One of the toughest jobs in marketing and PR communications is
getting your target audience to read what you have written. After
all, if your press release, brochure, Web page, backgrounder or
feature article isn't read, it fails totally. No readers, no results.
That's why writing an effective lead is so crucial. The lead -
which, in most cases, is the opening paragraph - will either hook
the reader, or produce a yawn.
There are several lead-writing techniques. Some writers prefer
the hard-news style of Who, What, When, Where and Why (the 5 Ws.)
Others open with a provocative question, a fascinating fact or statistic,
or a familiar problem or issue.
But there is another technique that is very powerful, yet often
underused. I call it the history lead.
I originally learned this approach while studying the work of renowned
copywriter Pat Farley. While writing a sales letter to promote Sotheby's
Auction House, she created a fascinating parallel between attending
an auction and the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. Here is her
When archaeologist Howard Carter first opened King Tut's tomb
in Egypt, he knocked only a small hole in the barrier and then peered
through. Leaning over his shoulder was Lord Carnovan, his sponsor.
After a while, Carnovan asked impatiently, "What do you see?"
Carter answered in a hushed voice, "I see things. Wonderful
Every year tens of thousands of "wonderful things" pass
through the door of Sotheby's
Isn't that an irresistible opening? Doesn't it make you want to
Of course, a history lead isn't always the best choice. But it
can work well for an astonishing variety of communications.
Here is a lead I wrote for a PR article featuring the J.F.J. de
Null dredger. (Note: A dredger is a ship that clears the sea bottom
to make way for larger vessels.) Originally I tried the standard
5 Ws approach:
Constructed at the IHC shipyards in the Netherlands in 2002,
the J.F.J. de Nul is the most advanced self-propelled cutter suction
dredger ever built. Her 6,000kW cutter drive - 30% more powerful
than those currently in use - is capable of dredging from a depth
of -6.5m to -35m.
Not bad. The opening clearly conveys the facts. But I thought it
was a bit tired, even for a technical audience. So I decided to
dip into history to make the lead more enticing. Here is the result:
When Caesar conquered Egypt in 48 B.C., he used dredgers to
clear the way for his ships into the Alexandra Harbour. No one knows
for sure what these dredgers looked like or how they worked. We
can speculate, however, that if the Roman engineers who built them
could see into the future, they would be astonished by the size
and power of the J.F.J. de Nul.
Better? I'll let you be the judge.
Where suitable, I've used the history lead in everything from press
releases and presentations to ads and sales letters, and it has
almost always improved readership. So the next time you come across
an interesting historical tidbit, keep it in your back pocket. You
never know when you'll need it to write a better lead.
Steve Slaunwhite consults, speaks and writes on the strategic
use of copy in marketing communications. He can be reached at www.steveslaunwhite.com.
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