Opioid crisis goes beyond the inverted pyramid

WCB-Alberta uses feature structure to discuss addiction

I love it when my clients send me before-and-after pieces after I present a writing workshop.

Opioid crisis goes beyond the inverted pyramid

Beyond news Rethink your story with the feature-style story format.

For one thing, it’s gratifying to see that people’s writing actually improves after I visit! For another, these pieces make great case studies in good writing.

Workers Compensation Board-Alberta writer Caren Baroudy recently did a wonderful job rewriting an article for the WCB’s client magazine. Notice how her rewrite:

  • Focuses the angle on reader benefits. Baroudy moves from event to impact, changing the story angle from WCB’s new opioid claim rollout to how employers can help save employees from addiction and overdose by using the board’s new resources.
  • Uses the feature-style story structure. This approach has been proven in the lab to be more effective at reaching readers. It also allows writers to plug and play their information into an existing format, saving time and effort. In fact, Baroudy did much of this revamp during a morning workshop — a workshop in which your dear writing coach spent most of the time talking.
  • Keeps the piece short. The revised piece weighs in at less than 200 words — a one-minute read. The original is actually a little longer, at 213 words. Which goes to show that you can use the feature-style story structure even when you don’t have a lot of space.

Get a refresher on the feature-style structure.

Here’s Baroudy’s original piece:

Headline and deckThe original headline is interesting enough, but doesn’t relate to the topic: opioid abuse. It might work better for an article on, say, drunk driving or texting and driving.

You’re in the driver’s seat!

But the revised headline reflects the real subject of the story:

Solid Opioid Claim Management prevents addiction and overdose


This original deck gives us a sense that the story is going to cover the event instead of the impact:

Opioid Claims Management rollout now complete

The revised deck signals a WIIFM angle:

Opioid resources can keep you on course

To tighten the headline, lead with the benefit and avoid repeating “Opioids,” I’d go with “Prevent addiction and overdose” for the headline.


Any time you see the phrase “Throughout [year]” at the beginning of a story, you know it’s going to be a background lead, aka blah-blah-blah background:

Throughout 2012, Medical Services and Customer Service worked together to improve the resources available to help claim owners effectively manage opioid claims. The result included new eCO enhancements and some minor changes to the management process, all designed to help claim owners manage these often challenging claims.

There’s a reason the feature-style story structure places the background in the third paragraph, not the first.

Instead, lead with a startling statisticor another approach that’s concrete, creative and provocative, as Baroudy did in her rewrite:

In Canada, overdose deaths involving prescription medications now vastly outnumber deaths from HIV. By some estimates, prescription drug overdoses have killed 100,000 North Americans over the past 20 years.

Nut graph

Baroudy didn’t include a nut graph in her original news story, because inverted pyramids don’t have nut graphs.

But in her rewrite, this paragraph deftly puts the story “into a nutshell” and shows readers how they’re going to benefit from the piece:

Good opioid claim management can literally save an injured worker’s life, but it isn’t easy. Here’s what you can do for your injured worker to help keep them, and you, on course.


The original angle — what we did, how the sausage was made — isn’t very interesting to clients whose employees are abusing opioids.

Business training facilitated information sessions to all Customer Service teams in November, referring to the analogy that the claim owner as the decision maker is in the driver’s seat. Claim owners have the task of ensuring injured workers receive the services they need to return to work. In cases of severe injuries where a return to work is not possible, claim owners provide services to improve an injured worker’s quality of life. The rollout focused on:

  • Moving opioid claim management to a point where it is an integrated part of claim management;
  • Establishing key measures that report on the status of opioid claim management;
  • Increased director, manager, supervisor, and claim owner accountability;
  • Improved consistency on how the policy is applied; and
  • Updated opioid procedures, forms, letters, and the introduction of opioid-specific eCO enhancements.

Readers want to know, “What’s in it for me?

The revised body, on the other hand, focuses on the readers’ needs with a list of tips for dealing with the crisis:

  • Familiarize yourself with the Opioid Claim Management process by referring to Business Procedure 40.11. Refresher training courses are also available through Business Training – talk to your supervisor about registering.
  • Engage and empower your claimants – Know the clues of at-risk behaviour by using the Opioid Use Checklist (Form FM035AFC)
  • Let Opioid Claim Management tools guide you throughout the process. Everything from business procedures, policy, letter templates, tip sheets and tutorial videos are available by visiting EW > Business Tools >Opioid Claim Management > Resources.

These three tips transform the story into a service, or how-to, story.

I love lists that start with imperatives, such as “familiarize,” “engage” and “let.” We call the imperative voice the command voice, but in a tipsheet like this, it’s really the invitation voice.


There’s nothing wrong with this call to action, but it isn’t very rousing:

Find out more about the tools and resources available for opioid claim management including new tutorial videos by visiting EW > Business Tools > Opioid Claim Management > Resources

In Baroudy’s rewrite, on the other hand, the wrapup is nice, neat and sweet:

Solid Opioid Claim Management prevents addiction and overdoses and in essence, can save a claimant’s life.


Here Baroudy ends with a bang and comes full circle by referring back to statistics in the lead:

By following these steps, you can help your claimant avoid becoming an unfortunate statistic.

And out.

  • 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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