The art of the lede
If you spend 4 hours writing 2,000 words of utmost importance to the world, put in the effort to ensure people actually read it
You hear it everywhere: if you want to be successful in sharing ideas online - only write short, pithy posts. Nonsense.
Length is irrelevant – if and only if you craft a strong lede. If your opening is strong, curious, thoughtful humans (the people that matter) will read the whole thing. I promise. But you have to entice them.
My friend Peter Kim previously wrote:
…people don’t read every word anymore. They skim – and most people don’t even do that.” The same behavior applies to social media, especially where Twitter has users trained on 280 character sound bites.
He’s got a point – both mass and social media are guilty of infecting hordes of people with a form of (non-clinical) attention deficit disorder. Sites like Axios have wisely realized this and now format most stories to be skimmable. They generally look something like the below image (via this):
They’re basically encouraging you to skim. They want you to keep skimming so badly, they even embed a bunch of other stories (both organic and sponsored) below each individual article page, also designed for skimming. No denying it, the web is a fast-paced medium where many - even those who are extremely smart with strong desire to fully absorb the thinking of others - end up skimming.
Here is your challenge: slow users down when they get to your writing.
How you begin your writing sets the pace for not only if someone will skim versus read, but whether they will read it at all.
It doesn’t matter if your post has bullet points, is cleanly formatted, in list format, or broken up with headings. All of those things just make content on an LCD screen or mobile device easier on your eyes, but are irrelevant for getting people to actually care enough to read your work carefully. The secret is the lede (or lead as some prefer) is all that matters.
Unfortunately, I can’t teach you how to write great ledes. No one can, it is an art form learned through trail and error, experimentation and experience.
That is why it kills me that every marketer, PR pro and journalist (and perhaps also every good business leader) doesn’t also publish to their own site, Substack or blog. Never before has everyone had such freedom to test ideas in the wild, free, whenever they want. You can see how all your work performs, what people actually click on, how deep the interactions are, if readers share it, and use this information to refine your writing and ledes. Data is the unbiased path to improvement. Anyone can have an almost unfair advantage sharing thoughts online if they have and regularly use a sandbox.
I know I said above I can’t show you how to write great ledes. I wish it was that easy, it’s a fluid process like anything else, and I’m learning every day just like you. But I can share what has been successful for me personally, having spent nearly 2 decades looking at analytics on my own publishing projects as well as managing comms for a diverse variety of businesses from Google to International Dairy Queen.
Keep it simple at the start
We are all busy, and busy people are daunted by huge blocks of text. You can get into more details as you delve in further, but if you want people to get that far you need to make the first part easily consumable. Ease people into deeper thoughts by starting them off with something simple. Just as good music builds as a progression, so does writing.
Your lede needs to hook people. Be mysterious, be assertive, be counter-intuitive, be inquisitive, be hyper-logical or equally illogical. I know this is writing 101 to most of you, but it is worth repeating. You can lead them down the intellectual path shortly thereafter, they will be primed for it. It’s basic psychology to make inroads emotionally with someone to reach them intellectually.
Challenge things everyone believes
Really. Go against the herd, balk at conventional wisdom. Tell people that their view of the world is wrong in the first sentence. Then explain why. Many things everyone believes are wrong, so this is actually not hard to do.
Play to an audience
Tell an inside joke in the beginning and don’t bother to explain it. People who are into it will get it – if you do this right everyone else should be intrigued enough to Google it and catch up. Now they’ve spent some time and become vested in finishing your story.
Get under their skin
If you’re deeply savvy in the subject matter at hand, use what you know to your advantage: say something up front which you know will get under the skin of a certain group. But remember, if you are provocative for the sake of doing so without evolving past this, you’ll never build trust with anyone and be seen as purely provocateur, another skippable part of the spectacle. This is also a strategy to get a high amount of sharing/pass-on in social. Again, just use it thoughtfully or it can backfire.
Take your time
Never rush your lede. Even more importantly, don’t force the lede. Seriously, don’t even write it if you have to force it. At that point you are writing just to write. Good ledes are products of a flow experience. You might even consider deleting the original lede and re-writing it after you’ve completed your draft (much easier to decide how to sell/intro an idea that’s been crystallized).
There are no longer editors, space limits and or hard and fast rules for writing ledes. You can play with formats, images, video, copy, animations – anything you want – the key is to be unafraid to try things out. Break any and all traditional rules, you may find something that works for you which is unique and breaks through the clutter. Experiment and play are encouraged – don’t be constrained, the opening scene is one of the best places to let your creativity shine.