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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Frost Davis

Build A Better Program Description

Updated: May 26

While we know word-of-mouth marketing is most effective for programming, we often rely on the written word to draw patrons to our offerings. Whether on your online calendar, in a Facebook post, or on a flyer, all programs call for a succinct description.

Raise your hand if you have an English lit (or similar "liberal arts") degree. *Raises hand* Most librarians are skilled writers, yet so many program descriptions fall flat. Why is that?

Do you remember Daily Oral Language (D.O.L) from school? Let's give that a try here. What could we improve?

Here's a typical description for a Halloween program:

Halloween Hootenanny at John Carter Memorial Library

Calling all guys and ghouls! We'll have a boo-tastic time at our Halloween party, with tricks & treats aplenty for everyone. Join us on October 30 from 5-7 PM. Registration required. We're dying to see you!

This description has it all- excitement, cute wordplay, look- even a pun! It's succinct and inviting, right? And yet-- it's missing several key "ingredients" that help patrons know, understand, and attend the program.

What IS important in a description?

Consider your audience. The purpose of program descriptions is firstly to inform, and secondly to entice. Patrons aren't seeking to be entertained by your description, they want to know about and understand your event to determine if it is a good fit for them.

People appreciate clear expectations. Assume your patrons only have the foggiest notion about your event and work from there. For many of our patrons, attending a program is like going to a party where they don't know anyone, an anxiety-producing experience for most of the population. They want to know:

What will I be doing? (What do you mean by tricks and treats? Should I wear a costume? Bring a treat bag for candy?)

Where should I go?(Is it in a certain room or area? Do I need to park somewhere particular?)

What type of people might be there? (Is this a party for kids only? Is it a crowded event?)

When should I plan to arrive? (If I arrive at 6 PM instead of 5 PM will it be awkward?)

Do I need to register? How do I do so?

Puns, wordplay, and idioms are not inclusive. As fun as it is, a cute turn-of-phrase can be confusing to people who don't share the writer's experiences, including English Language Learners. Idioms draw upon an assumed body of cultural knowledge. How alarming would it be to hear an expression like "bite my head off" if you'd never heard it before?!

It's important to convey enthusiasm in as few words as possible. We have limited space and our patrons have limited time. Choose clarity over flash and choose simple, colorful words over extra phrases or exclamations. instead of "Ahoy Mateys! Walk the plank to Livingston Branch for a Treasure Island Escape Room..." try "Solve a pirate-themed Treasure Island escape room challenge through creativity, teamwork, and problem-solving..."

Capitalize on the power of images when possible. An accompanying photo or graphic helps provide "context clues," or shorthand for what an event might be like. If your storytime listing has a picture of a prim librarian reading to a group of seated, well-behaved children listening attentively that conveys an entirely different message than one of children laughing and dancing.

Considering the above, how could we make our Halloween Hootenany description more patron-friendly?

Halloween Hootenanny at John Carter Memorial Library

Drop by our children's department anytime between 5-7 PM on October 30th for Halloween-themed games and crafts, followed by trick-or-treating and a costume parade at 6:30. For families. Costumes encouraged. Register early for this popular annual event by calling 350-1899.

Why does that description work a bit better?

Drop by (shows you can come anytime, not just at 5!) our children's department (tells where and gives a clue that the event is geared toward children/families rather than an adult audience) anytime between 5-7 PM on October 30th for Halloween-themed games and crafts, followed by trick-or-treating and a costume parade at 6:30 (describes what patrons will be doing and also gives a clue they should come in costume). For families. Costumes encouraged. (Tells who the event is for and what they should wear.) Register early for this popular annual event by calling 350-1899. (Shows they need to sign up and tells how to do so).

What tips or tricks would you add?

Need to rework one of your own descriptions? Drop it in the comments for friendly suggestions.

Edited to add: Amy makes a great point in the comments. We should reconsider the name of the event itself as well. What would you suggest that is more accurate and plain beyond “Halloween Hootenanny”?

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