Content marketing writing structure made easy
“Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph,” said Time magazine reporter Paul O’Neil, “sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second and hold him against the wall until the tag line.”
Writing structure — how you handle the first paragraph through the tagline — makes all the difference in how riveting your story can be.
Just ask Kathleen Sullivan, communication manager at Local Government Federal Credit Union.
During my Reach Readers Online Master Class, Kathleen reorganized a post step by step and wound up with a great blog. What can you learn from her before-and-after when writing blog posts?
At nine words, Kathleen’s original headline was a little long. It posed a question, which can make a good headline, but it wasn’t a question I felt a burning need to learn the answer to:
How does “emotional intelligence” influence your relationship with money?
For her rewrite, Kathleen added a deck, which allowed her to take some of the lead out of the lead. The resulting five-word headline made the story more provocative.
And the deck seems to be suggesting that I might learn something that would help me make or save money. I’m in!
Your love-hate relationship with money
Could Emotional Intelligence affect your finances?
The introduction has three parts: the lead, the nut graph and the background section.
A. Lead. The job of the lead is to draw readers in.
In the original, Kathleen focuses on how the sausage was made … the abstract process behind the findings. Yaaaawn! Who cares about these interviews? Not me!
But Kathleen’s revision gets me, the reader, into the story. And I, like all of your readers, am my own favorite subject.
Moreover, she sets up a surprising scenario that grabs attention and pulls readers into the piece.
B. Nut graph. The job of the nut graph is to tell readers where you’re taking them.
Kathleen’s original story was organized in the inverted-pyramid format, which has been proven in the lab to reduce reading, understanding, engagement and more. Inverted pyramids don’t include nut graphs, so Kathleen’s original story skipped this element too.
But in her revised blog post, Kathleen encapsulates the main point in one quick, informal sentence:
C. Background section. The job of the background section is to give readers any information — a definition, bit of context or history lesson — they need to know before they dive into the body of the story.
But background is also known as blah-blah. Don’t let blah-blah get between your readers and your story: Keep this to one short paragraph.
In her original version, Kathleen delivers too much background, at 270 words. And it’s too technical: Adaptive regulation? A combined perceptive and cognitive integration of emotions? Correlated to a positive orientation? Negative early engagements? No, thank you!
The adaptive regulation of emotion is called “emotional intelligence.” Psychologists say emotional intelligence is a combined perceptive and cognitive integration of emotions. A higher emotional intelligence is correlated to a positive orientation toward money and a greater sense of economic self-worth.
When one’s perception of money is rooted in a negative emotion – such as anxiety, guilt, or fear – impulsive and possibly destructive financial habits may follow. These perceptions are usually developed at an early age, when parents may unwittingly – or perhaps intentionally – share their own emotions with regard to money.
Regardless of how you view money, individual positive or negative financial circumstances play a defining role in your life. After all, money can provide freedom, security and safety. The lack of money can leave you feeling vulnerable, trapped or frustrated with limited options in life.
Since emotion is usually the fuel of behavior’s engine, pinpointing the source of negative emotion toward money is vital. Research suggest that negative early engagements with money may have forced financial deprivation or perhaps, instilled the perception that money was an elusive but crucial element for happiness during one’s upbringing.
Once an intense reaction to money is identified, steps can be taken to control or even eliminate behaviors that sabotage financial security.
The most effective way to improve emotional intelligence with regard to money is to identify, rather than avoid, a financial concern. Recognizing money woes or acknowledging personal financial irresponsibility is the start of building better EI.
FYI: Too much background information is one of the most common problems I see in corporate communications.
Kathleen’s revised background section is still a little long for my taste. But at 109 words, it’s 60% shorter than the original.
Her words are also shorter — about 10% shorter — and easy to read and understand. Now it sounds as if she’s telling me about this story on the elevator on our way to lunch.
Even better: It’s about me!
If your view of money stems from negative emotions — like anxiety or fear — harmful financial habits may follow. These ideas usually develop early, when your parents may have shared their own ideas of money.
Regardless of your money view, your financial health plays an important role in your life. Money can provide freedom, security and safety. A lack of money can leave you feeling anxious or frustrated.
Recognizing money woes or admitting financial irresponsibility is the start of building better EI.
Here’s where you develop your story.
In Kathleen’s original, the meat of the story — the tips — are buried under 296 words of abstraction.
Do’s and don’ts usually have a format: DO do this. DON’T do that. But instead, Kathleen used nouns. Those aren’t tips.
- Denial: Don’t ignore signs of financial peril.
- Escape: Don’t fall back into patterns that reinforce unhealthy financial behavior. Most patterns – regardless of the damage they may cause – are still familiar and comfortable.
- Awareness: Do stay aware of account charges, bank balances and other financial data that help you stay informed of your financial health.
- Plan: Do create a proactive plan and establish goals. This will help to decrease the intensity of an emotional reaction to money and can improve overall EI.
In her revision, Kathleen gets to the meat of the story faster and adds more detail. She also formats the tips as tips, not as things:
Psychologists also recommend the following do’s and don’ts for improving EI:
- Don’t ignore hints of financial peril, like poor credit scores, calls from collections agencies or other signs.
- Don’t lapse back into unhealthy financial behavior. Patterns are still familiar and comfortable despite the damage they may cause.
- Do stay aware of charges, bank balances and other financial data that help you focus on your finances.
- Do create a plan with goals. This will help reduce the intensity of an emotional reaction to money.
The conclusion has two parts: the wrapup and the kicker.
A. Wrapup. The job of the wrapup is to draw to a conclusion.
Kathleen’s original sticks with the technical language. Eleven of these words have more than two syllables. That’s a lot!
Her revised piece is shorter and easier to read:
Experts say that increasing EI helps you stay aware of your behaviors and helps you align those behaviors with your goals.
Improving EI also can help you avoid buyer’s remorse today and achieve your financial goals tomorrow.
B. Kicker. The job of the kicker is to end with a bang, to leave a lasting impression.
Inverted pyramids don’t include kickers, so Kathleen’s original doesn’t, either.
But in the revised story, she ends with a bang and circles back to the top in a concrete, creative provocative final paragraph.
But wait! There’s more!
During class, Kathleen also made her copy 75% more readable. To do so, she:
- Cut word count by 33%.
- Streamlined sentences by 16%.
- Cut sentences per paragraph by 17%.
- Cut characters per word by 9%.
Read this post!
Writing structure is such one of the most important writing skills. Before you start writing a blog post or other social media piece, spend a few minutes organizing it into this structure.
Whatever your blog post topic, create a blog post that, like Kathleen’s, keeps readers riveted from the first paragraph to the last line.