McGuire on Media

Effective public relations writing from the mind of a retired editor with a dose of "stickiness"

I have been serving on a non-profit board at the Franciscan Retreat Center (The Casa) in Scottsdale for over a year. Because of the appreciation for my background with writing, the requests to write documents for every part of the Casa were overwhelming. If I fulfilled all the requests, writing church messages could take up all my time. At the same time, saying no seemed un-Christian.

Frustrated, this summer I decided to write a guide to writing material for a non-profit with a message to spread. When I looked around the Internet all I found were references to books on public relations writing.  I did not find an easy guide like this one below. Sophisticated readers will see there’s not a lot of original stuff  in my list of suggestions.  It draws on 40 years of experience with great writers at newspapers, a lot of reading and a lot of trial and error.  Students of writing will see a little bit of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, a little Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and, of course, chunks of Elements of Style which I just discovered is 50 years old! 

I wrote this list in hopes it would guide writers at the retreat center, and with some hopes it might help others teach peers in organizations how to make their messages stronger and better read.

I have been meaning to share these thoughts on my blog for a few weeks, but my friend Marianne Barrett, the Senior Associate Dean here at the Walter Cronkite School, catalyzed my thinking this week when she handed me a a copy of Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

I am only 35 pages into the book, but I am hooked. The book has perhaps the most arresting opening I’ve ever read in a non-fiction book. The book is about what’s called “stickiness,” but don’t be fooled. This book is definitely about writing.

According to the Heaths, the six principles of stickiness are Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions and Stories. Stare at that list. Those are the essential elements of great storytelling and communication. Hand those six principles to any journalist, storyteller or public relations writer and you have every right to expect a great result. 

I urge you to read the book, but if you add those six elements to this list I wrote for Casa communications I think even novice writers can produce effective writing.

Tim McGuire’s thoughts of writing messages for the Casa

What is my purpose? Why am I writing this message? Do I need something done? Do I need to inform about something? Do I want contributions of time, treasure or talent? Do I want people to better understand the Casa and what it stands for? Do I want to instruct? Do I want to energize or instill passion? The more specific I can be about my purpose the better the message will read. That purpose needs to guide the entire text.

Who is my audience? There is a big difference between writing a press release for public consumption, writing a letter to our congregation and requesting the help of the wealthiest individuals in our congregation. Right after you clarify purpose you need to clarify audience. Audience determines message and tone and even the facts and data you include. The more concrete the idea you have in your mind about the audience the more intimate, personal and effective you can make your message. I often try to visualize the people for whom I am writing. That can free me up to be personal and truly connect with my reader.

How does this communication fit into the context of my overall communication strategy? Is this a one-shot message? Or, is it the first of a series of fund-raising or informational messages? Most of our messages cannot be viewed in an isolated context, but too often we write them that way. We need to understand how our particular message fits into strategy, mission and project. One of the most important elements of this is to make sure we have buy-in from all the stakeholders. I think our messages would be much stronger if stakeholders weighed in on purpose, audience and context and then left the writing to one person. Editing messages by committee seldom yields a good result. And yet, most of the important input can be accounted if each stakeholder answers these first three questions.

What is the correct tone based on purpose and audience? There are few worse sins than humor in a very serious message or seriousness in an invitation to a fun event. Before you begin carefully consider tone and manner. Decide on levels of formality and intimacy. Keep a consistent tone throughout the message.

Can you find a powerful and an engaging hook? A hook is an engaging opening or a device to engage the audience and make them give a hoot! If I have a strong hook at the beginning I like to maintain it throughout the message and especially come back to it at the end. I have noticed too often that the hook does not have much to do with the message. Do not contrive your hook. Don’t let it become phony, routine or cliched.

What is the right length and what kind of emphasis should I place on data? I hate to say always, but almost always, I think our messages need to be short and tight. If I have narrowed my purpose appropriately I should be able to get my message across succinctly and get out of Dodge. There is often a temptation to include a lot of data in our messages. We should be very stingy about that simply because people find a lot of facts and numbers hard to read. However, there are some messages where communicating data IS the purpose. In those cases we need to think about bullets and other devices that make the data easier to read and digest.

All of these questions lead to an admonition: Keep it simple! Your task as a writer is to communicate and explain complex stuff you understand to an audience that not only doesn’t understand the issues as well as you do but they don’t care nearly as much as you do. Your task is to make them care simply and powerfully. Think of your writing as an easy-going conversation. That means simple short sentences. Avoid complex clauses. Keep commas and semi-colons to a minimum. Keep explanations simple. Do not try to impress people with your vocabulary. Keep words simple and powerful. Use active verbs. Avoid forms of the verb “to be” whenever possible. I leaped across the room is always more powerful than I have crossed the room. The greatest punctuation mark in the English language is the period. Go read some Hemingway to get a fine reminder of that fact.

Finally, deeply consider an outline. I have been writing, some say fairly effectively, for over 40 years. I use an outline 60-70 percent of the time. It allows me to answer all the above questions. It allows me to get a handle on the most important issues and the best organization of those issues.