October 25, 2014

“Know from the beginning whether you’re writing a sonnet or an epic.”
— Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar, The Poynter Institute

Find your focus

Tighten your angle

The editor of a travel magazine once asked me to write a story about Kansas City.

FIND YOUR FOCUS: Kansas City isn't a story, it's a card catalogue. Narrow your angle before you write.

“Kansas City,” I said. “Would that be Kansas City barbecue? An insider’s guide to where the bodies are buried? The perfect weekend for lovers? Kansas City on the quick, on the cheap or for the family?”

“Yup,” she said. “Kansas City.”

Well, I know Kansas City. I’ve lived there since before Richard Nixon resigned, and I covered it from my desk as a magazine editor for nearly five years. But I’ve never toiled so hard on a simple piece. And I’ve never been so disappointed in the results.

My problem, of course, was that my copy lacked focus. And a lack of focus makes it difficult for you — and for your reader — to get through your story. But if you find your focus, or tighten the angle on your piece, your story will become easier to read and write.

Here’s how to find your focus:

1. Focus on a single idea.

A topic, obviously, isn’t an idea. “Kansas City” is a topic, not a theme. “PRSA Digital Media Conference” doesn’t make a good brochure headline, because it lacks an angle. Your product name is not an idea.

Build your story on a firmer foundation. What about Kansas City, your conference or your product?

2. Summarize your idea in one sentence.

To get to that one, basic idea, summarize your piece in one short sentence: “An insider’s guide to Kansas City: 10 great places you won’t find in a guidebook,” maybe.

3. Make your point.

Once you’ve written your one-sentence story summary, use it. A well-written summary statement can become a headlinedeck or theme sentence. That summary communicates your idea clearly to your reader while it keeps you on track.

4. Test for focus.

Finally, make sure every paragraph — indeed, every sentence, every phrase, every word — in your piece works together to support your theme. To test this, reread your copy with your focus in mind.

With each paragraph, don’t just ask, “Does this paragraph work?” Also ask, “Does this paragraph work to further my focus?”

You define your focus more by what you leave out than by what you put into your story. So if a phrase or sentence doesn’t pass the test, take it out.

That’s focus.

Cut Through the Clutter

Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?

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“Facts tell, stories sell.”
— Anonymous

Find your ‘I wish’ song

Get the story started

The first song the main character sings in a Disney movie — not to mention many other film and stage musicals — is the “I wish” song, reports Ira Glass in a recent episode of “This American Life.”

In the “I wish” song, the protagonist declares what she wants. That motivation launches the story’s action.

  • “Funny Girl” starts with Barbara Streisand wishing to be a star.
  • “My Fair Lady” opens with Julie Andrews wishing for a room somewhere.
  • The “Hunchback of Notre Dame” begins with Quasimodo wishing he could belong “Out There.”
  • Steven Sondheim starts “Into the Woods” with six characters declaring their wishes.

What do your characters wish?

The best corporate stories start with a wish, too.

  • Nike’s story began with founder Bill Bowerman wishing he could create a shoe sole that would give runners more traction.
  • Hallmark Cards started with entrepreneur J.C. Hall wishing to become a postcard salesman.
  • Post-it® Notes began with 3M scientist Art Fry wishing for a bookmark that would stay put in his church hymnal.

Ragan’s David Murray calls these wishes the desk-pounding moment. Disney calls it the “I wish” song. Whatever you call it, it’s a great way to drive action in a story.

What’s your story’s “I wish” song?

Hear Ira Glass sing his “I wish” song.

Master the Art of the Storyteller

Want to put the most powerful form of human communication to work in your very next piece?

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“Rule No. 716: Bars don’t have mayors.”
— Esquire’s “New Rules for Men”

The verb is the story

Drop the modifiers on Facebook

Strunk & White were right, says viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella: Modifiers aren’t as effective as nouns and verbs. And now Zarrella has the data to prove it.

Adjectives and adverbs don’t perform as well on Facebook as nouns and verbs. Zarrella learned this by analyzing his Facebook data set to study the relationship between parts of speech and Facebook sharing.

Specifically, he says:

  • Adverbs get shared nearly 3 percent less often than average.
  • Adjectives get shared nearly 2 percent less often.
  • Nouns get shared a little more than average.
  • Verbs get shared nearly 2 percent more than average.

In Facebook, as in life, the verb is the story.

How to write releases in the age of social media

Would you like to learn how to write news releases that get the word out in the age of Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media? If so, please join me at PRSA’s Nov. 11 webinar, “Anatomy of a 2.0 Release.” You’ll learn how to:

  • Take advantage of online distribution to get your release posted on portals, help Google find your site, and reach customers, clients and other stakeholders online
  • Write better headlines, decks and leads for your releases
  • Explain to management why getting the gobbledygook out is even more important online than in print
  • Know when your release is too long
  • Craft links that help Google find your website
  • Optimize your releases for search engines and human readers

Keep up with all of my webinars.

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“You get what you measure. Measure the wrong thing and you get the wrong behaviors.”
— John H. Lingle, author and management consultant

Track outputs, outtakes and outcomes

Tips for measuring communication success

Good PR measurement doesn’t just track ad value equivalencies. Instead, it links your efforts to the organization’s key performance indicators, or KPIs.

So track outputs, outtakes and outcomes, says Shonali Burke, ABC, principle of Shonali Burke Consulting. Then link outputs to outcomes, communication results to KPIs.

A lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and blogger at BNET, Burke has earned a Golden Ruler award from the Institute for Public Relations for her measurement work. She shared this approach at the 2010 PRSA International Conference:

And if at first you don’t succeed?

“Measure and correct, measure and correct, measure and correct,” Burke says.

Plan powerful communications

Want to master the art of effective communication planning?

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Source: Shonali Burke, ABC, “Measurement in the Age of Now,” PRSA 2010 International Conference, Oct. 18, 2010

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“Budget dust: Year-end money that must be spent before it is swept away by the cold winds of a new fiscal year.”
— BuzzWhack.com

Eat your budget dust

Invest your year-end money before it gets swept away

‘Tis the season for many of us to use what remains of our 2010 budget … or lose it altogether. Here are five ways to invest your budget dust this year to improve communications for years to come:

Want more details? Contact Ann.

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“If you can’t summarize your story on the back of my business card, you don’t have a clear story idea.”
— R.S. Musser, professor of journalism at the University of Kansas

Six words is the new black

Summarize your story to find your focus

Decades after Ernest Hemingway famously crafted a six-word story — “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” — to settle a bet, the six-word story format has taken off:

When my speaker e-zine announced a six-word speech contest, I had to wonder whether the six-word format had jumped the shark. Still, boiling your bigger piece down to six words is a great way to find your focus.

Can you summarize your angle in five words or less? If so, you’ve got an idea.

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“[Ann's workshop] sparked a rush of creativity and fever in the room.”
— Kim Marcucci, PR director, Southcentral Foundation

Book Ann now and save

Lock in this year’s fees for next year’s programs

Because of increasing demand for my programs, I’ll be increasing the fees for my writing workshops on Jan. 2. Now, for a limited time, you can lock in 2010 fees for 2011 programs.

To get this year’s fees for next year’s programs, you must complete booking (that is, get a signed contract and deposit to me) by Dec. 31. To book a program, contact me directly.

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Where in the world is Ann?

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:

  • Asheville, N.C.: May 5
  • Chattanooga, Tenn.: Nov. 30
  • Kansas City, Mo.: March 3
  • Memphis, Tenn.: Nov. 18
  • New Orleans: July 25
  • New York: Nov. 5
  • Portland, Ore.: March 17
  • Washington, D.C.: Nov. 9-10

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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Ann’s touring schedule

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:

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.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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Keep up with my calendar

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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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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For more info

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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Please share this issue

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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