Feb 13

Tying shoes and writing press releases

Image courtesy of etsy.com

During Friday’s strategic planning session, one of our team asked me to develop a process for press releases.

I paused for a minute, wondering if we truly needed one. After all, Sabo PR lives and breathes press releases, and everyone on our team knows what’s involved, right?

But then I remembered Deward and his shoe.

It was the summer of 1979 and I was about to start my senior year of high school in the small Tennessee town my parents had moved to the year before. I landed a job covering the maternity leave for a teacher at a sheltered workshop for developmentally disabled adults.

Mornings were spent in classroom settings working with six adults who had graduated or aged out of the traditional school setting on individual goals that would help them move toward independence. Some tasks were very basic, such as learning to count or to recognize colors, while others were more advanced, such as applying for jobs or managing a budget.

One of my students that summer was a gentle giant named Deward. Even though he was nonverbal, his linebacker physique helped keep order in my all-too-interruptible-nature classroom. One wag of his beefy index finger, a shake of his head and an “Uh!” were enough to convince Miles and Steve to take their seats and get back to work.

Deward’s task in my classroom that summer was to learn to tie his shoe. On my first day, he brought over a red, white and blue bowling shoe nailed to a board and a dog-eared set of instructions. Turns out, there are 27 steps to tying a shoe – and Deward had stalled at step 22.

The fact that someone had taken the time to distill each of the distinct steps of tying a shoe into a two-page handout amused me at first. After all, tying a shoe was instinctual – much as writing a press release has become for me now.

But it was not for Deward, who struggled mightily for the next three months to master this herculean task. I read and re-read the instructions, following them to the letter as I explained how to tie his shoe. I watched as he tried again and again to complete the over-under combination that would yield a bow.

We moved to steps 23, then 24 and finally 25, but stalled again at 26. I tied and untied my own shoes hundreds of times, wondering wherein lay the secret that gave me a smooth bow – but under Deward’s clumsy hands invariably dissolved into frustration.

In the last week before I was to return to high school, Deward grimly brought over the now-hated shoe and set it down. Patiently, we went through the steps again – and this time when he pulled the loops, they made a bow, the most beautiful bow ever created in the history of shoe-tying. We looked at each other over that ugly shoe and its most elegant bow and grinned – and grinned and then whooped and then jumped up to hug one another as I shouted, “You did it!”

I must admit, I was initially skeptical of the 27 steps to shoe-tying instructions. But after spending a summer finely tuned into those final steps, I realized that it was important and helpful and even necessary to break down the larger task into smaller, discrete bites. While I knew the steps instinctually, I needed to be able to step back and understand them, individually and collectively, if I was going to be able to teach them.

This lesson followed me throughout my early college teaching career, where my students experimented with how-to essays that they initially thought would be the proverbial breeze. They have continued with me as I have taught a succession of children how to cook or bake.

But they failed to translate to my firm, a misstep I am seeing as we continue to grow. Whether writing a press release or handling a crisis call or pitching a story to the media, all the processes I have honed over nearly two decades of practicing PR are in my head – where they will do absolutely no good.

So when the suggestion to start capturing these processes in writing came on Friday, I responded with a palm to my forehead. So obvious, yet I had missed it. Even though we had talked through these steps before, breaking them down and then writing them down would ensure what is instinctual to me is understandable to the team, no matter how many – or how few – years they have been practicing PR.

So this afternoon, I spent an hour crafting a step-by-step process for how to write, edit, disseminate and pitch a press release. Starting with “make sure a release is the appropriate vehicle to share the news” and ending with “print media clips for filing,” I identified 32 steps – and nearly three-dozen sub-steps – as part of the process. The team will review tomorrow, probably adding or modifying a few, and we will have successfully begun the process of, well, capturing our processes.

The exercise also allowed me to revisit an early career highlight. While I have had many moments of success over the intervening years, that moment with Deward is still among the sweetest and the most vivid.



5 thoughts on “Tying shoes and writing press releases”

  1. Love Deward’s story. And, I bet you’re still proud of him. I once stood in front of a class of college students and talked about the importance of clarity in writing or giving instructions. I could see many of them doubting. So I took my shoe off and put it on a table at the front of the room. Then I asked for volunteers to give me instructions – and I tried my best to follow them. Many minutes later, everyone in the room understood, and we began to breakdown the process of instruction writing. Ahhhh, those shoestrings. What wonderful teachers.

    1. Brian Jon Greenleaf says:

      Thanks, Ellen – I like “Those Shoestrings: What wonderful teachers” better than my title. Who knew the power of a shoelace? — Mary Ann

  2. Robin Keith says:

    I love this. That is all.

  3. Katie Coutchie says:

    A beautiful, touching and poignant story. Thank you for sharing Mary Ann!

    1. Brian Jon Greenleaf says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Katie. — Mary Ann

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