“Here are the facts. Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento.
Now write the lead.”
The students attack the assignment with gusto. Based on their experience, they know what they have to do – boil the facts into a succinct sentence.
After some time, the professor collects the leads. He quickly scans them and puts them on his desk. Pausing a beat, he looks up and says…
“The lead to the story is… ‘There will be no school on Thursday’
When I read this story in Made to Stick, I immediately looked at my blog posts from a totally different perspective. You should too. Here’s why:
Why Your Lede Is Just as Important as Your Headline
(Note: I am going to use “lede” instead of lead to win points with my journalism buddies.)
Your lede lives in your blog’s first paragraph. It pays off your headline’s promise and sets the tone for your blog. If your headline sucks, your lede can save your butt and keep the reader moving through the post.
Your lede helps yours reader decide one critical question: do I keep reading or hit the back button? If you fail here, your post will never stand a chance.
You can diagnose whether your ledes suck.
Take a look at your bounce rate. If it is higher than 50%, then you may have a lede problem. How about your average time spent per page – are people jumping away in under a minute? If so, then the signs are pointing toward blog posts that are failing to grab your readers. If you are SURE that your headlines are getting the job done, then your ledes are the next issue to tackle.
Before we jump into solving the problem, let’s examine what ledes are…
The History of the Lede
History points to the telegraph as being the killer app that spawned the lede.
Imagine being journalist during the Civil War, the heyday for the telegraph. You rush into the telegraph office to fire off a report to your headquarters in Washington.
The problem is that you have to keep your telegraph short because you can be bumped out of line by a Union message at any point. Plus, you don’t want to upset the telegraph operator who has been tapping out messages all day.
Out of necessity, you craft a single sentence that communicates all of the facts in one heart-stopping sentence.
“The Union won the battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania today, soundly defeating General Lee’s Confederate forces, inflicting crippling casualties on the retreating army.”
Since then, the succinct lede has ruled the roost in every newspaper bullpen until today.
Modern journalism has refined the lede down to one central idea that leaves the reader hungry for more information.
Here’s a great example from Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker yesterday:
“When Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he settled on two principles.”
This lede leaves you with irresistible questions: what were the two principles? Why haven’t I heard about Vivek Renadive before? Are the principles different for a girl’s basketball team? And so on… This lede is doing its job.
Now let’s talk about your blog’s ledes.
How to Create a Compelling Lede
There is a lot of talk about ledes. Funny thing is that much of the talk is about their value versus their construction. I’ll save you the trouble here by explaining some of the most effective lede types.
“There will be no school on Thursday” is a zinger. “Steve Jobs died today at the age of 56” is a zinger. Zingers force you to find the only thing that really matters in your post and put it right up front.
Zingers are risky as hell. You really have to know your stuff and know how to separate the somewhat important from the super important. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae and play your 2 card instead of your ace.
Zingers work best when you have one simple point to make. You can’t explain the physics of wormholes with a zinger; there are too many important details. So if you want to use this lede type, make sure you keep it simple.
The inverted pyramid gets its name from its emphasis on starting with the important facts and introducing less important facts in descending order throughout the article.
Inverted pyramid users try to get as much of the Who, What, Where, When, and Why in the first paragraph as possible.
The inverted pyramid is perfect for quickly dishing out the heart of the story early and fast. The reader can get the gist by just reading the lede.
Almost every newspaper uses the inverted pyramid, and it’s a staple of journalism classes.
As a blog writer, it makes sense to use the inverted pyramid. Since most readers scan rather than read blog posts, getting to the point is a safe way to go.
I encourage new writers to start with the inverted pyramid. Get comfortable with it, and then move on to other lede types.
This lede works by building the cliffhanger in the first sentence. Done well, this clever structure forces your reader to finish the post to satiate their curiosity. Done poorly, you just annoy your readers.
This always works well but needs a good writer to pull it off. It’s helpful to remember that a cliffhanger lede doesn’t have to be mysterious or action packed; it just needs to leave a worthwhile question unanswered.
Stories are excellent cliffhanger lede material. Like in this post, most people can’t resist finishing a story once they get started. Experiment with this lede when you have a potentially dry subject that needs a nudge to get the ball rolling.
Sometimes your post only appeals to a specific person. It can be owners of golden retrievers, single dads, or blind mole rat owner fanatics. Using a cliffhanger lede would be anticlimactic, and the inverted pyramid would be annoying. In this case, you need to go straight for the jugular.
The bullseye lede calls out the reader in the very first sentence…
“If you can’t stop your golden retriever from digging up your marigolds, then you’ll find these 10 tips useful.” (By the way, I’m open to suggestions!)
If you publish a blog that appeals to a niche audience, then the bullseye will probably be your “go-to” lede.
By the way, this isn’t an exhaustive list. I would love to hear about some other lede types you’ve come across. Just shoot me a note in the comments.
One Last Thing
Ledes are even more difficult to write than headlines. I am sure you will have a few days in which the well runs dry for ideas. Here are two sure-fire spots that you can go for inspiration:
- Mystery Novels and Thrillers – Read the first paragraph. All great books are judged based on their ability to hook a reader from the first sentence. The cool part is that you can use Amazon’s “Look inside” feature to read the first sentence without buying the book! #sneakystan
- The New Yorker (any great newspaper) – The New Yorker is packed with fantastic essays that start with a bang. I particularly like The New Yorker because they are willing to stray from the popular inverted pyramid lede.