Can’t think of a good lead? Try writing a story

Writer at typewriterRemember those boring expository writing assignments in high school? Everything had to fit neatly into a three-step formula: 1) an introductory paragraph with a thesis, 2) supporting paragraphs and 3) a conclusion that summarized your ideas. Those kinds of essays are a struggle to write, and frankly no one likes reading them, either!

Then there’s the tried-and-true inverted pyramid, where you answer the “five W’s” in your lead paragraph and present supporting information in descending order of importance. It’s a form favored by newspapers because readers can glean the essential points from your summary lead, and editors can cut the story from the bottom up without losing any key facts.

This historic lead sentence from an Associated Press reporter is considered one of the earliest examples of the inverted pyramid style:

Washington, Friday, April 14, 1865

The President was shot in a theater to-night and perhaps mortally wounded.

There’s no doubt that the inverted pyramid is an efficient way to write. It satisfied the needs of publishers in the Industrial Age when news was often received by telegraph, pages were laid out by hand and typesetters had to be able to cut stories on the fly if they didn’t fit. In the Digital Age, these concerns are no longer an issue. There is room to tell a good story and employ the techniques of fiction to reel in the reader.

In summarizing the case for abandoning the inverted pyramid, Chip Scanlan of The Poynter Institute writes, “The inverted pyramid…tells the story backward and is at odds with the storytelling tradition that features a beginning, middle and end. Rather than rewarding a reader with a satisfying conclusion, the pyramid loses steam and peters out, in a sense defying readers to stay awake, let alone read on.”

So if you’re struggling to find the perfect lead for an article or press release, perhaps it’s time to break free of the shackles of the inverted pyramid or expository style. Just as news outlets have been experimenting with alternative forms of reporting, PR firms are using new kinds of storytelling to reach and influence audiences.

Here are a few forms you might try:

The hourglass formula: If you give your readers all the news upfront, they may not stick around to read the rest of the story. Try the hourglass approach with important news in the beginning, a transition designed to hold your readers’ interest in the middle and a big conclusion at the end.

The classic fairy tale: We’ve been entertained since childhood with “once-upon-a-time” stories. The formula is pretty simple: Set the scene; introduce a conflict or complication; resolve the conflict/complication; and describe how the story ends. Or try the upside-down version that begins with the ending, gives the background, leads to the main action and then provides a conclusion.

News feature story: Pioneered by The Wall Street Journal, this form seeks to explain the news rather than report it. It typically begins with an anecdotal lead to hook the reader and then moves into a balanced explanation of both sides of an issue. Its hallmark is the “nut graph,” a paragraph that puts everything into context and makes the case for why the reader should care.

Feature/news story: PR writing coach Ann Wylie describes a hybrid form of news release that “has a feature head and an inverted pyramid tail. The beauty of this beast is that it brings the story to life at the top with a feature lead, nut graph and background section…Use it when you have a story that would benefit from a feature lead but that needs a just-the-facts-ma’am resolution.”

There are other forms you might consider, too. For example, infographics, FAQs and listicles have become popular ways of presenting information via the Internet. Choose the form that works best to tell your story and connect with your audience. Give your readers a compelling reason to read what you’ve written, not an empty formula you learned in high school.

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