Soon, an army of college recruits will set out to begin journalism classes throughout the country. They’ll be exposed to Associated Press style and learn the basics of the inverted pyramid of copy writing while applying the “Five Ws of Good Reporting.”
You’ve likely heard about the Five Ws before. They go like this. Every news story must include five key elements or facts: who, what, when, where and why. And then there’s how – the details that make a vivid story come to life.
As simple and basic as they are, the Five Ws (and H) are often overlooked in the rush to “just get the information out there.” Many writers from different academic disciplines never learn this powerful formula to engage an audience on the spot and promote a desired response and action.
When the Five Ws are woven into the beginning of a story, readers get the basics they need. Then they can choose whether to read on and learn more – or not. With this information in hand, readers can move on with their busy lives or skip to the sports pages.
The Five Ws (and H) also allow readers to absorb valuable information and decide what action they need to take. Perhaps they file the facts away for discussion later, or make a calendar item to attend a community event.
In the world of corporate communications and public relations, the Five Ws (and H) are every bit as important as they are in a breaking news story. No matter how they’re delivered – as part of a presentation, in an executive memo, on a facility poster, or in an intranet post – they carry the content quickly and succinctly to the inevitable call to action.
Who: Is this content about the employees? A particular executive? A group of new customers? An important project team? What is the correct spelling of the person’s name, and does he or she have a title? Is it important to mention the person’s division or department, for context?
What: Usually, this is the “news” of the content being shared. It generally is the action at the heart of a story. Has the company launched a new sales initiative? Did HR create a mandatory training curriculum? Did the project management office begin the next stage of an assignment that requires exposure across the firm?
When: What critical dates does the reader need to know about this information? Did the event being described happen in the past, or is it scheduled to happen in the near future? Is it underway right now? Is there a specific time attached to the date? Is it important to know a time zone in relation to this information?
Where: Will the event occur in a specific location? Is the person being described based out of a particular office? Does the content affect a group in a particular part of the country or in another part of the world? Does the reader need to know the specific name of a conference room or a particular street address to avoid confusion?
Why: This is the meat of the content. What is the reason for this action? Is there a meaningful purpose for the new training? If the news or content requires a group to do something – say, take a few hours to attend an all-hands meeting – it’s important for them to know why, so that they have the right context and can make the decision to attend or ask a manager to re-arrange their schedule.
How: Here is the opportunity to expound on the basic details. The “how” might include a personal story or experience related to the subject, presented in a long quote. Think: “How did we get here?” Or, “how” might include a few extra paragraphs that extend the timeline and offer more key dates. Usually “how” presents an opportunity to add more context, color, and backstory that further engages a reader or ties the topic to another thread or previous set of events.
Asking questions to dig up all this information is the key to good reporting and to presenting clear, concise messages to your internal and external audiences.
Whether you’re a journalist or a corporate communicator, be sure to use the Five Ws (and H) to fully engage the public.
If you don’t, expect heavy sighs and eye-rolling from audiences who feel you’ve wasted their time by making them search for what they need to know or care about most. Do this at your peril; don’t make the audience do the heavy lifting. They may just give up and move on.
And once you lose an audience, you might never get them back.
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