Legal Marketing Content: Put the Lede In

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[The first in a three-part series by Denise Nix on applying proven journalistic principles to legal marketing content.]

Journalists know they have about 15 seconds to grab their audience’s attention before the reader loses interest in a story, so they begin with an enticing opening sentence, or “lede.” When writing an article or blog for content marketing, take a tip from the experts and use this proven news writing formula to get — and keep — your readers’ attention.

From the lede, readers will decide to continue investing time and brain power in your content, or jump ship. (By the way, the spelling of lede derives from the bygone days of typesetting when newspaper people needed to differentiate the lead of a story from the lead of hot type.)

The lede typically includes many of the five W’s and one H (Who, What, When, Why, Where and How). You don’t have to answer all these questions in the first sentence. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Look at the information you’re presenting and decide what is the most important and interesting, and use that to decide which of the W’s or H to address.

The first sentence and paragraph of an article play an important role in keeping the reader by using an interesting fact or short anecdote to make the reader feel like he or she can’t stop reading. The reader should be amazed, intrigued or even alarmed.

There are two types of ledes: summary and descriptive.

A summary lede shares the situation succinctly. It’s the beginning of a typical news story. This is where a few of the five W’s or the H are used. For example:

A woman who claims to be a virgin gave birth to a baby boy last night in a barn just outside of Bethlehem.

Here, we have the who (a virgin woman), the what (gave birth), the when (last night) and the where (a barn just outside of Bethlehem). Presented factually, this information leaves the reader with some questions that will keep them reading to find out more.

A descriptive lede uses a storytelling approach. Not often used in hard or breaking news, the descriptive lede is a great way to begin an article that doesn’t have a recent news hook or one that gives analysis on a topic or event sometime after it occurred. An anecdote, observation, quirky fact or story is used to pique the readers’ curiosity and draw them in. For example:

The stars were shining bright as the young mother labored in the hay. When the baby boy made his way into the world, the community members who gathered, and a few barnyard animals, nodded knowingly. They had just witnessed the birth of a would-be king. The strangest part of this scene, though, had nothing to do with the expectations being placed on the newborn. It was about his mother: She was a virgin.

A descriptive lede should eventually, and quickly, bring the reader to another important sentence or paragraph in the article — the nutgraf. Like it sounds, the nutgraf should include what someone would say if they were to talk about the article “in a nutshell.” It justifies the story by telling the readers why they should care, provides a transition from the lede and explains its connection to the rest of the article. It also tells why the article is timely and important.

Even the most seasoned journalists have a hard time writing ledes, but it gets easier with practice. My high school journalism teacher said: “Ledes… they’ll make your gums bleed.” Jack Cappon, old-school reporting ace and author of “The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing,” rightly called lede-writing “the agony of square one.” This is because so much is hinging on the lede. Don’t let the first paragraph stand in your way – just because it appears at the top doesn’t mean it must be written first. Just start writing. Often, once you see the information organized in the article, what should be in the lede becomes clear.

Next in this series:

  • The Inverted Pyramid: Structuring Marketing Content for the Reader
  • Say it With Style: Be Insistent on Consistency

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Denise Nix has 25 years of experience in the communications field, including 15 years as a newspaper reporter and nearly 10 in in-house law firm marketing departments. Now the principal of Nix Strategic Communications, Denise helps law firms tell the stories that lead to successful marketing, public relations, business development and branding strategies. Visit her on LinkedIn.

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