I should know. Mediocrity starts at graduation. I've received hundreds and hundreds of cookie cutter cover letters from across the nation which all seemed to have been cribbed from the same career advice book: "I am a senior who will be receiving my bachelor of arts degree in communications this June from Buckwheat College..."
Mediocrity inspired a famous Hallmark store poster depicting the Tower of Pisa: "It takes a lot less time and most people won't notice the difference until it's too late."
I once had an employee who wrote a letter with numerous mistakes, didn't show it to anybody, and mailed it, so I made her go to the post office and retrieve it.
Technology has made things so easy to do, that for some people, spending more than a token effort writing a press release or pitch letter can seem daunting.
Most of the newspapers and business magazines which we had delivered for office reading daily went unopened by the staff, until I made it required reading. Every year, I taught a company workshop on writing better press releases and pitch letters, and utilized two publications which had the best leads: The Wall Street Journal and Advertising Age. In their first paragraphs, you always knew what the story was going to be about, even with a little clever perspective.
The funny thing is that it's no secret we're all crunched for time: journalists are more pressed than ever before. Bloggers can post in an instant and are competitive with their ink-on-paper counterparts. Publicists are getting their information in short pieces over RSS feeds, reading blogs and shorter and shorter news stories. Everybody is trying to get the most information in and out in a shorter and shorter window of time.
So why do publicists still write as if none of this is happening? Why do they write long-winded press releases and pitch letters that don't cut to the chase in the very first paragraph when they themselves often don't have the patience to read those very same stories? Who is managing these people and letting them get away with this?
Don't believe me? I'm dipping into PR Newswire and Business Wire right now today to see what's being cranked out there and being paid for by good money. Here are three sample press release first paragraphs with their respective links. I look at each one, and try and nudge myself awake. Who are the audiences for these releases and do they care? Will they care? See each of my comments below each lead.
"Yes, financial companies certainly have been in the spotlight. Tell me something new because you've lost me with your long-winded lead."
"My eyes just glazed over. Did I mistakenly pick up my son's 7th grade history school book? I don't even know if I'll ever make it past the first 10 words of this. What's this got to do with the Discovery Channel?"
BUSINESS WIRE)--Callon Petroleum Company (NYSE: CPE) reported today the effect of Hurricane Ike upon its principal production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.
All of the company’s deepwater offshore drilling and production activities were suspended prior to the arrival of Hurricane Ike, and all employees and contract personnel were safely evacuated prior to the storm.
"And...? And...? If you're reporting it today, then just come right out with it, for Pete's sake!"
I speculate there are a few reasons why we'll always be seeing bad writing escape into the public domain:
- Nobody is advising college students that you've got to give them the old "who, what, when, where, why" in the first paragraph. Perhaps every student should be required to take Journalism 101 to learn it.
- Employers are willing to overlook bad writing for other qualities when hiring. That's okay if you're committed to keeping them away from corresponding with anybody.
- Nobody wants to spend the time to teach publicists how to write better. They'd rather send them to a one-time PRSA writing workshop or just let it slide.
- Publicists dismiss these things as "little." But little things do matter. If I had a dollar for every employee who incorrectly used "its" and "it's," I could retire right now.
If the better a press release or pitch letter is written increases the odds of achieving a response, then it should behoove whoever is in charge to raise the bar of all written materials. The responsibility ultimately lies with them.
If you sit down with your staff and get them to unlearn their bad habits, show them examples of great releases and pitch letters that work, it will demonstrate that this means a lot to you, you value excellent writing skills, and you want them to be better at their craft. It will be worth more than any amount of money you can pay for an outside workshop.