Doctor’s orders: Make it a feature release

American Academy of Family Physicians finds a cure for the pyramid

Too many communicators married the inverted pyramid when they were 19, have made a lot of triangular babies and have remained monogamous for all these years. Problem is, the traditional news structure doesn’t work well with humans.

Doctor’s orders: Make it a feature release

RX for engagement Add color and interest to your message with a feature release. Image by Jesper Aggergaard

But Janelle Davis, for one, has started to flirt around with other structures. During a recent Catch Your Readers Master Class, the public relations strategist for the American Academy of Family Physicians rewrote a traditional news story into a feature. Here’s how she made over her piece:

Get a refresher on the feature-style structure.

I. Introduction

The feature introduction has three parts: the lead, the nut graph and the background section.

A. Lead. The job of the feature lead is to grab attention. To do that, make your lead:

  • Concrete: Show instead of tell.
  • Creative: Use a scenario or another approach you can steal from fiction writers.
  • Provocative: Provoke a question in your readers’ mind that they can only answer by reading the piece.

Here’s Janelle’s traditional news lead:

The American Academy of Family Physicians is calling on food producers and the medical community to fight antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

And here’s the more compelling feature approach:

You’ve been there. It’s the day before an important meeting, and you feel a sore throat coming on. You get home that evening and it’s worse. Your head throbs like a bad ’80s bass line. Your eyes are fire engine red. You’d give just about anything to breathe through your nose. You call your doctor and beg for a pill — ANY pill — to make you feel better.

B. Background section It’s tempting to put all the elements in the first paragraph:

Here’s the before:

Antibiotics have saved the lives of countless people around the world, but their overuse and misuse has led to the emergence of drug resistant bacteria. The consequences are dire. Every year, antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million people nationwide and kill at least 23,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In this feature approach, Janelle explains why this story is important now, in a sentence or two:

In many cases, that pill is an antibiotic. But unless your illness is caused by bacteria, an antibiotic won’t help – and it may even hurt. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million people in the United States are infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and more than 23,000 die as a result.

Pro tip: Don’t lead with the background. We also call background the blah-blah-blah. So avoid the mistake too many people make of placing the background in the lead.

C. Nut graph. Here, you put the story in a nutshell. In this section, you’ll want to:

  • Make your key point. After getting readers’ attention with a shiny object in the lead, tell them where you’re taking them in the nut graph.
  • Summarize your key message in a sentence or two.
  • Focus on the reader: Let people know what’s in it for them.

Janelle didn’t have a nut graph in her original story, because inverted pyramids don’t have nut graphs. Note the reader focus in this nut graph from her revised piece:

You as a patient can help slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by not requesting antibiotics for viral illnesses, such as cold and flu.

II. Body

Here’s where you tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em. The body of Janelle’s original piece:
The AAFP recognizes inappropriate use of antibiotics as a risk to both personal and public health and encourages only the appropriate use of these medications. Several groups, specifically those in the medical and food production communities, have the power to slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.“As family physicians, we are deeply concerned about the threat that antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses to public health. This can’t be done alone. Everyone – particularly people in the medical and food production fields – can help combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” Robert Wergin, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said.

The AAFP calls for food production-related measures that:

  • Reduce antibiotic use in food production
  • Require a proof of efficacy and a positive cost/benefit analysis for any antibiotics used in food production. The analysis should take into account the ultimate costs to human health care, including not just economic costs, but morbidity and mortality costs as well.

The AAFP calls on the medical community to administer antibiotics only when needed. As part of the Choosing Wisely campaign, the AAFP has identified recommendations that aim to reduce unnecessary use of antibiotics. The Choosing Wisely campaign encourages specialty societies to identify commonly used tests or procedures that are possibly overused. The AAFP identified two procedures related to antibiotic use that physicians and patients should question. They include:

  • Don’t prescribe antibiotics for otitis media in children aged 2-12 years with non-severe symptoms where the observation option is reasonable.
  • Don’t routinely prescribe antibiotics for acute mild-to-moderate sinusitis unless symptoms last for seven or more days OR symptoms worsen after initial clinical improvement.

The brisker, the better. The original body was 264 words long. Here’s the revision, at 257 words:

While it’s true antibiotics save countless lives, their overuse and misuse is rapidly becoming a public health crisis. Many drug-resistant strains of bacteria, or superbugs, can make you extremely sick. Think super gonorrhea, or the worst case of food poisoning you can imagine.Some bacterial illnesses that were once easily cured by antibiotics have become harder to treat. From urinary tract infections to serious hospital-borne pathogens, many treatments have become less successful as bacteria learn to fight back.

“Family physicians are concerned about the threat that antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses to public health,” said Robert Wergin, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Doctors must educate their patients about appropriate antibiotic use, and patients need to understand that antibiotics are often not the best course of treatment.”

There are steps you can take to relieve cold and flu symptoms when antibiotics won’t work:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer to relieve cough, sore throat and sinus pain caused by cold and bronchitis.
    Avoid smoking and other airborne pollutants.
  • Suck on ice chips, or use throat spray or lozenges to sooth a sore throat. Note: Never give lozenges to children.
  • Take ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen as directed to relieve pain or fever.
  • Place a warm moist cloth over the ear that hurts.
  • Take decongestants or saline nasal spray to relieve nasal symptoms.
  • Place a warm compress over the nose and forehead to help relieve sinus pressure.
  • Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower.

I love some of the colorful language here, like “the worst case of food poisoning you can imagine.” I might have added two subheads to the rewrite: Why avoid antibiotics and How to avoid antibiotics.

III. Conclusion

This section has two parts: the wrapup and the kicker.

A. Wrapup. Here, you tell ’em what you told ’em in a one- to two-sentence paragraph.

Janelle might have written something like, “Unless you have an infection, these approaches are likely to work better than antibiotics anyway — and without the horror movie-style side effects.”

Tip: Copy your nut graph, paste it into the conclusion and massage for a great, low-work wrapup.

B. Kicker. The great thing about inverted pyramids is that when you’re finished, you just stop typing. Features require an ending.

To leave a lasting impression, go with something that’s concrete, creative and provocative. Anything that works for the lead will also work for the kicker.

Here’s Janelle’s original ending:

“Antibiotics do a tremendous good, but there’s a flip side of that coin. We have to recognize the risks of inappropriate antibiotic use, and commit to using these medications appropriately,” Wergin said.

And here’s the feature approach:

“Nobody likes to be sick, but sometimes the best course of action is to treat the symptoms and ride it out,” Wergin said. “Antibiotics do a tremendous good, but there’s a flip side of that coin. We must recognize the risks of inappropriate antibiotic use and use these medications appropriately, or we may find ourselves in a crisis where serious illnesses outsmart our means to treat them.”

I might add a detail or analogy to make this quote more interesting.

More engaging, easier to read

In addition to re-crafting this piece into a feature story, Janelle also increased her Flesch Reading Ease score from 16.1 to 52.5 — an increase of 226 percent.

Which of these stories would you rather read? Me too.

Great job, Janelle, and thank you for sharing.

  • Go Beyond the Pyramid

    Master a story structure that’s been proven in the lab to reach more readers

    Writers say, “We use the inverted pyramid because readers stop reading after the first paragraph.” But in new research, readers say, “We stop reading after the first paragraph because you use the inverted pyramid.”

    Go Beyond the Pyramid in Dallas

    Indeed, our old friend the inverted pyramid hasn’t fared well in recent studies. Studies by the Poynter Institute, Reuters Institute and the American Society of News Editors show that the traditional news structure reduces readership, understanding, sharing, engagement and more.

    Grab readers’ attention, pull them through the piece and leave a lasting impression.

    The pyramid doesn’t work well, these researchers say, with a little subset of your audience we call “humans.”

    At Catch Your Readers — our two-day hands-on persuasive-writing master class on Oct. 2-3 in Dallas — you’ll master a structure that’s been proven in the lab to grab readers’ attention, pull them through the piece and leave a lasting impression. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Grab reader attention with a lead that’s concrete, creative and provocative — and avoid making readers’ eyes glaze over by using one of the seven deadly leads.
    • Stop bewildering your readers by leaving out an essential paragraph. (Many communicators forget this entirely.)
    • Avoid the “muddle in the middle” by choosing one of five structural techniques from a rubric created by the founder of TED Talks.
    • Draw to a satisfying conclusion in the penultimate paragraph.
    • End with a bang, not a whimper by using our three-step test.


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