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Blank Page Spacer Lead Stinger! By Michael Dongilli

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Stories compete for attention and good writers know nothing lures readers like a strong lead.

Most reporters understand this unequivocally, but many stick with the mechanical approach to storytelling, perhaps out of homage to the inverted pyramid norm...more often out of habit and conservatism. While the "straight news" approach might always work and, depending on the events being told, may be the best choice, stories can entice and pull better with leads that accomplish "pyramid" objectives without the restriction of its straightjacket form.

The same holds true in promotional literature where brochure copywriters typically open with mundane and traditional beginnings that cause readers to eschew their message rather than embrace it.

Sometimes, it's not always the writer's fault. A nagging nervousness frequently engulfs editors, and in business, product managers, when pieces begin with an inventive rather than conventional bend. Granted, when done arbitrarily [and this happens a lot], the reaction to re-write should be swift. But to strike purely out of dislike for the approach shows contempt for the language, especially when the reader and story are better served.

For example, I did feature about five men from one Catholic parish all in the seminary at the same time. This had never happened before in the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. The story was even more intriguing when weighed against the decline of men entering the priesthood over the past three decades.

It began: "Holy Moses. It may not be as profound as parting the Red Sea, but what's happening at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Hampton appears equally inspirational for local Catholics. Five men from the parish all studying for the priesthood at the same time, and giving new testament to religious vocation fervor."

Here's how it was edited: "A Catholic church in Hampton is doing its part to fill the need for priests. Four men from St. Mary of the Assumption Church are studying to become priests, while a fifth candidate for the priesthood has been assigned there as part of his studies."

The latter states the facts; the former does too, using figurative language to also set up and evoke the uniqueness of the occurrence.

I did another article on the sudden closing of a community baseball field that had residents surprised and alarmed. A straight news lead might have read: "Parkview residents in O'Hara Township were outraged that their area's only ball field was closed without warning or explanation last week."

Instead, it opened: "Kids coming to play baseball at St. Mary's Field last week were hit with a curve, and no one had thrown a pitch yet. Signs shouted louder than any umpire's call: No Trespassing. And, the events leading up to it all are as befuddling as the nearly 20 feet high hills of dirt and tree clippings plopped in left and right center."

English gives us many devices to make writing inviting and interesting...without being ludicrous and hoaky. Simile and analogy allow us to make relevant and imaginative comparisons to emphasize a point.

Here, analogy adds intrigue and clarity to the description of a tucked-away Bavarian mansion that a foundation wanted to turn into a museum: "Unusual is a term unworthy of Brown's home. There are enough behind-the-wall secret passages to qualify the house for CIA security clearance"...or, "Brown's stately, rarely used, conference room would shame many in Fortune 500 companies. It's more than just wood walls and luxurious, leather chairs -- what sets it apart is the lack of doors. Entry is through wall cut-outs once so precisely fit that getting out had all the makings of a Houdini escape."

Simile also adds color to enliven copy, as these examples from an article about a storytelling festival indicate: "Although its roots are as old as man, storytelling has matured in many ways"...or, "I turned at the students just at that time and said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could bring story-tellers like Clower to Jonesborough to tell tales together?'" Smith remembered. "Initially, his idea went over like a flubbed punch line"...or, "When asked to reveal her performance fees, 'Why I think I'll smack your mouth, boy.'" "About her current partner of four years, 'You have to be careful with that partner thing. We were at a motel in Florida and I said she was my partner and people looked at us real funny.' The humor flows faster than whitewater on the Gauley River."

Ok, but those are newspaper articles, what about promotional copy? There's no rule that says leads have to be staid and predictable here either. The same techniques work for sales literature.

Take the lead in this piece about the launch of private distance learning network for salon owners: The right knowledge makes success limitless. The value of staying ahead-what's it worth? Salon education has a whole new attitude. Sculptured by technology, driven by imagination. Are you willing to shape it? Introducing "Fashion Forward" the first national, direct-to-the-salon learning channel.

The opening for a real estate marketing brochure: There's a story in us all when it comes to starting anew, and whether spawned by a dream or spurred by necessity, a new home opens a fresh chapter in everyone's life.

Or this paragraph start on the packaging of an NFL-sponsored video series: From techniques and touchdowns, to heart-touching stories about what it takes to make a point off the field too-Inside the Game of Football packs total coverage at every position, in eight, engaging and electrifying videos. Catch it...Run with it...Score big...Have fun...whether you're looking for edge-gaining secrets to improve performance, or simply searching for a fundamentally sound yet entertaining way to grow your game...you'll enjoy powerful pro-size instruction.

Like anything, too much figurative language can make a piece gimmicky and turn clever writing into contrived text. Think relevance first, and don't overdo it.

MJD
Copyright 2004 Michael J. Dongilli. All Rights Reserved.

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