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Harnessing the public relations power of prompt-based writing

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Although Nike popularized the notion of “Just Do It,” the principle of getting going—and getting out of your own way in the process—cuts across so many aspects of life.

In writing, one of the best ways to “just write it” is to begin with a prompt. It’s sort of the brainstorming equivalent of jumping jacks, neck rolls and shoulder swings—those physical warm-up motions that get the body moving and geared up for the main athletic endeavor to follow.

My favorite memory, in the writing-prompt department, came during the Summer of 1985 as a student (euphemistically known as a “cherub”) in the journalism division of the National High School Institute at Northwestern University.

The session, as best I can recall, was designed to show how only a few words could really set you on your way—and it also illustrated the vast variety of stories that could flow from the same prompt. The prompt: “I love you, but…”

In creating news releases or any other marketing communication, your lead will occasionally come to mind right away. More often, it will lurk somewhere deeper in the copy, as long as you give yourself the space to get that deep.

In that spirit, and using a similar phrase as the one noted above from nearly 30 years ago, let’s surmount three roadblocks that people routinely place into the path of prompt-based writing:

I love the idea of prompt-based writing, but where do I begin?

That’s precisely the point: you start with the prompt. Then don’t stop, censor or slow yourself down. Keep the fingers moving on the keyboard or, better yet, keep the writing instrument flowing on the page as you discover what’s inside in your mind and let it come out.

Many a creative story has been sabotaged by initial inertia. It’s common to everyone—so stick with it long enough to get on the avenue to creative story-telling.

I love the idea of prompt-based writing, but how do I choose my prompt?

Choose only a few words, the simpler the better. to get the ball rolling:

“Today is….”

“The biggest myth about my work is…”

“One thing people don’t realize….”

“When I woke up today…”

If you are writing a news release, and find yourself stuck, then begin with a simple sentence that would never qualify as your finished product. What it does is help you flesh out the central gist of whatever story you are looking to tell: the challenges encountered, the problems solved, the distinctive qualities that set your client apart from the pack.

I love the idea of prompt-based writing, but what if it ends up being a meandering mess?

Actually, the odds are pretty decent that you will go off on some tangents. But a certain thread of writing only gets labeled as a tangent when you have identified the ultimate focus of your writing.

Tangents are a critical element of the process. They reflect the improvisational nature of life, including the unscripted reality of what occurs in most any interaction with others. One compelling piece of interactive instruction that I received came from Amway Diamond Dan Yuen as he spoke at a World Wide Group (WWDB) conference.

Yuen described the difficulty that people often have in meeting people in new, potentially uncomfortable settings. He went on to offer a simple antidote to that awkwardness: after making eye contact with someone, extend your hand in greeting. Almost without fail, the other individual will reciprocate and an introduction will ensue.

Will it be a conversation marked by depth, illumination and fascination from the start? Fat chance--but it can lead to those meaningful, memorable places. Likewise, tangents in our writing serve a vital function because without them we wouldn’t have so much confidence and clarity about our main point.

Writing is simply a precursor to editing, which comes only after you have something to work with, to whittle down and otherwise to whip into shape. In other words, just write it—then re-write it and re-write it again.

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