Lead Me to a Good Story, but Don’t Lead Me Astray

Congratulations!  You have found everything you need to know about writing compelling, memorable, and POWERFUL broadcast news leads in this short article.

So why is it important to be successful at writing leads?  A good lead is like the opening sequence of a movie or the beginning of a suspense novel.  It keeps your audience engaged to stay for whatever is coming next.  I won’t say it will keep them for the entire piece because you still have to write a good second sentence and third, and so on.  It won’t matter how good that lead line is if the rest of what you write wastes people’s time or misleads them.  We’ll discuss this further a little later.  Let’s look at what else a memorable lead does.  A great lead defines the tone, the background, and the focus of the story.  A great lead also lets the audience know the level of importance of the story.  For example, is this something the person needs to know to stay safe, save money?  Is this something that’s just interesting to know or something that’s entertaining?  It should be painfully clear why the story is even in the newscast from the lead line.  Is it an issue you are highlighting, must-see video, life-threatening situation, important recall?

WHAT DOES A GREAT LEAD LINE LOOK LIKE?

We have established that a great lead line is worth its words in gold, but what does it look like?  Here’s a good list of what great lead lines are:

  • Captivating
  • Interesting
  • Memorable
  • Attention grabbing
  • Clear
  • Truthful
  • Concise
  • Set the tone/expectation for the story
  • Utilize video/graphics

 

Take a look at the following two sentences.

A fire ignited at a condo community in Downtown Tampa today.

 Three people jumped from second story windows to escape an inferno at a condo

complex in Downtown Tampa.

 Hopefully, you found the second lead line to be more compelling.   That’s the one that would make me want to stick around to learn more.  It gives me a visual of fire so bad, people had to hurl themselves from windows to escape the smoke and flames.

WHAT SHOULD YOU AVOID?

We have spent a lot of time talking about what great leads are, but there are also some pitfalls you should avoid.  An excellent lead line is not:

  • Clever
  • Confusing
  • Misleading
  • Untrue, hyped, or inflated
  • Long or complex

CLEVER & CONFUSING:

You might be asking yourself – why don’t I want my lead line to be clever?  Here’s the deal.  A lot of times, clever is distracting and confusing to the listener or viewer.  Our audience shouldn’t have to use the DVR to rewind and see if they can figure out what the anchor is talking about, and likely they won’t do it.  They will just wonder what the anchor said and miss the rest of the story.  So you’ve succeeded in stumping them, at which point, your method of communication just failed.

MISLEADING, UNTRUE, HYPED, & INFLATED:

I’m about to give you the best roasted chicken you’ve ever had in your entire life!  It’s juicy with flavor profiles unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.  It is cooked to absolute perfection!  You ready?  Okay, here you go:

 

chicken

 

Feel misled – or deceived maybe?  You should.  I not only oversold the dish.  I flat out lied about what you can expect.  Yes, it should go without saying, but trust me, I have seen leads where writers gave the viewer the wrong impression.  It may be as deliberate as my example.  It could be unintentional, but misleading, nonetheless.  I have also even seen leads that are written to entice or blow things out of proportion to the point of being a lie the way I enticed you with my chicken description, and then the story (or my chicken dish) doesn’t deliver.  Now, the audience members feel deceived, and rightfully so.  You have violated their trust.  Viewers have even called into the news station to express their displeasure over that type of writing.  THEY WILL CALL, AND THEY WILL TURN THE CHANNEL!

LONG AND COMPLEX:

You don’t want your lead to be too long or complicated or start with a propositional phrase.  Typically, that make the sentence just too hard to follow.  Again, you’ll lose the viewer at the very beginning of the story, and odds are they won’t bother trying to figure out what they missed.

5 EASY STEPS TO WRITING GREAT LEAD LINES:

You can write incredible lead lines if you just follow my simple advice.  Here’s what I teach people, and it works.

  1. Don’t overthink it. This really is not that difficult.  Don’t talk yourself into making this into an insurmountable goal.
  2. Identify the story’s main point. Why is what you’re writing about important?  Why is it in the newscast?  Knowing this will help you figure out what you need to highlight in the lead line.
  3. Break down that main point to its basics.  Many times we write about complex issues, but most things can be put into simple terms.
  4. Choose a style. Figure out what style you want for the story.  Is it straightforward?  Maybe there is something that you want to allude to but reveal later.  Is it just a fun/entertaining story?
  5. Incorporate the visuals. What are your visuals/graphic support?

 

Okay, time to put our new skills to the test.  Let’s do another one of my famous practices.  I will give you a story scenario to craft a lead.  Go ahead and write one.  I will too, but don’t read mine until after you write yours.  Deal?  Great!  Here we go.

SCENARIO:

You have this daunting video of a house fire on Jacksonville’s Southside.  No one was at home at the time of the fire, so no one was hurt, but firefighters battled this monster for nearly five hours.  There were a lot of items in the home — old newspapers, scrapbooks, and 50 years worth of items the couple who live there had collected, so there was a lot for the fire to use as fuel.   The couple also had some propane tanks for a gas grill, and one of them exploded—a sound that rattled windows throughout the close-knit neighborhood.  The couple’s home is a total loss. Your photographer captured that explosion on camera and has some incredible flame video and crackling and popping noises as well as the roar of the roof collapsing.  This is not breaking news any more.  It happened a few hours ago.  Write the best lead line you can based on the video and natural sound opportunities you have available to you.  I’ll do the same and then we will compare notes.

How did you do?  Great!  Below are a couple of examples I wrote.

 

  1. [[TAKE NATS OF EXPLOSION]]

AN EXPLOSION AND FIRE RATTLED HOMES AND NERVES IN A SOUTHSIDE

NEIGHBORHOOD THIS AFTERNOOON.

           

  1. [[VO STARTS IN BIG MONITOR]]

IT TOOK 50 YEARS TO MAKE THE MEMORIES INSIDE THIS HOME AND ONLY MINUTES FOR THIS MASSIVE FIRE AND EXPLOSION TO DESTROY IT ALL.

[[TAKE NATS OF EXPLOSION]]

I utilized the visuals in both of the above examples.  What did you do?  There are countless great ways to kick off this story.  You could do a split screen of the video of the explosion and roof collapse and write to that.  You could start with a compelling soundbite if you have the homeowner reacting to the fire.  If you want to try this exercise again, click this link Ready, Set, WRITE!!  I have some more fictional stories for you here.  Take a moment and craft some more leads.  Remember, great writing takes practice.

One thought on “Lead Me to a Good Story, but Don’t Lead Me Astray

  1. […] You want to write a great lead line to a story.  It takes practice!  Below are the fictional stories where you can give it a try, but first check out the article about how to write great lead lines.  You can find it here:  Lead Me to a Good Story, but Don’t Lead Me Astray. […]

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