“No one ever lost credibility by being interesting.”
Tom Antion, humorist
The U.S. newspaper of record runs 33% feature leads
New York’s Grey Lady isn’t so gray any more. Topping one-third of its stories with feature leads, The New York Times covers the world in living color.We analyzed 87 stories in the Dec. 15, 2014, edition of the Times. (We skipped the sports pages and one-paragraph stories.) Reporters started 29 of those pieces with feature leads.
Feature leads grab attention with concrete, creative, provocative details. On Dec. 15, the Times brought 33% of stories to life with feature lead approaches including:
For description, go to the scene and observe, using all five of your senses. Then recreate what you’ve experienced on the page, showing readers what they don’t ordinarily see, making them feel what they don’t normally feel.
Description topped the list of The New York Times feature lead approaches, with seven descriptive leads making up 8% of all leads on Dec. 15.
Matt A.V. Chaban uses description to start a story about how real estate development has stalled out in North Brooklyn, despite the boom elsewhere in the city.
The steel beams rise only six stories, not much for New York, but still they overshadow the neighboring rowhouses and warehouses, as the property-to-be in Brooklyn lunges toward the sky with the silent promise of higher rents.
But beneath the girders and slabs at 55 Eckford Street are a few feet of weeds, littered with beer cans, plastic bags and a forlorn old microwave. Orange safety mesh hangs from the upper floors, like the tattered shroud of some neon ghost. For nearly a decade now, the property on the border between Greenpoint and Williamsburg has barely progressed, going quiet while the last real estate boom was still roaring.
Notice that feature leads aren’t just for feature stories. This lead, for instance, tops a business analysis.
Examples, for instances
Lead by example: A pint of “for instances” is worth a gallon of abstraction.
Examples came in No. 2 of The New York Times feature lead approaches on Dec. 15. Six “for instance” leads made up 7% of all the leads we reviewed.
Ben Sisario uses examples to launch a story about radio’s hottest new format:
Oldies radio used to mean Johnny Mathis and the Four Seasons. Now it’s Tupac Shakur and LL Cool J.
Fun facts and juicy details make your copy more vivid. The New York Times ran five juicy details leads — 5% of all leads — on Dec. 15.
Michael Paulson uses juicy details to introduce a story about how local governments are taking an increasingly hard line on religious shop owners who refuse to serve gay customers:
LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Jack Phillips is a baker whose evangelical Protestant faith informs his business. There are no Halloween treats in his bakery — he does not see devils and witches as a laughing matter. He will not make erotic-themed pastries — they offend his sense of morality. And he declines cake orders for same sex weddings because he believes Christianity teaches that homosexuality is wrong.
When you need to win the hearts and minds of your readers, tell them a story. Anecdote, narrative and other storytelling techniques are the most powerful forms of human communication.
The Times ran four anecdotal leads — 5% of all leads — on Dec. 15.
Tatiana Schlossberg and Nina Bernstein use anecdote to start a story about the vulnerability of frail nursing home residents in New York state. There, rates of substandard care, neglect and abuse are high, according to national studies:
Unable to see clearly and afflicted with dementia, Frank Mercado, 77, depended completely on the care provided by the small nursing home in the Bronx where he had lived for four years. But last Monday, as Mr. Mercado cried for help, a veteran employee beat him to the ground, where he was impaled on a sharp metal protrusion from an overturned table, according to prosecutors.
Compression of details
For compression of details, you list your most powerful details, squeeze them together in a paragraph, then polish them. Like squeezing together a lump of coal to make a diamond, compression of details condenses fascinating facts into a passage that’s more than the sum of its parts.
The Times ran two compression-of-details leads — 2% of all leads — on Dec. 15.
Claire Cain Miller compressed three details to introduce a story about new machines that can handle knowledge and service jobs, as well as factory and clerical work:
A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.
Want to captivate your readers? Get the media to steal your sound bites? Make your message more eloquent and memorable? Wordplay can help.
The Times ran two wordplay leads — that’s 2% of all leads — on Dec. 15.
Wordplay includes techniques like alliteration, balance and rhyme. Matthew Goldstein used twist of phrase in this lead for a story about a billionaire investor who managed to fend off a criminal insider trading investigation of himself. Now he’s looking for a former prosecutor and several agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to join his new $10 billion investment firm:
Steven A. Cohen beat them, and now he wants them to join him.
Human beings have always learned metaphorically: We add to our knowledge by comparing new concepts to those we already understand. Take computers: They have desktops, files, folders, documents and notepads — all analogies for things in offices.
These analogies serve as shortcuts to understanding. So when you want to help your readers understand new, technical or complicated information, metaphor is the answer.
The Times ran two metaphor leads — that’s 2% of all leads — on Dec. 15.
Matthew L. Wald used metaphor to launch this story about how hundreds of scientists and engineers are looking at new kinds of nuclear reactors, intended to be safer, cheaper sources of energy worldwide:
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Filled with pits, seams and fissures, the images that Darin J. Tallman examined in a secure laboratory here looked like the surface of Mars. But they were extreme magnifications of slivers of an odd new material — half metal, half ceramic — that tolerates high heat with ease, and that several companies hope might form the basis of a new reactor technology.
It’s the “Peer Principle of Persuasion”: People connect with people.
Readers find messages more readable, understandable and persuasive when your let a person stand for your point. So find a poster person and use human interest for your leads.
The Times ran one human-interest lead — that’s 1% of all leads — on Dec. 15.
Elisabeth Rosenthal used human interest to start this story about how “testing has become to the United States’ medical system what liquor is to the hospitality industry: a profit center with large and often arbitrary markups”:
PRINCETON, N.J. — Len Charlap, a retired math professor, has had two outpatient echocardiograms in the past three years that scanned the valves of his heart. The first, performed by a technician at a community hospital near his home here in central New Jersey, lasted less than 30 minutes. The next, at a premier academic medical center in Boston, took three times as long and involved a cardiologist.
Want to grab people’s attention and keep it for the long haul? Take a tip from The New York Times and run more feature stories and feature leads.
What can you steal from the newspaper of record’s approach to starting stories?
Master the feature-style story structure
Our old friend the inverted pyramid hasn’t fared well in recent research.
According to new studies by such think tanks as The Readership Institute and The Poynter Institute, inverted pyramids: 1) Reduce readership and understanding; 2) Fail to make readers care about the information; and 3) Don’t draw readers across the jump. In short, researchers say, inverted pyramids “do not work well with readers.”
In my two-day, hands-on writing workshop, Catch Your Readers in Chicago on April 21-22, you’ll learn a structure that can increase readership, understanding and satisfaction with your message. Specifically, you’ll learn:
- How to organize your message to grab readers’ attention, keep it for the long haul and leave a lasting impression
- Three elements of a great lead — and five leads to avoid
- How to stop bewildering your readers by leaving out an essential paragraph. (Many communicators forget it)
- Five ways to avoid the “muddle in the middle”
- A three-step test for ending with a bang
Plus, now you can save up to $300 with our early bird discount. But please act now. Discount expires on Feb. 28.
“Great opportunity to learn more about easy things to do to change my writing for the better.”
Greg Smore, senior specialist, Communications, PECO
Learn to use the bait your fish like on April 21-22
If you want to Catch Your Readers, you need to think like a reader. Then you need to use the bait your reader likes, not the bait you like.
Problem is, many of the techniques we’ve institutionalized in business communication writing are not the bait the reader likes.
In my two-day, hands-on writing workshop, Catch Your Readers, on April 21-22 in Chicago, we’ll debunk destructive writing myths, how-we’ve-always-done-its and relics from Writing 101. (You’re not still stuffing all those W’s into the lead, are you?!) You’ll leave with scientific, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting people to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on your messages.
Fill your toolbox with tricks.
In two days, you’ll have time to cram your writer’s tool bag with tricks — hard-to-find but easy-to-implement techniques that will help you:
- Think Like a Reader: Learn to move people to act
- Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Master a structure that’s been proven in the lab to reach more readers
- Cut Through the Clutter: Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand
- Lift Your Ideas Off the Page Or Screen: Reach flippers and skimmers, increase readership
- Edit, write, repeat: Bring your laptop and a story to work on, write and rewrite, get and give feedback, and leave with a totally rewritten piece
Meet me in Chicago.
I love you, Portland, but I’ve got to say, I think Chicago is the most beautiful city in the United States. You’ve got the history of 20th century architecture reflected in a glittering river. You’ve got buildings by two of my favorite Franks, Mssrs. Lloyd Wright and Gehry. And then there’s that magnificent ‘bean’!
Why not make a long weekend of it?
I, for one, will be winding down from the workshop by taking an architectural riverboat cruise, spending my retirement savings on The Magnificent Mile, catching the latest shows at Steppenwolf and Second City, eating whatever Rick Bayless sets in front of me at Topolobampo and ogling the Impressionists at “the best art museum in the world” (TripIt), the Chicago Art Institute.
Maybe we’ll run into each other!
Save $300, earn a bonus.
I have no doubt that the Master Class will be the best money you invest this year on your professional development. But you can save money and boost your return on investment if you act by Feb. 28.
“In the past, if we were trying to sell sushi, we would market it as cold, dead fish.”
Bojana Fazarinc, former marketing director, Hewlett-Packard
Make them parallel, verb-based
When Mr. Wylie’s Writing Tips had a hip replacement recently, he had to take a break from grocery shopping. I went searching for my new BFF, an online grocery delivery service.
I found Envoy, which turned out to offer grocery delivery and a writing workshop in one.
Envoy does a great job of expressing its benefits. My favorite: “You’ll save 80 hours a year.” You mean I can avoid two work weeks of selecting the perfect rutabaga and standing in line with the almond milk each year? Who cares how much it costs?!
Benefits are verbs, not nouns.
But Envoy’s benefits are inconsistent. And that’s where the writing workshop comes in. Remember, benefits are verbs, not nouns.
So tell me, please, what’s wrong with this list:
- Choose verbs. When you set up a benefits list, imagine a line that says, “That means you will …” You don’t need to write that line; just know that it’s there. That line will force you to use verbs, not nouns, for your list. That means you will … live life to its fullest; eat healthier, for less; support local.
- Make lists parallel. Now note which of these items doesn’t follow that line. That means you will … your favorite stores. That means you will … a shopper you can trust. That means you will … always the best prices.
- Fix your list. Now you can see what to do. Rewrite every “benefit” that’s really a feature (or a noun). Instead of That means you will … always the best prices, you’ll wind up with That means you will … save with the best prices.
Make sure your “benefits” aren’t really features.
Think Like a Friend, Fan, Follower or Visitor
“Our readers don’t want to read stories,” writes Brian J. O’Conner, editor at Bankrate.com. “What they really want is a big button they can push that says, ‘Solve my problem.’ It’s up to us to be that button.”
Sadly, instead of delivering information that helps readers solve their problems, too many writers churn out content that focus on “us and our stuff.”
But at “Get Clicked, Read, Shared and Liked” — a two-day writer’s master class with Shel Holtz and me on Feb. 11-12 in Santa Fe — you’ll learn how to write Web pages, blog posts and social media status updates that grab and keep reader interest with relevant, valuable, helpful information. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Find the right story — and craft the best story angle — for Web pages, content marketing pieces and social media status updates.
- Position your company as the expert in the field and draw readers in with news they can use to live their lives better.
- Get more likes and shares with stories that better serve your audience.
- Make sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests, by passing the 70-20-10 test.
- Create tipsheets, survey stories and case studies that almost write themselves with our fill-in-the-blanks templates and annotated examples.
“Nobody ever sold anybody anything by boring them to death.”
Three ways to make your copy more creative
Ogilvy was right.
If you want someone to buy what you’re selling — whether you’re pitching products and services or positions and ideas — you must first engage them.
And nothing engages audience members quite so well as creative material. Creative elements get attention, communicate more clearly and enhance credibility. They paint pictures in your audience members’ minds so that they understand your points faster, enjoy your information more and remember it longer.
Here are three quick tips for making your copy more creative, engaging and effective:
1. Go beyond twist of phrase.
There’s nothing like wordplay to make your copy more eloquent. (Think Lincoln, Churchill and King.) But too often, writers stick with just a handful of rhetorical tools.
There is a world beyond alliteration and twist of phrase. From “anaphora” to “zeugma,” the more rhetorical devices you master, the more sophisticated and satisfying your copy will be.
One of my favorite literary gadgets is “compression of details.” Like squeezing together a lump of coal to make a diamond, compression of details condenses fascinating facts into a passage that’s more than the sum of its parts.
That’s the approach John Armato of Fleishman-Hillard took when he wrote this lead for a release about a survey for H&R Block:
“Most 8- to 11-year-olds would rather go to school year-round than pay a nickel of ‘allowance tax.’ But pit that nickel against Nickelodeon, and they’d gladly fork it over to protect their tube time. They also imagine Batman would pay more income tax than either Superman or Spiderman.”
That’s obviously much more compelling than a traditional lead like “H&R Block yesterday announced the results of a new survey on what kids say about taxes.” Yaaaaaaaaawn!
2. Translate numbers.
But sometimes only numbers can demonstrate the breadth or depth of an issue.
Make your numbers more meaningful by comparing them to something tangible.
One PR pro uses a line from the movie “Armageddon” to remind himself that comparisons make concepts easier to understand.
In the movie, the president’s staff is in a briefing about the giant asteroid. Just how big is it, they want to know. Finally, Billy Bob Thornton’s character says:
“It’s the size of Texas.”
Which means more: “261,797 square miles”? Or “the size of Texas”?
Don’t let statistics stultify your copy. Every time your finger reaches for the top row of the keyboard, ask yourself, “What’s this like?”
3. Create “driveway moments.”
I’ll bet this has happened to you:
You’re driving home, listening to a National Public Radio story. Suddenly you find yourself in your driveway, unable to leave the car until the story is over.
The ice cream may be melting, the babysitter may be waiting — but NPR has your attention until the very end of the piece.
NPR calls these “driveway moments,” stories that are so interesting, they compel their listeners’ rapt attention, no matter what else is competing for their time.
Want to put the power of driveway moments to work in your communications? Look for stories, anecdotes and narratives. They alone have the power to glue your audience members to your message.
Make your copy more creative
There’s an old joke among professional speakers.
“When should you use humor in a speech?” the young speaker asks the experienced orator.
“Only when you want to get paid,” the veteran answers.
A similar concept is true of writers. When should you use creative material in your copy? Only when you want your readers to pay attention.
Make Your Copy More Creative
Would you like to learn to add color to even the most complex or technical stories? Master the Art of the Storyteller? Become a wizard of wordplay?
If so, please join me at Master the Art of Storytelling, a two-day creative writing master class on July 29-30 in San Francisco. There, you’ll learn how to bring your messages to life with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:
- Grab Attention With Feature Stories: Craft creative leads and kickers
- Make Your Copy More Colorful: Engage readers with fun facts, juicy details
- Play With Your Words: Spice up your headlines, leads and sound bites with wordplay
- Master the Art of the Storyteller: Tap ‘the most powerful form of human communication’
- Add Meaning With Metaphor: Clarify complex concepts with analog
- Edit, write, repeat: Bring your laptop and a story to work on, write and rewrite, get and give feedback, and leave with a totally rewritten piece
“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”
Oscar Wilde, Irish writer & wit
Win our February writing contest
The sound your’re hearing in that Oscar Wilde quote is called balance. Also known as parallelism, balance works because of the rub between similarity and difference.Balance draws reader attention to the most important parts of your message, with passages like:
“… my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.”
— Donna Tartt, novelist, in The Goldfinch
“Nefertiti is a face without a queen; Cleopatra is a queen without a face.”
— Stacy Schiff, author, in Cleopatra: A Life
“Every drug … is a poison in disguise … every poison may be a drug in disguise.”
— Siddhartha Mukherjee, author and oncologist, in the Emperor of All Maladies
For this month’s writing contest, we’re inviting you to show us how it’s done. Here’s how to enter:
The person who submits the best entry will win a wordplay-themed gift from me.
Play with your words
Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and engaging through wordplay?
- Learn more: Read more Wordplay tips.
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to write creative copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Creative writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your creative writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching. And find out about Ann’s next creative writing webinar.
- Master wordplay tips: Read Ann’s learning tools on storytelling, metaphor and human interest.
- Get more writing tips: Subscribe to our e-zine for free writing tips every month.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of tipsheets on playing with your words at RevUpReadership.com.
“I’m going home with some great ideas and inspiration to make our publications better. I wish I could have had my entire team here for this. We’d be unstoppable! (OK … at least more effective in telling our stories).”
Kim McDermott, director, Communications, West Point Association of Graduates
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.
But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Chicago on April 21 and 22: Catch Your Readers, a two-day Master Class. Learn to move people to act. Bring your laptop, and leave with a totally rewritten story
- Minneapolis on April 27: Master the Art of Storytelling: Make Your Copy More Creative, a one-day workshop for IABC Pacific Plains.
- San Francisco on July 29 and 30: Master the Art of Storytelling, a two-day Master Class. Learn to engage readers with metaphor, wordplay, storytelling and more. Bring your laptop, and leave with a totally rewritten story.
- Santa Fe on Feb. 11 and 12: Writing for the Web with Shel Holtz, a two-day Master Class
- Tacoma on Aug. 19: Create Content Marketing Pieces That Almost Write Themselves, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
- Washington, D.C. on Oct. 27 and 28: Catch Your Readers, a two-day Master Class
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Want to polish your skills? Keep up with Ann’s latest two-day Master Classes.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Bentonville, Arkansas: Feb. 24
- Chicago: April 21-22
- Minneapolis: April 27-28
- New York: March 20
- Raleigh, North Carolina: March 4
- Santa Fe: Feb. 11-12
- San Francisco: July 29-30
- Tacoma: Aug. 19
- Washington, D.C.: Oct. 27-28
Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
Want to polish your skills? Bring me in for a workshop at your organization.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Creating a Quick Fix for NANA Regional Corp
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
Keep in touch via:
- LinkedIn group
- LinkedIn page
- Wylie Communications feed
- Wylie’s Writing Tips