|How to Get Your Message Across
Besides doing a good job in your area
of expertise, the success of your program depends to a great extent on how successful
you are in letting people know who you serve, how you can help, and where
to find you. And you may deal with a dual audience -- your clientele as well
as your funder. Here are some tips on communicating your accomplishments so
they can be understood. If you've learned something you'd like to share with
others, email us - firstname.lastname@example.org.
for sharper news writing
News is an event, a happening, a change, a piece of new or revised information.
A good guide to newsworthiness is the question "Would I care to read it?"
How to start:
Start your story by summarizing your key point in the first sentence. Capture
the reader's attention with an interesting lead paragraph.
basics: W, W, W, W, W, H:
Include the most important of the five W's and the H (who, what, when, where,
why, and how it will affect me or how it was done). Eventually, the story should
contain all of these elements, but the most common mistake a beginning journalist
makes is to try to get them all in the first sentence or paragraph.
Elements of a good news story - A good story should:
- Follow the inverted pyramid style--most important facts first.
- Keep your sentences short.
- Use short, well-known words (avoid jargon)
- Don't assume anyone knows anything about your subject, but don't insult
- Use active words to add zest to your writing (avoid, for example, it was
said, or it is thought).
- Use specific, concrete - non abstract - words and terms.
- Do not editorialize by injecting your own preferences or even preferences
of the subject you are writing about without attributing them.
- Keep paragraphs short. Usually two or three sentences are enough.
- Make easy-to-read paragraphs that amplify the lead or preceding paragraphs.
- Know when to quit writing.
- Avoid floating pronouns (instead, use nouns to avoid ambiguity).
- Avoid introducing sentences with dates of prepositional phrases (and avoid
overuse of prepositions inside the sentence).
- Write copy in third person (he, she, it or they, or John said). Modern writing,
however, more and more seems to be accepting second person (you).
- Proof-read copy and edit out unnecessary words; eliminate errors of grammar
- For good measure, have someone else read the copy and have them tell you
what they think it says.
- Type all copies double spaced on 8 1/2" X 11" paper, using only
one side (avoid onion skin or colored paper).
- Set typewriter for 62 characters to a line.
- Somewhere on the page (not on an enclosure shoot) give your full name, affiliation,
address and phone number, preferably in the upper left corner.
- Put release date (For Immediate Release or For (date) Release) in upper
- Begin story one-third of the way down the first page to allow for directions
by editors (headlines etc.)
- If the release is longer than one page, write "more" at the bottom
of each page.
- Type only on one side.
- Have a clean copy (no marks or other signs of sloppiness).
- If at all possible, hand deliver the copy to the editor or news writer who
will be handling the story on its way into print.
- Indicate the end of the release by typing -30- (journalese for "end")
at the center of the page below the final line of story.
To keep your credibility: Before copying or mailing any release:
- Correct grammar, punctuation, spelling (especially names).
- Check facts such as titles, dated, figures twice--once when you are writing
the story and then when you have it written.
- Have someone else read your story to check for typing errors and clarity.
- Rewrite awkward sentences-eliminate extra words.
- Re-read the story one last time to see if thought and fact follow logically.
These news tips have been complied from various writings tips sheets, including
the Marketing Division of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, as well as
from first-hand experience on the other side of the editing desk.
Life in the newsroom
...and how it affects you
The journalist's first concern:
The journalist's primary obligation is to report news as he or she perceives
it - not to the sensibilities or concerns of the person being interviewed.
Editors juggle many stories:
They decide which stories make the paper, which don't and which will
be cut to fit the space. Most stories are cut from the bottom.
For daily newspapers, the deadlines are at noon or six. For weekly
newspapers, deadlines are once midweek. Calling a reporter when s/he's
on deadline is not a good idea, unless it's information the reporter requested.
If a reporter called and wants you to call back, keep in mind when the
reporter's deadline is.
Obits today research tomorrow:
Reporters are usually under pressure to write several stories for that
day's issue. They don't have time to treat every story with great care.
Often a reporter who covered yesterday's fire will be asked to handle
a land use issue or university research story the next.
Most reporters conduct interviews to gather information for their story.
If the story is a feature or in-depth news piece, they also consult the
"morgue" (newspaper's library of past news clips) and gather
other background information. Having easy-to-read background information
is helpful to a reporter who is racing against a deadline.
No approval by sources:
Reporters don't check their stories with their sources, unless to
verify a particular fact. Reporters covering a controversy never check
their stories with the sources.
Editors write headlines:
Reporters don't write the headlines or determine story placement on a
page. Editors do.
Editors assign, reporters pitch:
Editors assign stories to reporters, and often reporters pitch story ideas
to their editors.
Radio stations give news updates at the top of every hour. TV news
people are editing their stories up until the 6 and 10 o'clock evening
In Montana, radio news directors determine what is news and report
the news, sometimes sharing reporting duties with another staff member.
At TV stations, news directors, or at the larger stations, assignment
editors, make assignments to reporters.
Most radio news stories are in the 30-second to 1-minute range, though
occasionally a major radio news network will run feature segments up to
8-minutes long. Television news pieces range from 1 to 3 minutes, though
special news feature programs run longer pieces. The upshot is say it
briefly, in short sentences that can easily be edited into the news spot.
TV is brief, visual and entertaining:
Don't expect serious, in-depth treatment from television news programs.
TV news, especially at the local level, needs to be brief visual and entertaining.
Also, there's high turn-over at small TV stations so the quality of news
stories will vary.
Radio forte is sound:
The thing that makes radio unique is sound, so most news stories will
have a "sound bite" of the interviewed person. The interview
can take place over the telephone. TV news, on the other hand, requires
visual presentation, so TV reporters will often be sent to the location
to conduct interviews and get other footage.
Home video not for TV:
Home video recorders are great for family viewing, but are not of sufficient
quality for TV broadcast.
Your comments on tape:
Audio and visuals don't lie. The reporter has what you said or did on
tape, as opposed to a newspaper reporter whose notes may be subject to
Don't ask for publicity:
The quickest way to "turn off" news staff is to call and say
you want publicity on something. (They'll probably turn you over to the advertising
people.) If you're interested in getting news coverage, explain the topic in
terms of how new, interesting, important, unusual it is and why it would be
of interest to the paper's readers.
Most releases go in the trash:
Most news releases from non-news organizations are regarded as "public
relations" material and wind up in the trashcan. Some news releases are
passed on to staff writers for re-writing or as a story idea.
When they get it wrong:
Was the story actually in error, or did you not like the presentation? Demanding
a correction if the latter is the case may not get you anywhere. If it's a serious
problem, call the reporter, but don't overreact.
Tips on getting newspaper coverage
If it's a local story:
Contact the editor or the particular reporter assigned to the "county"
beat or other relevant beat. Find out what reporters cover what beat.
When to call on the phone:
Reporters for evening papers are facing a noon deadline. At morning papers,
the deadline is in the late afternoon. These are not good times to try and contact
Pitch the story's news value:
Pitch the story in terms of its significance and news value. (Why is this mousetrap
so much better? The fact that the local water supply is safe is not news unless
there was some doubt about its safety, or unless a report has just been released
proclaiming the water safety.)
Use an angle a reporter can live with:
Present the idea in a way that makes the reporter what to write about it. If
the reporter isn't interested, see if you can come up with a different angle
and explain how it would meet the publication's needs. Quickly follow up with
additional information the reporter would need to do the story.
Don't call a reporter for every thing. Get to know when the media will be interested.
If a reporter calls you...
...don't freak out. Just provide the facts as you know them. It's okay to say
you don't know something - perhaps you can suggest someone who can answer the
question or you can find the answer and call back. Be sure to find out what
the reporter's deadline is.
Provide a press release of background information sheet that summarizes the
key information you want to present. Put the most important facts. Put your
name and phone number, and the phone number of others who the reporter could
get information. Providing a backgrounder is especially important if the information
is complicated. Having written information will help the reporter who is often
writing against the clock --be more accurate.
Provide black and white photos if you have them, or suggest shots that the newspaper
photographer could take. Some Montana dailies will use color slides to accompany
Develop a rapport:
Develop a rapport with key reporters/editors, so that they'll call you when
they have a question in your field.
Tips for giving a good interview
Today it's a story...
Be aware that if a reporter calls you, s/he may need the interview right away.
This is especially true for broadcast. Ask what his/her timeframe is and do
your best to schedule the interview before deadline.
"Hold my calls"
Schedule enough time, about 1 hour, for the interview, so you won't be rushed.
You might want to take the phone off the hook and close the door, so that you're
This isn't "War and Peace"
Remember the reporter has only 15-20 paragraphs (or 1 to 2 minutes for broadcast
media) to convey your story to the public. Summarize your main points. The media
will beat a path to your door if you can summarize important facts in a 10-20
Everyone's not an unclear physicist:
Find out how much background the reporter has on the topic. Take five minutes
at the beginning of the interview to fill her/him in.
Get the scoop:
Before the interview, find out as much as you can about what the reporter is
looking for. It helps to know what approach the reporter is talking and whether
s/he is after news, a feature, human interest...
Bring it home:
Pretend you're explaining to your mother what your work is all about. This is
not so much for the reporter's benefit as it is for the public. If you think
about how your story relates to the "average Joe", it will be better.
It helps to use analogies or metaphors - e.g. an acre is about the size of a
A Picture's worth a thousand words:
Think of ways to visually portray your story. This is especially important for
television, but newspapers need photos too. This makes the story easier to understand
and tends to get better placement on the newscast.
Put it in writing:
Give the reporter a written background sheet (NOT a technical document). This
lets the reporter double check his/her notes.
Just a phone call away:
Let the reporter know you are available to verify facts before deadline, and
then make sure you can be reached. Don't demand to see the story before it is
printed. There's an unwritten rule in journalism that sources do no check stories.
Keep your sentences brief, especially if you're talking to a TV reporter. If
you know ahead of time the main points you want to emphasize, think them through
until you can say them in short, clear sentences.
Off the record:
If you don't want something to be printed, don't say it. If you want the reporter
to know something, but you don't want it attributed to you, make sure you clarify
that before you say it.
Beware of manipulation:
Sometimes reporters might ask you something like "Would you say..."
and then offer an idea for your agreement or disagreement. Make your own statement
instead of letting the reporter put words in your mouth.
When they get it wrong:
Don't over-react. Gauge how wrong the story was and whether the mistake will
negatively influence how the public will perceive it - or whether it really
matters. If the mistake really matters, you might contact the reporter and clarify
the mistake. Only in extreme circumstances ask for a correction, or write a
letter to the editor clarifying the mistake. Don't sling arrows, you may need
to work with that reporter again.
Speak your mind, but...
Always emphasize where scientific evidence ends and personal speculation
Tips for Writing Annual Reports
Note: Much of this information applies to newsletters
- Know your audience. Ask yourself what your advisory council, county commissioners
and state legislators would want to know. What will impress them? Ask yourself
what it is that most concerns them. (Probably your area decision-makers want
to know if the money the county and state puts into your program is cost-effective,
is it helping the people it's supposed to help?) The answers to these questions
should help you write your program summaries.
- Communicate results. Legislators and county commissioners are less interested
in the hours you put into a program or that you continue to work on a specific
program. They want to know the results you achieved. (This is
why program evaluations are important -- to determine if your educational
clients are making behavioral changes as a result of participating in your
For example, don't say:
IRM continues to be alive and well in Shooster County. The IRM Committee
continues to work with the demonstration ranch to make the most profitable
decisions for their ranch. The committee is planning.
Four Shooster County ranchers are adopting improved range management techniques
as a result of visiting the demonstration ranch organized by the county's
IRM Committee. The goal of these techniques - - which include weed management,
rotational grazing and determining optimum livestock numbers -- will help
these ranchers improve their range productivity and increase long-term profitability.
- If not results, then at least a goal. You may not always have specific results.
In that case, say what you hope to accomplish with a program. Again, quantity
(time spent) is less important than quality (results achieved or hoped for,
and an indication that you're moving in the right direction.)
For example, don't say:
The agent held five planning meetings for the November 12, 1991 garlic
seminar. (That's all this agent wrote for this topic in the quarterly
The legislators and county commissioners might want to know why you're spending
time planning a garlic seminar.
You may need to address:
why garlic has potential as a money maker in your area?
how many people have called your office expressing interest in growing garlic?
what you would like to accomplish as a result of your seminar?
- Testimonials. Let your clients and participants do your talking for you.
They will speak volumes about whether your programs are effective.
Remember, you don't need comments such as: That Extension class was the
best I've ever taken. Or: Agent Brown is great to work with.
Get a photo of Susan Jones working on a project she learned through Extension.
Run a quote about what she learned and how she's applying it in her life.
Then you can explain the program and the results you're seeing. That way you
don't run the risk of your audience thinking you're always out to get "pats
on the back."
- Be conscious of the tone of your reports. Some reports seem to assume that
the reader is an "insider,1' that s/he knows why you're involved in certain
activities. Some reports also sound like the agent is not enthusiastic about
what s/he is doing. Taken to its extreme, this tone can almost be interpreted
as though the agent resents having to be accountable.
For example, one agent wrote:
Assisted two 4-H members with completing Montana Jr. Ag Loans for Colleen
Branstetter from the Montana Dept. of Agriculture to purchase a dairy calf
and 2 lambs.
Legislators and County Commissioners may wonder why helping these two 4-H'ers
is important. How does it relate to your 4-H program's goals? Be explicit
about the life skills the 4-H'er is learning as a result of working with the
Chaired the Hokum Area Chamber of Commerce Ag-Business Committee. We redirected
the entire committee direction to get away from the "traditional rut" we were
Do the county commissioners and local legislators know what the "traditional
rut" is? How did the agent help accomplish a change (of attitude or procedure)?
How does this effort fit in with the agent's program goals?
- Use headlines. (Some counties don't) An effective headline should excite.
Headlines should convey action, and have a verb in them. Headlines also help
break up copy on the page, presenting the information in short, digestible
- Lead sentences. Ask yourself what is the most important point about this
project? Then try to reflect that in your lead. Remember, legislators and
county commissioners are busy people. You need to let them know right away
why they should be reading this particular report.
Example of a bad lead sentence:
A major effort during this period of time was crop evaluations including
farm visits and office conferences.
Weaknesses of this sentence:
Doesn't portray any results or goals.
Doesn't portray enthusiasm about agent's efforts and goals.
Uses passive voice rather than active. Passive voice (a major effort was....)
makes sentences sound sterile.
A better approach:
Dakota County producers faced an unusual situation last year: higher than
normal moisture in the spring and lower than normal moisture last fall. (Then
a sentence explaining how the agent handled the requests for information on
how to deal with the situation.)
Explains who has the problem and how the agent is dealing with it. Puts the
agent's effort in perspective. Lets the legislators, county commissioners
know about a situation they should know about.
- What to call your reports. Don't call them accomplishment reports. Annual
Report is better. However, you may be able to come up with something more
1992: A Year of Progress for Ford County Extension
(MSU Extension logo and slogan at bottom)
(Cover could include a collage of action photos. showing community activities
the agent was involved with.)
MSU Extension: Working to Make a Difference in Ford County
(You could follow through with this theme by discussing your issues in terms
of Problems and Solutions.)
When deciding on your title, you want to be enthusiastic without overselling
yourself or Extension. Let your facts and actions speak for themselves.
- Justified type is hard to read, especially when you're using a non-proportional
- Photos. You'll need to start thinking about getting photos well before you
start putting your annual report together. This is usually the hardest part
of putting together a publication, because good quality black and white photos
are not easy to get. (Color photos will probably be too expensive because
you'll need to get color separations and pay for a four-color printing job.)
Strive to get good action shots, or close-ups of people with interesting expressions
or reactions. Don't use photos of a group of people sitting around a table
-- instead get a facial expression from one of the participants. If you're
using testimonials, go to that person's home and. photograph them working
on their financial planning materials or handling their farm's record-keeping.
Or go with the farmer into his field and get a photo of him pointing out a
weed he's trying to get rid of.
Prepared by Tana Kappel
MSU Division of Communications Services