"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

10 Ways to Improve Your Press Releases

There are many voices calling for the death of the press release. What is needed is not execution but reform. I wrote a moby-post on my blog listing 62 Ways to Improve Your Press Release. Here are ten suggestions that relate to the process of writing (other tips deal with managing the process and alternatives to press releases):

  1. Have something interesting to say. A press release implies something newsworthy. A press release that isn't is another form of spam. Don't cry wolf when there isn't one.
  2. Remember your audience, forget your client. A press release that your client loves is not as useful as a press release a journalist (and her editor) loves. Make sure your press release will help sell the story and get you coverage.
  3. Be brief. Antoine de Saint-Exupery said it best: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Most press releases would be more readable, more credible and more memorable if they were about 25-30% shorter.
  4. Get to the point. Most press releases start with a paragraph of pious throat-clearing about how great the company is. You need to open strong and get straight to the point.
  5. Killer lede. As with any article, the first sentence is the most important. You should aim to put as much work into the first sentence as into the whole of the rest of the press release. It needs to convince a busy, cynical journalist to read on.
  6. Be scannable. Press releases are very temporary documents. Readers don't give them a lot of time because they are not, usually, a high priority. This is a lot like websites and one of the key lessons of writing for the web is to be scannable. That means using bullet points, sidebars, pull quotes, bold, underlining, lines and other page structure to make it easy to scan the page rather than read it from start to finish.
  7. Tell a story. Human beings tell stories. They don't go to the coffee house and share press releases or soundbites. Donald Murray explains what a good story is and how to get it in Writing to Deadline (also available as a ten-minute summary).
  8. Reveal personality. Again, it will enhance your credibility and make the press release more authentic if you can capture a sense of real people. What are they like? How do they talk? Do they have any experience, hobbies, interests etc. that relate to the subject of the press release? Details matter. Three or four words that give life to a name will animate a whole press release.
  9. Eliminate hype. For an example of how hype words (e.g. prestigious, leading etc.) don't work, read the worst press release ever. Readers don't just discount hype words when they read them, they assume the opposite of what you said. Hype words are road blocks on the journey to credibility.
  10. Throw in the occasional firework. A one-sentence paragraph. A killer quote. A spectacular analogy. A powerful statistic. An appropriate use of an everyday expression. Always try to add a little fizz and ginger to everything you write.

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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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