Explanatory journalism is very popular right now, but it isn’t new; explanatory articles like “The Top 5 Things You Need to Know About ___” really jibe with the digital age, but the Pulitzer Prize Committee started awarding prizes for explanatory journalism back in 1985.
Explanatory journalism is, to use Digiday’s definition, a form of reporting that attempts to present nuanced, ongoing news stories in a more accessible manner. Basically, it’s explaining complicated topics in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way.
So how can that help you in your daily PR writing?
Roy Peter Clark at Poynter took a look at many explanatory pieces and determined the most common and effective strategies for good explanatory journalism, strategies you can apply in your press releases, pitches, and general copy to make your information more understandable to journalists and your audience. Here are some of Clark’s most relevant tips:
Envision the general audience
This is basically a rewording of the PR truism “know your audience.” Envision your reader: what do they want to know, what context do they already have, and what do they care about, then frame your content around that. It’s a good exercise to do for every pitch or press release you send.
Don’t clutter leads
Yes, in a press release we’re “supposed to” include all the relevant information in the first sentence. But (good) sentences are finite; cramming in every single tidbit into one sentence is going to make it confusing and unreadable. Choose the most relevant information – not all the relevant information.
Also, don’t bury the lead in the clutter of extraneous information. Lead with the most salient bit first – don’t let it get lost in the shuffle.
Slow down the pace of information
Picture your pace of information like a gradual incline, not a vertical spike. Given time and space constraints, it’s easy to give into the desire to dump in all your information and run, but that’s a GIGO approach that won’t pay off.
Slowing down the information pace does not mean slowing down your writing; it means introducing facts and concepts one at a time and triaging what’s really necessary. It shouldn’t make your writing longer; it should make it clearer, more succinct, and easier to read and comprehend.
Develop a chronology
Something that can help with pacing is to envision your press release like a chain of events. Just as the groundwork must be laid for an action and its consequences, establish what the reader must learn in the first sentence in order to understand what comes next. This chronology will help your flow and increase the reader’s comprehension.
Tell it to “Mom” (or “Dad”)
You may think that your topic speaks for itself, but that is often not the case. What can seem straightforward and obvious to you will not seem that way to a lot of other people. So pretend your mom or dad is going to be reading your press release or pitch; would they understand your main points? Would they actually understand what the product is for or what you’re announcing? This is also a good exercise in slowing the pace of your information.
Finally, remember this gem from Clark: “When writers face and master the challenge of meeting the reader’s needs, they practice one of the truest and purest forms of journalism.”