Out of the Mouths of Executives: How to Craft Quotes that Get Coverage

Your company has news to share, and you’re writing the press release. Of course, you want pick up, but instead only the lede and fourth graf were squeezed into a space smaller than your iPod Nano.

And those quotes you labored over for the executive leading this important project? They were left on the virtual equivalent of the newsroom floor.

Corporate communicators and PR folks create quotes for press releases. Reporters understand this. Good reporters, who work for the news outlets where you most want coverage, go out of their way to avoid PR. They look for the news, and they call for one-on-one interviews to get their own quotes. If they’re up against deadline, they’ll pull only what they see as “real news” from your press release and ditch the rest as too self-promoting.

Want your quotes to see the light of day? Here are 10 tips for crafting quotes that get play:

Don’t rely on key messages for the quote.
Here’s perhaps the single biggest problem with created quotes: They repeat what’s already been said in the headline (and possibly in the subhead) and in the lede. Why? Because the writer is using the key messages to craft the press release.

Consider the poor journalist who has to read this release. What’s going through his or her mind? “I know that. You’ve said it twice already. Tell me something I don’t know.”

This is why copy gets cut. Reporters want the news, which, by definition, means delivering something new in each sentence.

What? No messages? You can’t believe I’m suggesting this, can you?

Here’s a quick experiment I tried just before writing this: I Googled Fortune 500 companies, clicked on a link to last year’s list, and selected the first one that I didn’t have a vested interest in. The company turned out to be Chevron. I didn’t intend to single out Chevron; I just wanted to see how fast I could put my cursor on an example. Pretty fast, it turned out.

I went to Chevron’s corporate website, clicked on the News link, and opened a recent press release at random:

HEADLINE: Chevron Announces Natural Gas Discovery Offshore Western Australia

SUBHEAD: Vos-1 discovery adds to drilling success and further underpins development of world-class LNG business

LEDE: SAN RAMON, Calif., December 15, 2011Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) today announced a natural gas discovery by its Australian subsidiary in the Exmouth Plateau area of the Carnarvon Basin, offshore Western Australia.

QUOTE: George Kirkland, vice chairman, Chevron Corporation, said, “The find at Vos-1 represents our twelfth offshore discovery in Australia since mid-2009. Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability.”

Barring key messages, what do you include in the quote? My recommendation is details. Why do you think the fourth graf always seems to make it into the newspaper? Because after the lede recaps the headline, and the second graf recaps the subhead, and the obligatory grafs for quotes, press releases often deliver backing documentation in grafs that follow. How about moving some of that business intelligence into the quote? The quotee is supposed to be a senior executive with deep expertise in the subject; this is the place to make them sound like a pro. Let them run with the important details, the numbers, the dollars or yen or euros, the insider’s perspective.

This can feel a bit like burying the lede, but if the quote is well-written, you’ll reap at least two benefits: 1) the quote will run because it contains new information pertinent to the story, enabling you to get more of the press release covered, and 2) if it sparks the reporter’s interest, you’ll get a call for an interview with the executive, and a longer story.

Do study your subject.
The best way to learn how to write convincing quotes is to understand how your subject speaks. To that end, if there’s an executive you’re going to be writing for on a regular basis, attend every employee meeting where she or he is a speaker. Revisit transcripts of old interviews. If you know of speeches he penned himself, read those. Look up articles or editorials she authored. Remember, a senior leader is worthy of quoting because he’s an expert in the industry, not just because of his title. Pinpoint how your executive talks, the insider lingo used, when he or she is deeply engaged in the details of the business.

And, whenever you have the chance, interview your subject and get to know his or her particular turns of phrase. Discover the linguistic nuances that make this person’s speech indelibly his or her own.

Don’t smooth off the rough edges.
Too often, when we create quotes, we polish them to such an extent that they feel manufactured. Like this: “Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability.”

Do you think this is what was said around the drill tower (or the corporate offices) when they discovered their 12th natural gas well off the coast of Australia?

Now, I’m not talking about putting in “ums” and “uhs” to make a quote look like a transcript, but I am suggesting using ordinary, everyday conversation that sounds real because it is real.

Are you trying to put words in the mouth of someone from South Carolina? London? Brussels? Tokyo? Mumbai? What about a doctor? A Ph.D.? An engineer? Or a CEO who worked his way to the C-suite from the manufacturing line?

You’ll likely find an unusual coinage, or two or three, if you talk to someone who hails from the south or once assembled the company’s key product. Even if the executive doesn’t have a regional dialect, you’ll find that no one speaks perfect English (or whichever language is primary for your business). There’s something about the inexactness of spoken language that makes it more believable, more trustworthy, more real.

Do eavesdrop at industry conferences.
Generally, you don’t have the chance to interview senior executives for every bit of news that needs a press release. The assignment arrives with instructions to create a quote that will be approved or changed before the release goes out.

If access is limited, then industry conferences and publications are a natural next best thing. You’ll be hearing the language of your industry as it’s spoken in its natural habitat. Listen, not to the speeches, but to the networking between sessions, over lunch, at coffee. Take copious dictation – this is not the time to leave out conjunctions and clauses – following the twists and turns as carefully as possible.

Likewise, avoid the articles written for industry publications that have lifeless prose. Look for authors who are clearly reporting from the front lines. Underline intelligent, elegant and unusual locutions and save them. You’ll be glad you did next time you’re asked to write a quote.

Don’t succumb to jargon.
Putting detail in quotes doesn’t mean resorting to jargon. Avoid consultant-speak and your company’s unique acronyms and naming conventions. If you mean IT, use IT, not the unusual name (Technical Information Resources & Services) your company has created for its IT function. If your company is drilling off the western shore of Australia, write it like humans talk. Don’t say: “Our successful drilling offshore Western Australia…”

Do know when to fold ‘em.
Really, I meant it when I said I didn’t set out to pick on Chevron. Something I love about this press release is that it’s short and sweet. You get the news, you get a couple of quotes, and you get the Chevron boilerplate. And, they avoid some of the sillier hallmarks of corporate press releases, such as…

Don’t make the CEO say how excited, happy, thrilled or delighted he or she is at the news.
Every press release ever written about good news seems to quote a senior executive saying how excited he or she is with today’s developments. Would you expect the CEO to say he’s unhappy? Because that might be news.

When writing becomes formulaic, it gives readers a happy excuse to skip over standardized phrases. Keep the reporter reading your press release on the edge of his seat. Or at least, keep her guessing. Let her be the one who’s thrilled and delighted that your senior leader has something intelligent and newsworthy to say about today’s developments.

Do individualize quotes if more than one person is being quoted.
You may be asked to create quotes for more than one executive, depending on the news or the size of the effort you’re announcing. If you want the quotes to get coverage, then Quotee #2 must sound different from Quotee #1.

Avoid doing what Chevron did. After their first quoted exec said this – “Our successful drilling program offshore Western Australia demonstrates Chevron’s global exploration capability” – their second executive said this: “Our on-going exploration success continues to add to our Australian resource base, further underpinning our drive to be a leading supplier of liquefied natural gas to world markets and natural gas to Western Australia.”

The substance of these quotes isn’t that different and, more to the point, the words they’re using are exactly the same: discovery offshore Western Australia drilling program success.

This is where knowing each person’s unique style of speaking helps. You can also focus on their different roles in the company. Quote #1 typically belongs to the CEO. But, Quote #2 may be from the person who led the five-year project and understands both the technical aspects and the hard work that went into it. So, the CEO can describe how this news affects the current and longer-term prospects for the company, while the project lead provides the interesting nitty-gritty details.

If the CEO is a well-known company spokesperson, but Quotee #2 is not, it’s wise to introduce her by name and descriptive role (use title on second reference or not at all) to give the reporter some idea why she’s being given airtime. For example: “Jane Smith, who oversaw the 400-member project team from start to finish, said…”

Don’t “further the legacy,” “expand on tradition,” or “continue the success.”
These are phrases that make a reporter’s eyes glaze. Sorry to say, but statements like these are clear indications to a journalist that there’s nothing of import in a press release. Journalists read dozens of releases a day that say exactly the same thing, which is why most press release prose gets the axe.

Many companies are bound by regulations to avoid certain “forward-looking statements,” which is why phrases like these crop up, designed to pretend to say something visionary without saying anything. If your hands are tied, and you really can’t say anything further, then don’t. You’ll make a better impression on reporters than writing stuff like this.

If you are allowed to broach the future, then avoid the clichés and have your senior executive say something meaningful or detailed.

Do bring a recording device – for video and voice.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to schedule time with a senior leader to interview them about the subject of the press release, then you’ll be 3/4 of the way to writing a great quote already.

Remember to bring a good digital voice recorder to capture the nuances of what the executive thinks about this announcement. And a hand-held video camera (if the executive is willing and if the news is important enough to warrant it).

Maybe you’ll only share the video with employees via your intranet. On the other hand, if you’ve got good soundbytes or video, you’ve created the opportunity for radio, TV, news websites, bloggers and podcasts to give you far more coverage than a regular old press release will generate. What you can give them is the real deal – honest-to-goodness quotes directly from a senior executive of your company – in multiple formats that have the potential to reach a much wider audience.

It will show that you understand what reporters need to tell a news story and that you work and think like a reporter. All of that is what makes you a trusted resource, which creates value and interest for the content you create in the future (and the quotes within it).

3 thoughts on “Out of the Mouths of Executives: How to Craft Quotes that Get Coverage

  1. Pingback: “Well, do ya punk?”: Writing It Like They Say It | No Bad Language

  2. I’m not someone who writes a lot of press releases, but I regularly craft “remarks,” “speeches,” and “talking points” and find it very challenging to capture little nuances that make the language used authentic to the speaker. What other tricks can you share for identifying and then incorporating the phrases and language structure that makes one person’s voice distinct?
    The empty blather in press releases too often filters into all sorts of other writing, especially internal memoranda. I think everyone who writes for an audience of any size should read this post!

    • Hi Eric,

      Thanks so much for your comment. You bring up several excellent questions. So much to respond to, I drafted a new post to address them. You’ll find it here: http://nobadlanguage.net/?p=285

      I hope it helps!

      Kindest Regards,
      Vickie

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