How To Write a Great Headline

how to write a headlineYour headline is the most important element of any article you write. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what happened right before you clicked through to read this post. If you’re still reading this post, you’re either bored, very polite or you want to learn how to write a great headline and you believe I’m going to deliver on that promise for you. For me, the purpose of a great headline is to get the reader to read what you’ve written. For others, it’s all about the click. I’m going to assume that most Journalistics readers care more about the former.

So how do you write a great headline? I’ll get to that… but first, a quick story… In one of early journalism classes, our professor used to make us read all the headlines in The New York Times throughout the week. Why? Because The New York Times employed the most talented journalists. It was great advice honestly – it’s amazing how good some of those headlines are, and how instructive that exercise has been in teaching me the art of headline writing. I encourage you to try this exercise for yourself. For the next week, read the headlines of the print version of The New York Times’ front page. You’ll notice a couple of things. First, I’ll bet you find more than a few articles you want to read. Second, I’ll wager you learn a new word or two – those journalists have pretty incredible vocabularies. [Read more…]

Every Brand Has a Story To Tell

every brand has a story to tellOne of the first clients I worked with out of college was a toilet company. Granted the company was the largest international manufacturer of bathroom fixtures – products every house and office in the developed world has a need for. But imagine my enthusiasm as a freshly-minted PR professional, being told I would be working to secure publicity for toilets. I’ll admit, I wasn’t excited at first. Some might be discouraged by such an assignment, but I’ve always believed there’s a good story behind anything.

Maybe it was growing up in the plant business that gave me this perspective. After all, in the plant business, you take some seeds and some cow dung and turn it into something beautiful that people want to pay good money for. I think there’s a parallel behind that experience and the work I do bringing brand stories to life today. No matter how strong the smell of manure, I know I can make it flourish with just the right amount of tender loving care. [Read more…]

Action, Reaction, Interaction and Transaction

I’ve been writing a lot about strategy in this series on message planning. When you enter the execution stage and start to plan your individual messages that support your strategies, it helps to think about the results and performance you plan to achieve with each message. I think it’s useful to go through the exercise of planing the ideal action, reaction, interaction or transaction you might produce in response to each message. [Read more…]

Tell Me About It

What does your company do? Do you have a description you can send me?

If marketing communications is a component of what you do, you know your “about us” paragraph is one of the most important weapons in your marketing arsenal. If you’re the type of person that starts fresh every time you get a request for a company description or about paragraph, you’re wasting a lot of time. Aside from being a drain on your productivity, rewriting your description can also lead to inconsistency in your brand message. Inevitably, it will dilute the impact of your brand message.

On the other hand, if you have a prepared company description and use it consistently in your communications, you’ll strengthen your brand message – and someday, if you’re lucky, people will remember what you do. It’s not just a reach and frequency formula. It’s more like reach, frequency and consistency. Memorization happens through repetition. If you hear the same thing over and over again, you’ll eventually absorb it.

The first step on this journey is having your About Us paragraph ready to go for that next request. Here are a few suggestions:

Your About Us paragraph should be two to five paragraphs (I’ve linked to some great examples at the end of this post) and should include all the pertinent facts about your organization. This is commonly what you do (products you make, services you provide), when you started doing it, where you’re located or who started the organization. If you use the five Ws and one H, you should be able to get a good draft going of your About Us paragraph.

Your About Us paragraph is the most important piece of content in your marketing materials, since it can be  adapted into a lot of other items, such as your boilerplate for press releases, an elevator speech for salespeople, or a long-form company backgrounder for your website. You can pull your key messages out and hang a cheat sheet in everyone’s office or cube to further reinforce your message – right alongside your mission and vision statements (a future post?).

Here are a few pointers for keeping your brand message clear and consistent. If you follow this advice and create your About Us content, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the coming year.

Draft Your About Us With Friends

Your marketing team should create your About Us paragraph. This team should include your top business decision maker (CEO, President) and your marketing leader. In small companies, this might be the same person. I’ve always included more people in this process. You may want to include people form different departments, particularly those who work with customers on a daily basis. If you include them now, it may take longer, but you’ll have less people altering your copy later on. It’s always interesting to see how people from different parts of the company perceive what you do differently. Make the development of your About Us paragraph a collaborative process with your organization and it will be better and more reflective of who you are as an organization. 

Post in a Central Place

Despite wanting to be consistent with your About Us paragraph, things will change over time (e.g. the number of years you’ve been in business, your business location or the number of customers you have). It’s important that you have one version of your About Us paragraph (and all the other marketing materials you share publicly) in a central place – this way, when you update it, the fresh version is available for everyone that needs it. If you have an intranet, put it there. Google Docs or a wiki is a good option too. When you update it, let people know. There’s always somebody that downloads it to their desktop and ends up using a three-year old company description.

Enforce Noncompliance

I’m not much for rules, but if you find somebody is describing your company incorrectly, or using a three-year old version of your description, make them current. Educate them on what they’re doing wrong or give them the correct file version. If you do this, you’ll ensure that all your audiences (or publics for you PR purists) get the same message.

Have Different Word Options

A lot of times you will be limited by word limits for your company description. For your first draft, write as long a company description at you need to communicate all your facts and background. Once you have that version finalized, create smaller bite-sized versions in the final document. I’d suggest a 50, 100 and 150 word version for starters. You may want to have an optional paragraph that gets inserted for different instances. For example, if your description is being used in a communication for recruiting, you may want your “Recruiting Paragraph” that includes more information about that “Great Places to Work” nod you got and the number of employees you have or other key messages.

It’s probably a good idea to come up with a 140 character version as well.

Revisit Quarterly

Change happens. Take a fresh look at your description quarterly. There’s always some small detail that needs to be refreshed. Try not to change the essence of your message too often – unless what you do or your focus has really changed. On a quarterly basis, I suggest limiting your refresh to factual updates, such as the number of employees or customers you have. Of course, you may have some new information to add, such as a recent award or recognition worthy of inclusion in your company description.

Track Placement

Your about us copy can show up in a lot of places over time. Keep a running list of all the important places. If you make an update to your description, you’ll want to make sure it gets updated across all these places – particularly in directories or other listings that refer visitors to your site.

The SEO Component

Most of you know this, but your company description should have your top keyword linked to your most important page. In many cases, this is your website homepage and the most popular keyword for what you do. Since your company description will appear in hundreds or thousands of places over time, that can add up to a lot of inbound links. I would also include a separate written link to your website in the description, since people may not link your word, but they will include the link. Even if not hyperlinked, people will still find their way to your site.

Love in an Elevator

Most people can’t memorize your entire company description. Make sure you’ve got an abbreviated version you can spout off consistently in a short amount of time. Most people call this your elevator speech (hint, hint).

Put It Everywhere

In case this wasn’t obvious in the previous tips, put your description everywhere. Hang it up all around the office. Let people download it or copy it from your website. Put it in your About Us section and your pressroom. The more places your description appears, the more reach you have and the better chance you have for being discovered.


As promised, here are a few examples of “about us” company descriptions. Please feel free to add yours in the comments.

What can we learn from the examples above? What advice can you offer for people working on their About Us paragraph? Have a great About Us – share it!

Proverbs, Idioms and Axioms, Oh My!

Treat others as you want to be treated. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And whatever you do, don’t cry over spilled milk.

Proverbs, idioms and axioms can spice up your writing (and make conversations more interesting). But what are they? Here’s a quick refresher:

  • An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from its constituent elements (as in “kick the bucket”)
  • A proverb is a popular saying, usually of an unknown or ancient origin (such as, “a friend in need is a friend indeed”)
  • An axiom is a self-evident truth that requires no proof (e.g, “blood is thicker than water”)

[Read more…]

Writing Advice From An Elementary School Cafeteria

Today is my son’s last day of kindergarten. I had lunch with him for the last time of the school year yesterday (I’ve made an effort to do so on a regular basis since last August, when I first came up with this post idea). In his cafeteria, there’s a random banner about The Writing Process (the photo to the right). I’m not sure of the banner’s origin, and I’m not sure which grade they start teaching this stuff in (I know it’s not kindergarten), but I know it’s writing advice we could all use to improve our work. I’ve added a few additional thoughts to the outline from the banner (feel free to add your own advice in the comments). [Read more…]

When Communicating, Start With ‘Why’

A while ago, my brother gave me the book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek. While not a public relations book, I began thinking about its concepts from a public relations perspective. All clients have information and stories they want to share. “Let’s distribute a press release,” they say. Too often though, those press releases begin with the wrong message and clients miss out on opportunities for their audiences to buy-in and support their message. Instead of starting with what is important to their audiences, clients oftentimes want to start with what is important to them. [Read more…]

4 Tips for Creating an Intriguing Elevator Speech

When someone asks what you or your organization does, are you prepared with an on-message, concise explanation? If somebody asked 10 people in your organization what your company does, would they get similar answers? If not, you may be missing countless opportunities to establish and reinforce brand awareness. To maintain consistency of message across all your audiences, I suggest you develop and share an elevator speech with your organization.

Elevator What?

Okay, everyone might now know what an elevator speech is (you can probably figure it out). Simply put, an elevator speech is brief description of your organization—who you are, what you do and why it matters — delivered in the time it would take to move between floors in an elevator (that’s not a long time). [Read more…]

Outlines Help You Write Better, Faster

Would you build a house without blueprints? No, probably not. That would be a recipe for disaster. The same could be said for writing without an outline. An outline gives your writing structure and helps you organize your thoughts from start to finish, to ensure you get your point across or tell a good story.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the inverted pyramid style helps you write better press releases. Part of this approach is getting all the readers’ questions answered upfront (who, what, why, when, where and how), the other part is forcing you to outline before writing.

Do People Still Outline?

A lot of you are writers, so I’m sure you outline your writing from time to time. I’d guess that most people in the business world don’t. There are a couple of reasons I think most people don’t outline their writing anymore: [Read more…]

Five Ws and One H: The Secret to Complete News Stories

If you ever sat through Journalism 101, you know all about the Five Ws and one H. For the rest of you, you may find this concept helpful when preparing interview questions or writing factual news stories. This concept may help you write better news releases too, considering they should contain news.

What are the Five Ws and One H? They are Who, What, Why, When, Where and How. Why are the Five Ws and One H important? Journalism purists will argue your story isn’t complete until you answer all six questions. It’s hard to argue this point, since missing any of these questions leaves a hole in your story. Even if you’re not reporting on the news of the day, this concept could be useful in many professional writing scenarios.

In case it’s not obvious what information you would be looking to gather from each of the six questions, let’s look at what information you might want to gather with the Five Ws and One H if you were reporting on The Three Little Pigs: [Read more…]