When pitching, offer solutions rather than your own needs

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Back when I was entertainment editor at a metropolitan daily, my phone used to ring several times an hour with calls from publicists. I regarded these calls with about as much enthusiasm as a teenager does for a cloth to dry dishes.

Most of the publicists began the conversation by asking something like, “Did you receive the press release I sent last week?” (Yes, I’m ancient. These incidents were in the 1980s, predating email.) Although I’m a polite person, I always answered: “I receive several hundred pieces of mail a day. If you sent it to me, it’s probably sitting in my in-basket.”

The retort was not only true, but it also usually silenced the PR agents. This meant I was able to get back to my real job—supervising a large and talented group of reporters and filling my section of the broadsheet paper with interesting stories.

In addition to the regular callers, there were also a few PR professionals. How I loved talking to them. Instead of telling me their woes—and outlining what they demanded of me—they thought to reframe the issue. They anticipated my problems, and, best of all, they came up with solutions.

In other words, they took the time to explain how they would help me. There was no “You owe it to My Theatre Company to support our new show.” It was: “Here’s how this story will help/entertain/inform your readers.” They didn’t expect that I owed them anything. They always sold me.

Guess what. Writers should do the same thing.

Yes, I know this is hard to believe. You chose writing because it meant you didn’t have to leave your nice, safe computer and you could spend your work playing with words.

Well, in addition to whatever boss (or client) you’re dealing with, you’re also always selling your readers.

That’s right—you’re a salesperson. You need to convince readers they should take the time to read your copy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a newsletter, a website, or an annual report. If your readers are going to invest their time in your writing, they must be convinced it’s going to be worthwhile.

[RELATED: Get advanced writing and editing tips from Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela.]

First, you have to get their attention. The best way to do this is almost always to tell a story (the way I began this column). Stories are everything to readers. They provide context; they make the dull interesting. Most of all, they are “sticky”—that is, easy to remember.

Second, you have to focus on what the reader wants to learn. This may not be the same as what you want to write, but if you don’t give the readers what they want, then they’re not going to read.

It’s often a good idea to prepare a Venn Diagram showing where your interests match those of your readers. And—here’s the kicker—write only about the area that intersects. If you have trouble figuring out the Venn Diagram, then do a mindmap.

Yes, this is all work, but it will make your writing more interesting to your readers. If you want your words to stand out among the millions that are published every day, then you have a duty to be interesting. 

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