I have a plea to marketing, PR and news writers everywhere. It isn’t my first. It won’t be my last.
End your mindless love affair with quotes.
What do I mean by this?
Take this quote from a random press release I saw today on PR Newswire:
‘ “(Company X) is the premier distributor of sports and news content for the world’s top broadcast and media platforms,” according to (hot shot exec).’
This quote breaks so many rules–real rules, the kinds that make sense–I can’t even mention them all. But the most important rule will do:
Quote feeling, not fact.
The premier part of the sentence, you could argue, is feeling. No. It’s puffery. Mushy puffery at that. Puffery shouldn’t be used, even in a press release. You’re not fooling anyone by saying you are THE premier anything. If you are, prove it. And if you can prove it, you don’t need to say it.
Let’s look at some more examples. I’ve taken out company names and some other particulars to protect the guilty. And note, these quotes truly are random and have been selected from the most recent submissions. I didn’t spend much time at all searching for badly-written releases. I didn’t have to; the majority of them are some of the worst copywriting around.
How about this one:
“We are delighted to have (Mr. X) as an independent member of our Board of Directors and as Chairman of our Audit Committee,” said (Mr. Y,) the Company’s CEO, “The Company’s product is an emerging and creative brand in China, with innovative product concepts and sales models. Further, the Company was developed with well-trained dynamic personnel with innovative thinking. I strongly believe that (Mr. X) will bring something innovative and fresh to the Company. His previous experience in the financial field and business operations will definitely support the Company, while we are working as a team.” (Mr. Y) continued, “(Mr. X) also serves as the chair of the Company’s Audit Committee. Together with our increasingly strengthened corporate governance, I am confident that we will meet the standards and requirements of a senior U.S. exchange in the future.”
Holy Mother of Lazy Writing!
A third of the release was filled with this declaration of nothingness. I hope the Company didn’t pay anyone to write this. (The word “company,” by the way, despite what your lawyer says, should not be capitalized. And yes, even if there’s a “the” before it).
Which brings me to the second most important rule of quotations:
Quote diamonds, not rocks.
Rocks are everywhere. The diamonds are harder to find. And well worth the search.
When it comes to stupid quotes, news reporters are also not exempt. Take this example from a newspaper in metro Atlanta, the Marietta Daily Journal:
‘ “(Sunday) night, we had a report of a bear hanging around Blood Mountain shelter,” said Ryan Davis, an employee at the Mountain Crossings hiking store.’
Not exactly a riveting quote, is it? Just paraphrase this already. There is absolutely no reason why the reporter should have quoted that statement.
So not to pick on this paper, a former employer of mine in another life, here’s a fine quote from another piece. The story, which caught my attention from lead to last sentence, was about a Georgia millionaire whose will was in dispute.
“The very thing that made this man great in the end killed him,” he said. “There were no rules with Harvey. He built car dealerships on Highway 41 when everyone else told him not to. But he was battling a demon that he couldn’t beat.”
Yes! This is how humans–real humans–speak. It reads like a novel. I want to read more about this Harvey fellow…
And yes. You can make CEOs sound like humans. Even real humans.
Here’s an example of an OK quote from PR Newswire:
“These stories are a wake-up call for distributors and users of illegal software,” said Robert Holleyman, BSA’s President and CEO. “Don’t take our word for it; just listen to these software pirates explain how they made money by duping thousands of people into purchasing or downloading illegal software from the Internet…”
Note that it does seem Robert is talking directly to you, not through a corporate-speak filter.
I’m sad to say, though, that after searching through an entire day’s worth of PR Newswire releases on the technology industry, I didn’t find one exemplary quote.
But that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit.
Here’s what you can do today to make your copy, and your quotes, pop:
- Don’t write using a template. Ever. If you see “Insert quote here”, run the other way. Every situation, every release, every e-mail, every sales pitch, is different. If you have to write using a template, you probably shouldn’t be writing external copy for your company. You should hire somebody to do it for you.
- Quotes, despite what you’ve heard, don’t have to be two sentences. (Like “Bla, bla, blah,” said Joe Smoe. “Bla, bla, blah.”) You can use partial quotes. Or just one sentence. Or three. Actually, if every quote you write has two sentences, your writing becomes boring. Just one word of caution: Don’t make it too long. You will lose the reader. See the “Holy Mother of Lazy Writing” example.
- Quote the subject’s actual words. This should go without saying. But the PR and marketing industries have made it a habit–a bad habit–of making up quotes. I know that many times the person doesn’t have time to be interviewed. But try to schedule 10 minutes. That’s only one-sixth of an hour.
- Let me preface this by saying I believe making up quotes is cheesy at best, borderline unethical at worst. Yes, I’ve done it. And I felt weird doing it. If you must make up quotes, and I know you won’t have access to everyone, try to make the quoted content sound like the person. If you don’t know how your subject talks, you should try to spend some time, on the phone at least, with the person. At least once. Basic nuance is all we’re talking here.
- Reporters, of course, are held to higher standards. But most reporters, in my mind, still take too many liberties with “polishing” quotes. I’m not saying you have to put in the “uh”s and “uhm”s. But if you’re going to quote somebody, quote them! If what your source says isn’t quotable, paraphrase. When you polish, you sanitize. Sanitization is good in the operating room. Not in the newsroom.
Last but not least:
If you can’t find any diamonds, don’t use any quotes. That’s right. Who made it a rule that you had to put a quote in a press release, e-mail announcement or news story? If your marketing manager or editor says you need a quote, regardless of the situation, he or she is misguided. There are plenty of circumstances when quoting is just silly. Bad quotes–long ones, fake ones, mushy ones, lawyer-speak ones, jargon-filled ones–trip up readers.
Unless your goal is to have readers not read your copy, no quotes are better than bad quotes.
You can quote me on that.