Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Effective Public Relations Writing: The Ten Commandments Of A Great Lead Paragraph

By Thomas Murrell MBA, CSP, International Business Speaker

If it bleeds it leads is a famous saying amongst news editors on why certain stories are on page one or first up in a TV or radio news bulletin.

With so many big news stories breaking recently, such as the Pope's death and the Navy helicopter crash in Indonesia, how can you make your media release stand out?

Well, the success of a news release being followed up by the media depends on the all important lead or first paragraph.

After the headline, this is the first message an editor or journalist will read and it is one of those critical moments of truth when you either win over or lose the media.

The first paragraph sets the structure for the whole of the media release.

Take this example of a very poorly written opening or lead paragraph that was actually sent out from the office of Northern Territory Opposition spokesman, Richard Lim on March 9, 2005.

Shadow Minister for Employment Education and Training Dr Richard Lim says that private registered training organisations which provided vocational education and training for Territorians are struggling to survive because over the last two years, the Northern Territory Government has a policy of using the Equipment Grants for government providers only, they being the Charles Darwin University and Batchelor of Indigenous Tertiary Institution.

(Source: D.D. McNicoll, The Diary, Media Section, The Australian, Thursday march 17th, 2005, pg 22.)

What is this person trying to say?

As a media and communications specialist working with clients, I find I spend at least half my writing time working on that all important first paragraph. It is were all the value is.

Here are my Ten Commandments for writing a great lead paragraph. A good lead paragraph must:

1. Summarise The Whole Story.
This is the sharp end of your message and the reader must understand what the whole story is about just by reading the first paragraph. The most important and critical information must come first.

2. Answer The Five W's.
It must answer the who, what, when, where, and why of the story.

3. Grab Your Attention.
Like a good headline, the lead paragraph must grab and hold the attention of the reader.

4. Make Every Word Count.
Aim for brevity and word economy. Less is more. Edit out words to increase impact.

5. Make Sense.
Write for meaning.

6. Be Accurate.
Always stick to the facts and be truthful, no matter how bad the news. Avoid fluff and hype. Remember it has to be newsworthy.

7. Keep To One Sentence.
Simplicity is the key to great lead paragraphs.

8. Provide Context.
If you are introducing an organisation or person for the first time, put this in context by providing descriptive, detailed and meaningful words immediately prior to the company or individual name.
For example:
Thomas Murrell - poor, no one knows who he is!
International business speaker and co-author of Understanding Influence For Leaders At All Levels, Thomas Murrell - better and puts person in context.
Different descriptions can be used, depending on your objectives and the context of the release.

9. Be Precise.
Precision is vital. Out of all the information you could get across what is the most important? This must be communicated in a precise way.

10. Edit, Check and Proofread A Minimum of Three Times.
Nothing will shoot your credibility down like a typo or error in the lead paragraph. First impressions count no matter how good the story is. Professionalism is essential. Get someone else to check and read your release.

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