October 30, 2015
If You Want Killer Content, Learn the Basics of Journalism
Journalists have been trying to get people with short attention spans to stop and read their stuff for more than three centuries. In the U.S., they’ve done so amid changing sociopolitical environments – the Civil War, WWII, 9⁄11 – and evolving mediums, like pamphlets, desktop computers, and iPads. While the journalism business model may suck, reporters’ approaches to earning mass audiences’ attention are not outdated. Influxes of younger talent are always modernizing with new forms of storytelling (think: the Serial podcast). More often than not, content marketers are competing with many other voices for tiny slots of readers’ time. The point:_ This isn’t a new problem._ It’s the modern face of a centuries-old problem, and there are a few storytelling basics our predecessors have figured out that can help us succeed.
Before you write another post, get to know the inverted pyramid
The inverted pyramid is the first thing most cub reporters learn (I went to school for journalism and was a reporter at Bloomberg News for more than three years before I jumped to content marketing, so I’m indoctrinated). The idea is to hold off on the chronological story until you’ve presented the most important information. The lead, or first sentence, isn’t the first thing that happened; it’s the most interesting or important thing. The pyramid looks something like this: Facts should dictate the order of your story. Get essential information into the top of every article so that people with little time to spare can benefit from your work and move on quickly. For more dedicated readers, offering up the most important details immediately (your value proposition), gives them a reason to stick around a bit longer and read all the way through. Imagine an earthquake hit Los Angeles 30 minutes ago. You probably wouldn’t want the story you read to begin with the cup of tea the author had six hours prior. You’d want to know certain things immediately – magnitude, death toll, aftershock likelihood. It’s important to give readers the information they’re craving up front, so that they stick with you. For reference, here’s a recent New York Times story that uses the inverted pyramid. The reason this matters for content marketers is that most of the time, we aren’t writing a novel; our posts don’t require character development or a heartwarming tale that unfolds over a long period of time. We’re arguing a point or teaching a strategy. A basic structure that helps us highlight the information most useful to the reader will do the trick.
One of the most important writing directives is make it simple. Bloomberg was fanatical about this guideline. When I first got there, we weren’t allowed to use adjectives, except in special cases. Instead of writing “There was a big drop in Amazon’s stock,” we had to say something like, “Amazon fell by 10 percent, its biggest decline in the past year.” We also couldn’t use “despite” or “but” – words that signaled the writer was ducking away from expressing a statement clearly, according to our editor in chief. Here’s an example: Bad: “Amazon’s stock declined 10 percent, but it’s still one of the most successful companies in the world.” Better: “Amazon’s stock declined 10 percent, signaling that investors are taking a bearish stance on one of the world’s most successful companies.” Statements like the first one don’t give the reader a clear sense of what to conclude from it, and they’re often a sign that the writer hasn’t done enough research to articulate a clear point of view. If we felt the need to use “but” or “despite,” we were supposed to go back and get enough facts to make a stronger assertion. If we couldn’t find any, we ditched the story. If you’re not a writer by training – and usually even if you are – it’s good practice to rein yourself in every once in a while. Try to cut your copy by a third. Delete as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. Most people try to use descriptive words to be more specific, but more often than not, they end up watering down the point. The most enduring writing is the simplest; the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes on this subject: Marketers are competing with masses of other distractions – Buzzfeed stories, funny videos, and loads of corporate content. Most readers give us just a few seconds to prove that our content is worthy of their attention. Guidelines such as the inverted pyramid, simple writing, and the four-paragraph lead should help content creators state their value proposition more clearly and quickly, thus making readers more likely to scroll down and keep reading. Writing concisely is more difficult than being long-winded. People will respect you for it. Yet as with most rules, these aren’t concrete. There are always caveats and times you need to break them to write accurately (I’ve used “but” in this post a lot). The thing that’s important is to learn what these guidelines are trying to achieve and why it’s important, so that you can intelligently use them (and stray outside of them) in the future. If you’re having trouble finding the right balance, just ask yourself whether you’re closer to Abraham Lincoln or Edward Everett. From the Library of Congress, on the subject of the Gettysburg Address: “Abraham Lincoln was the second speaker on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln was preceded on the podium by the famed orator Edward Everett, who spoke to the crowd for two hours. Lincoln followed with his now immortal Gettysburg Address. On November 20, Everett wrote to Lincoln: “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” If you want to learn more about applications of the inverted pyramid, take it to the next level with our Flight School post. We’d also love to hear which writing guidelines you use in the comments section below.