Don’t lead with a history lesson
It can be tempting to start your story at the beginning. After all, didn’t Lewis Carroll advise us to do so in Alice In Wonderland? “Begin at the beginning, the King said, very gravely, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”The problem with this approach is that it buries the lead — also known as leading with the background. After all, nobody wants to start with the history lesson.
(When someone asks you about yourself, you don’t start at the year of your birth, do you?)
“Some of us are attracted to chronological order,” writes Malcolm Gibson, journalism professor at Kansas University. “Such an attraction can result in stories that read like the minutes of a meeting.”
Don’t start with the history lesson.
Instead of starting with the history lesson, lead by illustrating the most important point of your piece. So don’t lead with:
XYZ Company’s development of ear-blasting technologies began with the introduction of Make It Louder software in 2004. Since then, it has progressed to include three additional generations of ear-blasting technologies that continue to achieve the highest level of sound quality.
Why don’t we start by illustrating how the latest-generation ear-blasting technology will change your readers’ lives? Then move this history lesson to the third paragraph — aka the background section — where it can provide context for the current story.
Don’t lead with:
In 2011, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture launched Operation Wounded Warrior, a program through a partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project to invite wounded service members and veterans to enjoy recreational activities at Oklahoma State Forests. As part of Operation Wounded Warrior, five areas within Oklahoma’s State Forests have been designated as special hunt areas and are fully equipped to accommodate any veteran, despite his or her injuries. In many instances, these hunts serve not only as a weekend get-away but also a chance to heal.
Since this should be a human-interest story, let’s start with a wounded warrior who’s hunting and healing through this program. This background should go in — Yep! You got it! — paragraph three, or the background section.
And don’t lead with:
Last week, I shared with you the many challenges currently facing retailers – a jittery economy and aggressive online retailing, to name just two – as well as some of the things we’re doing to address those challenges.
And this week, you’re going to share with us something else. Why not lead with an illustration of this week’s topic? If last week’s post is important to understanding the broader context of this week’s, move it to the background section. Otherwise, hit Delete.
Avoid ancient history.
Even the ancient Romans knew not to bury the lead under a history lesson. As Horace wrote of Homer’s Iliad in Ars Poetica:
“To tell Diomedes’ story he doesn’t think
“He has to start with the death of the hero’s uncle,
“Or start, in telling about the Trojan War,
“By telling us how Helen came out of an egg.
“He goes right to the point and carries the reader
“Into the midst of things, as if known already;
“And if there’s material that he despairs of presenting
“So as to shine for us, he leaves it out;
“And he makes his whole poem one. What’s true, what’s invented,
“Beginning, middle and end, all fit together.”
Tempted to start your story by telling readers how Helen came out of an egg? Take Horace’s advice: Go right to the point — and carry the reader into the midst of the story.
(Also see “when” leads.)