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4 Real-Life Ledes: Why They Work (and What Could Be Better)

OK, the original plan for this article was to provide great examples of ledes in B2B and B2C content marketing.

But a funny thing happened in that search – mediocre ledes dominated.

That’s disappointing because, next to the headline, the lede is everything. It’s the determining factor on whether to read the article. The lede has many responsibilities – to hook the reader, to indicate the subject matter, to set the article tone, etc.

Your article lede is everything – it’s the determining factor on whether to read article. @AnnGynn #writingtips Click To Tweet

Since mediocre and less-than-middling ledes abound, let’s focus on a few that show what works and what doesn’t. Then, discover tips and ideas on how to create great ledes.

Note: I use the journalistic form “lede,” which is “the introductory section of a news story to entice the reader to read the full story.” Technically, “lead” is also correct.

Set the scene

The Glassdoor blog offers a range of topics relevant to its visitors, who come to find jobs, read peer reviews of workplaces, and get career advice such as this piece with its good-not-great lede:

How Taking a Sabbatical Can Boost Your Career

After spending too many late nights at the office, who among us hasn’t fantasized from time to time about leaving all of our responsibilities behind and heading to some far-off location — perhaps the white-sand beaches of Mexico, the rugged mountains of Switzerland or the stunning traditional architecture of Japan. But inevitably, reality sets in: You’ve got work to do, chores to finish and a steady drumbeat of bills, loans and expenses to pay.

What if that fantasy didn’t have to remain a fantasy, though? What if there were a way you could take off months, or even a year or more, and come back reenergized and ready to take on the corporate world, with a healthy bank account to boot?

What works

  • Sets an attractive scene – white-sand beaches, rugged mountains, stunning architecture (and uses three diverse locations to attract readers with different travel interests)
  • Shows an understanding of the audience by including their challenge (late nights at office) and their aspiration (leaving responsibilities behind for a far-off location)
Ledes can show understanding of audience by including their challenge, says @AnnGynn. #writingtips Click To Tweet
  • Takes reader on thought trip in the first paragraph:
    • Oh yes, I spend too much time working.
    • Wow, it would be cool to get rid of those responsibilities, especially if I get to take a dream trip.
    • But, I can’t because I’ve got to earn money to pay for things. 

Tips to make it better

  • Paint the picture with fewer strokes (i.e., words). Pretend your content platform limits the number of words or characters – and won’t let you publish unless your text falls at or below its mandatory count. You may be surprised at how much better you can make your lede if there’s a word count stop sign. FYI – mobile screens average 80 to 100 words before a reader must scroll – that’s too long for a lede but it’s helpful to keep in mind as you structure the introduction.
  • Don’t ask obvious questions. If you’re writing a what-if or other question that elicits the same response from every reader, delete it. Use declarative or definitive statements instead and fulfill that promise in the article.
Don’t use a question lede if the answer is the same for everybody. Use definitive statements, says @AnnGynn. Click To Tweet

What if it were written like this:

After spending too many late nights at the office, you fantasize about leaving your responsibilities and heading to some far-off location — the white-sand beaches of Mexico, the rugged mountains of Switzerland, or the stunning architecture of Japan.

It doesn’t have to be a fantasy.

The revised lede is 44 words (the original was 120). I removed the paragraph with several questions because the opening paragraph sufficiently sets the aspirational scene. It also delivers the article’s purpose more quickly.

Recognize your audience

The MyFitnessPal blog serves a community built around the company’s app, which people use to track meals and physical activity. The nicely designed blog offers lots of good content, including this stairclimber-or-treadmill article.

What’s a Better Workout: Stairclimber or Treadmill?

Whether you’re a fan of lacing up your sneakers for a walk or like to swim laps at the pool, there’s no denying it’s important to get a regular dose of cardio. Not only does it help to burn fat and assist with weight management, but it also has other science-backed benefits, like improved mental clarity and preventing muscle loss.

The lede doesn’t work on multiple levels. And yet, the writer wrote a better lede – it was just buried a few paragraphs down:

… Sometimes when you’re in a rush, fitting in the suggested 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week gets shoved to the backburner. That’s where popular pieces of cardio equipment come in — specifically two of the biggest calorie-burners: the treadmill (on an incline) and the stairclimber.

What works (in the buried lede):

  • Speaks directly to the reader (the use of “you”)
  • Indicates the writer knows the reader – someone who is into fitness but has other priorities that make maximizing their workout time important
  • Sets the expectation this article will provide an answer
  • Focuses on the topic (cardio exercise equipment) unlike the original lede, which mentions swimming

Tips to make it better:

Make every word in your lede count and keep it to 25 to 45 words on average, says @AnnGynn. #writingtips Click To Tweet
  • Use active verbs. Eliminate “to be” verbs and sentence structures that don’t pack a punch.
  • Avoid limiting language. Don’t hedge. Though not shown in these two paragraphs, the article’s introduction includes the phrase “actually pretty surprising.” Remove “actually” as it’s an unnecessary word. And get rid of “pretty” – the results were either surprising or not.

What if it was written like this:

Whenever you find time to squeeze in exercise, you want to use equipment that maximizes your effort. Is that a treadmill or a stairclimber?

It’s 24 words. The wording demonstrates an understanding of the reader (already a fitness person and pressed for time). The lede also sets up an expectation (which is more efficient – the treadmill or stairclimber).

Connect to brand purpose

T-Mobile’s blog combines industry news, special offers, and helpful tips, including this weather-related article with a ho-hum lede:

Tips for Staying Safe During Winter Storm Season

Winter brings a lot of goodness — friends and family, holidays and celebrations — but it can also bring tough weather and dangerous storms. Snow, sleet, ice and wind create treacherous conditions that lead to power and network outages.

Rest assured, we’re ready.

What works:

  • Sets a seasonal tone (this is content you can use now)
  • Entices reader by contrasting a happy scene with a harsh reality
  • Uses casual or familiar voice (you/we)

Tips to make it better:

  • Avoid general sentiments. If your lede would work just as well on top of another story, write a new lede. For example, this T-Mobile lede could be used for an article from the electric company about what to do during a power outage.
If you could put your lede on top of another story and it still works, write a new lede. @AnnGynn #writingtips Click To Tweet
  • Don’t use words with similar meanings. “Holidays” and “celebrations” are almost the same in this winter context.
  • Speak to your (more defined) audience. T-Mobile’s audience are its customers – people with cell phones – not everybody who could be affected by a power outage.

What if it were written like this:

Your camera phone captures winter’s goodness like family sledding trips and friends building snowmen. But snow, sleet, ice, and wind also lead to network outages that can affect your cell use. 

Rest assured, we’re ready.

The new version word count is a little shorter (35 words compared to 43 in the original) while still setting a scene of the happy side of winter. More importantly, it ties better to the T-Mobile brand purpose and addresses the audience’s potential challenge.

Make it compelling

The American Heart Association’s blog tackles research, stats, trends, calls for donations, and survivor stories. This lede comes from its Stories From the Heart series.

It Took Heart Attack to Reveal Her Heart Defect

Growing up, Alanna Gardner learned she couldn’t be too active. If she was, she would faint. Sometimes the spells prompted an emergency room visit. Doctors, however, never diagnosed the cause. 

Reluctantly, she gave up participating in sports. 

But after going away to college, Alanna started to wonder if the fainting was a signal that she simply wasn’t in shape. She began exercising – slowly at first. She maintained a healthy diet. And she had no more mysterious episodes.

 At 25, she trusted her body enough to sign up for Philadelphia’s 10-mile Broad Street Run. Her training plan called for her to run a 10K event a few weeks before. 

Alanna considered herself to be in the best shape of her life. So when fatigue hit during the event, she felt “defeated.” And soon she was. As she crossed the finish line, she fainted for the first time in seven years. 

“I couldn’t find my friend or an ambulance, but I wasn’t worried because it was such a normal thing,” she said. “So I just sat down figuring someone would find me.”

The next thing she remembers is waking up in the hospital.

What works:

  • Humanizes the topic of cardiac problems
  • Uses narrative form, allowing reader to invest in the subject
  • Entices audience to keep reading to find out what happens next

Tips to make it better:

  • Align the headline with the lede format. Though this narrative lede is good, it could have been even more powerful if the headline didn’t reveal the whole story – It Took a Heart Attack to Reveal a Heart Disorder.
  • Ensure that photo captions and URLs also don’t give away the story if there’s a curiosity component.
Powerful headlines shouldn’t reveal the whole story, says @AnnGynn. #writingtips Click To Tweet

What if it were written like this:

No need for a revised lede – it works well as is.

Now, let’s dive into a couple more tips for inspiration – and to help you improve the beginnings of your articles.

Do this type more often

Narrative and immersive ledes, like the one from the American Heart Association, perform well. It’s a staple in feature journalism for a reason – it works.  (Just think about how many celebrity profiles start with some version of the actress walking into the restaurant in a casual sweater and smart jeans and ordering a salad before talking about her career.)

Too often, content creators don’t make the effort to take the steps to craft a narrative lede. (Often, they aren’t given the time to interview people or they don’t know how to find the people.) But if you want to keep the audience reading, an engaging lede followed by an engaging, human-based story will do the trick.

Don’t forget suspense

Incorporating a curiosity factor, as Andrew Davis said at Content Marketing World, really captures your audience. Blind or delayed identification ledes encourage readers to continue because they want to know who or what is being described. You also can create curiosity with suspense like Mashable did with this lede:

A rider’s first hang-gliding flight turned harrowing after the pilot forgot to hook the man into the tandem safety harness.

Chris Gursky shared his extremely frightening near-death experience hang-gliding in Switzerland on YouTube on Monday. In the footage, Gurksy quickly realizes just after takeoff that he’s not hooked to the glider’s harness.

Incorporating a curiosity factor really captures your audience, says @DrewDavisHere. #CMWorld #writingtips Click To Tweet

Now, the author reveals the hang-glider survived in the second paragraph. So the suspense is short-lived. But it’s just enough to prompt readers to click on the video – not to see if he survived by how he did.

Begin and end together

Think about your ending as part of your beginning. Writing an engaging story (no matter how long it is) requires an ending that connects to the start. Bring your reader full circle to remind them of how all the dots in your story are connected.

Great ledes are possible. They demonstrate an understanding of the audience, set or manage expectations, and draw in the reader with an engaging story, format, or scene. Greatness requires fitting together all those pieces to create a smooth, enticing, relevant, and timely experience for your readers.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute