The Inverted Pyramid: Structuring Your Legal Content to Be Read

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

Blogs. Articles. Alerts. Releases. Content marketing. Thought leadership. Engagement.

Whatever you call them, law firms and lawyers using written communications to reach clients and prospective clients must know how to do it effectively — or no one will read past the headline.

There is a simple, proven formula trained journalists have used since the first newspapers were disseminated by teletype to ensure their message is read: the inverted pyramid.

With the Pew Research Center reporting that 60 percent of U.S. adults read their news on mobile devices, mostly skimming to see what catches their short attention spans, people rarely finish reading articles they start. It could be the most well-written article on the hottest topic out there, but the reader will never learn about the important development if it’s buried deep. They’ve given up before then.

The inverted pyramid is structured so the most important information is at the top of the article – the fattest part of the pyramid. The most essential information is in the first sentence, called the “lede” by journalists (see Part One to learn more about the lede). This is the place for the “news.”

Ask yourself “what happened?” and “why am I sharing this with my clients?”

The answers to those questions is the information your clients must have. This is not the place to front load with background information or extraneous details, like the date two weeks ago when the decision was made, the full name of the court and the entire case citation. There is room for that lower in the pyramid.

For example, compare how it feels to read an article that begins like this:

On September 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Smith Corporation, et al. v. Jones, Inc., et al., case number 18-01234, regarding an environmental trade secret dispute. In 2018, Smith sued Jones alleging Jones stole its trade secret for a solution that keeps oceans blue. The secret was allegedly stolen during a conversation about a potential partnership that never came to fruition.

The high-profile case claims Jones used the trade secret to create its own, competing blue ocean solution. Smith sued Jones for $1 billion. A federal court jury found in favor of Jones, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. The High Court reinstated the verdict.

In making its decision, the Court found that the technology behind making oceans blue was not, in fact, a trade secret. This decision was closely watched by the environmental industry, as several companies are working on similar solutions, such as keeping the sky blue and the grass green.

Now, the same decision in a different article start:

The solution to keeping oceans blue is not a trade secret, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday, finding that Jones, Inc. was not liable for $1 billion in damages for trade secret theft. The decision in a high-profile lawsuit brought by Smith, Corp. was critical to environmental companies, as they can now freely pursue similar solutions, such as those that keep the sky blue.

From here, all that information found in the first two paragraphs in the first example above would follow.

The middle part of the pyramid is considered the body of the story. This is where the supporting details, the issue, the controversy or the opposing sides are fleshed out. This is done with quotes from people or documents, background material and additional developments.

As the pyramid grows narrower, the information gets less important. The small tip of the inverted pyramid is the bottom of the article. The information that’s there would be nice for the reader to know, but not crucial for their overall understanding of the topic or issue.

...it helps with search engine optimization

Another bonus to the inverted pyramid style of writing is that it helps with search engine optimization, or SEO, since the most relevant information and keywords will be at the top of the article, which is what search engines look for.

You don’t have to hold a staff writer position on a newspaper to write articles people will read. Let clients and potential clients see your expertise by delivering it with this proven formula to ensure your content marketing strategy is a success.

Also in this series:

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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 firms 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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