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June 28, 2000

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Iomega

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Subject:  How Not to Write Releases
Author:  VinOrdinaire

How not to write a press release

The audience for this message is restricted to those Iomega executives who are in a position to do something about the writing. If you are not an Iomega executive, do not read this message.

Let's take Tuesday's Clik OEM press release as a case study.

Overview
Clarity, conciseness, and emphasis. Those are the criteria you want to measure your communications by.

A second piece of advice is to remember the SOAP--that's Subject, Occasion, Audience, and Purpose. A good rule of thumb would be to treat these four elements as being arranged in increasing order of importance. Identify what you are trying to do (purpose) and who you are trying to reach (audience) before you get too far along with writing your message.

As a general rule, your PR people have not been very reader-oriented. Either they don't know who their audience is or they don't care. They don't ask themselves what the reader's needs are or what motivates him. They have also regularly managed to be ambiguous, wordy, technical, and inaccurate. But their worst offence is that they have been unquotable.

Clarity, conciseness, and emphasis are the hallmarks of good writing, so if you have something to say, say it with grace and wit. And remember the SOAP.

I know that some of you executives in the back row are already starting to tune me out for lecturing you about a few boring press releases. Go away. You're part of the problem. I'm talking to the other people, the ones who are willing to learn something and fix the problems that we will look at now.

Titles
Titles communicate both the spirit and the substance of your message. They should be short and clear. Here, for a study in contrasts, is today's Clik OEM title:

Iomega Continues to Add to List of OEMs Incorporating Built-In Clik! Drives Into Their MP3 Audio Players; Several Additional OEMs Have Selected Clik! Drives As Removable Storage Option

Twenty-nine boring words to say, "More MP3 Players using Clik!" Twenty-nine boring words! Please. Who has time for that? Are you writing for the convenience of a search engine or a human being? (The question is rhetorical.)

A second problem with the title is that it misses its audience. Your audience is not composed of engineers, but of underpaid and indifferently educated generalists. They need to be amused and entertained, but it's too late. They've already stopped reading.

By the way, did you notice how your title undermines your message by putting the word "option" in the title of a press release about Clik built-in MP3 players? These little semantic land mines are planted liberally in your press releases. I thought you should know.

[Part II, from a subsequent post]

First, let me assure you of an abiding truth: press releases matter. Along with your other corporate communications, they are your public persona. If your press releases are sloppy, lazy, incorrect, ambiguous, uninspiring, and cluttered, what can you do with them but hide them?

In Part I, we critiqued the title of the Clik OEM press release. Snap quiz: what were the issues? "Oh jeez," the back row is wearily saying, "were we supposed to take notes?" The correct answer is that there were three issues: The title was too long, the language was inappropriate for the intended audience, and a semantic land mine (the word "option") raised ambiguity about the product.

Now let's move on to the body paragraphs.

Coherence and Credibility

Business Wire
NEW YORK, Jun 27, 2000 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- Iomega Corporation (NYSE:IOM), a global leader in data management solutions, today announced that another group of MP3 development companies has joined the Clik!(TM) digital audio movement.


Stand back; a collision of ideas is in progress.

Consider the audience for this release (a journalist in the high tech field, I suppose, with a secondary audience of investors, retailers, Iomega employees, and the general public). Does the reader really think that a "movement" is underway? Of course not. She may be indifferently educated, but she does know that she hasn't seen any Clik MP3 players in the wild. It's all just talk. Does she think that another group of MP3 development companies is now joining this "movement?" Sure, in the sense that another plane can still go down in the Bermuda Triangle. But what then? Where's the story?

Let's back up a moment and talk about coherence. When writers link their thoughts into a coherent message, they are employing coherence-building techniques. That sounds simple enough, and it is. All it really means is that when you write you should clarify the relationship between your current sentence and its neighbors using one of five techniques: the use of pronouns, transition words, parallelism, repetition of key terms, and logical sentence order. Note to the back row: yes, there will be a quiz. I'm not going to explain the idea of coherence further because most of you already know this stuff. If not, order the advanced workshop.

You need to understand what coherence is to understand why the opening sentence is incoherent and reader-unfriendly. In talking about "another group," the writer assumes the reader's assent to the proposition that there was a first group. But Iomega's secrecy about its Clik OEM program in 1999 makes makes a mockery of the term (a secret movement?).

Another red flag in the opening sentence is the phrase "development companies", which may be factually correct but conveys wispy insubstantiality. People reacted to this phrase when they asked Iomega what happened to the big first-tier companies.

For an opening sentence, it's pretty weak. With that title and that opener, you have to wonder if the writer is on your side.

[Part III, from a subsequent post]

In Part I, we critiqued the title of the Clik OEM press release.

In Part II, we trudged through the first sentence and tried to agree that a secret and invisible "movement" was growing stronger with the addition of some wispy-sounding development companies. We tried, in short, to agree to an absurdity, failed, and left the "another group" lost with the first group in the mists of Iomega's Clik OEM program--we hope they found each other, and we hope they eventually emerge. Now I want to talk about quotability.

But first, the snap quiz. What is coherence? Coherence is A) audibility; B) connectedness and consistency C) a drunk's lost cause; D) a characteristic of laser light waves. The correct answer is, of course, B) connectedness and consistency.

You'd be surprised at how intelligible you can sound when you provide signposts to the reader to show the logical connections between your ideas. Techniques that improve coherence include--well, I could tell you, but I did that in a previous post, and anyway, expensive seminars are the proper way to learn this high art.

Anyway, please congratulate yourselves on being three posts into your online training.

Quotability

"More and more digital audio player developers are recognizing that the Clik! platform offers consumers truly unlimited listening potential because it is an inexpensive, dependable portable storage solution," said Mark Lucas, executive vice president, global marketing and product development, Iomega Corporation. "Thanks to low integration costs and an unlimited capacity advantage, these developers have seized Clik! technology as a definitive feature advantage."

Sigh. Does this quote sound like something Steve Jobs would say?

I'm not criticizing Lucas here; rather, I am criticizing the writer who put the words in his mouth. [For those of you who don't work in big companies, press releases are sometimes created out of whole cloth by the writer, quotes and all. One of the things I would advise is to stop letting them do that.]

The writer of the quote didn't think about who he was writing for or what their needs were or what they were interested in. The writer just cobbled together a series of quote-lets cribbed from a report or spec sheet or advertising brochure: "truly unlimited listening potential," "an inexpensive, dependable portable storage solution," "low integration costs," "unlimited capacity advantage," "a definitive feature advantage." The diction is a mix of marketing jargon and technological jargon, and while there's nothing wrong with either jargon, it should strike you as incongruous when at least six such phrases are jammed together, posing as a quotation by Mark Lucas.

Imagine an alternate universe in which Mark Lucas simply picked up a Clik MP3 player and told the writer what he liked about it. Then the writer repeated the exercise with Mark Lucas's nephew, Bruce Albertson's executive assistant, and half a dozen other people, getting a sense of what they liked about it and describing that human response. So instead of a quote that was a dusty cupboard full of talking points, we would have a quote that is a genuine human response to technology. The language would sound more--human.

Clutter

Words that serve no good purpose are like possessions that serve no good purpose; they are clutter. The more clutter you leave in your sentences, the less readable and interesting they will sound. Learning to identify and remove clutter is long-term project well beyond what's possible to do here. However, this sentence has been bothering me:

"Each Clik!(TM)disk holds 40MB of storage and can be purchased for an estimated street price of $9.99 (U.S.) each, when purchased in a 10-pack, compared to solid state MP3 players' 32MB flash- and smart-based media replacement cards that cost approximately $100 (U.S.) each."

About 43 words long, this sentence is replaceable with a 14 word sentence: "For $100 you can buy ten 40MB Clik disks or one 32MB flash card." In the replacement sentence a clear agent ("you") acts as the subject and a strong verb phrase ("can buy") describes the action. The same cannot be said for the original sentence, which is passive voice and lacks parallelism, among its other sins. And why are we constantly harping on the 10-pack in our press releases anyway? We could just say that Clik disks cost as little as $10 (ok, $9.99) and leave it at that. Or we could quote the real single-disk price; I would question the reference to single-disk prices in bundled 10-packs. It sounds sneaky.

OK, Iomega executives, that was three quick lessons. Others may disagree with some of my points and give you different advice, but I would hope that we agree on the need for clear, concise language that appropriately emphasizes your message.

Iomega needs and deserves better communication of its mission, its products, and its services.

Best wishes on the new Iomega.

VinOrdinaire


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