The Ten Commandments of Reporting

I never thought I’d write a post              kitty-with-blue-eyes-not-a-reporter-c2012-wordsonthefly
about the basics of reporting
because most journalists I know
are extremely professional —
but last week I had an
eye-opening experience.

An otherwise credible trade publication featured an
article about a well-known company – and got much of
the information wrong.
Not only was the writing
careless but there were
breeches of etiquette.

I don’t think their actions were intentional but remarkably naïve. My guess is that the Publisher gave a production person a chance to write an article, and while this author was well-versed on her side of the business, sadly, she didn’t know much about the business of reporting.

So this is a good reminder:  just because we can write admirably in some situations doesn’t mean we’re journalists. Here are Ten behavioral Commandments to keep us on track:

1. Thou shall talk to a high level spokesperson. Talking to the receptionist, custodian, sales rep, or project manager does not constitute “talking with the company.” Instead, go through proper channels to make your goals clear, request mutually convenient interviews, confirm times and call-in numbers, follow with a thank you, recap or further questions. Quote several people for perspective; verify their names/titles and spellings.

2. Thou shall not steal – corporate content without permission and attribution. Just because you are reporting on a company, doesn’t give you carte blanche to use their material. An attribution typically reads: “Reprinted with permission. © Year, Company Name, first published in Source Here with Date.”

3. Thou shall do the legwork. Research the company. Check their website. Read industry articles. Listen to presentations. Access their collateral or annual report. It’s important to know how they describe and position themselves.

4. Thou shall beware loaded words. If you are familiar with the niche you’re covering, you’re probably in good shape, but if you are facing unknown territory, choose your words carefully. Often there’s corporate lingo or fine distinctions that convey vital information to insiders. For example, if you’re talking about publishing, “readers” and “subscribers” are not the same. If you’re talking about technology, “Flash” and “non-Flash” are lightyears apart.

5. Thou shall covet clear writing. Aim to be precise. To say that a customer can “use,” “upload,” or “send out” implies they have direct access to the functionality. If the company governs these activities, designate the “ownership” to the company and say that they provide these services.

6. Thou shall check facts and check them again. If in doubt, ask the company spokesperson to clarify. Most are more than willing to help. Don’t make an assumption– especially if based on a unique situation or small sampling. For example, if you see blue cups on several desks, don’t assume the corporate color is blue. Someone may just have been cleaning house.

7. Thou shall use visuals that provide accurate examples. Just because an image is colorful or appealing, doesn’t mean it accurately describes the company’s product or strategy. It could be old or stylized. It could be phasing out or changing. Verify that this is the best image to use, clear permissions, and secure the highest quality rendering.

8. Thou shall love thy editors – for critical thinking and direction… for headline improvement and copy edits… for probes that help you become a better, more insightful reporter… for the push that forces you to answer the unspoken question.

9. Thou shall be objective unless thou art writing a review. Eliminate words that convey your personal feelings or are intended to sway the reader. For example, using a phrase like, “Their seemingly good solution” suggests that you think otherwise, much like “the alleged offender” implies the person may be innocent.

10. Thou shall own up to thy mistakes. If something was missed or misunderstood, it won’t be the first time. That’s why credible publications run corrections and why book publishers use Errata Sheets. You don’t necessarily have to apologize for your opinions, but if the product is “black” and you say it is “white,” then it’s smart to fess up.  Sometimes blaming an error on a typo is a gentle way to avoid taking the full hit as a writer – but in the end, being responsive and responsible will go a long way toward your success.

laptop-acer-small-clean-screen-c-2012-wordsonthefly Amen.

10 Ways to Write Better

Every once in a while even we prolific writers need some tough love. So here’s a quick refresher course. For those challenged by writing or just entering the field, hopefully these points will serve as practical guidelines.

1. Don’t write as you speak.
Even in speech writing or scripting, it’s important to parse words and focus thoughts. No room for stream of consciousness here. Start at the beginning, make a point, come to a conclusion, and propose a call to action.

2. Write what you know.
Most of us realize there’s a clear benefit to drawing from personal experience, but if you haven’t lived it, you have to learn it. There’s little room for B.S. Pick the brain of someone who knows more. Ask questions. If not possible, research, source it, and check your facts by using a second reference.

3. Edit Yourself – Be ruthless.
Most of us  proofread to catch typos and poor punctuation. It’s harder to edit ourselves as we would a film – in other words, leave beautiful scenes and treasured phrases on the cutting room floor. But advice is to do it and do it often. If you’re good enough, you can afford to lose a few words. You can always use them in something else.

4. Remember Your Audience.
This hits me over the head every time I encounter press releases. Some are well written, but too many talk to the end user. Remember, you’re not selling your product or achievements to the consumer. You’re trying to entice an editor to be interested enough to cover your story or at least run your PR. Load the important facts up top; leave quotes for the end.

5. Be Aware of the Delivery Channel.
What might be right for a blog or family newsletter is most likely not appropriate for business writing. Skip the cutesy comments. Eliminate the “I’s” and “we’s.” Talk business and use terms that sell. For fundraising, opt for kinder and gentler phrases. Tug at the heartstrings but don’t beg. It’s still business.

6. Say Something Useful.
We’re all guilty of it. When we’re on a roll, we love to hear ourselves talk (or more appropriately, write). But make sure you’re not spouting industry jargon because it sounds smart. We used to joke about seeing how many times we could get “synergy” and “paradigm” into one paragraph. Great that we know these buzz words, but sometimes Plain English is better.

7. Track Your Results.
The nice thing is, except for a few Commandments, most words are not engraved in stone – and thankfully, the web allows us to replace them easily. So if something is wrong or isn’t pulling response, no need to suffer. Fix it. Change it. Try something new.  A bit of tracking code on your online campaign can work wonders.

8. Sit on the floor. (Huh?)
You heard me. Get a fresh perspective. Once I had a Sociology professor who made us sit on the floor the first day of class. He wanted us to see the world differently – not in terms of positive or negative influences but in terms of the dynamics that played between them.  That’s a good trick when looking for a positioning line — or certainly a child’s viewpoint.

9. Write Visually.
That almost doesn’t make sense… but remember that words translate into images…both mentally (those conjured up by great description) and physically (as those words layout on a page or screen). Leave some breathing room… a place for the eye to roam or the mind to wander. Think about how your words will look or sound to the reader or listener when accompanied by bright visuals or by nothing. Big blocks of dense text rarely succeed.

10. Show Your Writing to Someone You Respect.
This is a tough one; none of us likes criticism, but it can be helpful to share a draft for concept even if not for tight editing. Rather than share it for approval, assume the presumptive stance, “I’m about to submit this proposal. Does it make sense? Is it too long? Do you feel like anything’s missing? I’ll copy edit it later.”

Run yourself through this exercise, then go boldly forward – and mouse on!

How to Conquer Sales Collateral

Utter the word “Media Kit,” and panic will spread across the ranks. There will be visions of high-priced, die-cut, black-on-black varnished folders. Someone will surely suggest a rainbow of different sized inserts, each cut 1/2” shorter than the previous one (just try reassembling that!)… and surely there will be a look of terror as you announce actual costs for printing inserts, rate cards, and data books. Even the idea of a digital media kit will trigger fear of resource commitments.

Big tip: don’t call it a “Media Kit.” Say “integrated collateral,” “first in a series,” “something to put into a folder.” You get the drift.

As a writer, you may be charged with organizing the entire package or at least, creating content for key pieces. Much like a child tackling a school project, it’s wise to divide and conquer. Break the project into small parts. Determine what elements are most important. Then set priorities and realistic deadlines.

Using a “Work Order Form,” “Job Start,” or “Creative Brief” can help crystallize goals and wants. All too often a client will say, “I need this piece of collateral,” only to have given it absolutely no thought. On the other hand, a good sales director will be able to answer these questions on-the-spot — and these are the ones you should ask even if he/she is reluctant to fill out a form:

Strategy

  • What is the objective?
  • Who is the audience?
  • How will this be used?
  • Is this a launch piece or sustaining?
  • Informational or an offer?
  • What is the call to action?
  • What is the hoped-for result?
  • What is the revenue projection from this piece?

Content and details

  • Is there a deadline or promotional code?
  • What are the competitive positioning points?
  • What are the benefits?
  • What are the weaknesses?
  • Are there any guarantees?
  • Are there any disclaimers?

Messaging and verification

  • Should this dovetail with corporate themes?
  • Is this on brand? Or is this a new brand?
  • Do you have research or sourced statistics?
  • Are there any media/industry quotes?

Do’s and Dont’s

  • Are there technical terms I should or should not use?
  • Is there anything else I should know? (like a previous bad experience)
  • Can this be confused with another product or service?
  • Is this ready for market?
  • Give me the elevator speech about what you do.

Creative needs and production

  • Let’s discuss format and quantity.
  • What are the budget guidelines?
  • Who is the point person for copy approval? Design?
  • I’ll need a high res logo, tag line, URL, toll-free number, and address…
  • … your professional license number, nonprofit status, trademarks.
  • …your BRC and BRE set-ups, postal indicia, non-profit postal port.
  • Can I get a comment from the head of your company?
  • Please provide customer testimonials cleared for use.

These questions will point you in the right direction in terms of tone, content, and scope.

One more tip: think like a business person. This was conveyed clearly when developing a wall calendar. The designer had set up the months horizontally, 4 months per row. There were 3 rows, which correctly tallies twelve months – so what was the problem? The design didn’t break into business quarters – and that’s the way the world works. By reconfiguring the design into 3 months per row and 4 rows deep, we presented the year in a format that better served the client. Of course, the copy requirements on that job didn’t offer a highly creative forum for the writer, but it was the clear, logical thinking of that writer that turned it into a fully functional piece with exceptional shelf-life.

Getting Started: How to Beat Writer’s Block

Whether writing a college paper or Request For Proposal or an ad campaign or Great American Novel, you have to start somewhere. Often the task is daunting or timing is tight. You’re worried about what others will think or what has been written before. You might be tired from your last project or worse yet, haven’t written anything in weeks. There are several constructive things you can do:

  1. Clear your desk – and your head. Get yours tools together: scratch pad, pen, research material, reference book, copy points etc.
  2. Set the mood. Put on your favorite sweater, brew some tea, or leave a bottle of ice cold water at your feet (not near your computer). Put on the appropriate CD, plug in your headphones, or relish the absolute stillness (or street sounds) of your writing environment.
  3. Remember that there are always ideas out there—you just have to find the right one. So don’t limit yourself. You can afford to toss out ideas.
  4. Put some words “on paper.” Think of these as “triggers.” They may not relate to the work at hand, but they act like a cerebral treadmill, to warm up your brain. For example – I want to draft this blog, but I’m really thinking about the beach… so rather than squelch those thoughts, I indulge:
    “Off season water is black as it breaks on the rocks and rushes in over the sandbar. Along the tide line, smooth stones glint in the sun that promises warmth but doesn’t deliver. Abandoned driftwood creates skeletal sculptures up near the dunes. That’s how I know the Nor’easter had its way with the coast.”
  5. Now that that is out of your system, get back to the project at hand: write down what this project is to accomplish, and describe something about it. For example, “This assignment has to discuss the importance of dialogue in film,” “In this proposal I need to convince the town to buy my services,” or “I want the tone of this novel to be slow and laid-back.”
  6. Ask yourself, what do you need to do to achieve this? For example, “I need to find some films with great dialogue,” or “I need to research what services the town needs,” or “I think I’ve seen this style among Southern writers; let me find samples.”
  7. By breaking the task into small components, it’s easier to tackle. Don’t try to do everything at once. Look at your timeline and rough out a realistic schedule. Set deadlines for each part. Really strapped? Decide what you can skip.
  8. Even if you can’t start at the beginning, write a section that feels strong. Maybe it’s a scene in the play or a closing argument; perhaps it’s the premise or a few phrases about benefits.
  9. Don’t feel that everything you write is set in stone. If a few graphs come together, great! If you can’t figure out how to integrate them, just set them aside. Later, as your paper progresses or as your campaign develops, you may get to use them.
  10. So you’ve been working diligently and have a pounding headache or came to a roadblock. That’s your clue to stop. Step outside for some fresh air; eat some fruit; tidy up something in the house. In other words, take a break. However, don’t get so sidetracked that you lose your train of thought. Chances are, when you come back, you’ll feel refreshed.
  11. Still struggling? Put on some music and do a “web” of words (free association) to get those thoughts running. Another trick: look closely at a photo or artwork. Think of the story behind the graphic. Play a game—my fourth grade teacher called them “Kangaroo Words”—finding little words in larger words. See how many you can get. For example, consider the word “table.” There’s “a, tab, lab, bale, tale, tea, lea, at, be, la, able, bat, bet, let, teal, late” and probably others I didn’t see.
  12. Write as you would talk. Pretend your teacher, customer, or client is sitting across from you. Have a conversation. “Mr. Jones, you asked why history books are often skewed, and I think it’s because each person has his own memories, his own interpretation of what happened,” or, “In response to your committee’s request for information about our landscaping services, I need to first say, ‘look around.’ See that blooming magnolia in the corner of the park…the hardscape that creates a waterfall near the bridge. Well, that’s our work.”
  13. Don’t be stymied over facts. Hop online and verify. Even if you need to flesh these out later, “pencil in” a hypothetical scenario. “Yes, the female praying mantis does devour the male after mating,” or “the story about the ghost in the old gold town is documented in the hotel log.”
  14. Everything you write seems to be a dud? Then go do something else. It’s like the old trick on how to remember what just slipped your mind. Stop and think about what you had for breakfast yesterday. While your mind is preoccupied with something else, it “magically” remembers what you need to know.
  15. Last resort: shake it up. Do something different – work in a different room or at a different time. Call someone you haven’t talked to in ages. Play an old song. Flip thru an old photo album. Pull a book off the shelf and read a page. Lay on the floor and look up at the ceiling while you think.

There’s no telling what will inspire or shake loose your creative muse.