Pitching

49 words you should avoid in your press releases...

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know I often talk about making every word work for its place on the page.

That means no fluff or meaningless jargon. If it doesn’t add anything to the story, it shouldn’t be there.

When you’re writing about your own organisation, product or service, it’s tempting to slip into hype.  Most press releases I read are full of words and phrases that add no value at all. But using exaggerated sales language isn’t going make a journalist more likely to run your story. In fact, it can be off-putting.

Here’s my list of the worst offenders (crowd-sourced with the help of various journalist colleagues).

How many have you used this week?

1. Unique

Everyone claims their organisation, product or service is unique. It usually isn’t

2. Passionate

Many people are passionate about what they do. And so they should be. But does your passion add anything to the story (unless it’s about an X-rated product or service)? Probably not.

3. Showcase (i.e. 'to showcase') 

'Show' does the job just fine, doesn't it?

4. First ever

There is no such thing as a new idea. Well, very rarely. But it’s a phrase that pops up in every other press release I read. Unless you’re absolute sure you have a ‘first ever’ - and have the evidence to prove it - give this one a miss.

5. Leading

Everyone says their organisation, product or service is the leading one. In their opinion.

6. Provide support

What’s wrong with the word ‘help’?

7. Future thinking

I’ve not come across an openly backward-thinking organisation (or at least one that will admit to it). So what will this add to your story?

8. One-stop shop

Reminds me that I need a pint of milk...when I really should be reading your press release.

9. Cutting edge

In whose opinion? See number 4.

10. On trend

See numbers 4 and 9.

11. Harnessing (i.e. ‘harnessing the power of technology)

Why confuse things with images of horses and reins when ‘using’ does the job perfectly…?

12. Hot new

‘Hot’ is irritating enough. Combine with ‘new’ and it’s enough to (in the words of a colleague of mine) ‘make your teeth itch.’

13. Synergy

Sounds like a brand of shampoo. ‘Nuff said.

14. Revolutionary

Is your product or new initiative likely to bring about radical social and political change? Probably not.

15. Innovative

Everyone claims their organisation, product or service is innovative. If you can show (rather than tell)  people you’re innovative, you’ll be much more convincing...

16. ‘In our DNA..’

This is usually an attempt to invent a sense of zeitgeist...and rarely sounds plausible

17. ‘In a time when..’

Usually precedes a desperate attempt to create a ‘hook’ for a story e.g. ‘In a time when people are thinking about summer holidays/going back to school/Christmas shopping*.’ But those aren’t hooks - they’re just reasons why an editor might run a story now (rather than next week or month).  A hook shouldn’t be a hunch or a vague notion about something. It should be something concrete: a new piece of research, campaign or piece of legislation, for example.

*delete as applicable

18. Solutions

Often used in the context of dreary management speak e.g.’Sustainability Solutions Managed Programme.’ Dreadful.

19. Bespoke solutions

Even more dreadful.

20. Distinguished

Makes me think of men’s hair dye. And George Clooney. Although this is not necessarily a bad thing.

21. ‘In the light of’

See number 17.

22. ‘A wealth of’

‘Lots’ does the job just fine.

23. Hotbed (i.e. a hotbed of talent)

Often used to make exaggerated claims. The Brit School, Liverpool FC Academy and Royal School of Ballet Junior Associates could feasibly be described as 'hotbeds of talent'. The Surrey School of Dancing's Under 4s dance troupe? Probably not.

24. Fast approaching (i.e. 'with x fast approaching') 

Another one that often precedes a weak hook for a story (See 17 and 21).

25. Prestigious

Usually related to awards of some sort and vastly overinflated. The Oscars are prestigious. So are the Booker Prize and Nobel Peace Prizes. Retail employer of the month for Gravesham and Dartford? Not so much.

26. Thrilled

Used in the vast majority of press release quotes I read. I’m sure they are, but most people don’t go round saying they are ‘thrilled’ about things these days. Quotes that sound like a real person said them (in 2014 not 1914) are much more likely to get published.

27. Delighted  

See 26

28. Proud

See 26

29. Impressive

See 25

30. Hot topic (as in ‘the ‘hot topic of the moment')

Another one that usually precedes a very tenuous story hook.

31. Hot button topic

See 30

32. ‘Real world’

Usually used in the context of something like ‘real world’ experience. As opposed to, erm, other worldly experience...?

33. ‘The next wave of’

See 30 and 31

34. Exciting

Often used to describe something that sounds pretty unexciting.

35. Inspiring

See 34

36. Star-studded

Commonly used to describe an upcoming event that a few D-listers will be attending

37. Glittering

Commonly used to describe the line-up of an upcoming event i.e. 'a glittering line-up' a few D-listers will be attending.

38. Pioneering

See 14

39. Exclusive (when referring to products or services)

A thinly-veiled attempt to suggest something is new or original (when it isn't)...

40. Critically acclaimed

Unless you’re talking about a household name, you’re probably exaggerating (i.e. their mum thought it was good).

41. Internationally acclaimed

Their mum thought it was good and their auntie.

42.  ‘Has won praise’

See 40 and 41

43. The nation’s best

See 40-42

44. Groundbreaking

Another one that’s often a barely disguised claim that something is original (it rarely is)...

45. ‘The brainchild of...’

Commonly used to describe a fairly mediocre idea. And what's wrong with the word 'idea' by the way?

46. High-profile

See 40-42

47. Eagerly anticipated

Their mum is looking forward to it

48. Renowned

See 40-42

49. Winning formula

Another one that's commonly used to describe a mundane concept or idea.

 

Why I love it when journalists ignore my emails (and you should too)...

 

I got an email from someone recently who said she was unsubscribing from this blog.

This is what she said: 'I’ve been sending you press releases and email pitches for months now and you haven’t replied once. I read all the content you put out there, so why haven’t you read mine?

For those of you who don’t follow this blog regularly, I use my experience as a journalist and editor to provide actionable PR tips and strategies on everything from how to generate compelling story ideas  to writing more effective pitches and press releases (and a whole lot more).

I share my content on social media and some people opt-in to get regular updates (using web forms like the one below this post), but I certainly don’t force anyone to read my blog. Nor do I expect people to respond in the form of comments or social media updates (although I’m certainly pleased when they do).

So her email puzzled me - not least because it showed no understanding of three of the most fundamental PR ‘rules’:

1. Journalists don’t have  to read your press releases or email pitches. It’s your job to create story ideas they can’t say no to and write compelling email subject headers that make them stand out.

2. There is a relationship between the quality of your idea (and its suitability for the publication/programme you’re pitching to) and how likely a journalist is to respond.

3. Pitching is never about you or your organisation (at least it shouldn’t be). It’s about helping journalists solve their problems (Their biggest problem? Filling column inches or airtime with content that's a perfect fit for their audience).

Some uncomfortable truths

When a journalist doesn’t respond to your email pitch or press release, it’s easy to tell yourself it’s because they’re busy, they don’t know your client/organisation or ran something similar recently.

While this can sometimes be true, in the vast majority of cases it’s because they’re just not interested. If they were, they’d pick up the phone or drop you a line - probably by return.

Think of it like this: I may think this blog post is brilliant, but ultimately its success will come down to how much it resonates with my audience and/or helps them solve their problems. So the only true measure of its success is the number of pageviews, social shares and comments it gets.

It’s exactly the same with pitching: you might think you’ve got a cracking story idea, but if it doesn’t solve a journalist’s problems (i.e. it’s the not the perfect thing to fill column inches or airtime on their publication/programme), you may as well forget it.

Why I love being ignored...

As a freelance journalist, I’m in the unusual position of being pitched to and pitching to others on a daily basis. And if you follow my blog regularly - or have attended one of my live events, masterclasses or webinars - you’ll have heard me talk about upping my pitching success rate from around 3/10 in the early days to around 9/10.

So when a journalist ignores an email pitch these days, I love it. Why? Because it reminds me that I still have lots to learn and (call me sadistic) I kind of enjoy the process of analysing what went wrong.

These are the three questions I ask myself:

1. Was my idea really suitable for the publication? (that means rereading the programme - find out how I do that in minutes here)

2.  Was my subject line compelling enough (or my phone pitch)?

3.  Did I send my idea to the right person? (this usually involves a quick phone call).

In the vast majority of cases the problem is number 1 - the quality of the idea.

Sometimes it’s a case of tweaking the idea slightly and re-pitching. Other times you have hold your hands up, admit your idea's rubbish and go back to the drawing board. But taking responsibility for the problem and asking yourself tough questions like these is never wasted time. Even if your pitch is beyond rescue, you’ll learn valuable lessons that will help you nail the next one.

And if you’re wondering what happened to the grumpy emailer...when I searched my inbox, she had  sent me dozens of emails and press releases. But guess what? Her ideas were no good. Well not for me, anyway. I write primarily for the national press, but her ideas were much more suitable for local and trade publications...which is why I hadn’t replied.

If she’d done her research, she’d have known that and could have (a) avoided wasting time pitching to someone who clearly wasn’t going to be interested (b) put her energies into trying people that would be - two things that are crucial for pitching success.

Do you get nervous about pitching to journalists over the phone? Read this...

Do you get nervous about pitching(6)

Do you get nervous about calling journalists?

Have you ever spent hours preparing a pitch (maybe you even wrote a script) but found yourself stumbling over your words or repeating yourself as soon as you got on the phone.

Or perhaps you mind went completely blank.

If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Most of us share the same fears and doubts about pitching:

Is my idea any good? What if they say it’s rubbish? If the answer’s no, how will I explain it to my boss or colleagues?

It doesn’t matter how well-prepared or diligent you are, pitching can be scary and that’s largely due to the brain's 'negativity bias' which means we give more attention to negative thoughts than positive ones.

This means you’re far more likely to remember the time you messed up your pitch or a journalist was rude to you than the pleasant conversations you’ve had (which - and I’d bet my house on this - probably outweigh the bad).

Broadcast producers love characters and(2)

Fortunately there are plenty of things you can do to improve your technique and here’s three simple and effective tips for dealing with the fear of phone pitching:

 1. Use the eight second rule

Want to know the secret of creating killer phone pitches? Pay attention to the way radio and TV presenters introduce stories that are coming up next or later in the show. They have seconds to a give a compelling summary of the story that will encourage their audience to stick around (rather than reaching for the ‘off’ button).

Have a listen to this montage of links from radio and TV breakfast shows (the whole clip is 31 seconds). The longest is around eight seconds - the shortest just five - but the ‘top line’ of the story is absolutely clear.

So when you’re planning a phone pitch, ask yourself the following question:

“If this story was going to be on a radio/TV show later today, how would the presenter introduce it…?”

Then summarise it...in less than eight seconds.

Or to put it another way, fill in the blank

And coming up next_(1)

 (but remember, it shouldn’t take longer than eight seconds to say out loud).

To give you an idea of how many words you’ve got to play, here’s a transcript of the clip you just listened to:

“Also on the programme, we’re discussing how well we know our neighbours. 1 in 4 of us claim not to know them at all.”

‘Australian scientists have found that as facial hair grows more common, it becomes less attractive.’

‘Will a generation of children growing up on text messages lead to bad grammar?’

‘Why black cab drivers are furious about a mobile phone app that promises to save you time and money.’

 ‘Why one farmer has imported a herd of Swiss cows to make Kent cheese.’

2. Say what you want...

Before you pick up the phone, picture the journalist sitting at their desk. Perhaps they are writing, editing or looking something up online. Or maybe they’re deep in discussion with a colleague. The phone rings. Imagine them picking up the handset and hearing your voice at the other end. They have no idea who you are or what you might want to talk to them about.

Now if this sounds a bit ‘zen’, stick with me for a minute. I get regular calls from people who launch straight into a pitch without saying who they are, what they want, or asking if I have time to talk…all the usual things you’d get in a phone conversation. They gabble through their pitch without pausing for breath until they realise I’m not talking (because I’m desperately trying to make sense of what they’re saying), at which point, they stop and say something like ‘are you still there?’ I don’t understand what they’ve just said, so to save us both embarrassment, I say ‘can you put it in an email? ‘

Sound familiar?

When you phone a journalist remember that they don’t know what you’re about to say and may not have heard of your or your organisation before. They need time to process basic information, like who you are and what you want to talk to them about (remember that not every  call they receive will be someone pitching an idea).

Opinion is divided on whether you should ask journalists if they have time to speak before you launch into a phone pitch. Those in the ‘against’ camp say that if they say no, you’ve lost your chance to pitch. I’m in the ‘for’ camp because (a) I just think it’s polite (most of us hate being interrupted when we’re in the middle of something important) (b) It’s in your best interest (journalists are aren’t generally at their most receptive when an editor is screaming at them for copy).

‘Hi, I’m x from x organisation. Do you have time to discuss a story idea?’ is the perfect opening line because it states the reason for your call and how you might be able to help solve a problem (finding suitable content to fill pages or airtime). And using the word ‘discuss’ (as opposed to ‘run an idea past you’ or ‘see if you’d be interested in’) implies you’re ringing to have a  conversation - rather than give a sales pitch - which puts you on more of an equal footing with the journalist.

 3. Get your ‘top line’ in early

 When a journalist says they’ve got time to talk, don’t waste a time on background or context - deliver your ‘top line’ immediately (in eight seconds or less of course).

 So the conversation might go something like this:

‘Hi, it’s Steph from the Alliance of Mathematics Teachers. Have you got a minute to discuss a story idea?’

 “Yes, I’ve got a few minutes.”

 “We’ve just done some research that shows that children born in the summer do worse in maths exams.”

 OR

“Hi, it’s John from Excitable PR. Have you got a minute to discuss a story idea?”

“Yep, fire away.”

“Well it’s about a fourteen-year-old boy with autism who’s already running his own million pound company.”

Obviously what makes a great ‘top line’ will vary according to the publication or programme you’re pitching to and its audience (to find out more read this: does your  story pass the BBC Homepage test? ) but getting it in as early possible in your pitch will vastly improve your chances of success.

Want more tips and strategies for improving your pitching skills? Come along to my PR Bootcamp on Oct 20-24...

 

Would your story idea pass the BBC homepage test?

There’s a story doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment about a guy who’s selling his house because he’s lost his job and can’t afford the upkeep.

Unfortunate, but not that unusual, you might think. Until you see the pictures of the house. It may look pretty unremarkable from the outside, but inside it’s extraordinary. Every single room has been transformed into a different period from history - from a 1950s New Orleans kitchen to a Cambodian treehouse loft.

What makes the story even more extraordinary is that the owner, John Trevillian, has spent over 25 years and £700,000 converting the house, room by room.

But now it’s only worth £350,000.

I mention it because it is exactly the kind of story that makes editors sit up and take notice. It’s unusual and surprising. It has a hero (the owner, John Trevillian), a villain (his employer), an inciting event (getting laid off), a quest (turns out there’s a campaign to save his house)...and well, we’ll have to wait and see what the climax is.*

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 22.36.53

It also has all three elements that make something a compelling read (and also, not uncoincidentally, what editors look for in a story).

Fear (Will John Trevillian lose his house?)

Curiosity (Who is this John Trevillian guy? What kind of person would blow that kind of money on a house?)

'What’s in it for me?’ (Am I in danger of losing my house?)

It also passes the ‘BBC homepage’ test - a quick and easy way to find out whether a story has national potential - or not.

So what is the ‘BBC homepage’ test?

I should start by saying this is a totally made up term (by me), but it’s one I use all the time when I’m delivering pitching and media interview training.

And as I’m always saying writers should ‘show not tell,’ take a look at this screenshot to see what I mean:

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 22.39.19

A quick glance at the headlines for the most read and shared articles on the BBC news homepage (or on the homepage of any news website) tells you everything you need to know about what national editors are looking for.

It’s a common misconception that journalists are only interested in reporting ‘bad’ news. What they’re actually interested is telling stories that will engage their audience - issues they will care about.

From ‘The man who cross-stitched his own bank card’ to ‘Cow poo bus breaks national land speed record’ these stories hint at tension, the unexpected, heroes, villains, quests and dramatic climaxes. They also look promising on the ‘fear, curiosity and what’s in it for me?’ front.

Heroes and villains

I’m not suggesting every story you pitch should be worthy of a ‘most read’ ranking on the BBC homepage. But if you can inject some of the qualities that makes stories popular and shareable (like surprise, drama, tension, heroes and villains and so on) into your pitches, you’ll have a much better chance of success.

And it doesn’t have to be negative. This BBC story challenges the commonly held view that texting is damaging children’s language skills. It offers surprise by turning traditional narrative roles on its head. Texting - typically the villain - is the ‘hero’ in this story.

And this story I wrote for the Guardian about a new mentoring scheme for young people only attracted column inches because it was the only project of its kind for young women and its future was under threat. There was also an element of the unexpected, as highlighted in the opening paragraphs of the article.

Reality Check

You can also use the ‘homepage’ test to see if your ideas have national potential.

For example, could you imagine reading the following headlines on the ‘most read’ section of the BBC homepage (or the homepage of any national publication)?

- Children don’t know how to stroke cats

- Tech start up company appoints new marketing director

- New iPhone app launched to help students choose university

These ideas come from real pitches sent to me over the past few months from people who clearly think these stories have national potential. And while they are extreme examples, when you’re working closely with an organisation or a client (or you’re running your own business), it’s easy to forget that what’s fascinating to you may be of absolutely no interest to a wider audience.

And even if your own news sense is razor sharp, you can use the ‘homepage’ test on colleagues who can’t tell the difference between a national, regional or industry story.

Just asking that question: ‘can you imagine seeing that story on the homepage of X publication?’ (or, better still, showing them the homepage) can be enough to convince colleagues who are clueless about the media.

*For an update on the John Trevillian story read this.