Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Easy reading is damn hard writing: 3 questions for association communications

This quote is attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne but I first heard it from Walt Seifert, my PR prof at Ohio State. (One of the many “Walt-isms” that I still remember and use.)

I thought about the quote when a state-wide association of association executives emailed to ask me to write a story for their newsletter on the topic of meeting planning.

I get to pick the topic.

Hum. What do I write about?

So, I emailed back asking before I select the topic and start writing, could you share with me a bit about your readers: size of associations, age, interests, etc.

Recognizing that great stories are those that relate to the readers, I find the hard part of writing is determining what resonates with the readers. What are their problems and interests. What solutions can I offer them. (This is why before I give a speech or presentation, I ask the association to send a pre-event survey to members/attendees to ask their expectations of my talk.)

For what it is worth I love writing and can write quickly. That probably stems from starting my career as a news reporter for The Associated Press. Wrote lots and most of it under very tight deadlines.

So, I like to begin with research ... the “getting to know you” function. And, this should include what is the purpose of what I’m writing? Is it to educate/inform? Is it to entertain? Is it to get the reader to act? I like the phrase: after they read my story, what do I want them “to do,” “to not do,” or to let me (our association) do.

Next, I focus on the “lead” sentence ... the one that grabs your attention and frames the story. This is the most important piece you will write. And, as editors like to say, “don’t bury the lead” ... determine the important point and start the story with it. And, that sentence should be short (no more than 3 lines), sweet and easy to repeat.

For example, the shortest lead I ever wrote was an AP feature story on Wapakoneta, Ohio, a few weeks before hometown hero Neal Armstrong become the first man on the moon. After a lot of thought, I led the story with “Excited. Worried. Proud.” as it told the most about the hometown feelings.

As I build the story, I like to follow the broadcast news template I learned in journalism school: “Tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em, tell’em, tell’em what you told’em.”

So, after the lead, just tell the story ... remembering the old journalism format: Who, What, When, Why, Where, How. If you answer those questions, your readers will have the full story.

Great communication with members and prospects begins with great writing. As you look at your association publications and promotions, examine the writing and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is it reader-focused or association-focused? If not focused on the needs, interests or problems of your members (readers), re-focus and re-write it.
  2. Does it have a powerful, engaging lead?
  3. Does it answer the 5Ws and H ... you’d be surprised how often I see association stories that forget to mention the date or location of a meeting or event!
Yes, easy reading is hard writing. Yet, it yields compelling stories that engage your members/prospects and motivate them to act as you desire.

Happy writing!



PS. Remember another quote I picked up along the way:  "When in doubt, cut it out!"

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