On board with MainStreet London

I’ve been writing about downtown London for more than a decade. In fact, my very first cover story was about Kingsmill’s department store. Founded in 1865, this retail icon predated Confederation.

Store Exterior 001.JPG

    Kingsmill’s was founded in the heart of  London in 1865. (Kingsmill’s store for Francine Kopun.)

In 2004, when my story was published in Business London magazine, the family-owned retailer was an early adapter of online sales. In 2014, Kingsmill’s closed, marking the end of an era for anyone who grew up in London.

(Although I can’t seem to find a copy of my 2004 story, you can read more about the history of Kingsmill’s and its closing here and here.)

That cover story – penned as a J-school assignment – was the first of hundreds I have written that are in some way connected to the core of my home town.  So when some Londoners claimed that the closure of Kingsmill’s signaled the death of downtown retail, it got my blood boiling.

Luckily, I have a pen (or keyboard).  I pitched, and wrote, a second cover story on the new wave of independent retailers setting up shop in downtown London.

Declaration of Independance

I turned my anger into another cover story….

You can read the full story here.

Around the same time, I saw a Facebook posting about a board opening at MainStreet London – an organization tasked with supporting and strengthening all aspects of downtown.

I know that I am not the only Londoner frustrated by the snail’s pace of progress in the core. But being an optimist at heart I decided the time was right to join the fight for downtown at a more formal level. So I sent in my application – and was accepted to the board in January.

I am looking forward to seeing the revitalization process from another angle, and am hoping to learn more about the challenges of bringing meaningful – let alone transformational – change to the heart of my hometown.

A Five-Step Approach to Writing a Killer Press Release

There’s no doubt that social media has changed the marketing and PR landscape.

But when it comes to getting your story heard – whether you’re launching a business, introducing a new product, holding an event, or announcing a new hire – you still can’t beat a good news story (or two) to help spread the word.

But how can you make sure your news makes the news?

newspaper-1489009-640x480

An old-fashioned press release can help you make the news!

While a savvy online post or tweet can reach a targeted audience – including the media – when it comes to convincing news outlets that your story’s got legs, nothing beats the good old-fashioned press release.

Luckily, everything you need to know about writing an effective news release can be summed up in five steps:

Write a great headline
Your headline is the hook that will reel the media in and make them want to learn more. So it needs to be compelling and specific. It needs to answer the question: Why should I care?

If you’ve got something exciting to say, put it in your headline!

Summarize your news in the opening paragraph
Your press release should begin with the location and the date, followed by a one-sentence summary of your announcement. Try fleshing out your headline with a bit more detail!

Your opening paragraph should be brief, and should include all the key information you’d like to share about your announcement.

Ask yourself: If people only read this first paragraph, what do they need to know?

Elaborate in the body
After the opening paragraph comes the body – three or four paragraphs where you can elaborate on the who, what, when, where and why of your announcement. The most ‘news-worthy’ information should come first.

Don’t forget to include at least one quote from a company representative, industry expert, or satisfied client.  This gives your message a human voice (and makes it easier for print media to use your release as-is).

The boring boilerplate
The boilerplate is a short paragraph that helps bring journalists up-to-speed about your business or organization. A boilerplate can include your mission statement and any key facts you want to share, as well as a link to your website.

(To identify that it’s a boilerplate, simply write the name of your company in bold above the text).

Put your boilerplate after the body, but before the contact information.

Don’t forget the contact details
It might seem obvious, but don’t forget to include the name and contact information of the best person to handle any follow up questions. Make sure they are able, willing and available to speak with the media!

Phone - contact

Make sure your contact person is prepared to do an interview!

A few more tips:

Include visuals
A photo is worth a thousand words….so if you’ve got a great, high resolution image to help tell your story, include it with your release. Don’t forget the photo credit (if needed)! In today’s online world, a video link can be great, too.

Check your facts
Journalists work on tight deadlines. That means they may decide to pull information directly from your release to write their story, or simply ‘dump’ your release as-is…without doing a follow-up interview.

So before you send out your release, make sure your facts are correct, your sources are happy with their quotes, and that you are properly representing your brand.

Send it to the right people
You can always use an online distribution system like newswire.ca, but getting your release into the hands (or inbox) of the right journalist greatly improves your chances of making the news.

Pay attention to local bylines, and take some time to dig up personal (work) emails. Most media outlets have contact information somewhere on their websites. Or, try picking up the phone and ask.

Sound complicated?

If writing a press release sounds like a lot of work or you just aren’t sure you’ll get it right, consider hiring a PR professional or copywriter (like me!)

How do you get your story heard?

Musing on millenials and Eiskaffee

Having the opportunity to meet young people who are trying to change the world is one of the best things about being a freelance writer.

I recently had that chance when I interviewed the founders of Ezzy Lynn – a group of women who are using fashion for social and environmental good. Their weapon of choice? The scrunchie.

[For those who aren’t in the know, Cambridge Dictionaries Online defines a scrunchie as   “a piece of elastic covered in often brightly-coloured cloth that is used to hold long hair at the back of the head.”]

Sound crazy? That’s what I thought when the assignment dropped into my inbox.  Then I met Western University grads and Ezzy Lynn co-founders Samantha Laliberte, Sonja Fernandes and Bianca Lopes.

The ladies of Ezzy Lynn.

The ladies of Ezzy Lynn.

This trio of 25-year-olds have their act together, and I wouldn’t bet against them. Intrigued? You can read my cover story here.

It made me think about what I was doing when I was 25…living in Geneva Switzerland, working as a freelance musician with no plans to change the world.  Without many plans beyond next week, actually.

Worrying about the bottom line and trying to build a business in a socially and environmentally responsible way was definitely not on my radar screen.  But eventually I gave up my bohemian ways, returned to Canada, and went back to school…

Fast forward 15 years and I have a new career and a family that includes a 9-year-old and two Newfoundland dogs.

The geriatric and the young b**ch enjoying a swim.

The geriatric and the young b**ch enjoying a swim.

Last week, we made a quick trip to Geneva (minus the dogs)…

We visited some of my old haunts…

We took a boat ride to the medieval village of Yvoire, France.

We took a boat ride to the medieval village of Yvoire, France.

… drank real Eiskaffee…

Why can't I find this in London, Ontario?

Why can’t I find this in London, Ontario?

…and escaped the heat wave by jumping in the lake.

Yes, you can swim in Lake Geneva!

Yes, you can swim right downtown in Lake Geneva!

We also went on a day trip to Chamonix and took the gondolas up Mont Blanc – something I couldn’t afford to do as a twenty-something musician.

On top of the world....

On top of the world….a pricey day trip, but worth it!

It was wonderful to revisit a city that was once my home and that holds so many great memories. And so, while I am in awe of this generation of  driven, entrepreneurial millenials who are working so hard to change the world, I hope that they’ll also take some time to explore it. Responsibilities will wait.

5 tips from the mompreneur trenches

Like most women, I wear many hats. Wife, mother, small-business owner.  And like many women these days, I run my business from home.

I guess that makes me a mompreneur – and part of a growing trend.

In fact, almost 34 per cent of small businesses in Canada are now solely or partially owned by women, and chapters of MOMpreneur Canada are popping up from coast to coast, including right here in London, Ontario.

Balancing work and a family can be a juggling act - especially for a mompreneur!

Balancing work and a family can be a juggling act – especially for a mompreneur!

Juggling work and family is never an easy task. And when you’re a freelance writer, work is ruled by deadlines – deadlines that don’t care about sick children, muddy dogs, plugged sinks and all the other day-to-day distractions and responsibilities that come with family life.

My decision to become a solopreneur was quite deliberate. I took a ‘traditional’ office job (in marketing and communications) so that I could qualify for maternity benefits, going out on my own shortly before my son was born.

That was almost ten years ago, and after a decade in the mompreneur trenches here are my top five tips to staying sane and productive as a work at home mom:

Accept your limitations
Before children, plowing through a to-do list seems as easy as 1-2-3. But once that baby is born just getting out of the house can be a major undertaking.  If you are working from home because you want to be around your children instead of sending them off to daycare, set realistic expectations and cut yourself some slack.

Yes, you may be able to work during nap time. But you may also need to catch up on your own sleep.

And you may not give birth to a napper – my son was a bundle of boundless energy right from day one. While other kids slept four to six hours a day, I was lucky to get him down for 45 minutes. Luckily, he loved hanging out in a sling while I was at my computer as a newborn,  joined me in my office in his Jolly Jumper later on, and started a morning preschool program as soon as he was old enough to be registered!

At one point, an office Jolly Jumper was a must!

At one point, an office Jolly Jumper was a must!

To be honest, I don’t know how I got any work done during those first few years – and I certainly wasn’t earning anything like a real income. But I did keep my fingers in the game.

And mom was right:

IT GETS EASIER…

…and I got more efficient.

Today, I am able to work a regular 6 hour day while he’s off at school – and boy can I get a lot done in those 6 hours!

Get out of the office
This may seem counterproductive, but carving out time for networking and just getting together with friends for lunch is one of the best things you can do to stay refreshed and motivated. It’s also crucial if you want to grow your client base and support network.

Be honest with your clients
I am always upfront about the fact that I am a solopreneur who works from a home office. And it’s never cost me a job.

Some mompreneurs don’t mind working nights and weekends, but that is not for me. My son plays competitive hockey, so countless evenings are spent at the rink.

Win or lose, watching the kids is always fun!

Win or lose, watching the kids is always fun!

In theory I could bring my work with me, but in practice that rarely happens. Watching the kids on the ice is too much fun – and socializing with the other parents is my ‘water-cooler’ time.

If I am up against a pressing deadline, I prefer to wake up before dawn to get things done.  If there’s really no time to take on a new assignment, I ask if the deadline is flexible. You would be surprised at how often people really don’t ‘need’ their copy by tomorrow!

If I simply can’t make it work , I am happy to suggest other freelance writers in my professional network – colleagues and friends who will return the favour!

Be honest with your family
If you need an uninterrupted block of time to finish a project ask your better half or other family member to help out with the childcare duties.  Arrange a play date.  Hire a sitter. Sometimes you can’t be everything to everyone. Especially not at the same time.

Make some me-time
You have undoubtedly read this before, but it’s worth repeating:

Make time to do something for yourself – outside of work and being a mother.

Me-time is not selfish. It’s a sanity savor. Despite my limited available work hours, I give myself permission to do an exercise class at least one morning a week – preferably two. Does it always happen? No.  But it happens more often than not.

As for working mom’s guilt? Just forget about it!

How do you achieve the right work / family balance?

To learn more about my work life, visit me at Spilled Ink Writing & Wordsmithing. 

Speaking as a writer….

Whether I’m writing freelance articles or crafting copy for a website, I essentially spend my professional life telling other people’s story.  Never my own. And that suits me just fine.

So you’d be forgiven for wondering why I spent one Friday this February at the moSpeaker Academy BIG Day – which promises participants that they’ll “come away with a more powerful story and new tools to help you accelerate your success and performance in a multitude of ways…whether your focus is motivational speaking, keynoting, speak-to-sell, informational speaking and training – or changing the world.”

That's the back of my head at the moSpeaker Academy BIG Day, listening to presenter Paula Morand,

That’s the back of my head at the moSpeaker Academy BIG Day, listening to presenter Paula Morand.

While the event may not seem like an obvious fit for a non-fiction writer, I promised myself to make more time for professional development this year. I also recognize that as a solopreneur I am required to ‘tell and sell’ my own story each time I meet a prospective client – and that I sometimes sell myself short.

So off I went, intrigued to learn more about a speakers’ approach to storytelling and hoping to pick up a few new skills in the public speaking department.

Here’s what I learned.

According to momondays founder Michel Neray (who interestingly comes from an advertising copywriting background), any spoken presentation should contain at least one ‘signature story’ – something personal that will stick with your audience.

moMondays founder Michel Neray says every story should have three things.

momondays founder Michel Neray says every story should have three things.

He says an effective signature story must have:

Intention – Why are you telling this particular story? How does it link to your primary topic?
Structure – A cohesive beginning, middle and end that will take your audience on a journey and drive home your message.
Authentic Delivery – Do you have stage presence? Are your voice and movements natural and aligned with what you are saying? Can you ‘go with the flow’ and respond to audience reactions?

Intention. Structure. Delivery. Sounds like the ingredients to any well-written copy!

Then Neray asked everyone to complete a ‘Truth Map’ to identify the challenges we help clients solve.

My 'Truth Map' - a work in progress.

My ‘Truth Map’ – a work in progress.

We brainstormed outward – taking problems like “losing clients due to unprofessional or non-existent web presence” to their most far-reaching conclusion (possible bankruptcy, family upheaval, depression)…..wow…I never realised my words could make such a difference!

This was followed by Paula Morand’s presentation on story structure and timeless plots. You can read more about the seven basic plots here.

Regardless of the underlying structure, Morand said storytellers should ask themselves: What is the moral of this story? What issue is being solved? What is in it for my listener – and how can I make my story engaging?

All good points to keep in mind for a writer.

The day ended with a session on Stage Presence – and this is where I squirmed in my seat.

As an interviewer, I’m used to being (more or less) in control of the conversation, asking the questions, and doing the observing.

I’m not used to having other people scrutinize my body language, facial expressions, and verbal cues.  But I took a deep breath, participated in the group exercises, and came away with a new appreciation of how how I say what I say can affect how my message is received.

Something to keep in mind for my next client meeting!

So what’s the moral of this story?

Acknowledge your weaknesses and look for opportunities to improve.  Don’t be afraid to try something different. Change is uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to move forward.

stock-footage-closing-red-curtain-with-title-the-endWhat have you learned so far this year?

The Musicians of Orchestra London and the sound of victory

One of the final articles I worked on in 2014 was a story about the imminent demise of Orchestra London Canada.  Published in The London Yodeller in mid-December, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, you can still read it here.

I capped off 2014 co-writing a story about Orchestra London Canada.

I capped off 2014 co-writing a story about Orchestra London Canada.

This was a unique assignment in many ways.

If you are one of the few people who pays attention to by-lines, you’ll notice that the story was co-authored by myself and friend and colleague Richard Young. In a decade of writing, this was my first collaboration. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, involving animated conversation, plenty of background research, and many interviews. In the end, we had too much material for our word-count, so Richard did the writing and I got out my ‘red pencil’ to cut things down to size.

(Writing Tip: Always stick to your assigned word-count. It’s better to do your own word cull than rely on an editor who may leave your beautifully-crafted copy in shreds.)

This story was also close to my heart. As a former oboist, I completed my journalism internship with Orchestra London’s marketing department, and was hired by the organization upon graduation from J-school in 2004.

I worked as part of the Orchestra London marketing team for several years.

I worked as part of the Orchestra London marketing team for several years.

I continued to write press releases and other marketing and development copy for the orchestra on a freelance basis until August 2009, when I decided it was time to move on from what had become a toxic work environment.

(Work/Life Tip: When a client causes sleepless nights on a regular basis, it’s time to fire them.)

But I’ve kept in touch with several former colleagues, including many of the musicians.

So I’m sad to see this orchestra on the verge of bankruptcy, and angry at the board for allowing the financial situation to get so out of hand. You can read more about the mess here and here.

That brings us to last night, and a concert given by the Musicians of Orchestra London as a thank-you to their audience and as a plea to the community to help them find a way to keep the music alive.

You can read a review by Brian Hay here.

The evening was a sell-out, and a veritable love-in for classical music in London.

It was a sold-out event. Photo credit: Bryan Nelson.

It was a sold-out event. Photo credit: Bryan Nelson.

Luckily our newly-elected Mayor and a few City Councillors were there to see and hear it. (Hopefully they also heard the clanking church pipes and realized that at some point London does need a purpose-built performance venue if it wants to be taken seriously as a ‘world class’ city.)

But after last night’s good vibes dissipate, the orchestra’s musicians are still left wondering: How am I going to pay my bills? Some have already moved on to new ventures, and many others must seriously be considering their future options.

The board has gone silent, and seems to be hoping that someone will magically appear to pay their debts – the most pressing ones owed to Revenue Canada.

Bankruptcy seems inevitable, and many are calling for a financial audit.

Going broke would allow the orchestra to walk away from almost $1 million in accumulated debt, and an untenable union contract with IATSE.

It would also disqualify the orchestra from receiving Federal or Provincial arts funding for up to seven years.

The City of London has already said it won’t step in with emergency funding – probably the right decision given the murky circumstances surrounding this financial crisis.

But it could continue to provide a new ensemble with the annual $500,000 grant previously given to Orchestra London Canada. Then, perhaps other community agencies like the London Community Foundation could kick in some financial support, along with local businesses who understand that culture is an important piece of London’s economic puzzle.

Culture is an important part of the economic puzzle.

Culture is an important part of the economic puzzle.

A true partnership could be built between a future orchestra and Western University’s Faculty of Music, ensuring that players are also employed to teach the next generation. (Orchestra London’s top salary was about $26,000 – so members have always had to find additional revenue sources)

A new orchestra would have to be lean and mean. It would need the flexibility to create concerts that make the orchestra an integral part of the community, and that make financial sense.

But as last night’s concert proved, the Musicians of Orchestra London can do a lot more than play. They organized a sold-out event on a shoestring budget. They understand their craft, and they know how to reach their audience.

Conductor Uri Mayer said he chose to close the evening with Beethoven’s 5th because the Roman numeral V was a ‘v’ for victory – the victory of music.

Conductor Uri Mayer said Beethoven's 5th Symphony represented the 'victory of music.'

Conductor Uri Mayer said Beethoven’s 5th Symphony represented the ‘victory of music.’

Last night, the Musicians of Orchestra London won the battle for the hearts of their core audience. Let’s hope London has the imagination to give them the financial and moral support needed to win the war.

Three that made a splash in 2014

I’m the first to admit that my 2014 freelance portfolio is thin compared to previous years. That’s because I was busy with corporate work – in particular a lengthy freelance contract with London Life, one of Canada’s largest financial institutions.

This year, I spent three days each week in the cubicle jungle.

This year, I spent three days each week in the cubicle jungle.

Spending three days each week in a cubicle was a bit of a culture shock, but I appreciated the regular pay check, dressing up to go to work, and the daily chit-chat with colleagues.

I learned that I can happily work in a corporate environment, and that I enjoy the challenge of writing engaging copy on complicated subjects for a mass audience with a short attention span.

I also learned that I love the variety of the freelance life!

So without further ado, here are my three most-memorable projects of 2014:

Idlewyld Inn & Spa 
This venerable old Inn underwent a major renovation and relaunch last year, and needed a new website to match.

London's Idlewyld Inn & Spa deserved a great new website!

London’s Idlewyld Inn & Spa deserved a great new website!

This project gave me a chance to put everything I’ve learned about SEO copywriting into practice – keep it short, sweet, and choose the right words. Think about how the content connects. Use great photos and keep the layout clean.

With the help of graphic designer Johnny Delguercio of Degee, and programmer Jack Ivansevic of Think Forward Technologies, I think the Inn now has an online presence it can be proud of.

Build Strong Cities
I can’t remember the first time I met Kadie Ward, but she is one lady who makes a lasting impression!

Kadie Ward makes a lasting impression.

Kadie Ward makes a lasting impression.

Ward truly loves the challenge of building a better city, so when I learned that the London Economic Development Corporation marketing wiz had struck out on her own and was now sharing her passion internationally, I decided it was time to pitch a story to her Alma Mater. You can read the story here.

Ward’s first major contract was with Ukraine’s Municipal Local Economic Development agency, and she put me in touch with MLED’s project director, Alexander Kucherenko, in Kiev. We spoke over Skype as history was unfolding in the streets outside his office.

While my story wasn’t about the ongoing political developments in Eastern Europe, I still think about Kucherenko when I hear news from Ukraine, and hope his optimism about his country’s future will come to pass.

Oxford County Cheese Trail
I have rarely met a piece of cheese I didn’t like, so when Oxford County developed a self-guided Cheese Trail to promote the local artisan cheese industry I knew this was a story I needed to write.

Oxford County is home to lots of artisan cheese makers.

Oxford County is home to lots of artisan cheese makers.

Luckily, London is home to a fantastic publication for foodies, EatDrink magazine.

That’s how I found myself hitting the back roads in pursuit of a slice of some of Oxford County’s best cheese. You can read the story here.

It’s always fun to interview people who love what they do, and Shep Ysselstein of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese and  Adam and Hannie Van Bergeijk of Mountainoak Cheese Ltd. didn’t disappoint.

In addition to learning about traditional cheese-making practices, I got an earful about government regulations and the pros and cons of going organic.

I also got to sample some delicious cheese, and take in some beautiful countryside. This is a day trip I will definitely do again with out-of-town guests.

So, what’s in store for 2015? 

What's in store for 2015?

What’s in store for 2015?

I’ve got a handful of freelance ideas to pitch in early January, and a few copywriting projects in the works.

I’m also helping to organize a southwestern Ontario freelance writer’s conference, scheduled for April 25, 2015. But that’s a topic for another blog….

What were your favourite writing moments of 2014? And what do you hope to accomplish in the coming year? 

Happy Holidays and a prosperous 2015 from spilledink.ca