A friend referred me to Vinod Khosla’s Five-Second Rule at Forbes.com. It’s about the slide decks we use for presenting, and its wisdom is a lot like what you get in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink or thousands of blog posts about the importance of headlines. Here’s the Vinod’s test for slide decks:
he puts a slide on a screen, removes it after five seconds, and then asks the viewer to describe the slide. A dense slide fails the test—and fails to provide the basic function of any visual: to aid the presentation.
Post author Jerry Weissman explains how this addresses two of the most important elements of presentation graphics:
Less is More, a plea all too often sounded by helpless audiences to hapless presenters; and more important, the human perception factor. Whenever an image appears on any screen, the eyes of every member of every audience reflexively move to the screen to process the new image. The denser the image, the more processing the audiences need.
This is a good example of the underlying principle of instant rejection. It applies as well to emails, blog posts, and other content. It’s as simple as turning the page, switching the channel, or going on to the next email. As a communicator, or content provider, you get an instant to pitch your message before the attention moves on. If you don’t win the instant, you got rejected.
I guess many of us would like to think PR has fundamentally changed in the last 30 years, but frankly, not so much. At the core, some critical parts of it are built in. And they haven’t changed.
How would I know? I’ve been on both sides of this table. In the 70s I read press releases as a foreign correspondent for UPI and Business Week and others. In the 80s I read them as a monthly columnist for a software magazine. Then I became client of PR, company president, paying for press releases. Now I’m writing again, monthly columns in several publications, and this and other blogs, so I’m reading them again.
And wow, I have to say, so many of these things are boring and self-centered. They lead on themselves and why they care, rather than on what’s new and why anybody else would care. Person X has published a book is boring; give me something interesting about the book. Company Y announces a new product is boring; give me something the new product does for me, or for other people. Man bites dog, not dog bites man, please.
1. Make it Newsworthy
The news in media still matters. I’m amazed at how many would-be press releases start out with totally self-centered boring “XXXX company announces the release of YYYY product” as if anybody really cared about it. Boring. What’s the news angle there? Give them a hint at the headline of the story. What’s new? Maybe it’s the first, or the biggest, or the oldest; it needs to be something worth highlighting. The first cell phone that shoots darts. The first manure-powered car. Put that in the first sentence.
2. Make it Interesting
Has everybody forgotten that fundamental principle of good business letter writing (emails too), that you start with “you” rather than “I”? That extends to press releases too. Instead of the I-focused “our company announces” how about starting with “Now you can get XXX” or “Do you need YYY”? It’s like headlines. Ask a question. Generate self interest. Focus on the benefit to the reader.
3. Make it Surprising
We’re talking here about media, so think of it as headlines again: surprising generates interest. This is great for surveys and research announcements, for example. Find the most surprising information in there, and make that the lead. A recent Kauffman survey found that typical founders are married with children and well-educated and strive to rise above their lower-middle-class heritage. So they led the press release with that. I found it surprising. And that’s a key. Even if it isn’t really new, surprising works very well.
Yes, I know the math of my saying the first three commandments is off, but it turns out that when you look at them, all three of them are essentially the same thing. It’s about the headline, or the lead. Make them read on. Make it the core of the first paragraph. Then quote somebody in the next paragraph, then get down to the which company announces what.