Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How to write quotes of note

"It's embarrassing," said Julie Leicht, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. "We're the meth capital. And we're the leader in puppy mills. Welcome to Missouri."

This quote is provocative. Memorable. Believable. Everything a good quote should be. It's been banging around my head for five hours now.

Why? Because it's REAL, spoken by an actual person with actual authority in an actual AP story. Not an overly edited, processed, manufactured piece of dribble dreamed up by PR flacks in so-pale-it's-transparent imitation of their flesh-and-blood clients.

Exhibit A (identifiers removed to protect the innocent):
"The [] Partnership is pleased to welcome [] as a regional network stretching across the islands of the South Pacific where sustainable tourism is so vital to the future of the small developing island nations," said [Blah di Blah, Director of Blahhing at Blah Inc.].
Exhibit B (from same release):
"Sustainable tourism can continue to be a key economic and social development tool for the Pacific Islands, with meaningful linkages to other productive sectors, such as agriculture and handicrafts," said [Boredy Bored, VP of Boring at Bore Corp.].
AAAARRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!

Oh. I'm sorry. Those were my nerves being struck. Could you tell?

And thus we arrive at the subject of this week's copywriting post: HOW TO WRITE GOOD QUOTES THAT DON'T MAKE ME WANT TO STICK MY EYES OUT WITH A FORK.

Seriously, people, bad press release quotes are my major pet peeve. They waste space, paper, energy, and my time. Serious sins, one and all.

What's more, nothing exposes an unimaginative writer faster than a quote that uses six three-syllable words in succession and industry jargon so thick you could lay it as grout. So, in my ongoing attempt to make you stronger/faster/wiser, here are some rules of thumb (thumbs?) to keep in mind when crafting PR quotes.

1. Listen to people and the way they talk in real life. Brilliant, I know. Who would have thought that taking down people's actual expressions, turns of phrase, vocab level, cadence, etc. would lead to more authentic statements? Working remotely from your client is no excuse, either. We have phones, blogs, email, Twitter -- and unparalleled access to people's off-the-cuff, natural, concise patterns of speech.

2. Screenwrite your way out of the quote. Imagine your clients as movie characters. They're tied down in a dimly lit bar, surrounded by thugs, their lives hanging in the balance. Is now the best time to say "Clearly, by utilizing the sharp object ensconced in my sleeve, I can procure my own freedom and spring to safety"? No. You'd write this instead: "Look out! I've got a knife!" And while none of your clients' scenarios will ever be this exciting, lending a little drama and color to otherwise dry subjects will win your readers' appreciation.

3. Drop the jargon. Loyal readers know the intense and abiding hatred I have for excessive jargon use, particularly when one's audience is comprised of folks outside one's industry. Inside baseball terms are the fastest route to Hell in a quote, full of bloviation and devoid of meaning. Put words of substance into your client's mouth, and you increase the chances of the readers actually retaining something.

4. Advance the narrative. Do not repeat points you make elsewhere in the piece. At least, do not repeat them verbatim. Refer back/ahead, sure, but build the idea out. Let your client talk about the concept or topic with such excitement, depth, and candor that the audience feels they are privy to an incredible insight or revelation. And if you can't advance the idea ... well, then you've just found a good litmus test for whether you really need a quote.

5. Make your clients sound better and smarter than they are. This, after all, is your job. If your clients can't explain their own ideas, no one will trust or listen to them. My mentor calls this "polishing the turd" -- taking bad ideas and giving them worth and legitimacy. Tough, I know, but one that leads to stronger copy AND stronger client relationships.

And yes, you can quote me on all of the above.

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