Sunday, 23 April 2017

Bury the lead and you bury your writing reputation

DON'T bury the lead is a mantra journalists learn early in their training and it’s a tactic you’d be wise to adopt. When you ‘bury the lead’ you’re offering readers details of little importance to them while making them wait for the main point they'll find interesting and useful.

It’s a mistake that’s easy to make, and straightforward to avoid — don't make readers wait.

Hit them between the eyes with your zinger points and dare them to stop reading. If you do your job well enough, they won’t. We worry that delivering the most useful material upfront works against us when the result is the opposite. 

When your writing is useful and interesting from the start, people read on. Here’s someone who doesn’t waste time. What else do they know? How can they help me?

Let’s assume you went to an important industry event on behalf of your company or organisation and want to let your colleagues know the highlights. It was an all-weekend conference and there’s a lot you could write about.

You’ve spent your entire weekend soaking up information so your colleagues could enjoy their time off. You’re sending out useful information, so the least you can expect is for everyone to read to the end.

WRONG!

The reality is that yours will be one of a likely 120+ emails in your colleagues’ inboxes. They're likely to open only a third of these emails and they’ll stop reading as soon as they’re bored or have something else to do that’s a higher priority. 

Your email will be no exception unless you work to make it gripping, the one that stands out from the inbox fodder.

So where do you start?

Forget the order in which everything happened.

No one cares about the event's timeline. We want to know the highlights, and that may mean cherry picking items that are of most interest or relevance and presenting events out of order. Unless you're clumsy, what you write will make sense.

Start with one main point.

What was the most important or interesting thing that happened? The key point of a speech? A discussion panel’s conclusion? A surprising announcement? Put one of these, not all of them, into a single sentence — keep it simple. One main point, remember. Don’t dilute the impact of your main point by throwing in detail that can wait.

Add nuance further down.

You can flesh out the fuller picture you’re trying to paint for your readers further down your document. Pace the trickle of information so it carries most impact. Don't overload and don't overshare. If something isn't important, don't use it.

Don’t worry about having a wow ending. 

We sometimes sweat about building to a wow finish in case readers lose interest as our document tails away. You don't need to worry. The answer is simple: when you think readers are tempted to stray — STOP WRITING.

Do you need to split into sections for different topics?

Do you have a mix of issues that will interest different groups of colleagues? If you do, pick one main point that stands out from all of the others and then divide into sections with catchy headlines. Replicate the 'don't bury the lead' approach for each section and make it easy for people to flip through to what interests them most.

But be sure to stick to the basic approach. A powerful opening that sums up the main point for a particular topic, adding nuance and detail further down.

If you take the opposite approach to the one I’ve outlined, you’ll soon discover why it has little chance of working. You start with something that’s okay, maybe a little dull… you make similar points, equally lukewarm… and save the best to last. Would you stick around to the end?

You’re aiming for a result that reaches beyond the impact of one document. You’re building a reputation, hopefully as someone who cuts to the chase, someone who is an astute judge of what people really need to know and who respects the backlog in their inboxes. 

You can’t do that if you bury the lead.

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