At the beginning of my career in PR, I had two bosses whose advice about writing really stuck in my head.
Joe Charest at Burson-Marsteller urged me to use “action verbs” instead of “is” and “are” to make my sentences and my message stronger. At Turner Entertainment, Roger Mayer—who amazed me by dictating all his writing aloud to his secretary; I can’t even think without sitting at a keyboard—always said, “Write with heart and say what you mean.”
I’ve never forgotten that advice (or those wonderful men). And it seems particularly relevant because I’ve been shocked by how much bad writing I see these days.
I keep thinking, “It’s a lazy world out there,” where spelling and grammar mistakes abound because people don’t read their own writing before sending it out; where over-the-top claims go unsubstantiated; and where serious lapses in judgment somehow get through without a second thought.
So in the spirit of Joe and Roger, I’d like to offer my own unsolicited advice to up-and-coming entertainment marketing and PR writers. I don’t know if I’ll have a career-long effect on anyone, but if I can make anyone think for a minute, I’ll be happy.
Here are my Six Suggestions for Snappy Writing:
1. Don’t bury the lede: In journalism, the lede (spelled that way so as not to be confused with “lead,” the metal used in typesetting) is the first paragraph of the article—it’s critical, because it telegraphs what the story is about. As entertainment marketers, we know that there’s nothing more important than getting our message across. If you fill your press release or your marketing copy with “clever” gimmicks or hide the news somewhere in the fourth paragraph…that’s, as they say on social media, a #fail.
2. Make sure there is a lede: In other words, you should have some real news to share. People can tell when you’re trying to make something out of nothing. Your costume character making an appearance at Comic-Con, in and of itself, is not news. I mean, whose costume character isn’t making an appearance at Comic-Con? But Bryan Cranston walking around Comic-Con wearing the mask of his “Breaking Bad” character, Walter White, so that nobody recognizes him—that’s definitely news.
3. Hold the hyperbole: Yes, we’re in the entertainment business so we’re supposed to be enthusiastic about our clients and products, but excessive use of adjectives, exclamation points, and breathless quotes will actually work against you with the jaded media you’re trying to attract. (Trust me, I know.)
4. Back it up: Your movie is “award-winning”? Your TV show is “a ratings hit”? Your client is “the next Lupita Nyong’o”? Sez who? If you’re going to make a claim, you’d better have the facts, statistics, credentials, or clips to back it up. And they’d better be real. Remember the story of Sony’s fake movie critic, David Manning, from 2000? Look it up on Wikipedia.
5. Don’t go overboard trying to be timely. We’ve all seen the spectacular flameouts when brands tried to jump on a news story or a trend—and ended up making more news for their incredible bad taste than for their product. Last year, Kenneth Cole kicked off a major controversy when he capitalized on the discussion of whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria by tweeting, “‘Boots on the ground’ or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear.” The stunt landed him on several “Worst-of” lists of the year’s marketing failures. (Cole later insisted that the tweet was intended to “communicate a consistent message that we are against war of any sort and we support our troops.” You be the judge.) There’s a fine line between jumping on a trend and jumping out a window.
6. Just write well. Check your spelling, your grammar, your punctuation. Know your “they’re” from your “their.” Avoid trendy slang that’s going to go out of fashion in the next five minutes (hint: it’s probably already over). Keep your sentences short. Make your point. Hire a proofreader. Think.
And don’t forget: Use action verbs. Write with heart and say what you mean. Then you’re already halfway home.