Thursday, January 21, 2010

Don't Bury the Lead

If you want your written message to cut through the rest of the noise out there, start anything you write with the most important information, particularly anything you want the reader to do, as the lead sentence. Seems simple, but lots of good writers, not trained in journalism, do just the reverse.

Journalists call this "burying the lead" -- letting the most important parts of the story slip down too far into the body of the article. Many readers never get there, rendering the entire effort useless on everyone's behalf.

I learned this important lesson from a great book, Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. They refer to something well-known to journalists as the "inverted pyramid". Rather than building your article from facts, observations and rationale, ending with the main point, turn that upside down. Start with what's most important (the widest part of the pyramid) at the top, and then backfill from there, in decreasing order of importance.

Nowhere is this more true than in email. If you want someone to do something, put that request right in the first paragraph of the email. Then tell them all the reasons why they need to or what will happen if they don't. If you instead put that same request in the last sentence, you'll usually be disappointed by the result.

Interestingly, back when newspapers were printed from type set in hot lead, it was tricky to compose a page. Often editors needed to trim a sentence or two, and they always knew where to start -- at the end, where the least important information is supposed to be, if the writer is on his game.

Some say this started during the Civil War, when news reporters used military telegraphs to transmit their stories. Of course, that connection could go down at any time or an officer could bump them off the line. If you had to pick what got through, it would be the most important, wouldn't it?

This is such a cornerstone of journalism, it's become a staple of journalistic training. Here's a page from an online journalism program that fills in more blanks In fact, the entire Newswriting section of that site is worth your time.

As a technical writer by background, this has been hard for me -- I like to lay the groundwork, present the data, develop the idea and then bring home the conclusion. After reading Chip and Dan's book, the error of my ways became apparent, and I'm working on "inverted pyramid" thinking. I actually find myself sometimes writing the "old way", and then moving the ending paragraphs up to the beginning. Whatever works, I guess.

So, whether it's an email, a blog article or a newsletter, don't "bury the lead". Put it right up at the top and work down from there.

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Terry Weaver

Chief Executive Boards International

Chief Executive Boards International: Freedom for business owners & CEOs -- Less Work, More Money, More Freedom to enjoy it

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