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7 Ways to Put the ‘WOW’ in Your First Paragraph

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Govies write blogs, like this one. We write news releases. We write big, old honkin’ 10,000-word annual reports. We write opening remarks for politicians and inspiring State-of-the-Pick-Your-Unit-of-Government addresses and grant requests and PowerPoint presentations and how-to manuals. We write formal letters seeking swift and decisive action from other government officials and urgent emails WITH ALL-CAPS and colorful brochures and 2040 plans that promise to shape our future and make the world a better place.

Shouldn’t we, maybe, take a second to think how we write the first freakin’ paragraph?

The above opener is what’s called a “roundup lead.” Is it a great specimen? Probably not. But it’s one of many types of leads you can use to entice your readers (audience, unique visitors, eyeball-wearers, whatever we’re calling them this week) to read on.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, govies generally suck at storytelling. We have little imagination, never enough time, and pretty much don’t give a (insert expletive) whether someone reads our stuff … or not.

Govies don’t have to be great writers. “Existential angst” isn’t in the job description, and we don’t do Dostoyevsky. But we can learn something about prose from the everyday pro’s — those ink-stained wretches who cobble together our morning newspaper or online blog.

Here are seven tips I cobbled from Tim Harrower’s book “Inside Reporting” with the hope that govies can use them to write better leads:

(1) Keep leads short. The first paragraph should usually be 25 words or fewer.

Govies tend to write long paragraphs. Not sure why that is — maybe we just have longer attention spans than the average journalist.

A short lead isn’t always better, but it often is.

writer-writing-depositphotosMy favorite example of a short lead comes from humorist James Thurber, who started out as a newspaper reporter. Like a lot of reporters, Thurber had an irascible editor (like me) who kept nagging him to write shorter, more-dramatic leads — so Thurber wrote the following:

Dead.

That’s what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4 p.m. in front of Riley’s saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th streets.

Obviously, that’s brevity overkill. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) And you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “You know, this isn’t helping because I don’t write a lot of murder stories as part of my government job.”

So here’s another staccato lead example, which might be more applicable to govies:

Dog poop. It’s everywhere: on the sidewalk, on the lawn, in the soles of your shoes.

But that may soon change. The Cattywampus Community College Board of Trustees, in response to hundreds of complaints, is considering a new regulation declaring the campus off limits to dogs.

Could you use a lead like this in your blog or news release? I hope so.

(2) Try to limit leads to one or two sentences.

One of the biggest failings of government writers is the inability to craft a lead in one or two sentences.

Here’s a relatively good example of a short lead:

Mayberry residents will pay to park on Main Street starting Jan. 1, thanks to a measure passed Tuesday by the City Council.

That’s a “summary lead.” It is, or should be, the “go to” lead for government communicators, whether you’re writing a news release or a blog or making a verbal report to your favorite committee or subcommittee.

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Summary leads are effective and easy to put together. All you have to do is find the most significant who, what, when and where, and you’ve pretty much nailed it.

Unfortunately, a lot of govies just don’t get it.

Here’s the lead of a news release handed to me earlier this year:

ExporTechTM is a program jointly offered nationwide by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership program and the U.S. Export Assistance Centers of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The program is a group workshop with an individual coach for each company, leading to an export plan in nine weeks.

It’s actually a terrific business story, with a strong local angle, and I wanted folks to know about it. But how to get them interested?

Somewhere around the ninth or 10th paragraph, I spotted this:

On average, participating companies generate $770K in new export sales while saving countless hours and eliminating fear of the unknown about getting paid, protecting intellectual property, finding sales reps, and more.

Say, what? Did that just say $770,000 in new sales? I rewrote the news release, using a summary lead:

Up to eight Kane County manufacturing businesses have a rare opportunity to take part in a program that, on average, generates $770,000 a year in new export sales.

Keep your leads brief, find the “juice” of the story, and you’ll be a more successful government communicator.

(3) Avoid starting leads with the when or where of your story unless the time or place is unusual.

As mentioned above, it’s generally best to start with the who or what.

BAD GOVIE:

The Hokum School Board met on Friday in the third-floor conference room of Hokum Community High School, 416 Possum Ave., Hokum, IL 60134.

(Also, call the Squad Squad to report the redundant use of “Hokum” in that sentence.)

GOOD GOVIE:

Hokum taxpayers could see their property taxes drop by as much as $500 next year, when the School District refinances the bond issue that paid for the 2014 construction of Hokum Middle School.

The key, as I’ve said in an earlier blog, is to “think like a reader.” Focusing on the who and what helps you get the good stuff in the first paragraph.

(4) “Shake it up,” as Ric Ocasek once sang. (I dare you NOT to get that song stuck in your head right now.)

The simple point here is to vary your lead types. Experiment. Have a little fun.

If you don’t like what you started, don’t worry. That delete button on your laptop is there for a reason.

Try an Anecdotal Lead!

Here’s a story that a competent govie news-release writer might have started with a summary lead: “On Monday, 26 members of the Northwestern University’s women’s lacrosse team got a chance visit to the White House and meet President Barack Obama … “:

But watch what happens when the writers — Jody S. Cohen and Maegan Carberry of the Chicago Tribune — try an anecdotal lead:

Before visiting the White House, Kate Darmody carefully planned her outfit. She bought a sundress from Ann Taylor. She put on a strand of white pearls.

And then she slipped on flip-flops to meet the president …

The headline was “YOU WORE FLIP-FLOPS TO THE WHITE HOUSE?!”

Great headline, great story angle, great way to turn a mundane post into something special.

Or Maybe Use a … Startling Statement!

Wow Comic Speech Bubble, Cartoon vector on blue background

This example’s just OK because (in my opinion) the “startling statement” isn’t all that startling. (Shouldn’t everybody favor this?)

As Americans took part in International Women’s Day, a new Harris Poll finds that two in three Americans (66 percent) favor efforts to strengthen women’s status in society.

Here’s a “startling statement” lead from The News-Press in Fort Myers, FL, that pulled me into second paragraph and more:

An Englewood woman has landed in jail after allegedly padding her bra with a rare greenwing parrot.

Or Even (Gasp) Open With a Paragraph That’s Playful or Funny!

How about this lead for a health department news release on diet and exercise?

For Germans trying to lose weight, the wurst is yet to come.

Another favorite wordplay lead example from “Inside Reporting”:

Rock. Susan McQuaide. Hard place.

Just “be careful out there.” If you try to get too cute, you’ll lose readers faster than a cat can …. (nevermind.)

(5) At least try to get your reader’s attention

What was it Yoda said? “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Just this once, forget Yoda.

Too often, govies don’t even try to make a story interesting to readers.

SPRINGFIELD – Governor Bruce Rauner joined Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti today to discuss issues affecting our rural communities in Illinois at the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs’ 28th Annual Economic Development Conference in Springfield.

When you don’t try to find an an interesting lead, you can actually be doing a disservice. An awful lead can block a citizen from finding crucial information.

TYPICAL GOVIE LEAD:

Get informed about the dangers of radon exposure at one of two presentations set for Jan. 18, 2017, at the University of Illinois Extension office, 535 Randall Road, in St. Charles. There will be two sessions, at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

BETTER:

More than 1,000 people in Pluto County died last year from lung cancer associated with radon gas in and around their homes.

This week, you’ve got a chance to get informed about the dangers of radon, get a free radon kit valued at $25, learn how to prevent radon from entering your home and maybe, just maybe, save the life of someone you love.

I know some govies will argue with me about a lead like this, saying we’ll scare people and cause panic in the streets. I’m sorry, but government communicators’ fatal flaw isn’t overstating the facts, it’s keeping the meaningful stuff under wraps.

Which brings us to …

(6) Find the “juice.”

I’m going to throw a random number at you: 60 percent. In my experience, that’s about how often govies bury the lead.

And we’re not talking delayed lead here. We’re talking not knowing what the lead is or should be.

There’s a very simple trick to find the juice of any story. Stroll up to a friendly co-worker and tell him or her what you’re writing about. The first thing out of your mouth is probably going to be the most interesting. And the most interesting thing is probably going to be your lead.

( 7 ) Break all the rules

Harrower advises to avoid question leads. Then I find this one in the “morgue” of “Inside Reporting.” It’s written by Bryan Gilmer of the St. Petersburg Times, and it’s the rarest of gems — a budget story that’s fun to read.

screen-shot-2017-03-13-at-12-18-44-pmGilmer leads with these questions:

Do you live in St. Petersburg? Want to help spend $548 million?

Another rule is “never use a quote lead.” But you can pull it off from time to time. Here’s a quote yanked from the third-to-last paragraph of a well-written state’s attorney’s office news release that might have been strong enough to convert into an OK quote lead:

“Gary Bennett exemplified greed and evil and is looking at a long prison sentence as a result,” Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said.

Bennett, 38, of Denver was convicted Tuesday of shooting of 36-year-old Keith K. Crawford of Bartlett, dumping Crawford’s body in a large garbage bin at an apartment complex on Todd Farm Road in Elgin and covering up the murder for more than two years.

The “roundup lead” I used to open this blog breaks the rule of keeping the first paragraph under 25 words. (See what I did there?) And Harrower himself says the following in his intro to a story on “Leads That Succeed”:

“Remember, there’s no type of lead that always works, just as there’s no type of lead that always fails. The success of every lead depends on how well you write it.”

NEXT WEEK: Should Government Communicators Post ‘Bad News’?

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Read the ‘Journalism.Gov’ Series

Rick Nagel is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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