When you are writing articles and blogs you usually focus on topical and newsworthy stories and developments. However, at a recent writing workshop we discussed the role of well-written pieces of explanatory material when they are used as backstories and explainers. So here are some writing tips for finding stories, backstories and explainers.
Introducing stories, backstories and explainers
A news story is a written or recorded article or interview that informs about current events, concerns, or ideas. Often the facts of a story are presented to the media in a press or news release (see http://kimtasso.com/how-to-write-a-press-release/) and each journalist then researches the element that is of interest (the angle) and prepares a news article. Sometimes, you write an article or blog around the story and publish it in third party media or on your own web site.
A backstory reflects the influences from the past. A backstory has to reveal important historical or contextual information about the organisation or main people. In fiction writing a backstory sets the tone for a major character. The same principle applies when presenting a backstory for a brand or a person where you are building personality.
News content focuses on the ‘Who, What, When, and Where,’ explainers look to inform the reader of the ‘How and Why.’ Where you provide a really good explainer, other people may be encouraged to link to it rather than producing their own so you benefit from additional exposure and increased web traffic.
An op-ed (“opposite the editorial page” or “opinion editorial”) is a written piece which expresses the opinion of an author usually not affiliated with the publication’s editorial board. Op-eds are different from editorials (opinion pieces submitted by editorial board members). The modern op-ed page was created in 1921 by Herbert Bayard Swope of The New York Evening World. When Swope took over as editor in 1920, he realized that the page opposite the editorials was “a catchall for book reviews, society boilerplate, and obituaries”. He is quoted as writing:
“It occurred to me that nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting, so I devised a method of cleaning off the page opposite the editorial, which became the most important in America … and thereon I decided to print opinions, ignoring facts.”
Sometimes op-eds are overviews, backstories or explainers that set the scene for more detailed articles in the rest of the magazine or newspaper.
The legal, accountancy and property markets have so many complex issues there is a real demand for content that provides a simple but expert review of the past (the backstory) and the relevant key points explaining how and why they are important (the explainer).
As well as being an efficient way to repurpose your valuable content, there are SEO and web traffic benefits of having popular back stories and explainers available for when a topic hits the headlines.
Many PR professionals and copywriters started life as journalists and will have been trained to find stories or different angles in stories that other people are covering. The angle is what makes your story newsworthy. It is often referred to as a ‘hook’, because it catches a reader’s attention and draws them in to reading the rest of the story.
Experienced journalists and public relations professionals will find stories easily. However, technical professionals like lawyers, accountants and surveyors may be so focused on the detail that they find it challenging to identify the nugget that holds interest for those less experienced than themselves and the general readership.
I have written about the skill of storytelling – and particularly the role of emotion – previously (http://kimtasso.com/selling-legal-services-storytelling/). Professional services firms often tell stories about how they have helped their clients in case studies. Here are some tips on finding stories.
- Brainstorm ideas using newspapers or trade journals. Get into the habit of reading media with a notebook and pen in hand. Scan the headlines of each section and ask yourself, “What is in the news today that ties in with what I know, what I want to say or what I want to promote?”
- Use polls or surveys to craft solid story ideas. The media views quantitative data as newsworthy, accurate, and sidebar-friendly. Launch a survey, or piggyback on survey results that relate to your industry to create a strong story. Thought leadership campaigns use research to identify themes, issues and ideas on which entire campaigns can be based (see, for example http://kimtasso.com/thought-leadership-campaigns-and-project-management/)
- Listen to questions your clients ask. Are you suddenly hearing lots of people asking the same question? Listen closely to your clients when they talk about their pain points and issues. A trend may be starting that you can tie into.
- Read trade publications to spot industry trends. What is the buzz in your trade publications? What are new developments in your field? Alternatively, watch for outliers or opinions that contradict the common view. Use your access to this information to shape a story and build on buzz that is already happening in your field.
- Find story ideas in the course of your daily routine. Keep a notebook and pay attention to story-worthy events that pop up in the course of your day. Make sure you capture these ideas as they come to you.
All articles should attempt to use the journalist’s inverted pyramid – so the entire story is captured in the headline and the first paragraph. Like all good writing, you need to know your target audience, your aim, the key message you want to convey and ideally have a call-to-action (CTA). Backstories and explainers should also use a stand first. This is a brief introductory summary of an article in a newspaper or on a website, typically appearing immediately after the headline and typographically distinct from the rest of the article.
There’s some excellent guidance on basic journalism (including podcasts) here https://www.bbc.co.uk/academy
In fiction writing, a backstory, background story, back-story, or background is a set of events invented for a plot. It is usually presented as preceding and leading up to that plot. It is a literary device of a narrative history chronologically earlier than the narrative of primary interest. Backstories may be revealed by various means, including flashbacks, dialogue, direct narration, summary, recollection, and exposition.
Most leading brands have a back story – how or why the founders started the company or the driving motivation for a product. Virgin and Innocent Drinks are good examples.
A back story may be important to explain the expertise or credibility of a professional – for example, their time spent in a different industry, as part of a Government department or as an entrepreneur.
Often, professional services firms will have an “About us” section on their web site. This may explain how the firm began – some vision that was held by the founding partners or some change in the economy, law or environment that prompted the creation of the firm. The back story provides the context for the current vision and values of the firm.
Here are some interesting back stories from professional service firms:
Explainers provide background information. They attempt to summarise sometimes quite lengthy and complex material briefly. They are particularly important where a new story has been running for a very long time (for example, the conflict in the Middle East) or where the content is very technical (for example, gene therapy).
I was always told that the way to discern a true expert was their ability to explain complex ideas simply. As if to a small child. So explainers need to present information concisely and clearly – ensuring that all jargon and technical terms are explained.
Recent explainer examples
There was a good recent example of explainers being used on BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44627990 (June 2018). The headline for an article was “Heterosexual couple win civil partnership case”. Within that story, there were links to a number of previous stories and explainers focusing on different aspects including
- What is entailed in a civil partnership?
- Where are heterosexual civil partnerships legal?
- Why we want a civil partnership?
- Why choose civil partnership over marriage?
As the co-editor of a local online community, I recently wrote an explainer to help residents understand the reasons behind changes on their High Street:
An explainer: Retail rents for High Street Shops
I thought it might help everyone understand how retail rents operate so that we can see how it affects the shops on our High Street.
Commercial leases are different to residential leases. Often they are for 25, 15 or five years. Rent is usually revised (upwards) once every five years.
Retail properties are owned by different types of landlords. For example, many financial institutions invest some of their pension funds into property – the purpose being to ensure high returns from rents to maximise pension values.
Property companies may have some investment in retail properties along with commercial, industrial and residential properties. They are looking for gains in both the capital value of the properties and in terms of rental income.
Some landlords are private investors – like the buy-to-let residential market. Private investors will consider both the overall value of the property and the monthly or quarterly rents. All landlords have to invest in maintaining and improving properties and have some statutory requirements to fulfil.
Rents vary depending on the size of the property, its class (see below), its condition and obviously its location (for example, rents are generally higher in Richmond and Twickenham than in Whitton).
Typically, the landlord will pay to obtain a valuation from a qualified valuer – these are surveyors who are members of the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors). There are strict rules (including the need to obtain comparable rental data) on how valuations are produced.
Obviously, larger companies – such as retail chains – can afford to pay much higher rents than smaller businesses. And this can force up rents in an area making it difficult for smaller businesses to afford retail premises.
Types of retail property
The use of retail premises is dictated by their planning class.
For example, A1 is for shops and retail outlets, A2 is for banks and building societies, A3 is for food and drink, A4 is drinking establishments and A5 is hot food and takeaway.
You have to apply to the planning authority (in our case the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames) if you wish to change the planning use of a property. The local plan may restrict how many different classes of property are allowed in a particular area.
Rates and other costs
When someone rents a retail outlet or shop they will have to pay the agreed rent to the landlord as well as the business rates to the local council. Business rates are around 42% of the rateable value which is largely based on the rent and class of use.
VAT (at 20%) is also added to the cost of the rent – but not the rates.
The retailer will have to pay many other costs too – for example, for insurance, cleaning and day-to-day maintenance. At the end of their lease the tenant usually has to pay to restore the property to the state it was in at the start of the lease (this is called dilapidations).
Why so many charity shops?
If a retail premises is vacant then the landlord has to pay the business rates (after the first three months). So it is in the interest of the landlord to ensure that properties are not vacant for long.
Charities often take short leases (three, six or nine months). Charities can apply for charitable rate relief of up to 80% if a property is used for charitable purposes. Charities can be offered the remaining 20 per cent relief at their local authority’s discretion.
Charities often pay a lower rate of VAT for property as well – around 5%.
Retail rents in Whitton High Street
The former Just Write stationery shop was recently leased for £25,500 pa.
The former Dry Cleaners on the High Street is on the market for £27,500 pa.
73 High Street is on the market for £24,500 pa (£29.31 psf)
Academy Windows on Nelson Road is on the market for £22,000 pa (£30.94 per square foot)
The general problems with retail sales are reflected in recent news reports where Next – which rents 507 stores – says it achieved a rent reduction of 29% last year and 27% this year.
Explainers are often presented as videos and will need a written script – probably no more than 200-300 words. A well-written, engaging script is the foundation for a successful explainer video. Without the right foundation, the rest of the creation process is in vain.
For a convincing story about your firm or services, the explainer video needs to be no more than one or two minutes and your message must appear in the first 30 seconds. Speak to the audience with personal pronouns like “you” and “your” rather than talking about “we”. Talk about things they care deeply about.
Use the right tone – hold in your mind a mental picture or persona of the target audience and address him or her. Consider what they would like to see and hear – will they be engaged by a talking head in an office?
Make sure any attempts at humour are appropriate – remember that much of we find funny is culturally-dependent. Keep any dialogue to between 125 and 150 words a minute.
Hubspot recommends the following best explainer videos: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/explainer-videos I particularly like the one on Artificial Intelligence (AI)
PWC has some interesting explainer videos about its purpose and values which are important for recruitment of future staff as well as clients https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/about/purpose-and-values.html.html
Update back stories and explainers regularly
Often backstories and explainers are attached to press releases on a regular basis, so check that they are up to date.
Evergreen copy is content that remains fresh – so review your standard articles, backstories and explainers regularly and help them remain fresh by linking them to developing and unfolding angles and new developments on long-running stories.
Further guidance on writing skills
There are many posts about writing, some of the most popular are:
Details of writing workshops
https://www.pmforum.co.uk/training.aspx (For marketing and business development professionals)
http://www.mblseminars.com/Outline/Persuasive-Writing—How-to-Enhance-Your-Business-Development-Opportunities/8073/ (For lawyers, accountants and surveyors)