Try a bikini lead instead
Some folks write “suitcase leads”: They try to cram all of the story elements into the top. Instead, make yours a bikini lead, and cover just the most interesting essentials.
Remember: It’s not the job of the first paragraph to tell the whole story. It’s the job of the first paragraph to get people to read the second paragraph.
So target 25 words or less for the first paragraph.
You can find great super-short leads to study in The New York Times. We pulled this sampling from one recent issue:
An 8-word lead
MOSCOW — Russia has a new enemy: the currency markets.
A 14-word lead
The problems facing Uber, the popular ride-booking service, are going from bad to worse.
A 16-word lead
BT, the former telecommunications monopoly in Britain, is trying to get back into the mobile business.
A 17-word lead
After 10 years, a class-action antitrust lawsuit involving iPods is finally in the hands of a jury.
A 19-word lead
Oldies radio used to mean Johnny Mathis and the Four Seasons. Now it’s Tupac Shakur and LL Cool J.
A 23-word lead
SOME James Bond fans will be shaken, and others stirred, to learn that 007 is being given a new vodka for his martinis.
A 24-word lead
For years, even as the economy recovered and the stock market soared, most American workers saw little evidence of better times in their paychecks.
So make like The New York Times: Don’t try to tell the whole story in the lead. Instead, write leads that get the story started.
Avoid long leads.
Write like the Times.
Short leads are like bridges from the headline and deck: They help readers ease into the story without really realizing that they’ve left the display copy.
Long leads, though, become obstacles to reading the story. Take this 103-word press release lead:
An international committee assigned to review all of the available evidence on red meat and cancer risk were divided on their opinion whether to label red meat a “probable” cause of cancer, according to the Beef Checkoff nutrition scientist and registered dietitian who observed the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) process. After seven days of deliberation in Lyon, France, IARC was unable to reach a consensus agreement from a group of 22 experts in the field of cancer research, something that IARC has proudly highlighted they strive for and typically achieve. In this case, they had to settle for “majority” agreement.
Your readers have 4,999 other things, plus social media, to read today. What are the chances they’re going to scale a wall to get into your piece?
Keep your lead short.
So start with a sentence or two.
“An effective lead paragraph is usually either one or two sentences,” writes Chris Smith, senior lead communications specialist, Entergy Communications. “Once you get to three or more, it just looks like you don’t know where the Enter key is.”
The Times is no fluffball news outlet. Can’t you make your paragraphs as inviting as the Times?