Get to the point faster in PR

Keep news release leads to 25 words or less

“‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ The creation of the universe has a 10-word lead!” writes John McIntyre, copy desk chief of the Baltimore Sun.

Tight PR leads: Keep news release leads to 25 words or less.

They snooze, you lose “If the copy doesn’t excite me within 20 words, I won’t read the rest of it,” says one editor. Image by Katarzyna Kos

“So why do you need 40 words to say that your chief accountant has just completed the necessary certification? The answer, of course, is you don’t.”

Yet PR pros keep cranking out leads like this 99-word one from an Amazon release:

Amazon Web Services, Inc. (AWS), an Amazon.com company (NASDAQ:AMZN), today announced that it has contracted with EDP Renewables to construct and operate a 100 megawatt (MW) wind farm in Paulding County, Ohio, called the Amazon Wind Farm US Central. This new wind farm is expected to start generating approximately 320,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of wind energy annually starting in May 2017, or enough to power more than 29,000 US homes[1] in a year. The energy generated will be delivered into the electrical grid that supplies both current and future AWS Cloud data centers. For more information go to [URL].

How long should PR leads be?

Keep your release and pitch lead to 25 words — a couple of sentences — or so.

Longer, and it starts looking too thick to encourage readership.

Shorter, and news portals might not recognize it as a lead paragraph — or your release as a release. Google News, for instance, rejects releases that are nothing but bullet points and one-sentence paragraphs. Advisory releases often get rejected for this reason.

To avoid this, start with a “real” paragraph that includes at least two sentences.

Limit the background in the lead.

One way to take the lead out of the lead: Limit the background to no more than 6 words.

Background information is any parenthetical information — information that appears between commas, parentheses or dashes, like this phrase — including:

  • People’s titles or ages after their names (“Chris Smith, 29, proofreading guru, says …”)
  • Boilerplate descriptions of your company or products (“RevUpReadership.com, a toolbox for writers, is now available …”)
  • Stock exchange symbols (“Sprint Corporation (FON) today announced that …”)

That doesn’t mean that these things aren’t important or that you won’t include them in your piece. Just be selective with what and how much you put in the lead. Then move the rest down.

You want your lead to clip along quickly. But background information slows the top of the story down.

If the verb is the story in news releases (and it is), the story (weak though it may be) in this Guardian release got buried under 28 words, 20 of them background information:

The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), one of the largest mutual life insurers and a leading provider of employee benefits for small and mid-sized companies, today announced that it will cover 100% of the cost associated with the administration of the H1N1 vaccine for employees and their eligible dependents enrolled in a fully-insured Guardian medical plan.

Now, that story is a far cry from the creation of the universe. But that lead is nearly 6 times as long.

Start with a bang.

And make the most of those first few words. Otherwise, you’ll lose journalists.

“If the copy doesn’t excite me within 20 words, I won’t read the rest of it,” says one editor quoted by Jack Appleman, president of SG Communications.

Here, by the way, are the first 20 words of that Amazon release:

Amazon Web Services, Inc. (AWS), an Amazon.com company (NASDAQ:AMZN), today announced that it has contracted with EDP Renewables to construct …

Snooooooooooooooze.

What’s your best (or favorite) news release lead? Please share in the comments section.

“There’s too much time spent trying to bamboozle us with flowery marketing-babble instead of cutting to the chase and saying just why this should be important to readers.”
— Charles Cooper of Ziff Davis in a Softletter survey of media about the quality of PR writing

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“Every press release I’ve ever written needs to be completely rewritten!”
— Jennifer Cole, public affairs specialist, USDA NRCS