February 19, 2018

Background check

Deliver context, a definition or history in your background section

Want to guarantee that nobody reads your message? Lead with the background section — aka the blah blah blah.

Write an effective background section

Backgrounds are rarely this colorful Background material — aka the blah blah blah — features information that’s important but often not interesting. Image by Christian Stahl

The 18th installment of the Heartland Monitor Poll explores how average Americans feel about the state of childhood in our country today. The Heartland Monitor program is a way for XYZ to reach out to local communities and take a quarterly temperature check on what the middle class thinks about the issues that are important to them. XYZ’s most important role is to protect middle class families, and we believe that our employees represent the very communities that XYZ is fighting to protect. It is for these reasons that XYZ invests in programs like Heartland Monitor. Heartland Monitor polling not only allows XYZ to make a direct connection with Americans who are our customers and consumers, but the quarterly reports are used to demonstrate for lawmakers in Washington why they should turn their attention to local communities and focus on issues that are important to the middle class.

Don't put the background in the foreground - Ann Wylie

The what what?

The background section — often the third paragraph in the feature-style story structure — fills in the gaps in the reader’s knowledge. Here’s where you give readers whatever information they need to understand the rest of the story.

There are three types of background sections. Consider that third paragraph when you need to communicate:

1. Context

Think of your lead as a close-up. The background section is a wide shot.

Use a contextual background section when your story is a microcosm of a bigger picture. Answer the reader’s question, “Why are you telling me this story now?”


Take “Putin’s Friend Profits in Purge of Schoolbooks,” a New York Times story about Enlightenment, a Russian publishing house, and its business practices. Reporters Jo Becker and Steven Lee Myers offer this background section:

Enlightenment’s story also traces, in miniature, the arc of the Russian economy over the last quarter-century, from Soviet state ownership, to privatization, to what might be called the theater of state-sponsored private enterprise that flourishes today under Mr. Putin. In theory, market competition exists. In reality, the Kremlin and its functionaries have divvied up the nation’s strategic industries among a small and malleable circle of allies. They command some of the nation’s largest energy companies, control banks and much of the news media, and, increasingly, have a footprint in smaller sectors, like book publishing, that are nonetheless important to Mr. Putin’s political control.

Why context?

“We live in an age awash with information,” writes Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing, in his book News Values: Ideas for an Information Age. “Readers don’t just want random snatches of information flying at them from out of the ether.”

With a contextual background section, you go beyond news and facts to offer readers knowledge and meaning — even, maybe, a little wisdom.

2. A definition

Need to define a person, place or thing? By all means, explain away. But do so in the third paragraph, or background section, not in the lead.



The lead’s job is to grab attention. Definitions don’t:

The 2014 Canada 55+ Games are coming to Strathcona County, Alberta this summer from August 27 to 30. The Canada 55+ Games is a nationwide program that promotes spiritual, mental and physical wellness among Canadians 55 years of age and older. Not just your average sporting event, the Canada 55+ Games features competition in 24 different sports and events ranging from swimming and hockey to scrabble and bocce.

Instead, lead with a provocative detail:

Florence Storch is a 101-year-old Alberta woman with a unique hobby and a lofty goal. A javelin thrower, Florence has her sights set on winning a gold medal at the 2014 Canada 55+ Games.

Next, tell readers where you’re going with this story in the nut graph:

This summer, Florence and 2,000 other competitors from across Canada will have their chance at gold right here in Strathcona County, and you can come cheer them on.

Then, define your subject:

The Canada 55+ Games is a nationwide program that promotes spiritual, mental and physical wellness among Canadians 55 years of age and older. Not just your average sporting event, the Games features competition in 24 different sports and events ranging from swimming and hockey to scrabble and bocce.

To grab and keep reader attention, show first, tell second, explain third.

3. History or trend

Don’t start your story with a history lesson — or even a trend. Instead, move history and trends to the third paragraph of your piece.

Don't lead with a history lesson. Save it for the background. - Ann Wylie

Why? Your lead and nut graph should focus on what’s going on today. The “Here’s how we got here” details are background. So put them into the background section.

Here are some leads that should have been background sections:

Staff in the U.S. started wearing distinctive XYZ lapel pins at the start of this year.
Building upon the January launch of myCareer, people managers now have access to additional tools and resources to aid in developing Merck’s talent.
We have been on a great technical journey here at XYZ Company over the past two years with new tools enabling rapid innovations to occur.…
In 2013, XYZ licensed our ABC technology to 123 Corporation, which has now introduced Something Or Other, an innovative entertainment product that uses XYZ’s technology to provide an unparalleled viewing experience. …
We have been producing XYZ on an industrial scale since 2006

Find yourself leading with Phase 1 of your project when you’ve actually just launched Phase 67?

Don’t go back in time in the first paragraph. Save it for the background.

“Background has a bit of an image problem. It’s clearly the underdog to its more exciting cousins, the lede and the kicker, which seem to get all our creative attention.”
— Christina Selby, freelance writer and TON fellow

Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie’s persuasive-writing workshop on May 1-2, 2018 in Denver

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 — like leading with the background — are not the bait the reader likes. In fact, some of the standards in the corporate communicator’s repertoire are more likely to hinder than help your chances at getting the word out.

Grab readers’ attention, pull them through the piece and leave a lasting impression.

At Catch Your Readers my persuasive-writing Master Class on May 1-2 in Denver, we’ll debunk destructive writing myths. You’ll leave with scientific, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting people to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on your messages.

Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Think Like a Reader: Move people to act.
  • Go Beyond the Pyramid: Master a format that’s been proven in the lab to reach more readers.
  • Be Clear: Measurably boost readability with our targets, tips & tools.
  • Lift Ideas Off the Page: Reach nonreaders with display copy.
  • Get a Writing Workout Ann: Make your message strong and lean.

PRSA members: Earn 4 APR maintenance points!

Save $100 when you register by Feb. 17.

“Worth your time away from work, because you’ll be a better — and smarter — writer when you get back. Ann focuses on real skills and has the data to back it up.”
— Mary Schumacher, director of communications, Saint Meinrad Archabbey