%). “The word ‘newsletter’ harks back to the day of receiving a posted and photocopied A4 list of stories,” Malm writes.
- Don’t get caught in the clutter. Readers may be overloaded with content marketing messages. Book (-4.6%, -25.4%), Report (-23.7%, -54.8%,) and Learn (-35.5%, -60.8%,) are trending down. “When working on your content marketing plan, bear in mind that everyone else is too,” Malm writes. “Focus on differentiating your offerings.”
- Deliver Daily (+27.8%, +100.3%) or Weekly (+27.1%, +50.6%). Monthly (-26.6%, -37.0%) may be too infrequent; after 30 days or so, you may lose top-of-mind position.
Bottom line, says Malm: “Content marketing works when the content isn’t crap.”
Adestra broke out its findings for B2B and B2C publishing and events, as well as retail and commerce and charities. Find killer keywords for your niche in the report.
Parry Malm, “2013 Adestra Subject Line Analysis Report: Keywords for killer subject lines,” Adestra, 2013
Parry Malm, “152 killer keywords for email subject lines (and 137 crappy ones),” eConsultancy, July 2, 2013
Next steps: Reach Readers Online
Want to get the word out on the Web?
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write Web copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Web writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Find out about Ann’s upcoming Master Classes on Writing for the Web. Or work with Ann to polish your Web writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching sessions.
- Join the club: Get dozens of tipsheets on reaching readers online at RevUpReadership.com.
- Get more writing tips: Subscribe to our e-zine for free writing tips every month.
- Learn more: Read more tips on writing successful email messages.
“Ann does a fantastic job illustrating the practical reasons behind the tips she teaches, which makes it easier to grasp and put into practice.”
Steven Alessandrini, communicator, Wyndham Exchange & Rentals
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.
But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Chicago on April 21 and 22: Make Your Copy More Creative, a two-day Master Class. Master the art of storytelling, metaphor, wordplay & more.
- San Francisco on July 29 and 30: Catch Your Reader Master Class, a two-day Master Class
- Santa Fe on Feb. 11 and 12: Writing for the Web with Shel Holtz, a two-day Master Class
- Tacoma on Aug. 19: Create Content Marketing Pieces That Almost Write Themselves, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
- Washington, D.C. on Oct. 27 and 28: Catch Your Reader Master Class, a two-day Master Class
- Your own home or office on Dec. 4 and Dec. 11: Catch Your Readers, a four-session course over Webex for IABC.
- Your own home or office on Jan. 29: Make Your Copy More Creative, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Want to polish your skills? Keep up with Ann’s latest two-day Master Classes.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Bentonville, Arkansas: Feb. 24
- Chicago: April 21-22
- Minneapolis: April 28
- Raleigh, N.C.: March 4
- Santa Fe: Feb. 11-12
- San Francisco: July 29-30
- Tacoma: Aug. 19
- Washington, D.C.: Oct. 27-28
Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
Want to polish your skills? Keep up with Ann’s latest two-day Master Classes.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Presenting writing workshops for LinkedIn, PECO and PRSA
- Developing writing guidelines and story templates for Baylor Scott & White Health
- Writing proposal copy for OpTerra Energy Services
- Coaching writers at the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
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