When you have only seconds to get a reader’s attention, an effective lead in a news article or feature story is essential.
The reader makes a crucial decision quickly: keep reading or click to something else. So crafting an opening paragraph that keeps the reader on the page is a challenge. We all know that the purpose of the first paragraph is to get attention, but how many of them really pull you in?
There are a few ways to make a lead interesting. Here are a few:
Use descriptive details to present an image or a scene that compels the reader to continue. Don’t make the mistake this writer made:
What causes an oasis to bloom in the desert? Just ask “Greening Up” volunteers at our Apple Valley site.
Starting with a question rarely pulls the reader in because the questions usually are bland, so readers don’t care about knowing the answer. This story was about employees gathering on a Saturday to pick up litter in a creek basin as part of a community project, so why not interview the participants about the volunteering experience? You could be more descriptive and present the reader with something out of the ordinary:
After a 50-hour week piecing together aerospace engines, Judy Jones awoke at 7 a.m. Saturday, eager to trudge through a creek basin picking up trash.
Why did she do that? the reader wonders, and keeps reading.
This requires that you end the first sentence (or first paragraph) leaving the reader asking, “and then what happened?” After all, that’s similar to what we are asking when we read mysteries.
This original opening is bland:
Dedication and passion are two words that can definitely be used to describe corporate security officer John Gillis. He was recently honored at a Town Council meeting for heroism while serving as a volunteer Firefighter.
Interviewing Gillis might have yielded specific details for a more descriptive lead:
Riding in the back of a fire truck, firefighter Carlton Gillis noticed through the flames a woman and two children waving frantically from the roof.
Or, if you don’t have the facts, details, and quotes you need, take the direct approach, which brings the reader to the heart of the story immediately.
A corporate security officer whose commitment to public safety extends beyond his day job has been recognized for heroism after rescuing three fire victims.
Be creative: Put your own twist on a familiar phrase or a trend
This lead was on a story about the development of new treats that food chemists said were healthy:
They’re the words you’ve been waiting to hear: “Go ahead. Eat that cookie – it’s good for your heart.”
Here is one about a bed-making competition among hotel housekeepers:
They made their beds, again and again. But there was no time to lie in them during Thursday’s contest for 50 housekeepers from the city’s top hotels. It was—dare we say—sheer bedlam.
Most leads get the job done but rarely are they award winners. Still, you can stretch yourself beyond the routine, often dull, lead by keeping in mind these techniques:
- Use interesting details to create an unusual image that reflects the central point of the story.
- Make a statement that has a word or words at the end that surprise the reader.
- Build a sense of mystery.
- Put a twist on a common phrase, a familiar issue, a book or movie title, or a trend.
If you could benefit from more writing tips, join us for a webinar September 8th, called “Influencing Your Audience: Crafting Messages that Motivate.” Learn subtle persuasion techniques to use immediately, even in email, to make your messages convincing.
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.