The writing challenge – complimentary training

THE key challenge of any written material is how to grab people’s attention.

Whether it’s a feature or a media release (aka press release), it is all about those first, crucial words.

Fail to engage from the very outset and the chances are that your intended audience will turn their back on you.

Specifically, a media release is an appeal to a journalist or media outlet, with the aim of generating coverage.

And the same rule applies: when snap decisions are being made by journalists, potentially fielding dozens of releases every day, the first sentence is where the game will be won or lost.

To understand what needs to be done to ‘hook in’ readers is to recognise that most people simply don’t care.

They will approach any written material subconsciously asking themselves, So what? What’s it got to do with me?

There are some starts that are just plain dull, such as the date and venue of where an event has taken place.

Similarly off-putting can be namechecks – especially in that crucial opening paragraph – not least because of the assumption that readers will recognise the name (an individual or organisation). Also, namechecks are often accompanied by a touch of self-congratulation, which can have people electing to bail out.

Prospective readers can be additionally alienated by complicated figures and geographical locations they have no connection with.

In longer-form pieces of content, it can be off-putting having to wade through idea heaped upon idea, without sufficient ‘way-markers’ to help the piece not only breathe a little but also to provide a route map.

All these warnings point to a single conclusion: written material – particularly media releases – requires an arresting start, preferably within the first two or three words. And ideally, gives a strong flavour of how people might be impacted – in other words, saying to your prospective reader: this is aimed directly at you; you need to read this.

Because you are a parent, a homeless person, an architect, a planner, etc, etc…

Take this example of a possible media release start: Fans of French cinema are to be treated to a rare appearance by a legend of the ‘silver screen’.

First up, we know, immediately, who the release is aimed at. Second, it has a teasing quality, because of a (deliberate) lack of detail. Third, it is short and snappy, and easy to read aloud.

And the writing of the remainder of the release – from paragraph two onwards – should become a potentially straightforward (and quick) exercise, answering the questions raised in the opening paragraph.

Who is that ‘legend’? Where and when is the appearance taking place? Why is the appearance taking place? Indeed, why is the appearance considered, ‘rare’?

Answering these questions forms the remainder of the release, into which a quote (say mid-way down the release) – from a key person – might help add context and colour.

If an opening paragraph can be summed up by any sort of formula, it might be this: target audience + verb + impact (or expected impact).

With each successive paragraph, the information being shared should be of diminishing importance. This tapering style recognises that few readers will read a story from the top all the way to the bottom.

In terms of further architecture: a headline is often a pithier version of the opening paragraph. And contact details might consider being 24/7.

Often at the bottom of a release, one adds so-called ‘Notes for editors’. It is here that background and history is often placed, for possible use in any final media coverage.

There is nothing so potentially fatal to a media release’s chances of ‘hitting the spot’ than it beginning with background. 

In terms of timing, a release is for ‘immediate use’ unless otherwise stated – ie a later time and a possibly later date (a common ‘embargo’ time is a minute past midnight, 00.01).

Media releases on PlaceDesignScotland are solely for the purposes of self-promotion, not taking issue with, or criticising, third parties (irrespective of whether rooted in any sort of truth).

For the purposes of presentational consistency, the first word of releases is all-capped (unless that first word is a single letter, in which case the first two words are all-capped). 

Quotes are bounded by double marks, and usually teed up as follows: Said person’s name, job title, organisation name: “xxxxxx.” 

Highlighted words or phrases are bounded by single marks. Job titles – such as ‘chief executive’ – are lower case, beginning with upper case applying to proper names only.

Headlines are mostly lower case.

Symbols are usually written out in full – for example, ‘per cent’, as opposed to %. Numbers are written in full, from one to ten; thereafter, as numerals.

Finally, when it comes to any imagery – graphic or photographic – the simple question is: has the person who created it given their written permission for its use on a site such as PlaceDesignScotland? If not, then you risk committing copyright abuse, which might carry a substantial financial penalty.

If permission has been granted, then it is a simple courtesy to credit them.

Good luck in your endeavours.

PS Purchase media release posting credits on PlaceDesignScotland, here.