Saturday, April 25, 2009

20 key writing tests, from tweets to talks

If I'm working in communications and public relations, what's the most important skill I need to have? That's the question on many minds in these tough economic times, when there's more pressure than ever to add value or look good to your current or prospective employer. But, truth be known, for me, the answer is always the same, no matter what's going on in the world: Excellent writing is not only the most important skill in communications and public relations, it's the most versatile. I've led all manner of communications and public affairs operations, mostly in large, visible nonprofits and a government agency--and helped many more of all shapes and sizes in my consulting role. I've done that before, during and after the advent of the World Wide Web and social media, and writing is still, to my mind, the skill that works no matter the medium.

For many, however, writing's a skill that isn't sharpened. If I were testing a new hire today, here's my list of 20 written products he or she needs to be able to produce to demonstrate a well-rounded writing skill:

  1. A news release or news story: While many, myself included, debate whether this format's on its way out, a good, short news release is still a staple item, and writers need to know how to write one that reads more like a news story than a puff piece. To advance this skill: You should be able to write a news release in less than an hour, even if you must acknowledge the lack of key facts.

  2. A photo op or media advisory: Shorter and more to the point, these half-pagers (which today would be emails) need merely to advise the who-what-when-where of an event, and any arrangements made for broadcast media, press credentials and the like.

  3. A suite of letters: At some point, your president or CEO will need to send letters of congratulations, condolence, or cajoling to persuade someone (to part with a donation or join an advisory board, say). Three paragraphs, no more. To advance this skill: Spend some time developing thoughtful grace notes that will add eloquence and charm in the voice of your leadership. Then, master the casual but well-timed short note as well.

  4. A speech: Set a time goal that's fairly common--15 minutes will do--and consider an audience to focus on. Then write it, making sure you read it aloud, time it and trim it to allow for applause and pauses. To advance this skill: Insert stage directions, notes ("pause here") and reminders instead of writing out well-known items ("tell vacuum cleaner story here").

  5. A commencement speech: A particular variant, commencement speeches need to inspire....briefly. No graduate wants to keep that mortarboard on any longer than necessary. Humor and a light touch go over well, but make sure yours keep this young and restless audience in mind. Better yet: Tell a funny story on yourself, to add perspective.

  6. Congressional testimony, written: You have 10 single-spaced pages, typically, and while this is for the printed record, it should read as if you are going to read it aloud. The best testimony combines a core message or theme; tightly-written summaries of supporting data; and recommendations or a call to action with specific steps on how to get there. If you can anticipate issues or questions before the committee, reflect them in your comments and offer as many answers as you can--or say where that's impossible.

  7. Congressional testimony, oral: You should be able to boil down a written testimony into 5 minutes' worth of a spoken version that retains your core message or theme, refers back to your written testimony, and omits nearly all your data--but spends most of its time on your recommendations.

  8. Talking points: One page of bullets that reflect the most important points, areas of emphasis or data that your speaker might forget in an interview or speech.

  9. An introduction: When your principal needs to introduce another speaker. To advance this skill: Write an intro that avoids repeating biographical details and shares a personal perspective. Keep it short--2 to 3 minutes or less.

  10. Ceremonial remarks: When your speaker isn't the main speaker, but is there to show support. No more than 5 minutes when spoken, ceremonial remarks should add some value by sharing little-known facts or a unique perspective. For example, if your organization's president needs to give brief remarks on an award or an anniversary event, she can highlight what was going on in the world in the year the award or event first occurred. To advance this skill: Study Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the premier example of short ceremonial remarks that made sure the main speaker was little noted nor long remembered.

  11. A tweet: 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation. If your organization tweets on a variety of topics, practice one for each type. To advance this skill: Figure out how to write an even shorter tweet that allows 12-15 spaces so someone can re-tweet it.

  12. A Facebook update: Similar, but longer than a tweet--and more likely to include fully expressed verbs and no abbreviations. To advance this skill: Figure out how to write engaging updates with humor, brevity and perspective. Add some personality.

  13. A memorandum: What does everyone need to know in this situation? What don't they need to know? Where can they get more information? A page or less, please.

  14. A letter to the editor: The short form of an opinion article. It must include--wait for it--an opinion. Ideally, you can get across what you need to say in two paragraphs: The setup and the conclusion.

  15. An opinion article: The longer form, destined for the op-ed page. However, the same rules apply: I should be able to read just the first and last paragraphs and understand your viewpoint and why you feel that way. The mid-section just helps make your case with data or examples. Five hundred to 1,000 words, max.

  16. A blog post: Try this in several formats and lengths, but at a minimum, be able to write a 250-word and 500-word post, the most popular lengths from a reader's viewpoint. This might take the form of an announcement, a short update, or an opinion.

  17. A greeting card: Short and special-occasion is your goal. You'll need a few words on the cover and an inside greeting. This may work for donors, members, employees, so pick an audience and an occasion to focus this task.

  18. An email message about a major tragedy: Think of this as an all-hands memo that needs to strike a balance between information and reassurance. An accident, a death, a violent episode all may form the basis. For practice purposes, research a past event and write as if it were current today.

  19. A press statement: Omit the back matter. This is merely a quote--sometimes as much as 2 paragraphs, but typically just 2 sentences will do. To be used when you want a limited set of remarks that is available equally to all news outlets.
  20. A headline: Still essential. Five or 6 words or less works in most formats. To advance this skill: Focus on including keywords that will encourage clickthroughs--such as adding a geographic location ("Hartford man wins charity prize" is better than "Name wins charity prize," for example).

I routinely coach writers working in public affairs, communications and development offices, and can conduct group trainings combined with one-on-one coaching if that's what your team needs--or just work with one writer. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information.

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