Stop reinventing the wheel, use story templates
I once asked fiber artist Jason Pollen how he could be creative under the constraints of designing textiles on assignment for clients like Chanel and Donna Karan.
“There’s a whole universe to explore within the color yellow,” he said.
The most creative people see constraints, rules and guidelines as tools for creativity, not obstacles. After all, few people want to read an article, no matter how creative, that doesn’t use basic standards of, say, spelling, grammar and punctuation.
One of the best ways to use constraints for creativity is to template your writing.
Template your writing.
Good writing is at least as much science as art. And writing templates can help you:
1. Save readers time. Once they’re familiar with the template, readers spend less time learning a story’s structure. That reduces processing time and effort. Which is why:
- Companies like Procter & Gamble use standardized one-page memo templates to improve productivity.
- Many of the most popular business and consumer publication departments are standardized templates. (Familiarity oftentimes breeds content, not contempt.)
- Some organizations template everything from case studies to webpages to employee profiles.
2. Save communicators time. “We spend too much time reinventing the wheel!” one of my clients told me just this morning. Templates save writers time they can spend:
- Understanding the customer
- Doing background research
- Finessing the details (templates don’t write leads, after all, or build arguments)
- Working on juicier or more complicated assignments
It’s tough to argue with results like “easier to read” and “easier to write.”
What to template
So what types of pieces should you template? Standardize your press releases, webpages, proposals, case studies — even your personality profiles.
At Wylie Communications, we’ve created:
- Webpage templates for ExxonMobil, Saint Luke’s Health System, PetSmart Charities and Tellabs
- Proposal templates for General Dynamics C4 Systems and Public Strategies Inc.
- Employee communication templates — including CEO notes, strategy stories, awards stories, department profiles, employee roundups, event stories, benefits news, and Q&As — for BaylorScott&White Health and Direct Energy
The secret is to develop standard structures that are:
- Specific enough to meet the needs of the project
- Flexible enough to cover a variety of subjects
- Clear enough to get everyone on the same page
Templates at Tellabs
When Tellabs needed a new website, a farflung global team needed to write hundreds of new pages — quickly and consistently. George Stenitzer, then-VP of communications at Tellabs, invited me to help.
I suggested templates.
The templates we created took into account industry trends and Tellabs’ own client research, as well as proven-in-the-lab best writing practices. They included “recipes” for:
- Nut graphs
- Body sections
- Calls to action
“Ann’s webpage template guided us with a consistent formula that really works,” Stenitzer says. “A headline, two subheads, [specific targets for] short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, details organized in tables, and a clear call to action — all in 400 words, a two-minute read. Sweet!”
How to create templates
To develop templates for your team:
1. Research proven-in-the-lab best practices for how to:
- Craft story angles that readers want to read, rather than those you wish they would read
- Organize copy to draw readers in, pull them through the piece and leave a lasting impression
- Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand
- Reach even nonreaders with your key messages
- Optimize for humans, as well as for Google
You should end up with dozens of specific best practices.
Tip: Don’t believe everything you think. Don’t base writing guidelines on gut instinct or outdated techniques you learned in college. You want to develop templates based on solid, contemporary — and also classic — research.
2. Transform research into templates. Tell readers what to do in fill-in-the-blanks templates. Then show them how to do it in a series of annotated, before-and-after writing samples.
3. Roll out the templates. To get everyone is on the same page, roll out your templates with training, practice, feedback and learning tools.
We rolled out the Tellabs templates in two days of training, practice and feedback. Writers left with workbooks, job aids, readability targets and more tools to guide their work after the session.
Because, when you’re back in the office, you want to be able to flip to page 12 for the recipe for, say, a product release or a case study.
Get a customized recipe book
Would you prefer an easier way of getting customized templates into your team’s hands? If so, consider Wylie’s Writing Templates.
Send us samples of your most common types of pieces, along with your client and industry research. We’ll develop customized templates to tell your writers what to do and create annotated writing samples that show them how to do it.
But whichever way you go, make sure your team gets writing templates. Because who has time to keep reinventing the wheel?