Wednesday, July 21

Writing Stronger Leads: Six Variations For Story Openers

The most important paragraph of any story is the lead. So it stands to reason that the opening graph of any post is equally important, with an emphasis for SEO. Doubly so if you only syndicate a fragment of the post to feed readers.

But how important is it?

Let's say you're a journalist looking for a story. You don't have much time. Deadlines are looming. You scan leads (assuming you can get past the headlines)...

"To support the marketing and branding strategies of its wholesale High Speed Internet (HSI) customers, Verizon Global Wholesale is expanding its portfolio of services to include two white-label, or non-branded, HSI options." — Verizon

"RMT, Inc. (RMT), a leading energy and environment company, is expanding its services to the Federal market to offer complex remediation, energy management, and renewable energy solutions." — RMT

"Everyone looks better in butter, and thanks to Midwest Dairy Association a fun new Facebook application brings a popular state fair tradition – butter sculpting -- to life." — Midwest Dairy Association

Nothing, except maybe a blurb about turning your Facebook profile picture into a virtual butter sculpture. I almost tried it, but then remembered I don't look good in animated yellow. That, and unlike the cool Mad Men Yourself app, there is no preview before you opt in.

No matter. At least I read past the first grammatically challenged graph.

The problem, it seems to me, is that while most journalists learn to write several types of leads, most public relations practitioners (many of whom now write posts) are only taught to write one type of lead: "who, what, when, where, how" lead. Unfortunately, the inverted pyramid lead is also the most boring. They tend to be especially boring for posts too.

Six Alternative Leads For Posts And Openers.

1. Immediate Identification Lead. The immediate identification lead relies on subject prominence. This works well for stories, but not so well for posts unless paired with a unique action. Sure, name prominence is important. However, if a popular headline is paired with an action that matches everybody's headline (Lindsay Lohan Goes To Jail), you become one voice in a sea of millions.

2. Delayed Identification Lead. If nobody knows who you are or what you are talking about, it's even more important to place the emphasis on the action. The action will draw the reader into the story, assuming it has some news value. A weak action is what broke the read for RMT. Several prominent bloggers have done this to gain a readership on the front end. It's not "who they are" that attracted people. It's "what they do" or did.

3. Summation Lead. Anytime you have a complicated story, it's best to sum up as much information as possible. I'll probably use this variation when I write about CitizenGulf's Day Of Action next week (on a different site). The event has several talking points so, unless an alternative lead strikes me, a summation lead makes sense.

4. Creative Lead. Unusual leads work best for stories with some element of novelty. They don't always work for news releases, but the Midwest Dairy Association is an adequate example. It's too clunky to be called solid writing and too gimmicky to be very creative, but we did read past the first sentence. Of course, we might not have if that release was a post. It requires sharp writing.

5. Pyramid Lead. Public relations professionals who send out feature releases use them now and again. But mostly, magazine reporters are much more inclined. Rather than invert the pyramid, they lead with a small detail within the story and then expand from there. Pyramid leads tend to work best with imagery: sights, sounds, smells, tastes.

6. Promise Lead. Promise leads usually appear in releases about a study and they work great for posts with an educational slant. People who write about communication frequently use them, prosing up from what you might learn from the post. In this case, I'm merely supporting the promise that I tucked inside the headline, briefly explaining why you might care.

Nowadays, people place significant attention on headlines, but they don't always pay enough attention to the opener. I invest as much as 20-30 percent of my total time into the lead. If I don't invest that much time when I start, I usually revisit the lead when I finish. By that time, a new lead has usually developed.

Where the application of a better leads pays off is on search engines that share one line of content and third-party syndication readers. The latter, which is a choice some bloggers make because they want readers to visit the site, forces the story to live and die based on the lead. My advice is syndicate the full post. Not only will your story have a second chance as they scan subheads, but it will likely increase your subscription rate.

Interestingly enough, copywriters are the only pros who sometimes have the option to skip the lead, assuming the headline is strong enough. For everything else, it's all in the lead.

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