Great Marketers Know These 4 Techniques They Teach In Journalism School

by 6 12/13/2012

Storytelling is the new hotness in marketing – and you don’t have to be JK Rowling to make it work.

Every day we read stories online from people who really know how to tell a tale – journalists.

If you want to learn to market with story, you could do worse than to learn these 4 techniques they teach rookies in journalism school.

The Inverted Pyramid

The inverted pyramid has a single purpose – to present the most important facts first and then refine down to the least important facts.

This structure works well in journalism, press releases, sales pages and blog posts.

Inverted Pyramid

Image source: Wikipedia.org

The inverted pyramid can be applied sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph and section by section.

The inverted pyramid method of storytelling has its critics and creates a problem for writers (more on this later) but you would do well to become familiar with this form of delivering the information readers need most at the beginning.

Which brings us to the next point…

The Lede/Lead

The lede is the very beginning of a story that is intended to entice the reader to read the rest of the story.  Again, it’s about grabbing the reader’s attention early.

Trainee journalists spend hours learning how to get the lede (or lead) right because getting the lede right is so critical.

Mitch Albom of The Detroit Free Press describes it best,

“If I don’t grab them at the start, I can’t count on grabbing them in the middle, because they’ll never get to the middle.”

And a good lede doesn’t only entice readers to read further.  It also gives the reader an indication of the direction the story is headed.  Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee describes a good lede as a

“flashlight shining down into the story.”

If you are new to writing ledes, keep your lede as simple as possible.  To get started, try the following with your next lede:

  • Summarize the most important point
  • Reveal the direction the story is headed
  • Pique the readers curiosity

Allow me to close this section with a single example of a well-written lede chosen by the Poynter Institute.

SAN QUENTIN – In the end, Robert Alton Harris seemed determined to go peacefully, a trait that had eluded him in the 39 violent and abusive years he spent on earth.

While this is clearly an example of a lede to a news story, rather than a narrative – I do believe it illustrates how simple, yet powerful a lede can be.  It summarizes the main point, gives us direction and piques our curiosity all in a single sentence.

If you are interested in the many different forms of a lede and some wonderful examples, visit this thorough Lexicon of Ledes here.

Finding The Right Angle

If you don’t have an angle, you don’t have a story.

The story angle is the hook that differentiates a mere set of facts from a story.  The better the angle, the better the story.

Consider that most major newspapers are writing at an 11th grade reading level.  It doesn’t take complicated prose to make a story compelling, a good angle will do the trick.

For example, suppose you were presented with this set of facts about the election of Barack Obama to a second term:

  • Elected to a second presidential term in 2012
  • Proposed and passed legislation to expand public health care
  • The health care expansion is to take effect over four years

Political stories are filled with opposing angles.  It’s truly amazing the myriad of angles that are taken from one set of facts.

These three pieces of information about the U.S. presidential election could yield a number of angles including:

  • Obama’s health care legislation was a major reason he won the election.
  • The United States is headed for a “Health Care Cliff” in four years.
  • Obama’s reelection and passing of health care reform is a big win for the nations poor.

I didn’t make these up.  These are all angles I’ve seen in traditional media outlets.

If you want your story to work, it’s got to be different than the others out there.  Don’t use the same old angles, invent something new.

“Gold Coins” Along The Path

In this attention starved environment, it’s never been more important to give readers a reason to keep reading.

Recent research from the Poynter Institute on the reading behavior of tablet users finds that readers reach a “bail out” point at an average of 78 seconds.  It is at this point that they either commit to reading or move on to something else. This research is relevant to all forms of written communication.

The inverted pyramid method, discussed earlier, is partly responsible for this phenomenon as it trains readers that the most important facts of the story are found in the beginning.

As Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Gartner puts it simply,

“The easiest thing for a reader to do is to quit reading.”

Readers are constantly making predictions about what’s down the path of your story.  If they don’t feel there is a reward (e.g. a gold coin) they bail.

Certainly you have to grab attention early and finish strong, but what about the middle of the story?  What keeps the reader going?

Here are a ways to spice up the guts of your narrative to keep people reading:

  • Ask a provocative question
  • Include a “pull out” quote
  • Inject something humorous or shocking

But don’t take my word for it.  Pick up a newspaper.  Visit a website and read a professionally written story.

See if you can tease out the use of an inverted pyramid or a gold coin.   Tease out the lede and find the angle of the story.

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About 

Sharon Hurley Hall is a professional writer and blogger. Her career has spanned more than 20 years, including stints as a journalist, academic writer, university lecturer and ghost writer. Connect with Sharon on her website.

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6 COMMENTS

Harvey M.

Excellent post. Will be taking these techniques back to my blog for sure!

December 14, 2012 Reply

Adrian S

To add to this, the “tede” really starts at the headline. If the headline doesn’t entice the reader then the first sentence won’t either since they’ll never get there. Great post though, lots to learn and apply here.

December 15, 2012 Reply

Gerrit Böhm

Great 4 points. If the writer is a little bit gifted it is very easy to implement each one of them. As a designer, when writing a content sometimes I get lost in what is more important and what is less important. This way I might say I still have to practice No.1. But if you have worked out this one, the other 3 are much easier to implement by working on the importance of the data.

December 16, 2012 Reply

Gerrit Böhm

By the way, I forgot to mention that storytelling is the new way of approaching web design. So, design and content are coming even closer ;)

December 16, 2012 Reply

    Sharon Hurley Hall

    Yes, they are, Gerrit. And you make a good point. If you get the structure right, then it’s easy to build in the other elements.

    December 17, 2012 Reply


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