In my third year as a magazine editor and journalist, my manager mused, during a particularly harrowing pagination, that all of our stories started with a generalization and then zeroed in on something specific afterward. “Since when do vague statements hook people?” she asked, frowning at a few pages on the desk in front of her.
Those words echoed in my head for days afterward. In my downtime, I flipped through a few of the most recent issues. My manager was right–the leads were all boring generalities. We were in need of some savvier storytelling techniques.
There are a million ways to begin an article, but a great lead is hard to come by. Sure, you could start with a startling statistic or rely on a winning title to hold readers past a weak intro, but starting with a specific story—something visceral and sensory—not only hooks the reader, but can help frame the piece to support larger ideas with a relatable foundation.
What’s in a lead? The power of storytelling cannot be understated; it helps us connect, draws us to empathize, and often validates our own experiences. But a great story—and, consequently, a great lead—has a first line that holds the reader immediately and completely, and goes on to bring the audience into the content through a platform they’ll find relatable, interesting, intriguing, or maybe a little shocking.
Content creators don’t have it easy. You’re operating in an arena where the audience is in a state of constant skimming and attention spans are shrinking. Your goal is to successfully complete your content assignment in a piece that is true to a brand’s voice and vision, but none of that will be worth anything if readers aren’t engaged in your writing. Starting with a story—welcoming characters, relaying an action, and setting your reader in a vivid scene—lends an extremely different tone to content creation, regardless of the field, and opens the door to employing more effective storytelling techniques further on in the piece.
Consider the difference in these two Fast Company titles and leads:
Both of the above articles immediately move on to the aim of their articles right after the intro paragraph, but which intro is more likely to draw in a reader? Asking questions engages the reader and invites them to think beyond what’s immediately before them on the virtual page, but everything about leads like the first example feels familiar and overused—two traits that are very likely to lose the battle with ever-waning attention spans.
LinkedIn’s B2B Content Marketing Report found that the three things that make content effective are audience relevance (58 percent), engaging and compelling storytelling (57 percent), and whether it triggers a response/action (54 percent). The report also asked the 600 participants surveyed what their most-used content marketing tactics were, and blogging beat out social media, case studies, press releases, testimonials, and everything in between. What’s a common trait of blogging? Storytelling. Perspective. Voice. Personal experiences and opinions drawn from them. While many blog posts today do not use advanced storytelling techniques, content creators and the brands they represent have the opportunity to be truly memorable by adopting a story-first mentality in their work.
This article from Inc. entitled “Meet the Founder Trying to Start the Self-Driving Car Revolution” has such an effective lead because it offers so many dimensions of storytelling in a short space right from the get-go; it creates a scene, two characters, and even an action from the writer’s own perspective:
“Kyle Vogt is not a good driver. He’s more the type who steers with one hand, and appears to pay more attention to the conversation than to the road. One bright day last September, as he drove his Audi S4 near his San Francisco office, a Ford Mustang sped up and headed straight for his right rear fender. At the last possible moment, Vogt jerked the steering wheel and narrowly avoided a certain crash. “Close call,” he said, laughing. Over in the passenger seat, I started breathing again.“
In the preceding paragraph, writer John Brandon continues the story by describing how Vogt sets the self-driving feature on his autonomous car and is suddenly “not-driving” much more safely. A near car crash is an experience that an unfortunate amount of people can relate to, and with Vogt’s carefree attitude contrasted with Brandon’s (very understandable) anxiety and adrenaline, readers are likely to want to see what happens next.
Storytelling in content marketing doesn’t always have to be from the writer’s perspective, though. Sometimes the most effective stories are told about professionals in the field, like Steve Worswick and his daughter Millicent exploring the brave new world of chatbots, published by HP Enterprise:
“‘Can she be my sister?’ six-year-old Millicent Worswick asked her father one night.
‘Maybe one day,’ he said.
Millicent wasn’t talking about her stuffed animal. She was asking about the blinking chatbot on the screen in front of her, the one her dad Steve Worswick created 10 years ago called Mitsuku. A few years later, in 2013, Mitsuku took home the Loebner Prize, an annual competition to identify the world’s most human-like computers and artificial intelligence programs—those that can meet or surpass the standards of the infamous Turing test of human behavior.“
This Hewlett-Packard Enterprise article discusses the rise of chatbots both in the spheres of children’s entertainment and in customer service industries, but by starting with a story that evokes three characters, a desire, and a scene, writer Maeghan Ouimet brings characters to life that readers will invest in as they read on.
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