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Archive for February, 2011

News releases are less common than they were a few years ago. Particularly in computer technology, they have been partly replaced by blogs. However, many organizations still rely on releases when they have major news, and when an acquaintance recently asked my advice on the frequency of releases, I also started thinking of the mechanics of writing them.

The first thing to remember about writing releases is that they are your organization’s bid for attention. Unfortunately, though, you are competing with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of publicists, all trying to get attention of the same journalists. These journalists see more news releases in a month than you will probably write in your life. They can’t pay close attention to them all, and, in some cases, familiarity has bred contempt.

Under these circumstances, try to envision the audience for your release as people with attention deficit disorder. They aren’t inclined to read your release all the way through, so you have one of two goals: to try to keep them reading, or, failing that, to make sure they get your basic message before they stop reading.

These goals shape the structure of every release. Basically, your news release is a repetition of whatever you have to announce: first as a phrase, next as a paragraph, and finally as several paragraphs.

Step 1: The Headline

The phrase is your lede or headline. Probably, it’s the most difficult part of writing a release, because it needs to summarize your news in about half a dozen words and encourage jaded journalists to read the rest. For this reason, you often want to write the lede last, when your main message is probably clearest in your mind.

Some releases use a sub-lede, in a slightly smaller font, in the hopes of embedding two thoughts instead of one in readers’ minds. This technique can be especially effective with a tantalizing lede that is immediately followed by a more explicit sub-lede.

Most of the time, though, a sub-lede is a waste of effort. If you can’t summarize in six to eight words, then twelve to sixteen often aren’t going to help you that much. You can’t be sure that readers will go beyond the first headline anyway.

Step 2: The First Paragraph

However, in the hopes that they are interested enough to read on, the next stage is to summarize your news in perhaps a hundred words in the first paragraph.Traditionally, the first paragraph starts off with a dateline — the name of the city, in brackets, from which you are writing. However, in the Internet era, a dateline is only necessary if the story is local and you wish to emphasize that you are writing from where the action is.

If possible, the gist should be in the first sentence, but this is the place where writers start to flounder in a number of different ways. One common mistake in the first paragraph is to echo the language of the lede too closely – if you start repeating yourself so quickly, you create the impression that you don’t have much to say, and readers will not bother with the rest.

Another mistake is to cram the first sentence with as many adjectives and adverbs and clauses and sub-clauses as possible, in the effort to summarize the news. Torturous sentences don’t encourage anyone. Far better to divide such a first sentence into several shorter sentences that are easy to read.

Still another mistake is to reach for cliches. For instance, a few years ago, every organization that issued a release liked to claim it was “a world leader” in its field. However, cliches will defeat your goals every time, because the whole problem with cliches is that, since they are familiar, they encourage readers to pay less attention, and skip over the rest.

Instead of these mistakes, focus on stating the main points clearly: who is making the announcement, what the announcement is, and why anyone else should care about the announcement.

Of these points, why anyone should care is the most important, and the hardest to write. If you are unfamiliar with the subject matter, you may have to pump someone for the information. Conversely, if you are familiar with the subject matter, you may take its importance for granted, or find trivial reasons far more important than anybody else would. At other times, the only honest answer would be that the subject is not important at all, and that you wouldn’t be writing the release in the first place, except that somebody in authority insisted, in which case what you say will sound unavoidably feeble. Yet stating the subject’s importance in a few sentences — perhaps even half a sentence — is the entire reason for the release; leave it out, and nobody has any reason to read the rest of the release. You need to imaginatively project yourself into an outsider’s frame of reference, and ask yourself what might matter to potential readers (or, to be more precise, what journalists think might matter to potential readers).

Given the pitfalls and the difficulty of stating your points, don’t be surprised if you spend more time over the first paragraph than the rest of the paragraphs in the release combined. However, after you have wrestled with the first paragraph, the remainder of the release generally comes more easily.

Step 3: The Body of the Release

The rest of the release is formulaic. Usually, the second and sometimes third paragraph give more details about your news in three to five sentences apiece.

About the third or fourth paragraph, readers may be getting a little restless, so it’s usually an idea to bring in a quote to encourage them to keep going. A quote breaks up the release and (unless it’s so stilted that no one obviously said it) is a personal touch – which readers always appreciate.

The best quote is one from a person who is relevant to your news, either an expert in the field or an executive in the organization that is issuing the release. Ideally, it should be something that the person could actually say out loud. Next best is one that the speaker writes for themselves.

However, if you have a good ear for the way that people speak, don’t hesitate to write the quote, then ask the person to whom the quote is to be attributed to approve it as something they would actually say. If the alleged speaker is a senior executive, that may be the only way you’re going to get your quote. Too often, an executive is either too busy to write the quote themselves or else, as often happens with technology releases, knows too little about the mechanics of whatever is being discussed to say anything that sounds knowledgeable.

After the quote, a release often has a paragraph or two that gives a less important detail or two. You can get away with such paragraphs because, having come so far, readers are likely to finish reading just out of habit. Still, you want to keep such secondary paragraphs short so you don’t tax readers’ patience too much.

In the last paragraph, you can provide a few housekeeping details, such as when an event is taking place or a product is scheduled for release. This matter is necessary, but not terrifically interesting, so personally, I like to augment it with another quote that stresses the importance or interest of the news, or its implications. That way, you might reinforce your message in readers’ minds one last time.

During the release, I like to describe the organization with only a short phrase. Stopping to describe the organization in detail is a distraction from the main purpose of the release. However, some of those who read the release all the way through may want to learn more about the organization without clicking a llink. For these readers, I like to put at the bottom of the release, separated from the rest by a sub-heading, a paragraph or two about the organization. It’s there if anyone wants it, and, being clearly marked, can be ignored by everybody else.

Final Preparation

And with that, you have the 200-400 words of the release. Rewrite it until it’s as short as possible – you can only get away with long releases if your news is unusually important. Proofread it endlessly. Simplify the language, and cut where you can. Grab a couple of people and get their reactions, and edit yet again, paying special attention to the lede and first paragraph, since you are now in a better position to know what they should say.

Then, just before you send out your news, check that you have included the email and phone number for whoever readers can contact for more information or to set up an interview. I like to put this information at the top of the release, above the lede, on the grounds that at, the very least, people will see that you have news and know where to learn more. This practice may mean that you endure clueless questions from people too lazy to read the release, but at least it means that you have connected with them.

One last point: Don’t let my suggestion that you assume readers are easily bored tempt you into doing something truly outrageous, such as sending out a release on bright pink paper with a novelty font. Ploys like that will get you attention, all right – but not the kind you want. More likely, it will result in people snickering at you.

Instead of going so far, concentrate on expressing your news in straightforward, effective language, and as concisely as possible.There’s an art to writing a news release, but it’s a starkly functional art whose structure shouldn’t be obvious to anyone except another publicist.

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Organizing a meetup group, I’ve discovered, is a good way to find new things to worry about.

When I first started the Northwest Coast Art Meetup Group in Vancouver, I worried that no one would show up to the first meeting. I tried to minimize the worry by asking artist and dancer Mike Dangeli to be the first speaker. Then Mike sent out an invitation to all his Facebook friends, and I worried whether the space I’d booked – the lobby of The Network Hub – would be large enough for everyone who said they planned to attend.

However, I shouldn’t have worried (although I did, of course, being the sort of person I am: About whether the third floor of a building without an elevator was too high for anybody, or too inaccessible; whether the food that co-organizer Nathan Bauman brought would be eaten, whether everybody enjoyed the talk; you name it, and I worried about it).

I counted eighteen at the meetup’s first event yesterday evening – fewer than I had expected or feared, but better than most first meetup events can manage from what several people told me. I suspect that predictions of snow kept the numbers down.

Mike had agreed to talk about “Art and the Potlatch.” It’s a subject that he is well-equipped to discuss, having given fifteen potlatches, and given away hundreds of thousands of dollars in art at them.

I knew in the abstract the importance of potlatches in First Nations cultures, and the importance that art played in them. However, it is one thing to understand something in theory and entirely another to see overwhelming proof of it. As Mike talked, I gained an appreciation of the wide variety of events covered by the term. Births, puberty, betrothal, marriage, the assumption of titles or responsibility – listening to the passing mentions of all the different occasions, I appreciated in a way that I hadn’t really before just how many rites of passage were contained within that simple word from the Chinook jargon. A single word didn’t seem enough to cover so many different occasions.

In fact, it occurs to me that this poverty of expression helped to hide just how devastating the banning of the potlatch from 1884 to 1951 actually was – and why they continued to be celebrated in secret. The same missionaries who urged the banning of the potlatch would have been outraged had anyone tried to ban their own baptisms, marriages and funerals. Yet either they didn’t notice or they didn’t care that that was what they were doing by passing the anti-potlatch legislation.

 

Another impression I took from Mike’s talk is how closely the art of the coastal First Nations is connected to these rites of passage. Not only the amount of art given, but the sheer variety – paintings, hats, masks, robes, jewelry, dancing regalia – on Mike’s slides impressed this point. Since that was what I hoped would come from his talk, I was glad to feel that realization sinking into me, and I hope that others at the meetup did as well. I didn’t want the group to be a bunch of dilettantes, but to provide a real understanding of the art’s roots and connections – and there’s no doubt that Mike started the meetings off the right way.

No one had any questions at the end, but few were in a hurry to leave, either. Most stood talking for the next forty minutes, and seemed enthused by what they had just heard. One or two, who were artists themselves, or the recent recipients of gifts, showed their own pieces of art. Many thanked me for starting the group.

I’d call the evening a moderately successful beginning. Now, I want to arrange the next event, and see if a bit of a community can’t be organized from the group.

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Sometimes when I have a spare moment, I browse the Geek Feminism web site. Often, it doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, but it almost always gives details that help to broaden my understanding. However, one issue caught me completely by surprise: the verbal and physical intimidation and abuse of women on the street.

My first reaction to evidence like a Google map of where one blogger had been harassed in San Francisco was disbelief. For the short period the map covered, it showed at least daily incidents, sometimes more.Catcalling, staring and sizing up, unwelcome innuendo and sexual invitations, being forced off the sidewalk and otherwise physically threatened — if you can imagine a petty piece of nastiness, it was described in the first hand accounts that I read, and I wanted to disbelieve it. Could such behavior really be so prevalent?

But the comments whenever someone blogs about this issue and the responses of various women I know rapidly convinced me that, if any hyperbole existed in the accounts, it was not enough to change the basic truth. The degree and frequency might vary from city to city, or from woman to woman depending on what they were prepared to endure, but such things really were a common part of many women’s lives.

Needless to say, I was shocked. But I was also left feeling naïve and wondering how I could have missed this basic fact.

So much, I thought for the powers of observation on which I pride myself. How could I have missed something so obvious?

Part of the reason, I suppose, is the widespread assumption during my teen years that such actions were disappearing as they were denounced by the second wave of feminism. They seemed then to be a remnant of a dying set of social norms. Cheering the change, I had unconsciously assumed what I wanted to be true – that no modern man would find this type of abuse acceptable behavior. I should have known better, considering how much the culture has changed since my teen years, but somehow I didn’t

Another reason for my ignorance may be that many of these actions apparently take place where no witnesses are about. The type of man who would accost a woman on the street would not want witnesses, especially another man, who might respond aggressively.

Of course, some men in groups also make life difficult to passing women, but I wouldn’t see that, either, because I rarely hang out in all-male groups, and wouldn’t linger in one that would find amusement in making women miserable and uncomfortable.

Or so I would like to think, anyway – a revelation of this kind leaves me wondering if I would know whether friends acted this way or not.

However, I suspect that the main reason I never imagined the extent of this behavior is that it is utterly removed from what I would consider proper behavior.

It’s not that I don’t notice attractive women. Like most men and women, I am well aware when I am in the vicinity of a good-looking person of the gender that I’m attracted to – it’s just that I consider it rude to impose my passing interest on them. I can easily imagine how little I would welcome such attention intruding upon me and my concerns, so I don’t inflict mine on others.

Instead, I observe and appreciate quietly, and without obvious or extraordinary efforts to do so. To do otherwise would be a form of rudeness, like stepping too far into someone’s personal space or touching them unnecessarily. To call out on the street, or to deliberately make someone uncomfortable just wouldn’t occur to me.

I suppose I am guilty of egocentricity – of assuming unconsciously that the way I ordered my daily life was the way that everybody did. Could I have failed to see this kind of abuse going on around me simply because I did not think to look for it? Worse – was there ever a time when I could have done something against the abuse, if only stood and glared, but didn’t because I didn’t notice what was going on? I can only hope not, but the possibility seems all too likely.

I’m left feeling appalled and humbled – and worrying what else is going on around me that my expectations and assumptions leave me oblivious about.

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Gary Minaker Russ is probably the most imaginative argillite carver at work today. Resisting the pressure to do endless imitations of Bill Reid’s “Raven and the First Men” or to embellish his work with flashy but overdone inlays, he approaches each piece with imagination and integrity. The disadvantage of this approach is that his work is sometimes overlooked because it lacks the predictability needed for a successful brand, but the advantage is that he often produces works that are both beautiful and original, such as “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam.”

“Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is an argillite rattle, with abalone eyes. The rattle itself is a clam shell with broken shell inside and surrounded by a web of red cedar made by weaver Maxine Edgar. Leather wraps the handle of a rattle, which rests in an argillite base.

Although the top of the base has a simple salmon-eye design, the rattle as a whole is a naturalistic rather than a formline design – an approach you sometimes see in historic argillite pieces, but rarely see in modern work. All eight tentacles are present, and, if you look closely, you can see the striations of muscle along the tentacles, and the lines of suckers where the underside of the tentacles are visible. The imitation of life is not total, giving way to artistic considerations in such details as the roundness of the head, the abalone eyes, and the darkness of the argillite, but in general the realism is much greater than you normally find in Haida art.

There is realism, too, in the general concept of the rattle; an octopus actually does crush clams and other shellfish in the way that the rattle depicts. Once you see it, the idea seems simple and ideally suited to the shape of a rattle – yet, so far as I have been able to find, no other artist, historic or contemporary, or in any medium has seen the analogy except Minaker Russ. The day that I bought it, he showed it to several passing Haida friends, and not one failed to exclaim about how unique the design was.

Another important aspect of “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is the fact that it is mixed media. Viewing Northwest Coast Art, it is easy to forget that what you see would have been historically a part of everyday life. However, the fact that this piece is not only a functional rattle but also includes a staple seafood and the work of another artist firmly embeds it in the culture that it comes from.

The connection is all the stronger because, according to Minaker Russ, the clam shell was picked up on North Beach near Masset on Haida Gwaii, which is traditionally the place where Raven discovered the first people in a shell. Historically, the shell was not a clam until Bill Reid depicted it as one, nor did Reid depict a cockle shell; yet, all the same, to a modern audience, the clam shell emphasizes the cultural connection.

I admit to a certain guilt at buying a functional rattle that I will only shake gently from time to time, for fear of breaking the shell. But, aesthetically and culturally, “Octopus Eating a Cockle Clam” is a piece I feel privileged to see every day. It naturally draws the eye, so I’ve given in to the inevitable and positioned it on the focal point of the living room, where it belongs.



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Having recently developed an anti-harassment policy, Linux.conf.au had to enforce it last week when a key note presentation included slides depicting bondage and a pig and a duck having sex. Both the organizers and the speaker apologized, and those involved describe both the conference’s actions and the apologies as what should have happened. I don’t question that description, but I can’t help making a few random comments and observations about the incident and some of the discussion surrounding it on the conference mailing list:

  • What is somebody thinking when they deliver an unnecessarily sexualized presentation? Even if a conference has no anti-harassment policy, common sense should be enough to make them realize that the result is going to be controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with the talk itself. Do they think it edgy and daring? That any attention is worth having? If so, the motivations strike me as less than professional.
  • During the mailing list discussion, most people who supported the policy said that the slides added nothing to the discussion, while those who opposed it said that they made it more effective. Both these responses strike me as intellectually dishonest, because in both opinion is overwhelming critical judgment. Actually, the policy violation and the quality of the talk are two separate issues, although only a few people on either side were capable of making the distinction.
  • At least one commenter insisted that bondage was not sexual. Unless I lack imagination, I think that the only way that you can make this statement is by selective literal-mindedness. It’s true that the bondage slides did not depict an act of sex, and that bondage (I’m told) does not always include sex, but nobody else thinks of that range of behavior as anything but sexual in nature.
  • The same commenter said that the presentation’s contents was not sexual but “adult.” Aside from the fact that “adult” usually seems to mean “adolescent,” this is an excellent example of what Gregory Bateson called “dormitive explanation” (The reference is to a scene in Moliere in which a doctoral candidate says that opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle). In other words, it pretends to explain or make a distinction when all it really does is rename.
  • Inevitably, charges of censorship were made during the mailing list discussion, describing the atmosphere as part of “New Salem.” Given the Internet, this argument always seems disingenuous. So one venue prevents you from a form of expression – what does that leave you? A few billion alternatives? People who are organizing and paying for a venue have every right to set the conditions they choose, and anyone who dislikes those conditions is free to go elsewhere. Anyway, the policy only dictates how subject matter is presented, not the subject matter itself.
  • Another defense was that what is offensive is subjective. In some cases, that may be true, but I noticed that this defense was made in the abstract. That was probably because the slides themselves were not a borderline case. They were in no way comparable to, for example, a slide showing a relevant female authority that, because of the angle of the shot or the lighting, was more revealing than intended.

If these observations add up to anything, I guess it’s the fact that – surprise! – the topic of anti-harassment policies generates a lot of special pleading and intellectually questionable arguments. If someone hasn’t already, they could easily create an anti-harassment policy bingo card, like the ones developed for anti-feminism or rape. I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more of these types of responses in the coming months.

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