Years ago, a humbling epiphany gradually dawned on me: no matter how artfully I wrote a story, its readability hinged in no small measure on whether it would be accompanied--anchored, really--by a photo.
Images pack a type of punch that words cannot touch--it's why motivational speakers, from World Wide Group leaders like Brad Duncan and Tracey Eaton to the internationally renowned Anthony Robbins--emphasize the important, action-inspiring role that photographs can play in our lives.
Place photos that represent your life's dreams all around, they say: on your fridge, in your car, in your cubicle. Within the media context, a powerful visual is much more apt to grab the reader's eye than a clever lead paragraph.
Beyond that reality, often a photo is the only element of an article that someone takes time to review.
As emotion is to purchasing, so photos are to story-telling: they provide the fuel that gets the larger process rolling.
With that in mind, then it's no stretch to say that it's important to take special care to write informative and creative photo captions. Within that brief space (typically 10 to 30 words), we have what may be our only editorial opportunity to convey the essence of the story. In addition to the habits of your eventual audience, another compelling reason to be diligent in writing photo captions is the space constraint that continually tugs at print and online media outlets.
Although your 500- or 750-word news release may be chock full of significant details, quality written craftsmanship is no match for the media's lack-of-quantity issue. The publication where you seek placement may have space for only one or, if you're fortunate, a few photos.
It all starts with having a high-quality, high-resolution photo that tells a relevant story, of course. Beyond that, here are three pointers to boost your chances of securing media coverage with effective photo caption writing:
1. For photos in which people appear, include full names and relevant background information.
Instead of stating "a man," note the man's name as well as something about him that ties in to the story you wish to tell. Where does he live, what organization does he represent, what expertise does he have? As fickle as it may seem, specifying hometown can make the difference between a publication's inclusion of the photo or having it wind up on the cutting-room floor.
There has been a proliferation, especially on social media, of photo caption contests. Someone posts a curious or downright bizarre image and solicits clever quips from others to go with the photo. Just writing something along the lines of "This is a bizarre photo" won't spark too many thumbs-ups.
Same principle applies with caption writing for the media: you will want to offer vibrant language, from action verbs to vivid adjectives, to inject life into the photo.
2. Fend off the temptation to fall into "Captain Obvious" mode.
The photo caption should augment what is readily seen, not re-state the obvious. If I am submitting a photograph of the River Forest Civic Center Authority Building (commonly referred to as the River Forest Community Center), I won't tread upon that same basic ground by simply offering up a glorified label and calling it a caption.
So don't merely write: "The River Forest Civic Center Authority Building is at 8020 Madison St. in River Forest." Instead, expand on the obvious with details that draw upon whatever news release has prompted inclusion of the photo.
Recently, for example, the River Forest Township Board of Trustees held a special meeting. Here is an example of a much more effective caption than what's above: "At a specially called May 13th meeting, the River Forest Township Board is sharing information about services that the township offers and providing a forum for residents to ask questions and share ideas to improve services."
Even if the reader never read the news release, by scanning the brief caption, he would get an adequate gist of the meeting.
3. Exercise extra care to ensure accuracy and readability.
When you have fewer words to work with, the significance of each word gets magnified. Take time to revise the caption until it is as strong as you can muster. Read it aloud, testing it for flow and ease of comprehension. Be certain that you have spelled everyone's name accurately, and noted their titles properly.
Leave sufficient time, then, to do this portion of your communications work well. All too many people regard it as a shoulder-shrugging, hastily done task that they want to get off their plate. But by exercising diligence and applying creative story-telling principles, you will gain an edge over competitors and, in the end, attract a broader audience for your message.