Keys to Copywriting: Don’t Bury the Lead

When it comes to copywriting for a modern audience, time is of the essence. The pace of our everyday lives continues to increase, and that means marketers have ever-smaller windows in which to communicate their message. This is why getting to the point, known by copywriters as “not burying the lead,” is such an important aspect of effective copy.

Sometimes identifying what the lead is can be challenging. One of the best examples of this comes from the book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. In it they tell a story about the first day of a journalism class where the professor gives the students an assignment to write an article:

The scenario the professor gives the students to write about is that a local high school has announced the entire faculty will travel to a nearby city for a colloquium on new teaching methods next Thursday, and he provides details about who will be speaking, where it will be held, etc. The students then set off to craft their articles, and all of them come up with a similar story that explains that the teachers will be attending the colloquium on Thursday, lists the names of the speakers at the event, states the name of the venue and the time of the colloquium, etc.

So what did the professor say when the students turned in their articles? They didn’t just bury the lead, they missed it completely.

The lead of the story is there will be no school on Thursday.

This example shows that the essence of not burying the lead is stripping away a lot of great information in order to let the most important idea shine through. Just like the journalism students were so caught up in stating the facts of the story that they never realized the meaning behind the fact that if all of the teachers will be at a colloquium there will be no school on Thursday, in order to be memorable and attention-grabbing you need your message to be as focused and free of distractions as possible.

So how should you structure your content as to not bury the lead? Again a good best practice comes from journalists who follow what is known as the “inverted pyramid.” This is a strategy where the most important information in the article is mentioned first, and then each successive paragraph decreases in importance. This started off as a practical issue in the journalism industry, because if an editor needed to cut a story down in order to make room for something else, they could just remove the last paragraph knowing that they wouldn’t be reducing the story’s impact very much since the least-important information is always at the end. But for marketers it serves a different purpose.

As the beginning of this post stated, time is now one of the most precious resources for people, so by following the inverted pyramid if someone only reads the first half of your sales piece or webpage they still will have read the most important half of your material. Everything that they skipped will be less important than the material they did get to read.

Another important part of not burying the lead is making sure you don’t let complete accuracy get in the way of powerfully communicating your point. Most products and service offerings are too complex for you to be able to explain them completely in a single lead sentence or paragraph. So again, rather than trying to fit as much into that space as possible, which only dilutes your point and makes everything you say harder to remember, it’s better to write a strong, attention-grabbing opening to your marketing copy that leaves out some details but gets the most important point across convincingly.

Writing this way allows you to capture the readers’ attention with a strong opening, and then later you can explain the nuances rather than trying to squeeze everything into the lead. As long your prospects don’t think you were deliberately trying to be deceitful and trick them into reading your marketing materials by putting important details in the fine print, by waiting until later to offer a full explanation you give yourself the best chance of getting your prospects hooked by your opening. Plus, if a “small” detail in the fine print dramatically changes the usefulness of your offer, it’s not really a small detail then is it? As long as you are pushing some of the specifics until later in good faith, for the purpose of not burying the lead, your prospects should be understanding.

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