“It’s not ‘who, what, when, where, why,’
it’s ‘YOU, what, when, where, why.’”
— Anita Allen, communicator at Sabre Travel Solutions

Make it about me

Focus news stories on MOI

“A few years ago, my former newspaper did a study in which interviewers asked readers who or what was most important to them. Their answer was in some ways surprising. Many did not say their families, children or God. Instead, their answer was: ‘Me.’”

— Dick Weiss, former writer and editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Screenwriter Nora Ephron still remembers the first day of her high school journalism class.

Image by Hugh MacLeod at GapingVoid.com

Ephron’s teacher announced the first assignment: to write the lead for a story to appear in the student newspaper. He told them the facts:

“Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”

Ephron and the other budding journalists condensed the who, what, when, where and why of the story into a single sentence: “Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento …”

The teacher reviewed the leads, then paused for a moment.

“The lead for this story,” he said, “is ‘There will be no school next Thursday.’”

Move from event to impact.

What’s the point of your news story? It’s probably not really the five W’s and the H. Instead of focusing on the event, focus in the impact, or how the news affects your readers.

Covering a:

  • Speech? Write about the most valuable thing the speaker said, not the fact that she spoke.
  • Event? Focus on what people will be able to see and do at the event, not the time, date and place that the event occurred.
  • Meeting? Center the piece on what was decided at the meeting and how it will affect the reader, not on the logistics of the meeting itself.

What would Miss Piggy do?

To reach readers, think like Miss Piggy and write about MOI, counsels management consultant Alan Weiss. That’s “My Own Interests,” from the reader’s perspective.

One way to do that is to shift your focus from event — what occurred, when, where and why — to impact. That will make your copy more interesting, relevant and valuable to your readers.

Get reader attention

Want to deliver copy that gets read?

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“Unless you are educated in metaphor,
you are not safe to be let loose in the world.”
— Robert Frost, American poet

Your brain on metaphor

People have always learned through analogy

When my grandfather first saw a car, he didn’t think “automobile.” He thought, “That’s a carriage that moves without a horse — it’s a horseless carriage.”

BABY, YOU CAN DRIVE MY CAR Grandpa didn't know from cars; he called this a horseless carriage. Analogies help people understand new ideas by linking them to familiar ones. (Photo from The Library of Congress on Flickr)

He added to his knowledge by comparing the new concept to something he already understood. In other words, he learned through metaphor.

“Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” write George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By.

In other words: Metaphor is how we think.

We use metaphor all the time. As Lakoff and Johnson point out, we compare:

  • Arguments to war (Attack your position. Claims are indefensible. Criticisms were right on target. Shoot down arguments.)
  • Time to money (spending time, wasting time, saving time, investing time, costing time)
  • Computers to offices (desktops, files, folders, documents, notepads)

In our brains, love is a journey, problems are puzzles and the Internet is a city.

Metaphors work because they compare the concept to something more familiar: cars to horse-drawn carriages, for instance. That helps people understand new, complex or conceptual information — computers, the Internet, love — by means of something they already understand.

And that makes metaphors shortcuts to understanding.

Compare complex concepts

If metaphor is how we think, then writers can help people think through metaphor.

That’s the approach Richard Preston used in The Demon in the Freezer to help people wrap their brains around the science of smallpox:

“Variola particles are built to survive in the air. They are rounded-off rectangles that have a knobby, patterned surface — a gnarly hand-grenade look. Some experts call the particles bricks. The whole brick is made of a hundred different proteins, assembled and interlocked in a three-dimensional puzzle. Pox bricks are the largest viruses. If a smallpox brick were the size of a real brick, then a cold-virus particle would be a blueberry on the brick. But smallpox particles are still extremely small; about three million smallpox bricks laid down in rows would pave the period at the end of this sentence.”

Why does this work?

“Human thought processes are largely metaphorical,” write Lakoff and Johnson. “The human conceptual system is metaphorically structured and defined. … Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.”

Bottom line: If you’re communicating technical,
scientific or complicated information, use metaphor.


Sources: George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980

Richard Preston, The Demon in the Freezer, Random House, October 2002

Make Your Copy More Creative

Want to communicate better with creative copy?

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“Every good title is a short story.”
— Russell Banks,
 American novelist and poet

Write headlines for Google News

Keep ’em short

Want your release to get posted on Google News?

Make the headline 65 to 70 characters. That’s the best length if you want your news release to show up on the portal, according to a study by Schwartz Communications.

Despite Google’s preferences, 77 percent of the 16,000 Business Wire releases Schwartz reviewed for the study exceeded that recommendation. The study also found that:

  • The average headline was 123 characters long.
  • About 18 percent of releases had headlines of 65 characters or fewer.
  • Some 2 percent of releases had headlines longer than 300 characters.
  • One headline was longer than 1,000 characters.

One more reason to watch your character count: Most search engines display only the first 65 words of a Web headline. Make yours longer, and it could be truncated in search results.

Reach bloggers, journalists and readers

Want to deliver successful media relations pieces?


Sources: “Short rules: Most Press Release Headlines too Long for Google News,” BusinessWired, Oct. 26, 2010

Why Your Release Might Not Make It In to Google News,” BusinessWired, March 24, 2010

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“We don’t have time to do it right,
but we have time to do it over.”
— Observation from a corporate communicator

News flash: You’re not a news bureau

Your job is to change behavior, not to report news

Might I rant for a moment?

BREAKING NEWS Your job isn't to report news; it's to change behavior. (Photo from the Library of Congress on Flickr)

Right this minute, all over the world, communicators are knocking themselves out to deliver organizational news that nobody wants or needs.

We’re exhausting our resources — not the least of which include our own time and our audience members’ attention — making sure the people know who won the corporate challenge billiards tournament, how many tons of concrete went into the new headquarters building and how thrilled we are to support the ballet’s spring season.

We’re doing battle with approvers over whether to use “that” or “which” in the fourth paragraph of news stories that nobody reads. We’re struggling to help content experts beat their 6,000-word essays on the award that engineering won down to the 30 words it actually deserves. And we’re smothering our readers with inconsequential blah-blah when it doesn’t even serve the organization.

The worst of it is: That’s not our job.

Start doing your real job.

Our job isn’t to deliver news, after all. Our job is to communicate information that helps our organization meet its bottom-line business goals.

That means using the five-step communication-planning process to identify those goals, then developing communication tactics — including editorial — to help us get there.

In marketing communications, that’s fairly easy: Just give targets entertaining information they can use to live their lives better that also promotes our products, programs, plans and positions. (I know: just.)

In employee communications, though, it’s tougher.

Develop stories that change employee behavior.

One way to develop editorial concepts that help change employee behavior is the one I used when I was at Hallmark. (Have I mentioned recently that I won a couple of Gold Quills for employee communications while I was at Hallmark? In the last hour? In the last five minutes? I thought so.)

Here’s how:

1. Identify corporate goals. To rip a list from a favorite client, those might include:

  • Focus on growth products
  • Innovate in growth markets
  • Pursue flawless execution

These are your messages for the whole year. Yup, you’re going to repeat the same three to five (maaaaaaybe seven) messages over and over and over again for a year.

2. Develop stories to illustrate those messages. Bring these abstract, high-level messages down to earth with stories of individuals and teams who are helping the organization achieve its goals.

3. Allocate about 10 percent of your coverage to news. Of course you’ll still cover news. It just won’t make up the bulk of your work.

Why use the strategic editorial approach?

What happens when you scrap the news service approach? You get to:

  • Do fewer projects better.
  • Become a writer instead of a content manager.
  • Work on a business schedule, not on a newsroom schedule.
  • Serve the organization instead of feeding the beast.

Plus, by communicating messages instead of reporting news, you get to have more fun and stop irritating your readers.

Isn’t it time to close down the news bureau today?

Plan powerful communications

Want to master the art of effective communication planning?

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“Ann showed us how we could create a more beautiful, readable, interesting and valuable magazine — for the same budget.”
— John Francis,
director of marketing, Saint Luke’s Health System, Kansas City

Get expert advice

Improve your communications with Ann’s consulting services

Do you need to bring in new clients? Communicate corporate messages? Help your organization achieve its goals and objectives?

If so, Wylie Communications can help with consulting services that range from critiquing your website to launching a new communication vehicle. Let us help you:

  • Make communications more effective. We developed a blueprint to help FedEx transform its management magazine into a strategic tool for the organization’s success. Bring us in to help you align your communications to your organization’s goals.
  • Revitalize a flagship piece. We revamped Saint Luke’s Health into a more effective, attractive, popular magazine — for the same budget as its less-appealing predecessor. We’d love to help you reboot an old favorite, as well.
  • Stop reinventing the wheel. We gave General Dynamics C4 Systems a proposal template with a fill-in-the-blanks executive summary, guidelines and a before-and-after example to model. Let us create formulas, checklists and templates to make your communications more effective and less time-consuming.
  • Outmaneuver the competition. We benchmarked a Motorola company’s press releases against those of its competitors, then delivered guidelines to help the company set the standards for media relations writing in the industry. Let us help you deliver best-of-class communications, too.
  • Get an extra pair of hands — or four. We provide a virtual staff to write and edit newsletters and magazines for Saint Luke’s, Northern Trust, State Street/Kansas City and Sprint Corp. Let us pick up the slack in your department, too.

And more.

How may we help you? Contact me to discuss your project.

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Ann’s workshop is “just what I need to catapult me from the Lazy Boy and get me excited about writing again.”
— Megan Maisei,
associate director, Internal Communications, MD Anderson

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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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
  • Boston: June 23
  • Chicago: June 7
  • Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Feb. 16-18
  • Kansas City, Mo.: March 3
  • New Orleans: July 24
  • Portland, Ore.: March 17
  • Rancho Cordova, Calif.: March 23
  • San Diego: March 29
  • San Francisco: March 25
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 10
  • Washington, D.C.: May 13, Nov. 15-16

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

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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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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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

  • Writing and editing advertising, brochure, magazine, newsletter and Web copy for Saint Luke’s Health System, EADS and PRSA
  • Presenting workshops for MD Anderson, Sabre Travel Solutions and Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield

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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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