October 8, 2018
At our upcoming Jack Jackson Art of Writing workshop on Oct. 11 and 18, Ken O’Quinn will be sharing writing strategies and insights from his career as an AP journalist and coach to some of the nation’s leading brands and agencies.
As a preview of Ken’s perspective on writing, following is a post from his blog, reprinted with permission:
Tips to Write Quotes that Come Alive
Public relations and communications professionals routinely create quotes for news releases, but that doesn’t mean the quotes need to be dull.
Quotes are meant to deepen a reader’s understanding of an article, a release, or a story by providing facts, insight, a perspective, or emotion. They also bring writing alive, and our eyes are drawn to quotes when we read because they represent human voices speaking.
In mainstream journalism, the quotes are authentic because they are spontaneously given during a live interview. But within a company, executives do not want to be interviewed by their communications people every time a news release is published, so communicators fabricate the quotes and submit them for approval. That doesn’t mean they need to be boring. Just as broadcasters waste airtime by asking mindless questions, many communicators don’t take full advantage of quotes by providing substantive information. The quotes usually are predictable, self-serving, and boring.
Here are ways quotes can be useful:
- To confirm facts.
Here is an analyst on why people have been abandoning land-line phones since the start of the recession:
“People had to trim expenses but also had to maintain some type of connection, so many ditched their landline and went only to wireless.”
- To provide insight or expertise.
Here is an executive talking about Toyota’s decision to move Lexus production from Japan to the U.S.:
“Within 30 days, we put together our final proposal and went to the board. In Toyota terms, for us to do this in 30 days is lightning speed,” he said. “We had all the challenges figured out. The board had a few questions, not many, and the program was approved.”
- To convey emotion.
Here is a leader of the pilot’s union after airlines began rehiring pilots because of improved profitability:
“We welcome our brother and sister pilots back with open arms,” said Capt. Jay Heppner, chairman of the leadership council in the airline pilot’s association. “We have worked toward this day for more than five years.”
- To capture an attitude.
Here is a military commander responding to critics after a bombing:
“Leadership isn’t about being the most popular guy on the street. It’s about getting the job done and improving a bad environment.”
- To help you develop good quotes, ask questions:
- Why is this news significant?
- What is unusual?
- Why did we make this product?
- Why would anyone buy it?
- How will this affect our position in the market?
Quotes should help readers make sense of the news.
Don’t miss this workshop. Sign up today: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/jack-jackson-art-of-writing-workshop-tickets-49594884635
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.
If you could benefit from more business writing resources like these, sign up for this free monthly writing tip: https://www.writingwithclarity.com/
September 25, 2014
If you are a speechwriter, I recommend you see the movie “Argo”.
“Argo” is a simple story written by Ben Affleck about Tony Mendez. Mendez is a CIA operative who rescues six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis in 1981.
In 1979, Iran’s Shah is given asylum in the U.S. after his cancer diagnosis. Known as an oppressor of the people, his constituents want him returned to stand trial for his crimes. Thus, the people’s only recourse is to invade the American embassy and hold Americans hostage.
However, after an inventory is taken of the embassy’s personnel, Iran’s army realizes six are missing and hunt them down. Meanwhile, the escapees have sought refuge in the Canadian embassy where they remain for more than a year.
Mendez enters Iran under the cover of Kevin Harkins, film producer. He gives the six cover identities as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for “Argo”, a science fiction movie.
While under pressure to complete the mission, Harkins must take the crew to a local bazaar to establish credibility with the government. Yet, two of the six, Joe and Kathy Stafford, refuse to go.
Here’s where the speechwriter’s lesson comes in. Joe tells Harkins, “I’m sorry, Mr. Harkins. We just don’t trust you.”
Now Harkins can continue pleading, use force or ditch them. Unexpectedly, he does none. He says, “My name is Tony Mendez. I’m from New York. My father worked construction. My mother was a schoolteacher. I have a wife and a 10-year-old son. You play along with me today, I promise I’ll get you out.”
This is an important moment for speechwriters. It highlights the key to captivating an audience by writing a genuine narrative in the speaker’s authentic voice. This act allows the audience to learn something about the speaker and themselves. This holds their attention, educates, entertains and creates action.
Telling the speaker’s story and including personal anecdotes can shift a speech’s paradigm and unveil whom the speaker is as a mother, father, friend, colleague and community leader. It shows the speaker keeps a messy desk, holds a pen awkwardly, buys the wrong ingredients and even burns the chicken – it makes the speaker human. Without this story, a speech can run thin and be a bore.
Bone up on your interviewing skills
The key to story telling in speechwriting is savvy interviewing skills. My method is the same way you peel back an onion – one question at a time.
- Why are you passionate about this issue?
- When did you discover this and what happened?
- What was your interpretation of that moment?
- How did you feel about it?
- Why do you feel it stays with you?
After the interview, you must decide where in the draft does the tale belong? I say the beginning or the end.
Personally, I prefer at the outset and, if you’ve got the skills, use humor. Good lines capture the audience and help them relax. It says, “She (or he) will be entertaining and won’t waste my time regurgitating PowerPoint slides.”
The other option is at the end.
No matter the placement though, if the speechwriter does his job and the speakers do theirs, human stories can touch the heart, give hope to those who need it and make us act. Including anecdotes in speeches invite us in, move, educate, and entertain us.
August 21, 2014
I cringe 90 percent of the time whenever I read the direct quotes in a press release. They’re usually so obviously canned, and dull, dull, dull.
The quote usually starts, “We’re delighted to….” Tell us something we didn’t know. The quote then goes downhill from there, meandering into a long paragraph of pallid palaver no human would speak. Like the recipient of an Academy Award, the speaker goes on to thank everyone from his mom on down, anyone who could have helped in making this “great success” possible.
It’s too bad most quotes are so silly. A good quote or two can advance your cause.
Think like a journalist
A good release should read like a news story and avoid commercialism in the main text – rules that most releases violate, putting off readers who want information, not a baloney sandwich.
Quotes – along with the boilerplate at the end – are the only places where you can sneak in your marketing message. Since it’s a named person who’s speaking in the quote, not the impersonal third-person voice of the release, it’s OK to put in some marketing spin in the quote. (But for heavens sake, don’t overdo it.)
How can you get a good quote?
Start out by briefly interviewing the people involved – the key executive or expert at your organization or client, or, if another organization is an important part of the story, someone there. Real people usually say much more interesting things than anything you can make up.
If it’s not feasible to interview the principals, use a little creativity. Imagine what a living breathing person might have to say about this exciting, interesting piece of news. Tell readers something they can’t get in the rest of the release.
Keep ‘em brief and pithy. One or two sentences per quote – three tops – is plenty.
If you feel that coming up with a good quote is impossible, just skip it. It’s far better to have no quotes in a release than inflating it with trite gas.
April 24, 2014
So you’ve sent out your press release or story idea to a carefully tended list of news media mavens who should be interested in your news or idea.
What do you do next? Nothing and hope for the best? Call every one of them?
What works? Follow up selectively by email. If your list is large, choose the most important ones for follow-up. You can also rotate different media on your list for follow-up, so you’re not always following up with the same journalists. Always follow up with anyone who’s indispensable.
Here’s an example of a follow-up email that’s worked well for me.
“Hi Joe (or Dear Joe… depending on how well you know him or her):
Just checking to see if you had chance to take a look at the story idea on five surprises in retirement I sent two days ago. Glad to resend if you missed it.”
Pretty often, I get a reply along the lines of: I didn’t see it – could you send it again? It makes you wonder about how efficiently folks are handling their email. But heck, it works. It’s unobtrusive and doesn’t put the journalist on the spot.
There are a few folks I always call instead. Either email doesn’t penetrate their consciousness and/or their very helpful corporate system sends 99.9 percent of everything to spam.