Date leads date your story
In a “West Wing” episode, President Jed Bartlet is in the Oval Office, where a technician prepares to record his Saturday morning radio address.
TECHNICIAN: “Here we go. In three, two …”
He holds up his index finger on “one,” then points to Bartlet.
BARTLET: “Good morning. This month, as autumn is in full bloom in much of the nation, the weekends will be devoted by many of you to leaf peeping and football … watch … ing …”
He starts to laugh.
TECHNICIAN: “Cut tape.”
BARTLET [still laughing]: “I’m sorry. Leaf peeping? Is that something we do now?”
Why do we do this to our executives?
Can we think of no other way for them to get into their executive messages other than to announce the changing of the seasons? Are we afraid we’ll lose credibility if the Big Guy himself doesn’t proclaim that a new month, season or year has arrived?
And how can we do this without laughing?
Let’s stop leading with “when.”
Avoid date leads.
I once found all these date leads in a month’s worth of a client’s employee communications:
- Beginning this year …
- (The company’s) agreement on June 29 …
- Following the June 15 Board meeting …
- Under a new plan that took effect Oct. 31, …
- Last year …
- On Dec. 15, 1998 …
- Back in the early ’50s …
Mesmerized yet? Probably not. That’s because date leads are boring. Why else should you avoid date leads?
‘When’ is the least interesting of the five W’s.
What’s more interesting, “Twelve seconds ago,” or what happened 12 seconds ago? The latter, I hope, if you’re writing about it.
Leading with the date pushes the action — what’s really important — to the back of the sentence.
Date leads are ‘duh’ leads.
“2012 is coming to an end,” writes one of my favorite bloggers, “and once it does, 2013 will be coming down the tracks.”
Just as spring follows winter, February trails January, and Tuesday comes after Monday, 2013 comes down the tracks after 2012.
But do we really need to alert our readers to this fact?
Date leads date your story.
Here’s a stack of when leads from another client:
“April was Records and Information Management Month …”
“Back in the May issue, we learned that our co-worker — despite his endless sneezing and coughing — probably isn’t carrying the next pandemic flu. …”
“Last year, the Underwriting group met with employer groups across all industries to gather feedback on the experience rating program …”
“A few years ago, the Secretary & General Counsel Division adopted Conscience Speaks as its motto …”
“Over 16 years ago, we said goodbye to our paper based- model and officially entered the world of technology. Now we’re turning the next page in our advancement …”
Over 16 years ago?! Honey, that is an old lead! (However, not quite as old as my other client’s “Back in the early ’50s …”)
Date leads are a habit.
Communicators (and departments) that use date leads tend to rely on them all the time. Witness my client’s list of leads.
Habitual writing is thoughtless writing. If you don’t think while you’re writing, you won’t make your readers think when they’re reading.
The Wall Street Journal drops the date.
When Brian Kilgore became managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, he decreed that The Journal would no longer use “today” and “yesterday” in story leads.
“It doesn’t have to have happened today to be news,” Kilgore said.
In doing so, he stripped the time element from most leads in the business publication of record in the United States. (Read it. It’s true.) And if it’s good enough for The Journal, it’s good enough for me.
When did Kilgore do that? In 1941.
But then, the date hardly matters.