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The hardest part of any writing assignment is the first part. That first sentence is where most writers struggle, whether it’s a news release or a news story, a memo to a client or a note to the boss. It’s the first thing out of your mouth; and it has to be good. It’s also where people will lose interest if you fail to grab their attention. So, what do you do?
First, use The “Hey, Mike” Rule. It’s named for Mike Simmons, my right-hand man when I found myself running a newsroom at 27. Mike worked a lot with young reporters who were covering nighttime meetings of city councils and school boards. They’d come back to the paper and find Mike to tell him what happened. While their explanations to Mike were clear and concise, they wrote some of the most convoluted leads imaginable.
These were sharp guys who worked hard, but the problem persisted. So I made a rule, The “Hey, Mike” Rule. Every lead in the newspaper had to read like it could be preceded by the words, “Hey, Mike… .” And it worked. Following is a re-creation that will help you get the idea.
BEFORE: The Pasadena City Council voted Monday night to continue to explore with a consulting firm the benefits of converting the 6.2-acre site of the defunct Gilley’s honkytonk on Spencer Highway into a retail space for a major tenant.
AFTER: City officials are still trying to take Walmart to Gilley’s.
Leads Should Grab Attention and Focus It
Great leads aren’t just about brevity. Sometimes the most memorable thing about a situation is a detail. If it’s truly compelling, don’t be afraid to use it in a lead. Look at this gem from Scott Goldstein of The Dallas Morning News:
A 12-year-old boy barely as tall as the judge’s bench pleaded guilty Tuesday to aggravated robbery in exchange for up to seven years in juvenile prison in connection with the killing of a man pushed into a moving DART train last year.
You can just see that kid, can’t you? I only wish the lead was shorter so the reader could focus longer on that image. That’s because (ultimately) what we want from leads is focus. Give the reader something to focus on and make it something they care about. A great reporter once told me any great story is about money, sex or power. If you’ve got one of those cards, play it.
Recently a client asked us to punch up some copy they were planning to use in an email blast. Our Stephanie Fedler saw that the lead needed improving, and she correctly played the money card, focusing on how a big bank was willing to give $20 to people who supported one of its partners.
“I think these are some nice changes,” the client wrote back, “love the first line.”
Three Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Let’s look at the first sentence of a couple of recent press releases and a news story, point out some pitfalls, and offer a suggestion for each.
Macadamian, a global leader in user experience design and software development, today announced that it has rocketed up the 2012 Edition of the Branham300, the definitive listing of Canada’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry leaders, as ranked by revenues.
Between the global leading, rocketing and definitive lists, this lead makes Macadamian sound overly self-important. Too many proper nouns is another issue. All that blurs the message that this is a successful company. Borrowing from elsewhere in the news release you could say:
Macadamian, a leader in software product creation, has been listed among Canada’s top 5 mobile technology companies and fourth among the Movers & Shakers in the nation’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry.
Sometimes reaching for a connection is the problem, as in this British news release from McDonald’s:
Worldwide Olympic Partner McDonald’s marked 100 days to go to the London 2012 Olympic Games this week, with the launch its “Champions of Play” programme.
Typos aside — just 100 days until the start of the Olympics? Unless you’re competing, do you care? Later we find elements of the story that are much stronger:
McDonald’s is bringing nearly 200 children from more than 34 countries to the London 2012 Olympic Games to attend events, meet athletes and get a behind-the-scenes look at selected venues.
Sometimes the problem is length, as in this lead from the Washington Post:
Israel’s military chief said in an interview published Wednesday that he believes Iran will choose not to build a nuclear bomb, an assessment that contrasted with the gloomier statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pointed to differences over the Iran issue at the top levels of Israeli leadership.
Can you read that in one breath? I’ll bet you make it about 25 words, which has long been my rule of thumb for how long a lead can be. Delaying the introduction of just a few details retains the conflict in the lead but slims it down to a manageable length:
Israel’s military chief has expressed views on Iran that are in sharp contrast with those of other Israeli leaders, including the prime minister.
Self-importance, weak connections, and length can conspire to ruin good stories in the very first sentence. Watch out for them, and don’t forget to say, “Hey, Mike … .”
Clay Zeigler is vice president of content at Idea Grove, an integrated marketing firm in Dallas specializing in public relations, online marketing and Web design. Clay has more than 25 years of experience writing and editing for print and online publications. At The Dallas Morning News, he led groups of reporters, helping them refine their approaches to reporting and writing. Previously, Clay headed a team of copy editors and led a small newsroom to national accolades.