The average trade publication needs a touch of levity. For the past several years, I’ve been exploring the lighter side of the meetings and expositions industry in a column for Tradeshow Week; you can take the same approach for a periodical in the business sector of your choosing. Here’s where to look for material.
* Get on industry mailing lists. Among the press releases defiling your desk drawer will be announcements of offbeat new products and services. I’ve had fun with wearable computers, virtual-reality exhibits, even the World’s Largest Slot Machine.
* Watch for unique promotions. New Orleans named an official superhero to honor a convention of comic book suppliers. And a meeting planner once gave an 18-pound lobster named Kevin its freedom after she won him during a trip to Boston. Even hokey items can be made into fun articles.
* Find an industry slant on national news, trends and events. I’ve recounted how enterprising fishermen landed dozens of fish in the basement of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart when the Loop flooded in 1992. And I’ve written about an Atlanta facility’s preparations for a National Town Meeting–an event at which President Clinton grazed on filet mignon, jumbo shrimp, pasta salad, chicken salad, assorted pastries, fresh fruit and bagels. But no Big Macs.
* Talk to suppliers and customers. Although they may not represent the publication’s target audience, these folks are of great interest to your readers–and they often have a fresh take on the industry you’re covering. For example, executives of a shipping company that regularly serves the meetings industry told me they had to flip on the television to find out whether or not their emergency shipment of promotional towels had arrived in time for an NBA Finals game.
* Go fishing. Many times at the end of interviews for straight features, I’ll ask sources to regale me with a few of their funniest business-related anecdotes. These “fishing expeditions” have netted some of my best material–like the anecdote about the Soviet delegation to a convention that was “lost” when it took an impromptu debour to Disneyland.
* Mine the humor from special events. Anniversaries, grand openings, ground-breaking ceremonies, roasts, retirement parties–most industry celebrations will have light moments. A few events will be so downright campy the stories will practically write themselves.
For instance, I hope to never see a celebration that tops Charlotte, North Carolina’s “ground BLASTING!” party for its new convention center: 16 dancers peel off construction uniforms to the beat of electronically augmented dynamite blasts, and then shake, rattle and roll in their sequined outfits through a highly modified version of Carole King’s 1971 hit “I Feel the Earth Move.” How can you miss with material like this?
* Seek out serendipitous connections. Voracious reading, viewing and listening will provide you with a wealth of interesting items. As I was writing up the opening of San Antonio’s Alamodome (I’m not making this up), I remembered an Albert Brooks comedy routine about the city’s fascination with all things Alamo related. A quote from his act provided the perfect closing line.
When you’re finally ready to pump out your first column, keep these pointers in mind:
* Write tight and bright. Keep items short, and you’ll be able to pack more material into each column (thereby giving readers more value for the time they invest). You can smother humor under layers of flabby copy.
* Make sure the quotient of useful information is high. It’ll be easier to sell editors, and retain readers, if your column offers a humorous slant on key events and issues rather than just a slew of meaningless one-liners.
* Vary your style of humor. I love a good pun every once in a while, and so (I hope) do many of my readers, but puns–and other styles of humor done over and over again–wear out their welcome quickly.
* Know the industry intimately. Nothing falls flatter than humor on a subject the writer doesn’t understand. Also, it’ll be tough to sell an editor and to cultivate sources if you’re a novice in the field you want to cover.
But how can you tap the vast universe of trade publications in the first place? Here’s a head start:
* Many association newsletters and magazines hunger for humor. Among the best bets for market information are the Washington, DC, and Chicago telephone books: These cities are home to the largest number of industry and trade associations in the United States.