Have mercy! Or at the very least exert some common sense when you’re drafting feature articles, marketing materials and website content. Nothing drives a reader to FarmVille faster than a piece of allegedly creative communication that leads off with buzzwords, trite phrases and/or reports that “a meeting was held.”
The lead paragraph of an article should engage the reader. It sets the tone and theme for the piece and determines if the reader wants more or maybe wants to count his Twitter followers instead.
Professional writers understand that leads are crucial to an article’s success: once they have the information they need, writing pros may require only a couple hours to draft a feature article—but developing the lead may consume a day or two of cogitation and research. Leads deserve the writer’s time and best efforts; they are the results of rumination time well-spent.
For your consideration, here are six techniques, with examples, that those who write for a living use regularly to help develop more engaging leads for their communications:
1. Tell a story. Get the reader involved in a brief narrative that leads to the principal point you wish to make in your article:
“September 16 was not a good day for police officers in Baltimore. It first turned bad when a man shot and wounded a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, then shot and killed his mother (a patient) and then died of a gunshot wound himself.
“It got worse, according to CNN, when it was revealed that, contrary to early police statements that officers shot and killed the gunman, the assailant actually had taken his own life. To compound matters, after police issued a lengthy statement at a news conference about the shooting, identifying Warren Davis as the gunman, CNN reported that this was an alias the individual gave to hospital staff and police now were working to discover his real identity.
“The miscommunications that occurred in Baltimore were the results of failing, perhaps unwittingly, to honor the first rule of crisis communications: release only confirmed information.”
2. Cite a surprising statistic or trend:
“If trying to target the online community with your marketing efforts has felt like aiming a crossbow at a barn swallow, consider this: more people created Twitter accounts in 2010 than did all Twitter users in the prior three-and-a-half years. But a study at the end of 2009 found that about 25 percent of accounts having no followers and about 40 percent of accounts having never sent a single Tweet. Now where do you aim?”
3. Find a new twist to a common phrase or expression to make your point:
“Winners never quit—they get fired from their TV show. You may not be as vital to your organization as you think you are.”
4. Relate your lead to a topical cultural or political theme:
“Watching events unravel in the Middle East, one could only conclude that Egypt’s leaders suffered from far more than a tin ear when listening to the hundreds of thousands of protestors outside their doors. They totally failed to realize the power of the people (a resurgent phrase reminiscent of the ’60s) until it was too late for them to do anything about it.
“While the dissolution of a dictatorship and the ascent of democracy are to be celebrated on the geopolitical scene, the course of events in Cairo should serve as a lesson for brand marketers and corporate leaders here in America.”
5. Make a strong, even audacious declaration:
“Advertising used to be simply a distraction. At some point it became just plain intrusive. But today, it’s often downright sneaky and even self-destructive. When every company invades the consumer’s space, some marketers reason, it’s not enough simply to interrupt the consumer. By their logic, advertisers need to sneak up on their target and covertly grab their attention, their lapels and their wallets. The fact is that businesses are committing brand suicide with these tactics.”
6. Contradict conventional thinking:
“Agencies and marketing companies typically draw a bead on the big, well-known brands when they’re hunting for new business. The big names look great hanging on the wall, and they add spice and substance to the agency’s resources. But Target may not always be the best target; Dove or Deere may not always be your most handsome trophy.”
Take the time to build a healthy lead, and your readers will admire your body of work.
—Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley