The best way to hook an audience is to start with a story. The best way to get people to read what you write is with a descriptive title and a few summary sentences (or as journalists call it, a lede). How do you resolve these contradictory pieces of advice?
When I got this question after my speech at the Content Marketing Conference, I realized that this conundrum is a fundamental challenge for non-fiction.
Here’s my answer: when you are assured of the audience’s attention, you can start with a story. When you’re not, you should start with a lede.
Stories are great for speeches and book chapters
The lights go down. You’re on stage for 20 minutes, or 30, or 40. All eyes are on you. What do you say?
My favorite speech coach, Dennis Becker, told me that you have to start with a quick icebreaker that lets people know you’re human and in a shared situation. Like “It’s great to be here, and I can’t believe I have to follow the CEO of the Red Sox on a stage in Boston.” But once that’s out of the way, then what?
“I’m about to tell you three things about . . . ” Sorta boring.
“Fundamentally, Web measurement breaks down into the following categories.” Snore.
“There once was a woman who faced a great obstacle.” Ah, now they’re listening.
A story is a great way to start, because people relate to stories. Your opening story ought to have the following qualities:
- Short. You’re going to have to get to the meaty stuff, so you only have two or three minutes before people wonder “Why is he telling me this?”
- Entertaining. Good opening stories are funny, revealing, uplifting, or sad, but they have to resonate.
- Relevant. If you tell a story, it has to connect to the point of your speech.
In Boston last week, I started with the story of Ernest Rutherford, who made the amazing discovery that everything in our world is actually made up almost entirely of empty space, a discovery he called “the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life.” I then draw the parallel to what I discovered about written words, which is that most of what we read is meaningless and empty as well.
This technique also a great way to start chapters of books. In Groundswell, Charlene and I hit on the formula of starting each chapter with the story of a consumer interacting within the groundswell of social media, and the ways that corporate people engaged with (or failed to engage with) those consumers for business results. This made the book engaging and people ate it up. Business books are built on stories.
What these situations have in common is that your audience is willing to cut you some slack. They’re not skimming through a hundred other things. They’ve said “We’re here, you’re here, now tell me something useful.” So you get a few minutes or a few hundred words to seduce them.
Ledes are best for short-attention environments
You don’t get to start a business email with a story.
You shouldn’t put one at the top of your corporate Web page.
These are short-attention span environments. You have to earn people’s attention first before you can tell them anything else, and the best way to do that is to explain what you’re about to tell them. And these days, nearly everything you write appears in a short-attention-span environment.
Should you start a blog post with a story? I wouldn’t. A blog post like that won’t stand out in a Web search, or an email notification to subscribers, or a Facebook link. You have a title plus about 20 words to hook people’s attention. You have to use those to tell people what they’re about to read. (If you advertise something other than what they’re about to read, that’s clickbait, and it will destroy their trust in you.)
Start the post with sentence or two that introduces the point of the story, and only then begin the narrative. Here’s how I did that when I told the story of being bullied by News Corp President Peter Chernin:
Brinksmanship with News Corp. President Peter Chernin
A Forrester Forum, like any big event, is quite a production. As part of it, you interact with powerful people in industry, people like Peter Chernin, and that doesn’t always go exactly as planned. I’ll take you behind the scenes at one of these events that included an unexpected moment of terror.
Did I undermine the story? I don’t think so. But if you read this, you know what you’re going to get, and I can start the story from there.
Develop your skills at ledes and stories
Unless you are good at both of these skills, you’ll never achieve your potential as a writer. Whichever one you’re worse at, work on it.
You need ledes to get people’s attention, regardless of the format you write in. No attention means no chance to create change.
You need stories to keep them interested, make them remember what you’re saying, and make them like you. No engagement or recollection means no possibility to create change.
So learn these skills and deploy them both if you want to succeed.