News update: I have been confirmed as a judge at this year’s (2015) “Golden Target Awards”, the “Oscars” of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), with judging commencing in mid-July.
Feature writing is not like news writing. The structures and styles are both different, with rules of their own.
What writing students often don’t realise is that in the feature article the most important parts are the opener and the closer – unlike the classic news article with its inverted triangle structure. You need a strong hook at beginning and a “pot of gold” ending. And short sentences help. A lot.
Yesterday’s The Sydney Morning Herald (26 August 2013, p. 19 of the paper edition) included a good example of classic feature writing by Vic Ahladeff, the CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. In an article entitled “Kings dream just a sleeper but for Mahalia Jackson”, he writes about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Others have noted this: it’s on the cover of this week’s Time magazine.
But Ahladeff’s article takes one angle: that of African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s role in encouraging King to use the “dream” theme.
So after teaching feature writing to university public relations and journalism students twice in the last 18 months (University of NSW and APM College, North Sydney), I find this article to be an excellent example for students. Here’s why.
If anyone warrants a footnote in history, it’s Mahalia Jackson. (10 WORDS, CATCHY) If anyone deserves a modicum of recognition for what transpired before 250,000 people crammed at the foot of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering afternoon 50 years ago, it’s surely Mahalia Jackson.
Comment: First sentence, catchy. Ten words. Second sentence 31 words, really too long, however he gets away with it because the sentence is evocative and he uses the repetition technique – mirroring the first sentence – at both the beginning (“If anyone deserves …”) and the end of the sentence – “it’s surely Mahalia Jackson”.
His second paragraph:
Yet her story remains unsung, her involvement in one of the greatest speeches of all time unheralded.
Comment: One sentence, which runs 17 words, and it is the “real catch”, placed just where the article most needs it. He throws the reader’s attention to the rest of the article. Wow, the reader thinks. Really? Tell me more. What was her involvement, they ask?
There’s lots of good stuff in the middle. His quotations are nicely chosen. I particularly the following part, because it develops its own pace, leading towards the final payoff of the “dream”:
Mahalia Jackson, one of the supporters clustered near him, spontaneously shouted: ”Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
King droned on. ”Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
Jackson again, more urgently: ”Tell them about the dream!”
He paused …”
And then the closer, the “pay-off”:
King was assassinated in 1968. Jackson sang Take My Hand, Precious Lord at the funeral. She died four years later, 50,000 people filing past her coffin to honour the queen of gospel whose unforeseen outburst paved the way for an oratorical masterpiece whose eloquence reverberates 50 years later.
Comment: First sentence of the paragraph is only five words long. Shocking. Assassinated. Yes, we knew. But still. This is the first mention of King’s untimely death. Second sentence – nine words, the connection is made again – she actually sang at the funeral. Third sentence – she died four years later – oh goodness, she died too. “The queen of gospel” is a nice phrase. The final sentence is a little long but it reads very well. It contains only two real adjectives – “unforeseen” and “oratorical” – both of which work well and do not duplicate their nouns, as so many adjectives and adverbs tend to do. The “50,000” and “50” numbers also create a parallelism. The words “eloquence reverberates 50 years later” give us a sense of history. Overall, the sentence makes us feel good about ourselves in that we are, somehow, a part of that “reverberation” and a part of that “history”.
Convinced? Read the full article, especially since it is available online free in its entirety (at least as of Tuesday 27 August, morning in Sydney). It may not be freely accessible for long, given the recent massive changes in newspaper business models.
Here is a copy of the “South Pacific edition of this week’s Time magazine, Volume 128, number 9:
Want to read the full speech: go to the US National Archives (note PDF document):
(Declaration: I know Vic Ahladeff, and he was the editor of The Australian Jewish News for many years while I wrote film reviews for that paper.)
The digital world has become so pervasive that we have lost touch with real life experiences. The same goes for public relations.
Earlier this week, I received a neat package in the mail, containing a box that had two packages of “Skittles” (both since eaten) and an old-fashioned stereoscopic viewer, all of it a promotion for the new Australian “Movietimes” comparison movie booking website. The promotions company involved – the Taboo Group, based in Melbourne – has been targeting Australian bloggers, as a means of promoting the service. Here is a photo (without the now eaten candy):
Well, I was charmed, and thus here (above) is my link. It has been an awfully long time since I have received an “analogue” (actually, what I mean to say is “physical”) promotion in the mail. I used to receive a number of them in my role as a film critic for The Australian Jewish News, but in our hyper-digital world, these have dropped away.
My favourite was a t-shirt some years ago that promoted a theatrical re-release of the (now classic) film Apocalypse Now. It had brown writing on an off-white t-shirt, and I remember wearing it so much that I finally wore it out. And I had loads – and I mean truly loads – of comments about the shirt. Mostly along the lines of, “Wow, where did you get that shirt?” To which I explained that I was a film critic and the distributor sent me a copy because of the re-release.
Cost of the “Movietimes” package – probably not much. Cost of the t-shirt: again, surely less than $10. Impact? Tremendous.
So when we continue our fancy digital promotions, remember that there’s nothing like some true “experiential” PR, the t-shirt, the candy, the physical object that we see, touch, feel and taste.
Spell their names correctly. A “cardinal” rule of public relations. To which I add “pronounce their name correctly”.
There is no mystery why some salespeople insist on mentioning your name again and again when they are trying to “make the sale”. Few things sound so sweet to someone than the sound of their own name.
There are few “personal” public relations mistakes worse than sending correspondence with mis-spelling. It shows you don’t care enough to check. Or you made a mistake and did not notice. You don’t really know them well enough. In all of these cases, it’s a “turn off”. It shows you simply do not care.
I speak from experience. While my first name is easy, my last name is not. One result is that I usually make restaurant bookings with my “official” first name, “Donald”. Have done so for many years now. And I am endlessly fascinated by the mis-spellings of my surname (last name), with “P-e-r-i-g-u-t” and “P-e-r-g-l-u-t” being the two most common, or adding an extra “a” (you guess where), or changing the “gut” to a “man”. Of all of them, it’s the transposition of the “g” and the “l” that bothers me the most, mostly because it’s simply not a pretty name that way. And I have one correspondent in an academic institution who continues to use this mis-spelling, many years after I first pointed out the mistake.
Recently, the importance of names was reinforced by a story told on Australian radio by American cellist Alisa Weilerstein: there’s a reasonably difficult last name. And that was the point of it all. In an extended interview on ABC’s Radio National’s “Breakfast” program on 12 June 2013, she told the story of how she played at the White House in 2009 with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and their family in the audience. As Weilerstein tells the story, the President introduced them all at the beginning, but stumbled over her name. Oh well, she thought, it’s a hard name, many people do. But at the end of the concert, the President was determined. Obama specifically thanked the musicians by name at the end, and carefully pronounced Weilerstein’s last name correctly – and looked right at her as he did so.
That’s what the President of the United States of America does. He pays attention to names, because he knows that they are important. We should recognise that too.
Here is a clip (11’13”) of Weilerstein playing at the White House:
As my post earlier this week details, California’s lock on our imagination continues, this time with Apple.
Apple’s latest campaign goes under the name “Designed by Apple”, and features two different videos, both of which end with the tagline “Designed by Apple in California”.
“Apple=California”. Never mind that my iPhone was manufactured in China. It was designed by Apple in California. That’s all that matters.
If the Chinese think they will ever catch up to the Americans, it’s only when we are convinced by the statement “Designed in China” that they have a chance. This may happen, but I am not certain if it will be in my lifetime.
Apple’s “Intention” video launched the company’s “World Wide Developer Conference 2013” (10-14 June), held in the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The video is worth viewing – it was already viewed by some 695,731 people by the time I got there:
There is a specific reference in the video to “saying no”, a point that that Steve Jobs made in his presentation to the World Wide Developers Conference in 1997, in which he stated:
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things. (Click here for the full video of Jobs in 1997.)
And here is a copy the “no” frame below:
And here is the just released “Made by Apple in California” TV ad (1’02”) that Apple has released:
The word text of this ad is:
This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product. How it makes someone feel. Will it make life better? Does it deserve to exist? We spend a lot of time on a few great things. Until every idea we touch enhances each life it touches. You may rarely look at it. But you’ll always feel it. This is our signature. And it means everything.
There are also “still image” advertisement forms of this campaign. I sure noticed it here in Sydney with a full two-page spread advertisement by Apple in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 29 June 2013. They repeated it again today – Monday 1 July 2013, with a two page spread on pages 2 and 3, the first time I can remember such a spread so close to the front of that paper (Good on ‘ya, Apple, for supporting that old analogue – print – media! I sure paid attention to it.) Can we expect more in the next few days?
Complete text of the newspaper ad – which includes more words than the 1’02” video version – reads as follows (including their actual formatting, spelling and punctuation) – an expansion of the words in the TV ad above:
This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.
When you start by imagining
What that might be like,
You step back.
Who will this help?
Will it make life better?
Does it deserve to exist?
If you are busy making everything,
How can you perfect anything?
We don’t believe in coincidence.
Or dumb luck.
There are a thousand “no’s”
For every “yes”.
We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.
Until every idea we touch
Enhances each life it touches.
We’re engineers and artists.
Craftsmen and inventors.
We sign our work.
You may rarely look at it.
But you’ll always feel it.
This is our signature.
And it means everything.
Designed by Apple in California
Poetry? Yes. Certainly consistent with previous Apple campaigns, going back to their “Think” campaign.
Here is a grainy photo so you can see the “analogue” version of the ad:
Postscript on 19 July 2013:
Apple continues its admirable financial support for the Sydney Morning Herald, with yet another two-page “Designed by Apple in California” ad on pages 2 & 3 of today’s paper. See below:
For the past year, I have been the project manager for ASIC’s “MoneySmart Rookie – financial literacy for young people” project and educational initiative. A few days ago, the first of these resources went live on ASIC’s MoneySmart website, including twenty different videos and coverage of seven different topics (credit and debt, mobile phones, moving out of home, first job, first car, shopping & banking online and study).
Postscript on 19 June:
– The project was launched yesterday (18 June 2013) here in Sydney at the UTS function centre. You read the ASIC media release here, Deputy Chair Peter Kell’s launch speech here and a news.com.au article here.
And here are the poster images of the “rookie errors” campaign aimed at young people aged (16 to 25) that accompanies the MoneySmart Rookie education initiative: