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Using History to Write Powerful Leads

By Steve Slaunwhite

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 lead:

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 things."
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 read on?

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

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