Headlines grab attention, but the first sentence of a story or press release is what determines whether a reader will continue or move on. That's why journalism instructors teach students to put the best fact of a story first.
This seems like obvious advice, yet writers disregard it all the time — to their readership peril.
It doesn't matter whether you are writing a news story, press release, crisis response or blog. Your readers want you to cut to the chase and tell them what you've got.
Some readers never go beyond the lead, as a matter of habit, so you risk missing your narrow window of opportunity with a cloudy or convoluted start.
Other readers are totally turned off by a lead in the form of a question. They wonder, "Why is the author asking me a question? Why doesn't he or she answer it instead?"
Journalism textbooks preach the need to include the who, what, when, where and how of a story in the lead. That can be challenging when faced with the practical problem of pulling the reader into a story. That's where the best-fact-first strategy comes in handy. Instead of cramming all the detail into the first sentence, focus instead on showcasing what the story is about and why it's important.
Borrowing an example from Bill Stoller's PublicityInsider.com, here is an example of a lead that has all the "whos" and 'hows," and one that is aimed at plunging the reader right into the story:
"A Web-based herbal products company conducted an online forum that collected six month's worth of comments by American teenagers about weight loss and pressures they feel to be thin."
"American teenagers voiced anger in an online forum at the continuous pressure they feel to be thin because of images of super-skinny people projected on TV, movies and music videos."
The first lead has all the detail; the second has a siren call to find out more.
One blogger wrote that she often doesn't discover the lead of her post until halfway through. Sometimes, the lead shows up at the end of a story. In journalistic parlance, this is called "burying the lead." No problem. Just stop, put the lead up front and rework your piece.
Stow your ego. Professional writers bury leads all the time. What makes them professionals is they realize it and put the lead where it belongs — at the front of the story.
Concentrating on putting the best fact first is your best guarantee what you write will be read — which is, after all, the whole point of writing it in the first place.