To Win Top-Tier Awards, Write in Narrative Structure

By Lauren Edwards

Ernst & Young, Silver Anvil and other top-tier awards go to those who also use the right writing style, not just to the most worthy nominees.

If you aren’t familiar with novel or screenplay structure and how to overlay it onto a PR situation, read on. This is a step-by-step recipe.

I’m not going to define “narrative structure” (think novels and screenplays) or say why you need it. I’ll go straight to the “how.”

The focus here will be PR campaigns, but the principles apply to other kinds of award submissions, too.

Step One: List business results

Make a bulleted list of results without using full sentences. Just circle things, highlight them or make notes. By results, I don’t mean the number of impressions. I mean: business results or some type of before/after comparison of the business’s prospects for success. Examples:

  • Doubled sales leads
  • Drove 123,000 visitors to website
  • Boosted conference attendance by 40 percent

Now forget about those for a minute. No word-smithing — not yet, at least. In the meantime, we’ll move on to a new topic within the submission.

Step Two: Identify the slight tweak

Look for the tweak or new wrinkle in your strategy or tactics.

  • What did you do slightly differently?
  • What was the particular spin your team put on the campaign planning?
  • What did you do that you haven’t seen much of before?

Write down your observations. Now forget about that for a bit. Next topic …

Step Three: List business obstacles

List the obstacles that were overcome. Just as with the first item about business results, don’t write in full sentences. In the PR plan, some of this may be in the situation-analysis section. Examples:

  • No advertising budget, recently reduced PR budget
  • Rival unexpectedly one-upped client the week before
  • Stock was down, top-tier pub said company was “swirling the drain”
  • New government regulations turn time-tested program into legal liability

Step Four: Contrast obstacles with results

Cut and paste the bullet-point-like specifics from steps 1 and 3 onto a blank new page. Only now should you begin word-smithing, but keep it loose and rough. Don’t perfect any sentences yet.

Compose a first two to four sentences that tell a story of transformation. This is where you say your team found a way to overcome obstacles (one, two or three of them) to accomplish XYZ specific business results. Don’t say how.

This is your lead or hook. It’s the best way to start.

This is what I refer to as juxtaposition. It’s a quick, side-by-side contrast of two unlike things — in this case obstacles and results.

Normally, the two are far apart in the submission. But if you put them side by side up at the very start of your submission, you get an immediate wow.

Juxtaposition adds a sensation of action and movement. Juxtaposing obstacles with results creates an appetite for reading about the how.

You have automatically created a story of transformation simply by showing just that — a transformation.

It’s OK if it doesn’t “flow” or even make sense — yet. Just show the before/after comparison. Skip the middle, for now.

Step Five: Show effects on outsiders

Brainstorm on *why* the story of transformation just above should matter to people who aren’t you, your company or your client.

  1. Why should outsiders care about the company’s plight and remedy?
  2. How is industry or society (not just company or customers) better off thanks to the change?
  3. What can other companies learn from the triumph?
  4. What does the company’s journey prove?
  5. Why does this story matter more this year than last year?

Capture a few of your answers. Then …

Step Six: How did research influence strategy?

Don’t write that you did research or describe your research. Instead say how the findings changed your team’s mind about how to plan the campaign. Focus on the findings’ effects on your team’s behavior and decisions.

Put another way: What did you do differently that you wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t done the research?

Write down your observations.

Step Seven: Start composing

Now combine steps two and six the way you did earlier with results and obstacles. So this time, you’re combining “slight tweak” with “research’s influence.”

Then add a phrase or as much as one line from step five (why it matters to outsiders).

Attach all of this to your result from step four (the transformation).

This is the content you’ll need for an executive summary or first few paragraphs, which will make or break your submission’s moving on to the next level of screening.

I’ve just described the “pre-writing phase,” which means the critical thinking and research needed to get the right ideas in the right places.


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Lauren Edwards is a former reporter for the Associated Press. She has been creating, customizing and delivering workshops for science and technology teams since 2000.

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