What the NYT & Nobel Prize in Chemistry Can Teach PR Writers

By Lauren Edwards

Technology PR writers, why not take a page from the New York Times play book next time you have to write a news release, blog post or contributed article?

Have a look at this story from yesterday’s news. It’s a great example of principles you can apply to get the attention of editors, customers and those whose business you’d like to win.

Let’s break it down.

3 Makers of World’s Smallest Machines Awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry

By KENNETH CHANG and SEWELL CHAN, OCT. 5, 2016

Three pioneers of nanomachines — making molecules that move — were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday.

↑ A. “Quick, easy gist”

The entire paragraph above is less than two lines across the page. It’s only 17 words, about half the length of sentences you see in many quotes and a third the size of most PR leads.

No reason your company can’t do this. 

Just hit the Return key.

White space – created by short words, sentences and paragraphs – is like light and air for readers. It lets them breathe. It invites readers in by creating an approachable impression from the start.

A long first paragraph may be a PR custom, but that’s all it is — a custom. It’s not right or wrong; it’s just the custom. Here’s an Apple news release that features a shorter lead and several single-sentence paragraphs. And here’s T Mobile. And EA. And Taco Bell.  And this famous one from Taco Bell. And this Silver Anvil award-winner by Ketchum for Clorox.

Even if you still prefer a longer lead, no problem. 

Notice the simplicity of this lead. Now this is an academically complex topic! But the first sentence guides us gently into a growing understanding.

By contrast, many news releases stuff a jargon-filled list of all the best features of a new product into the first couple of lines.

In the NYT story, there’s no attempt to impress with intellect.

The goal: Bring as many people as possible on board.

These “molecular machines, the world’s smallest mechanical devices,” could eventually be used for new materials, sensors and energy storage systems, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in announcing the prize.

↑ B. “The why”

The “why” always comes before the “how.”

Immediately, they tell us why it matters to the broadest possible audience.

“In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors,” it said.

↑ C. Analogy

Use the familiar to explain the unfamiliar.

A comparison to an unlike concept that has nothing at all to do with this announcement gives us as easy way to relate to the new information.

Marketing officers often hate this kind of thing. They say, “Why are you off message? Why did you include this superfluous information? Stick to the ‘news.’” For them, the news is whatever the company is announcing. But for the rest of us, including journalists, “news” is information we need for decision-making about our own lives or a break in the normal flow of events, an interruption in the expected.

So if your company introduces new products, well, that’s expected – that’s what companies do. So it’s not news in the minds of anyone but the executives and their marketing team. PR is related to marketing but different. PR is a kind of interpreter or matchmaker between the public (including journalists) and the marketing team.

This analogy gives me an ah-ha, a sense of how far off useful applications might be, and a nudge to my imagination that gets me personally involved.

Imagine if instead the article plunged right into impressively intellectual science. If it had, I would not have felt personal involvement and a “gee whiz” feeling of respect.

The three scientists — Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa — will equally share the prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $930,000.

↑ D. Dashes

In tech PR, I suggest dashes instead of commas to offset a long description that would normally be between two commas, especially if the description includes commas.

Why Did They Win?

Nanotechnology — the creation of structures on the scale of a nanometer, or a billionth of a meter — has been a field of fruitful research for a couple of decades. In this next wave of research, scientists are learning how to construct tiny moving machines, about one-thousandth the width of a strand of human hair.

↑ E. Timeline

What led to this moment? What is likely to come next?

“It’s taking a step farther,” said Donna J. Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma and president of the American Chemical Society. “I think it’s going to go a lot farther. They’ve got it started. I think this is just the beginning.”

↑ F. Job titles are lowercase, dialog is super-short, interpretation

Down: professor of chemistry, president – job titles are lowercase

Up: University of Oklahoma, American Chemical Society – proper nouns (names) are uppercase

Dialog is super-short: Words per sentence are: 5, 9, 4, 7. All under 10 words. This is probably a third to a fourth the length of many news-release quotes.

The content of the quote is interpretive rather than objective. This is one human being’s opinion. The only way to convey it is inside of quotation marks.

The quote doesn’t say, “We’re excited/pleased/delighted to announce …”

Only a lower-tier publication would use a quote like that. Why? See the yellow highlights in item C above. It would be expected that your company is delighted to announce a new product. It’s anti-news. Of course you’re delighted. Now tell me something I don’t know or tell me something that’s related to my own decision-making.

Dr. Sauvage took a big step toward their development in 1983, when he succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules to form a chain, called a catenane.

↑ G. Background at the bottom

Only later should you speak about chronology. The previous references to time were for the purposes of(1) offering an analogy and (2) putting the breakthrough into perspective. This reference is different. It’s backstory.

Backstory and background belong at the bottom.

This is contrary to what most of us learned in school, where we learned to organize our thoughts as “beginning, middle, end” or “past, present, future.”

Now that you are out of school and in the business world, you can organize your thoughts chronologically in your “brain dump/pre-draft/outline.” But then you need to pull out the bits that people can act on and move them up high.

Replace past/present/future with hook/why/how. First hook your audience with something relevant to them, then say why it matters and why now, then and only then say “how it works/how it came about.”

Backstory and background at the bottom, hook and relevance at the top. Rearrange.

The second step was taken by Dr. Stoddart in 1991, when he threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle.

Dr. Feringa, in 1999, became the first person to develop a molecular motor; he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction.

The three men invigorated the field of topological chemistry, the academy said. They were pioneers in the second wave of nanotechnology, a field that the physicist Richard P. Feynman, also a Nobel laureate, foresaw as early as 1959. He gave a seminal lecture in 1984, toward the end of his life, on design and engineering at the molecular scale.

Why is the work important?

↑ H. “The how”

Now comes the science. Only after having broadened the audience, helped them relate to their own lives, offered perspective and given any essential backstory.

In PR, this is where you include technical explanations.

You might even wait this long to describe the new product features and benefits. You can say what the prospective customer could get from the features (value proposition, not just benefits) up higher. But it’s best to save the specifics of the how for lower.

First establish relevance. Only then will they care about your company’s efforts.

If you start with what the marketing and product teams are so proud of, you might immediately lose your audience. You will have induced “MEGO” (My Eyes Glaze Over).

In particular, if you put messaging, features and benefits up high – as your corporate leadership would like you to do – you risk losing any readership at all.

And if you then have the CEO say he’s “excited/pleased/delighted,” readers OUT. Gone.

Instead, have the CEO interpret or connect dots, offer perspective or an analogy. Or have him describe the industrywide pain your company addresses – not the solution, the pain. Readers will relate if you talk about them and problems they want to solve.

In living organisms, nature has produced a slew of molecular machines that ferry materials around in a cell, construct proteins and divide cells. The artificial molecular machines are still primitive by comparison, but scientists can already envision applications in the future.

“Think about nanomachines, microrobots,” said Dr. Feringa, who spoke by telephone with journalists assembled in Stockholm at the prize announcement. “Think about tiny robots that the doctor in the future will inject in your blood veins, and they go search for cancer cells or going to deliver drugs, for instance.”

↑ H. “The kicker”

Reporters sometimes save the best or second-best quote from their interviews for the last paragraph, which in journalism jargon is called “the kicker.”

This is a good idea for your contributed articles and blog posts, but it’s not important in news release. Instead, I suggest you end a news release one or more of these:

  • Founder’s story
  • Vertical industries your company serves (unless you already put it at the end of the lead or in the subhead, which I recommend)
  • Description of other products or services your company provides
  • Industrywide pain point that shows your product in a desirable light (unless you put that in the CEO quote or in the second paragraph, which I recommend)

The technology could also lead to the creation of “smart materials” that could change properties based on external signals, Dr. Feringa said.

Who Are the Winners?

Dr. Sauvage, 71, was born in Paris and received his Ph.D. in 1971 from the University of Strasbourg in France, where he is a professor emeritus. He is also director of research emeritus at the National Center for Scientific Research in France.

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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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