Writing across all media
Imagine for a second that you’re a communicator at a large organization. It’s Tuesday morning, and you’re busy sketching out your plans for the next Town Hall meeting, when the phone rings.
It’s the VP of Communications and she has an assignment for you:
“We’re giving out this year’s Chairman’s Award,” she says. “Get down to the cafeteria and get a picture of Mr. Dongle handing the award to the employee, some guy named John Turner, so we can run it in the next issue.”
In the old days, this is exactly how it would work, right? With only one or two vehicles at our disposal, we didn’t have a whole lot of choices as to how we wanted to handle a story. So we fell into bad habits. Someone wins an award? Take a posed photo and run it in the print publication. That’s just how it was done.
Not anymore. These days, communicators have a wealth of tools and channels they can choose from. They have a lot of different ways they can tell a story: through print and podcasts, intranets and web sites and social media and video.
The trick is, you have to communicate effectively within each of those media. Which means you have to know how to write for each one of those media.
Taking the write steps
You need to write short and tight for home page copy, Twitter, and Facebook updates. Then you need to switch gears and be able to write effective feature stories for both online and print vehicles. Then you have to switch gears yet again and write in a conversational style for blogs and other social media. Finally, one more gear switch is needed—this time to write effectively for video and audio.
As an example, let’s say you wanted to write the “Awards” story for the company intranet. To get the most out of that vehicle, you’d need to master at least three (and as many as five) different styles of writing.
The intranet: It’s news . . . it’s features . . . it’s multimedia!
It used to be that only one kind of writing style was needed for the online world: Short, tight, lots of bullet points and white space. That’s because it was widely assumed that nobody read anything online. They skimmed, they scanned, they scrolled, they linked . . . but they didn’t read.
That’s not the case anymore. These days, people actually read online. They read full-blown articles on their laptops. They read novels on their iPads and white papers on their phones.
Because of this, writing for the Web has changed. Communicators today must master three styles of online writing:
1. Short, tight and concise for the aforementioned home-page headlines and blurbs, Twitter, and Facebook status updates;
2. Anecdotal, feature-style writing for the longer stories that you can now tell online.
3. Scripts, storyboards, and interview questions for multimedia sidebars.
Let’s take a look at each style in more detail. If you’re putting this story on the intranet, the first thing you need to deal with is the copy for the home page. That’s where you’re going to put a headline and a sentence or two to try and get people to click through and read the whole story.
Home-page writing needs to be straightforward and to the point. The whole idea here is to give people enough information about the story so that they can decide whether or not they want to click through and read it.
Which means you want to communicate as much as possible in as few words as you can. So while a headline like “Chairman’s Award Given”, may give you a clue as to what the story is about, does it really give you enough information to make you want to read the story? Not really.
What about this headline:
John Turner Redesigns Supply Chain Operations, Wins Chairman’s Award
It’s only nine words, but now we know who won the award . . . and more importantly, why he won it. That’s an awful lot of information to convey in nine words.
Now we have to write the summary that will appear below the headline. In the summary, every word counts. Great home-page writing is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.
Take a look at this summary for the awards story:
John Turner, Supply Chain Analyst, recently won the Chairman’s Award for his work in redesigning the supply chain and streamlining the way the organization delivers its products to customers.
No!! First of all, we have John Turner’s name in the headline. We don’t need it again in the summary. Second, we don’t need to know his title yet! That can go later in the piece, after the link. These are all extra words that aren’t serving a purpose. Here’s a much better summary:
“Innovative approach streamlines how the organization ships products to customers, saving thousands of pounds a month.”
Now even if someone doesn’t follow the link (and many people won’t), they know what happened. And plenty of people, drawn in by that explanatory head/subhead, will follow the link.
And when they do, we need to tell them a story. We need to switch from short and tight to anecdotal storytelling. So we might start with a lead like this:
“When John Turner took a hard look at XYZ’s supply chain process, he knew things had to change. He also knew those changes wouldn’t come easy.”
That’s a lead that might draw some people in! Then, we would continue to build the drama:
“There were too many products being stored in too many places. It was taking too long to get XYZ products where they needed to be. And the rampant inefficiency was costing XYZ thousands of dollars a month.”
Now that the reader is hooked, we deliver a great quote, so they know there are real people in this story:
“Things had to change, and they had to change fast,” says Turner, a senior supply chain analyst. “The changes wouldn’t be easy, and I knew they would cause a lot of turmoil, but they had be done.”
And now that everyone is fully invested in the story, we can write a “nut graph”—a paragraph summing up what the story is about and tying it back to the “Award.”
The changes Turner made streamlined the approval process, saved the company money . . .and earned him the prestigious “Chairman’s Award” for 2010.
Bring your story to life
The final piece of this online story would be video. When you go to interview John Turner for the story, you of course bring your camera so you can do a two-minute video sidebar for the story.
But what should that video be? What should Turner say? You don’t want him to repeat information found in the article. You don’t want him to read a laundry list of people he wants to thank. You don’t want him reading anything at all!
Video is great when the subject’s emotions are on display. When they reveal their passion. To draw out those things, you need to write some great questions. You don’t want to ask Turner: “How do you feel about winning the award?” Instead, you want to ask him things like:
• Changing the entire supply chain has to be a scary proposition. What were you feeling as you thought about all the work you had ahead of you?
• What was the hardest thing you had to do? What was the scariest thing?
• Did you ever start to wonder if all the hard work would be worth it?
Those are the kinds of questions that will draw out good answers, and make for a nice sidebar capturing John Turner the person, not John Turner the supply chain analyst.
So there you have it. One story, three different writing styles. And those are just three of many! What if you wanted to blog about the Award? What if you wanted to do a podcast with John Turner and other Awards winners from years past? What if you were going to blow it up into a major article in the print publication?
These days, being a good writer for one kind of vehicle isn’t enough. You need to master many different kinds of writing styles in order to take full advantage of the many vehicles we now have at our disposal.