Follow My Lead (or Lede)

August 7, 2013

Use your three seconds wisely.

That’s about as much time as you have to capture a reader’s attention, so don’t waste it with meaningless fluff, clichés or meandering prose.  Make every word count.

The lead paragraph (or lede, as the old-school journalists would call it) of whatever you’re writing needs to convince readers immediately that it is worth their time to press on and continue reading.  A boring beginning will result in a quick end.

Whether you’re writing an article, a press release, a brochure, a blog post, a direct mail letter or the home page of a Web site, you immediately need to give readers a reason to keep reading.  Here’s how:

Be brief.  I recently received a draft from a client of a newsletter article in which the lead paragraph was 287 words.  That’s longer than many articles should be.  Try to keep the lead under 25 words.

Streamline your prose.  If there are any words that can be eliminated from your lead without changing its meaning, cut them.  Have no mercy.  Most adjectives, for example, are unnecessary.

Lead with the news.  Journalists are taught to lead with who, what, when, where, why (5Ws) and how.  Those elements summarize the news, so most press releases and breaking news articles are written with that information in the lead.

To use the 5Ws approach effectively, you need to be able to identify the “what” and the “why.”

A client recently sent out a press release (without my input) announcing a new white paper.  The lead paragraph ran to 78 words, including the 20-word title of the white paper.  No one will care that your company has published a white paper.  Big deal.

The research results, which were covered by the white paper, were newsworthy.  They should have been the focus of the lead.

Get the reader’s attention.  The role of your lead paragraph is to grab the reader’s attention.  Sometimes you can do so with an anecdote or an unexpected fact.  Sometimes you can be a bit mysterious.

I led this blog post with, “Use your three seconds wisely,” hoping this bit of advice would make readers curious enough to keep reading.  If you’re still reading this, it worked.

Tell a story.  An anecdotal lead can be effective.  We all like stories.

Keep it simple.  Summarize what you’re writing about as simply as possible.

Never start with the date.  I always know when a lawyer has written an article because it almost always begins with a date.  An article is not a legal brief.  No one cares about what happened five years or even five days ago.  Start with a date and you’ve blown your three seconds.

Avoid clichés.  Clichés are trite and stale.  Your readers have heard them.  They don’t want to hear them again … and again … and again.

Take the “So what?” test.  Pretend that you’re someone who has never heard of you, your company, or its products or services.  Be impartial as you read your lead.  If you find yourself saying “So what?” you need to rewrite your lead – or have someone else do it for you.

When you write a lead, don’t waste a single word or you’ll lose what’s most important to any writer – your readers.

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