“We lap up a good stat like it’s ground-breaking news, whether it’s new or not.”
How to organize research stories
It’s not the survey, silly. Most survey releases fail because they focus on the survey, not on the survey results. Here’s how to organize a successful survey story that focuses on the findings, not on the poll:
I. Lift your survey results off the page in the display copy.
- Highlight a fascinating finding in the headline. Tell the story, don’t just tell about the story. Your headline should communicate one key survey result, not just announce that you are releasing those results. Here’s an example from a FleishmanHillard release by John Armato for H&R Block:
HOLY 1040! BATMAN PAYS MORE!
- Summarize the survey in the deck. Now that you’ve gained reader attention with the fascinating findings, it’s time to summarize the story elements in the deck. From the H&R Block survey results release:
Survey of kids’ takes on taxes reveals amusing perceptions, noble priorities and a deep love of TV
I love Armato’s twist on a list there. To cover all the story elements, I’d try to squeeze H&R Block into that deck: “H&R Block survey …”
II. Set up the survey in the intro.
- Communicate one to three key survey results in the lead. Armato’s compression of details lead squeezes three fascinating findings into one paragraph:
“Most 8- to 11-year-olds would rather go to school year-round than pay a nickel of ‘allowance tax.’ But pit that nickel against Nickelodeon, and they’d gladly fork it over to protect their tube time. They also imagine Batman would pay more income tax than either Superman or Spiderman.”
Notice that Armato doesn’t worry about covering the survey itself in the lead. You don’t need to.
- Summarize the survey in the nut graph. Now that you’ve shown the fascinating findings, it’s time to introduce the survey itself in a sentence or two:
“The dominance of TV, probable wealth of the caped crusader and preference for college tuition are among the findings of a nationwide survey just released by H&R Block.”
- Describe the survey methodology in the background section. Too many writers lead with the methodology. Readers hear: “Methodology … blah blah blah … sample size … blah blah blah … statistically significant conclusions … blah blah blah … margin of error … blah blah blah … rhesus monkey … blah blah blah blah blah …”
Don’t lead with the blah-blah! Readers’ eyes will glaze over! Paragraph three is soon enough for this information:
“More than 300 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders were interviewed at shopping malls in 10 cities across the country.”
Of course, you’ll want to link to more details for the wonks who want it. Make your methodology, survey questions and full results available, just not in the release itself.
- Add a quote. This is a good place for a quote about the survey results:
“We thought it would be fun and insightful to see what young people know and imagine about income taxes,” says H&R Block’s Eric Steinhouse, senior vice president, marketing. “They didn’t disappoint us.”
III. List the survey results in the body.
List three to seven key findings in the body of your survey release. Use a hierarchical structure, moving from most important (or most surprising, or valuable or hilarious …) finding to least. But, to avoid ending with a whimper instead of a bang, finish with your second-most-important finding.
- Parents get cranky while figuring taxes. Nearly half of the kids chose “crabby and mad” to describe their parents’ attitude when figuring their taxes. Only 8 percent chose “excited and happy.”
- No on allowance tax to cover education … When asked whether it would be a good idea or a bad idea to require kids to pay taxes on their allowances to help pay for schools, 70 percent thought it would be a bad idea.
- … but yes on taxes to watch TV. Allowances everywhere took a beating, however, when kids were asked “Given a choice, would you rather pay taxes on your allowance or not be allowed to watch TV?” More than half said they’d rather pay the tax.
- Yes on taxes to help the poor. Given the choice of putting tax dollars toward the army, highways, education, helping the poor, national parks or paying off the national debt, helping the poor was by far the most popular choice.
- A “B-” to Uncle Sam for managing tax dollars. They were tough on Uncle Sam, though, with only 16 percent awarding an “A” in response to the question “If you were a teacher, what grade would you give to the United States government for how it manages and spends the tax dollars it receives?” (26 percent B, 21 percent C, 10 percent D, 21 percent F, 5 percent don’t know).
- “Michael Jordan: Pay our taxes.” The survey also asked kids to name the celebrity they would like to see pay their family’s income taxes. They most often mentioned Chicago Bulls forward Michael Jordan.
IV. Wind up in the conclusion.
- Transition to the end in the wrapup. What interesting finding can you use to wind the story down?
“Incidentally, a majority of kids (52 percent) think Jordan pays more income tax than [the president]. In all likelihood, they are correct, considering Jordan’s reported $65 million income. ….”
- Circle back to the lead in the kicker. Leave a lasting impression with a concrete, creative, provocative final paragraph.
“No word on how he compared to Batman.”
Survey the scene
Survey releases and stories are a staple of content marketing writing. Use this structure to make the most of your survey reports.
Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid
Our old friend the inverted pyramid hasn’t fared well in recent research. According to new studies by such think tanks as The Readership Institute and The Poynter Institute, inverted pyramids:
- Reduce readership
- Slash understanding
- Don’t make readers care about the information
In short, researchers say, inverted pyramids “do not work well with readers.”
- Increase reader satisfaction
- Boost the amount of time readers spend with your message
- Help readers understand your information more easily
Specifically, you’ll learn:
- How to organize your message to grab readers’ attention, keep it for the long haul and leave a lasting impression
- Three elements of a great lead — and five leads to avoid
- How to stop bewildering your readers by leaving out an essential paragraph. (Many communicators forget it.)
- Five ways to avoid the “muddle in the middle”
- A three-step test for ending with a bang
Would you like to hold an in-house Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid workshop? Contact Ann directly.
“No ideas but in things.”
William Carlos Williams, poet
Map out your story on Ann’s roller coaster grid
The best stories show, then tell, then show, then tell, again and again and again. And the best pieces mix up their concrete details with stories, statistics, scenarios and more.
How does your story shape up against that standard? To find out, use this grid to map out your story.
On it, note which kinds of concrete material you use in and where. This will help you analyze your copy for common problems. For instance:
- You’ve got 14 statistics and no anecdotes? You might want to go out and find a story. You want to hit several types of concrete detail, not just flat-line with a single type.
- Your introduction and conclusion are packed with concrete details, but there’s nothing interesting in between? Spread the evidence around.
- There’s not a single concrete detail to be found? Go back to the reporting stage and dig some up.
Now find the geographic center of your piece. “Is there a gold coin in sight?” The Poynter’s Clark asks. If not, add one.
Make Your Copy More Creative
It’s not fluff. Creative material communicates more clearly, builds reader loyalty, creates a “buzz” for your topic — even enhances credibility. The good news is that creative copy doesn’t take talent. It doesn’t even take creativity. Instead, it takes techniques, tricks and time.
In Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Portland, Oregon, on July 23-24, you’ll learn how to bring your messages to life with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Go beyond twist of phrase to diversify your wordplay. Soon, you’ll be listing, rhyming and twisting — even coining new words. The more techniques you master, the more sophisticated and satisfying your copy will be.
- Work your word tools. Get links to online resources that are so good, you’ll hardly need to trouble your pretty head to write dazzling twists of phrase
- Get inspired by some of the world’s most creative headlines
- Ask the question that will help your subject matter experts recall a story
- Use a simple structure for crafting an effective anecdote
- Apply a four-step process for coming up with a creative metaphor
- Take advantage of a fill-in-the-blanks template you can use to write your next analogy
Would you like to hold an in-house Make Your Copy More Creative workshop? Contact Ann directly.
“We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”
Central Intelligence Agency, in its first tweet
When will you get the most action on Twitter?
Timing is important, says Jakob Nielsen, “the king of usability”: “Once [tweets] scroll off the first screen, they’re essentially 6 feet under.”
Nielsen’s preferred tweeting time is 9:01 a.m. Pacific, because that encompasses working hours from California to the United Kingdom, where most of his audience members live. He posts a minute after the hour so his tweet will show up above those of people who set their software to post at the top of the hour.
Here’s when to tweet for engagement, click throughs and retweets:
When to tweet: Day of week
Which days offer the best ROI on your Twitter efforts?
Tweet on Tuesdays. Tuesday is by far the most popular day for Twitter activity, accounting for 15.7% of all tweets, according to a report on Twitter usage by social media analytics provider Sysomos.
Next most popular: Wednesday (15.6%) and Friday (14.5%).
Learn more “Stunning (And Useful) Stats About Twitter.”
Make that Fridays. People tweet most often on Tuesdays. But they retweet more often on Friday — than at any other day, according to viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella.
Looking to get retweets? Friday afternoon may be the best time to tweet, Zarrella says.
Make that weekends and afternoons. Thursday and Sunday, followed by Saturday, are the best days for getting clickthroughs on your tweets, according to Zarrella, in 2009 research. Zarella attributes this to “link fatigue” during the week, when more links are posted.
Plus, Twitter engagement rates for brands are 17% higher on Saturday and Sunday compared to weekdays, according to a 2012 study by SalesForce (PDF). However, just 19% of brands tweet on the weekend — which gives you a great opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
When to tweet: Time of day
What time of day delivers the best results for your tweets?
8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tweets during these “busy hours” got 30% higher engagement rates than tweets posted after hours, according to the SalesForce study.
2 p.m. That’s the best time for click-through rates, according Zarrella’s research.
4 p.m. People retweet more often at 4 p.m. on Friday than at any other day or time, according to Zarrella.
So when should you tweet? That depends on what you want to accomplish.
How to write for the Web & social media
Want to write copy that gets clicked, read, liked and shared?
In Catch Your Readers, my two-day Master Class in Portland, Oregon, on July 23-24, you’ll discover how to make your Web pages, intranet articles, blog postings, tweets and status updates more relevant, valuable and interesting to your readers. And you’ll learn a six-step process for writing copy that overcomes the obstacles of online reading.
Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Increase usability by 124% with three simple copywriting steps
- Determine how long your Web page should be. (Beware: Many page-length recommendations are based on outdated research)
- Apply the 30-3-30-3 rule to give online readers what they’re looking for
- Use the 70-20-10 rule to make sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests
- Steal from the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status updates that draw followers and get clicks
Would you like to hold an in-house Write for the Web & social media workshop? Contact Ann directly.
“A feature story should begin with velocity. It shouldn’t just mumble and meander.”
Joel Achenbach, staff writer, The Washington Post
Grab reader attention by writing with numbers
Stumped for a story starter? Try a statistics lead. Yes, writing with numbers can be tough. A bunch of boring figures can make readers’ eyes glaze over wherever you place them.
But startling statistics — underline the word “startling” — can make a great lead. When writing your next lead, surprise and delight readers with a statistics lead like these, from two intranet stories:
Statistics leads show size and scope.
Are you writing about a company, division or operation that’s gigantic or minuscule? A startling statistics lead might be the way to go, as in this piece about the largest producer of baked goods in Puerto Rico.
Start with the most startling stat:
One million pounds of flour a week.
Got more interesting stats? When writing with numbers, limit yourself to three numbers per paragraph. That may mean hitting return before reporting your other surprising stats:
That’s what it takes for Holsum Bakers of Puerto Rico to produce the 30 million loaves of bread, 135 million buns and complete line of cakes, cookies, donuts and pies that it bakes every year. …
Statistics leads can offer an analogy.
Analogies work well with statistics. So when writing with numbers, try adding a concrete visual to your more abstract data. Here’s how it works, in a statistics lead from a piece about a company’s product rollout.
If Phase 3.5 were a ship, it would be the QEII. As the largest of all the Sprint ION phases, it will involve more than 4000 people and 1.3 million system development hours—more than double any of the previous releases.
Learn more about writing with numbers.
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: Work with Ann on developing the feature-style story structure in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next “Beyond the Inverted Pyramid” teleseminar.
- Join the club: Get dozens of tipsheets on the feature-style story structure at RevUpReadership.com.
- Learn more: Get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
“Ann helped us elevate the professionalism and quality of our materials and communications. Now our investors find them both relevant and appealing.”
Roberta J. Laughlin, vice president, Mutual Funds Marketing, Northern Trust
WWAD? Find out with our before-and-after service
Ever wonder how Ann would have written your release, article, post or page?
Find out with Ann’s writing makeovers. She’ll rewrite your message, showing you how to reach more readers.
How it works
Send us your writing samples in Word, and we’ll:
- Rewrite your headlines, decks, leads and links.
- Show you how to make your paragraphs, sentences and words tighter and clearer.
- Demonstrate how we’d eliminate the passive voice and improve readability.
- Reveal how to break your copy up to make it look easier to read.
- Show you how to lift your ideas off the page or screen for flippers and skimmers.
- Explain why we made these changes.
Use the rewritten piece in your campaign now — and continue to model its techniques long into the future. (No wonder our clients tell us this is their favorite service we provide!)
Why Wylie Communications?
Ann and her team have:
- Earned more than 60 awards for effective communications, including two IABC Gold Quills — the Pulitzer Prizes of business communications.
- Trained thousands of communicators in hundreds of organizations, including NASA, Nike and Nokia, to catch their readers.
- Produced writing makeovers for organizations including ExxonMobil, Saint Luke’s Health System and Northern Trust.
How may we help you?
Contact Ann to have her make over your next writing project.
“Current, hard-hitting truth about best ways to catch readers in a busy, media-loaded world.”
Laura Thierolf, communication specialist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Join us on our new social media channels
If you like Wylie’s Writing Tips, you’ll love our new social media channels. There, you can:
- Dig deeper into the topics we explore in the e-zine
- Keep up with what Ann’s reading
- Find Ann’s favorite quotes
- Download our at-a-glance tools and cheat-sheets
- And more!
Interested? If so, join us on one or more of Wylie Communications’ new social media channels:
We look forward to hearing what you think about these channels. In the meantime, we look forward to “seeing” you on LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook and Twitter!
“Awesome. Very engaging and a ton of tips that are easily implementable.”
Cori Upton, marketing communications specialist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
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:
- Anchorage on Aug. 6: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Alaska
- Kansas City on Oct. 1: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners PIO Forum
- New York City on Dec. 8: Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for PRSA
- Portland, Oregon, on July 23-24: Catch Your Readers, a two-day master class, open to the public
- Tacoma on Aug. 20: Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
- Washington, D.C., on Oct. 12: Catch Your Readers, a half-day pre-conference session at the PRSA 2014 International Conference.
- Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13: Lift Your ideas Off the Screen, a breakout session at the PRSA 2014 International Conference
- Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13: Meet Ann and get more writing tips at Expert Express, a 20-minute learning session in the exhibit hall at the PRSA 2014 International Conference
- Your own home or office on Aug. 21: Content Marketing Writing, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
- Your own home or office on Sept. 23: Anatomy of a News Release, 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.
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:
- Anchorage: Aug. 6
- Kansas City: Oct. 1 & Nov. 11
- New York City: Dec. 8
- Portland, Oregon: July 23-24
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: July 15
- Tacoma: Aug. 20
- Washington, D.C.: Oct 12-13
Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying presenting writing workshops for:
- Maslansky & Partners
- International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) World Conference
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.
Keep in touch via:
- ComPRehension, PRSA’s blog of public relations strategies and tactics
- Wylie Communications feed
- Wylie’s Writing Tips