writing

So Your Press Release Sucks. How to Make it Suck Less:

Worried that you aren’t getting the local media attention your organization deserves? Sending press releases to your local TV, radio station or paper, only to hear the sound of crickets in return? The problem may not be that your announcement isn’t newsworthy. The problem could be the way your approach in alerting local media. Here’s how to tell if your press releases suck, and how to fix them:

1. You don’t understand what a press release is.

Often, small businesses and organizations don’t understand the difference between a press release and a paid advertisement. You may submit a press release thinking that you have to pay for it, and that it will appear exactly as submitted, like an ad. You may also wonder, “how much will this cost me?”



A press release is not an advertisement. An ad is content you pay for, and there are some definite advantages to running an ad in place of or in addition to submitting a press release. As an advertiser, you have a degree of control over when your ad runs, where it runs and how often. You can pick the wording and decide what images will be featured. Not so with a press release, which is considered news content. The disadvantage is that you don’t have much of a say as to when or even if it will run. The uptick is that it’s free and you can pack in a lot of information. Learn more here: http://breakingeveninc.com/press­release­101­so­you­think-you­know­press­releases/

2. It was an afterthought.

If you’re going to put blood, sweat and tears into a project, make sure people know about it. Got a fundraiser coming up? Let the local media know a week or two ahead of time. Avoid procrastination. Don’t wait until the day before or, even worse, the day of your event or product launch to send it. Remember: News outlets prize timeliness.

3. You mailed or FAXed it

Email is so ubiquitous, so easy and so free that there’s no reason not to use it. We’re in a copy and paste age, and few local papers have newsroom staff dedicated to retyping your 800­word press release or scanning it in order to extract the text of your snail­mailed PR. FAXing is even worse, as often the reproduction is splotchy.

editorfrusteratedwithpressrelease

4. You sent it to the wrong news outlet, the wrong person or the wrong department

The Baltimore Sun probably isn’t going to run your press release about your bean supper fundraiser in Waldo County, Maine. Neither will the New York Times, Chicago Tribune or Boston Globe, for that matter. But local and regional news outlets will. Identify the blogs, papers, radio and TV stations and other media outlets whose audience will be interested in what it is that you’re doing. Once you’ve identified the right outlet, make sure it gets to the right department. Your press release should be sent to the newsroom, not to the advertising department or the circulation department. Keep an updated press contact list — we’ll explore more about the in a future blog post.

5. You didn’t include the right contact information

Your press release’s header needs to include the name of a person who to contact, as well as a phone number and email address. Without that, how will the reporter know who to contact so they can cover your amazing event?

6. You padded it

Don’t use a lot of superlatives, don’t try to be cute, don’t use exclamation marks, and remember to cut to the chase in your first paragraph — what we call the lead. Right off the bat, tell them who, what, when where and why your event or launch is important to a news outlet’s readers, viewers or listeners. Keep in mind that a press release should read like news, not like an advertisement. Check spelling and grammar, too.

notsurepr

7. Your photo was too small, out of focus, the wrong size/format

Remember that if you include a photo in your press release — and you probably should — that you don’t need to shoot on the latest Nikon DSLR. But it does need to be in focus. Don’t use any special filters to make it artsy. Don’t send it in black and white or use some monochrome filter. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t imbed the photo within a Word document. It’s a pain to extract and the end results are usually less than desirable. One good photo is great. Two is better, but keep it to three, tops. Don’t send little bitty baby thumbnails. Think 300dpi at around 2 MB. Send photos as jpgs, not bitmaps (for goodness sake, it’s 2016 — who uses bitmaps any more?!).

8. You didn’t include any information about the photo

Very important but easily overlooked — captions, also known as cutlines. Include when and where the photo was taken, a brief description of who or what is pictured, and how it relates to your press release. If applicable, include the name of the people in the photo and their titles, and where they are situated within the photograph. In the caption, include the name of the photographer. The photographer is the person who actually took the person; not the person who owns the camera. That is, if George took a picture of Ringo with Paul’s camera, George is the photographer, not Paul.

9. You never followed up.

Take five minutes and call the newsroom to make sure they at least got the press release. A news outlet can’t run what it doesn’t have.

Stay tuned for more posts about Press Releases this month! In case you’ve missed them, be sure to check out our latest posts here:

Remixing Press Releases For Online Marketing

Press Release 101: So You Think You Know Press Releases?

Press Release 101: Writing and Formatting

Press Release 101: Using Imagery

Press Release 101: Releasing it into the Wild

 

We All Can’t Be Seth Godin

5 Long Form Bloggers And Why It Works For Them

When I hear about people aspiring to blog, people usually mention Seth Godin. Seth Godin’s blog posts are often short and sweet (and if you don’t believe me or want to see first hand, here is a link to his blog).

Because people aspire to be Seth Godin, they aspire to be brief and profound.

For most people, being brief is harder to get right than it is to take a little longer to get to your point. It requires editing, drafts, and a lot of thought.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do things because they are hard. I’m just saying people should stop trying to be like someone else and do what works for them, and in most cases, it means writing a blog that is more than two paragraphs.



I wanted some examples pointing out that long blogs don’t mean readers have short attention spans. So we have the same working definition of long form, I’ll say long form is anything you have to scroll when on a typical computer screen to see the entire blog post.

Here is a short form Seth Godin blog post:

sethgodin-shortformpost

Here is a longer form Medium blog post (screen made 50% size to screenshot and this isn’t even 20% of the whole thing):

mediumblog-longform




Here are our five bloggers in question:

Ramit Sethi, I Will Teach You To Be Rich
These meaty blog posts give you scripts, workflows, and other specific ways to execute concepts. It would hard to be brief while also being so instructional. (Also this makes you think, if this is what he gives away for free, how awesome can his programs be?)
Takeaway: If you are instructional and interesting, the right people will stick around (ie those who want to learn)

Darren Rowse, Problogger
A blog about blogging seems so meta but these longer form posts are more helpful than the average ‘write and share on social media’ articles about how to get started on blogging. The guy literally wrote the book on blogging. (Honestly, it continues to blow my mind to this day.)
Takeaway: If you have specific, niche knowledge in a field, people will take the time to read what either you or authors you have vetted have to say. 

Human Parts on Medium
Described as a group of storytellers who have since disbanded, many blogs on Medium are longer form pieces that get tons of readers. (Note: Nicole clicked through tons of Medium authors for this post and found most of them had written less than 5 total posts on the site – though most were long form. For this example, I wanted to give a Medium page with a deeper history but there are lots of Medium bloggers who seem quite successful at longer form writing.)
Takeaway: Medium writes at the top of every story how long they take to read, allowing people to either read now or save for later. 

Brandon Gorell on Thought Catalog
Like Medium, Thought Catalog allows publishers/authors to have their own blog that lives on the Thought Catalog site. I am using this author as an example, though I know he uses more photos in his long form blogs than the typical Thought Catalog writer (if you’re writing about the internet, things like screenshots are helpful). Most Thought Catalog articles are long form but of the ones I looked at, most used things like pull quotes and formatting bullet points to break up the text.
Takeaway: Being thoughtful about formatting breaks can make long form writing more digestable. 

Us at Breaking Even Communications
No one will ever accuse me (Nicole) of being brief. That said, I write this blog like I speak and try to use language and examples that are fun and easy to relate to. I will also say that, compared to the previous examples that have much larger audiences, Breaking Even also has readers and subscribers that seem to enjoy what we have to say. Who else is going to tell you that whitepapers online are like man purses in France?
Takeaway: Having funny/memorable examples that take time to explain will get you a small but dedicated following.

So be brief if you want to but if you’re a chatterbox, don’t let that stop you from blogging long form. There are plenty of websites and individual bloggers who encourage this style and plenty of readers who appreciate it too.



Free Reading: Why We Give It Away Online

Three years ago, I wrote a book for National Novel Writing Month. It’s been sitting in Google Drive, and I’ve been wondering what I do with it.

I’ve kind of edited about half of it but I think I’d have the motivation to finish if I knew what next. (I sometimes am paralyzed by choice. Not my best quality.)

The beginning of my terrible novel, sitting in Google Drive, wondering its fate.

The beginning of my terrible novel, sitting in Google Drive, wondering its fate.

Option 1: Do I send it to 50-100 publishers, hoping one will like it enough to rip it apart and await my rewrites?

Option 2: Do I self publish it, making my friends pay $1-$10 for the ‘pleasure’ of reading it, probably making all of a few hundred bucks?

Option 3: Or do I just format it as an ebook and give it away?

I’ve been leaning toward Option 3. Sure, it seems like the least amount of hoops to jump through but it is also the world I know best: the internet is all about giving stuff away. I’ve been writing this blog ‘for free’ since 2007 for example.

I was reading a great article about Why Give Away Your Work For Free. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, he says people who download the free book wouldn’t have bought the book anyway. Really by giving things away for free he’s increasing his audience. To quote: “My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity, and free ebooks generate more sales than they displace.”



It actually got me to thinking of something completely different I read from Elizabeth Gilbert (read the photo caption- it’s long like a blog entry). But to paraphrase, basically you can’t make creativity show up and earn you money. You need to give it room to breathe. To quote: “I adore Creativity. I love her. I have devoted my life to her, because she brings me joy. But I do not suggest relying upon her to pay the oil bill. She is not very reliable. Creativity has no idea what the words “oil bill” even mean.”

My whole life the last seven years has been building two businesses, in other words the laser focused pursuit of money. Creativity showed up and I have this kind of terrible, moderately personal 124 page story sitting in my files without a purpose. Do I demand it make me money… or put it out there for free?

(Aside, I get that I should stop calling my novel terrible. But I’m one of those ‘plan for rain, be happy when it doesn’t’ kind of people so I am just managing my own expectations- and yours- by doing that.)

So do I enter into a world of a million rejections? Do I ask my creativity to make me some money now with this novel (which you see doesn’t even have a title but ‘Novel.doc)? Or do I give this novel away in hopes that my ideas will get out there and in turn generate others?

Now I’d be a liar if I said this ‘give it away and get more later’ idea was a writing only idea. Musicians give away albums, companies swag… every industry has a ‘something for free’ component so this idea is far from original.

But somehow reading those two articles in a row made me realize why I wanted to give it away… and the gut instinct wasn’t one of general laziness! If you are similarly on the fence with something you’ve made, let me know if reading those two relatively short posts helps clarify what you should do like it did for me.

(By the way, if you want to read my yet to be titled novel, just leave a comment on here and I’ll make sure you get the information for it.)



Blogging 101: The Basics

I’m just going to say it: I think people get way too caught up on perfection and don’t just start things.

How many people do you know who are waiting on redoing their logo, designing a website, reprinting their business cards, whatever before they start blogging? I know a few.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Blogging is just writing with a few more technical things built in.

I got into blogging precisely for this reason. I wanted to be a writer. There seemed to be a lot of gatekeepers to me becoming that. Rather than jump the fence or wait around at gates, I built my own place. Over time, I fixed it up. I still feel like it needs fixing up! But nothing worth it is ever static.

I wanted to write this blog post about what you need to start blogging. No it’s not a domain name or branding guides or ‘SEO’. It’s easier than that.

1) You need a topic. 

Of course your Mom will read your blog… but unless you’re Oprah, no one is going to care about you just living your life. You need to weave your life into a topic. Ex: maybe you’re really into cooking paleo. Maybe you really like Italy. Maybe you want to make yourself learn more about running. Give yourself a general topic with enough room to move around that the topic can weave throughout your blog while being interesting and personal.

This blog’s original topic? Personal finance. Sure, I tried to tell fun stories and include photos in but I also tried to have some knowledge to impart (I use that term loosely) so I wasn’t limiting my audience.

Let’s test some topics:

Water- Ok this could work. How to drink more, how to test it, how to conserve it, bottled water taste testing. Yup, I could write 50 blog posts on this and just be getting started. “Water Girl” or “Hydration Situation” maybe?

Art Supply Review- If I am keen on buying new stuff all the time, this could work. But review only? I may be pigeon holing myself. (The reason I never became a fashion blogger? Too much clothes to buy to have writing topics!)

Books- Who is my audience? If I’m going to be reviewing ‘Fault in Our Stars’ one week and ‘War and Peace’ the next week, that may be too much jumping around. This may be too broad to appeal to a specific audience.

You get what I’m saying. Don’t give yourself something so specific (four leaf clovers) that you’ll run out of material in a year and don’t give yourself too broad a topic that your audience won’t know whether they like it or not… though I will argue so long as you yourself are clear about what your blog is and isn’t, the ‘too broad’ will be less of a problem than too narrow. For example, I had a hard time coming up with another ‘too broad’ example besides books.

2) You need a name.

This is like your topic but you are going to be referring to this name all the time so don’t pick something you hate. In your chosen topic, a quick Google search will reveal what other blogs in your niche are called. How can yours be different? What ideas do you like from some of them?

OK so some in the personal finance niche at the time I started were:

Sense to Save
Budgets are Sexy
Almost Frugal
Get Rich Slowly
Counting Pennies
Wisebread
Daily Worth (ok that wasn’t a blog but a newsletter at the time)

Looking at these names, I knew what wasn’t me. I didn’t want to be frugal necessarily. I also didn’t want money in the title, in case I wanted to change topic later (which I did). Daily Worth was a sort of direction I liked best for myself. When Breaking Even got put on the list, it just felt right to me. But seeing other ideas made me realize what could work… and not work.

Make a whole list of names and sleep on it. Pick your favorite and go with it. Don’t worry if the .com domain is available. Just pick something you like and you can always make it work.

3) You need a place to blog.

Don’t stress out about software choice. You can always move it later. Really, I’ve moved this blog three times. (It’s getting cheaper and cheaper to hire someone to do this for you as more and more people blog.)

I like Wordpress.com as a free option. But if you like Blogger.com, Typepad, whatever better, I am not here to tell you there is only one answer. There isn’t. Just find something you like to use. Because you’ll be playing around a lot the first couple of months. (How do I add pictures? How do I make the font bigger?)

Just grab a template (all software comes with some choices) and start blogging. And if you don’t believe me when I say people don’t care what your site looks like, think of 2 or 3 of your favorite bloggers and try to sketch out what their website looks like. Can’t remember? Yeah, thought so.

Someday, if this goes well and you like it, you’ll want a custom design and you’ll start caring about things you NEVER thought you’d care about (How can I get more comments? What if I want to ad advertising?) But for now, just start writing.

4) Have a day/deadline for when you will blog (at least once a week).

Start out with once a week. Maybe Wednesdays are a good day because you get a long lunch break. Wednesdays is your deadline. Now every week, you have to write a post that goes online on Wednesday.

Your entries don’t have to be long or super deep, just get in the habit of it. Every Wednesday, write something.

Now you’ll see your blog traffic spike every Wednesday. This will either be rewarding to you or you won’t care. If it’s rewarding that someone is reading your work, you’re a blogger. 🙂

That’s it, you are blogging now! Next post I’ll get into more specifics but it this is the only post you read about blogging for the next six months, that’s ok. Just start. And leave the link here so I can start reading it.

Once you’ve been writing several months, you can move onto Blogging 201. 🙂

Press Release 101: Writing and Formatting

Last week, I gave an overall explanation of press releases and their purposes. Part 2 breaks down the writing process and the different elements of a successful press release.

PressRelease_Writing

 Writing the press release

Here’s a breakdown of the components of a standard press release:

Header

The header of your press release needs to include the name of a contact person who is authorized to speak with the press and can answer a few follow-up questions from a reporter, or will at least know who to direct the report to. A phone number and email address are must-haves. 

Authorization

Start your press release by denoting when the newspaper or website is allowed to publish your submitted material. If your press release can be published at any time, start it off with “For Immediate Release.” Otherwise, let them know when the release can be published. Example: “Embargoed until Nov. 14” or “Embargoed until 3:30 p.m. Dec. 23.”



Headline

Keep it short, about 9-12 words. Nine times out of 10, the editor is going to change it anyway to suit their style, or for space constraints. That’s a sad fact of life, but always include a headline anyway.  By catchy without being cutesy. Don’t use clunky jargon in your headline (or in the rest of your copy for that matter). 

Examples:

Right: Springfield farm gives at risk youth another chance
Wrong: It’s not just ‘another day’ on the Farm for local at-risk youth who can benefit by some ‘hard work’!

Right: National Republican leaders to sound off on midterm elections
Wrong: ICYMI: RNC, NRSC, NRCC, RSLC Hold Press Conference on Midterm Election Results (Note: this is a real-life example from an organization that ought to have known better.)

Dateline

The dateline isn’t a date, it’s actually a location, and the only thing you’re allowed to write in all-caps. Include your state in the dateline if you’re in a smaller community.

Example:

BAR HARBOR, Maine

WASHINGTON, D.C.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass.

CHICAGO

OAKLAND, Calif.

NAPILI-HONOKOWAI, Hawaii



Lead

The lead is the first paragraph of your press release, and is usually only one or two sentences long. It includes who, what, when, where how, and why.

The lead can be challenging. You have to convey to the reader — and in your case an editor — why your press release matters to a wide audience in as few words as possible. It doesn’t need to be boring, but it does need to be succinct.

Example:

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Clearview Farms in Springfield is giving troubled youth a second chance while giving them some real-world skills. Starting Tuesday, local at-risk students will participate in an innovative program that aids the community and help teens develop a sense of pride in their work.

Body and Style

This is where you can add details and — importantly — quotes. Three or four paragraphs that fills in the gaps left in the lead, and you’re done. Keep it focused on the announcement.

Most news outlets use a specific writing style, the most popular one being Associated Press — or AP — style. AP style is the most prevalent style of writing in news organizations. Even satirical newspaper The Onion uses AP style. Here in Maine, The Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald both use AP style. Look to those sources as examples of AP style.

Unless you’re a professional PR firm, you’re not expected to know AP style by heart. But if you keep these tips in mind, you’ll go a long ways to sounding like a pro.

DON’T WRITE IN ALL CAPS! EDITORS FIND THIS REALLY ANNOYING. Remember that most of your press releases will be sent via email and copied/pasted into another document. All-caps creates extra work for the poor schlub that has to retype it. Most papers don’t use all-caps, even in headlines. Plus, it looks like you’re shouting. Don’t shout. It’s rude.

Also, no exclamation marks!!!!!! News stories rarely, if ever, use them.

Like the majority of your press release, your quotes need to be in the past tense. When using a direct quote, use “said,” as oppose to “noted,” “exclaimed,” “pointed out,” “according to,” etc. Punctuation is kept on the inside of the quotes. 

Example:

Right: “This program gives teens a sense of pride in their work which they may not get anywhere else,” said Maura Dwyer, Clearview board chairwoman. “Youth are benefiting in ways we’ve never seen before.”
Wrong: “This program gives teens a sense of pride in their work they might not get ANYWHERE else”, exclaims Maura Dwyer, Clearview board board of directors chairwoman. “Youth are benefiting in ways we’ve never seen before!”



Tag

This is where you can give a little history and background information.

Example:

Clearview Farm is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that has, since 1985, used agriculture as an educational tool for urban and inner-city youth. Located on a historic sugar beet ranch owned by the Kardashian family for 150 years, the 300 acre farm produces organic kale, rutabaga, asparagus, and other vegetables. A seasonal working maple sugar hut produces award winning syrup. Sales from Clearview products found at local farmers markets and grocers go to benefit the Human Fund. Go to www.clearviewisnotarealfarm.com for more information.

Folks who get it right

Take a look at these links for examples of a few press releases done right for inspiration, paying special attention to the body:

Apple has an entire page on their website dedicated to press releases.

Apple has an entire page on their website dedicated to press releases.

…One more thing:

Two eyes are better than one. If you’re a small business and issuing the press release yourself, make sure you get a second person to proof your press release for spelling and grammar before sending.

And next week, we’ll discuss how to use an image to bring it all together.



Keepin’ it Fresh: How to Find Stuff to Talk About

Last weekend, I travelled to Brunswick for my brother’s graduation. It was a weekend filled with speeches, well-wishing, stress, and SO many feelings (mainly from the graduates and their parents). As a passive participant in the festivities, I found myself listening critically to the speeches given by the President, honorary speakers, and students. When you break all of those speeches down, they all had the same message. And, the same message as the speeches given at my own graduation, and probably the same message given to graduates across the country this spring, and all the springs to come. Whoa.

This provoked my own fear of sounding the same as other writers, and having nothing worthwhile to say. Being redundant, or even worse, unoriginal, is a creative mind’s worst fear. How do you ensure that your thoughts and ideas maintain a level of exciting and important?

Here are some ideas I’ve collected in my quest to answer this question:

1. Know your niche. You are an expert on something. Not everyone is going to have the same knowledge and expertise on this “something,” so you may want to consider it as a topic. Ideally, your area of expertise overlaps with an area you’re passionate about. When you know and love your subject, it’ll shine through in your work, and makes the information more valuable to your audience.

In addition to knowing your niche, knowing your audience helps with generating new ideas. This article mentions a couple ways to engage your people: answer the questions they have, and give them information they need (even if they don’t know they need it).

2. It’s not necessarily what you say, it’s how you say it. In terms of graduation speeches, the theme is usually something along the lines of “go forth and prosper.” But guess what? There are millions (billions? trillions? infinite??) ways to convey this message.

Everyone has a unique voice, whether they realize it or not. Find out what your voice is, and play into that. Mindy Kaling, for instance, recently gave a speech to Harvard Law graduates that was entertaining and engaging (plus she called them all “nerds”), but still had the same underlying graduation genre message.



3. It’s okay to recycle old stuff, if it’s still relevant. In this video from Marie Forleo, she addresses the content creation dilemma. She brings up an excellent example from O Magazine, showing the same headline on three covers from different years.  I’m pretty sure Oprah isn’t exactly lacking in terms of audience, so it’s probably safe to say people still like reading something they’ve heard before. The headline in question was along the lines of “cleaning your space,” which will remain relevant as long as people have spaces and spaces need cleaning.

So, go ahead and revisit older material. If your people can still benefit from it, you’re not being unoriginal or lame.

4. And, finally, stay inspired, but don’t be too hard on yourself. In my experience, creativity grows more elusive when you try to force it. Some days, you’re just not going to feel it, and that’s normal. If, while trying to generate new material, you find your teeth grinding, eyebrows furrowing, and/or blood pressure spiking, take a step (or several) back. Doing something else for awhile is usually recommended, and you’ll have a fresh mind when you come back to it.

Butterfly_Yo

When uninspired, I like to doodle ridiculous scenes in Microsoft Paint.

It also helps to remind yourself, I’m doing this because I love it. The things we love give us high blood pressure sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on them.

In the end, no one wants to feel like they’re beating a dead horse. The good news: the internet (and the world) changes constantly, and while sometimes this freaks me out, it means there will always be more to talk about.



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