Whatever Happened to the Inverted Pyramid?



Anyone who has gone to J School or taken a journalism course is most likely acquainted with the concept of the Inverted Pyramid – a style of writing that places the most important information up top and less important information at the bottom. More bluntly said: Start with the relevant stuff, end with the fluff.

That’s the way to accommodate busy editors and short form readers.

However, with the advent of storytelling, particularly in advertising, there’s a whole lot of waiting going on. I understand the value of making an emotional connection and the terms of engagement … entice, hook, nurture, and then slam home the brand… but sometimes as a consumer, I don’t want to watch a melodrama only to discover it’s brought to me by a box of crackers.

Don’t get me wrong: I love TV ads that are sequential – where characters are interesting enough to foster a following. And I often like the softer side of sales which is more about the experience than the product or features.

But sometimes when I’m busy, cranky, or impatient, I just want “the facts, ma’am.” What it is; how much it costs; and where I can buy it. I don’t want to trip down memory lane or prance along the primrose path.

When I see a press release that starts with a quote, history or promotional statement, I cringe and crave the old Inverted Pyramid: who, what, where, when, why and how. When that is missing, I assume the author is either inexperienced or not aware that there are different writing styles for different purposes. Once I had a supervisor who thought it would be creative to begin our PR with a comment. I had to track down an editor to convince this person that, “No one reads those quotes. In fact, we assume they’re made up.”

Perhaps that’s harsh, but point is, in this age where “everyone’s a writer,” prioritizing information warrants discussion.

After talking with someone yesterday (talented in his own rights as a videographer), it dawned on me that many people are just not familiar with news-driven information organization. For those schooled in narrative thinking, it’s more logical to set the stage, play out the plot line, then slowly lead up to the clincher. Unfortunately, this isn’t always effective — particularly for direct response — where buying decisions can be impulsive and made in a split-second.

So are we clouding the urgency of our message by weaving it into a fable? Are we diminishing results by not being direct? Should we invert content more often in order to get to the point and ask for the order?

Apparently the Sphinx and I aren’t the only ones pondering this enigma. Here’s an intelligent article from the Poynter Institute that discusses Inverted Pyramids as used in print with a link to Jakob Nielsen who discusses their use on the web.

For me, “Once Upon A Time” can be nice, but there’s much to be said for not scrolling until the princess is kissed.

The Ten Commandments of Reporting

I never thought I’d write a post              kitty-with-blue-eyes-not-a-reporter-c2012-wordsonthefly
about the basics of reporting
because most journalists I know
are extremely professional —
but last week I had an
eye-opening experience.

An otherwise credible trade publication featured an
article about a well-known company – and got much of
the information wrong.
Not only was the writing
careless but there were
breeches of etiquette.

I don’t think their actions were intentional but remarkably naïve. My guess is that the Publisher gave a production person a chance to write an article, and while this author was well-versed on her side of the business, sadly, she didn’t know much about the business of reporting.

So this is a good reminder:  just because we can write admirably in some situations doesn’t mean we’re journalists. Here are Ten behavioral Commandments to keep us on track:

1. Thou shall talk to a high level spokesperson. Talking to the receptionist, custodian, sales rep, or project manager does not constitute “talking with the company.” Instead, go through proper channels to make your goals clear, request mutually convenient interviews, confirm times and call-in numbers, follow with a thank you, recap or further questions. Quote several people for perspective; verify their names/titles and spellings.

2. Thou shall not steal – corporate content without permission and attribution. Just because you are reporting on a company, doesn’t give you carte blanche to use their material. An attribution typically reads: “Reprinted with permission. © Year, Company Name, first published in Source Here with Date.”

3. Thou shall do the legwork. Research the company. Check their website. Read industry articles. Listen to presentations. Access their collateral or annual report. It’s important to know how they describe and position themselves.

4. Thou shall beware loaded words. If you are familiar with the niche you’re covering, you’re probably in good shape, but if you are facing unknown territory, choose your words carefully. Often there’s corporate lingo or fine distinctions that convey vital information to insiders. For example, if you’re talking about publishing, “readers” and “subscribers” are not the same. If you’re talking about technology, “Flash” and “non-Flash” are lightyears apart.

5. Thou shall covet clear writing. Aim to be precise. To say that a customer can “use,” “upload,” or “send out” implies they have direct access to the functionality. If the company governs these activities, designate the “ownership” to the company and say that they provide these services.

6. Thou shall check facts and check them again. If in doubt, ask the company spokesperson to clarify. Most are more than willing to help. Don’t make an assumption– especially if based on a unique situation or small sampling. For example, if you see blue cups on several desks, don’t assume the corporate color is blue. Someone may just have been cleaning house.

7. Thou shall use visuals that provide accurate examples. Just because an image is colorful or appealing, doesn’t mean it accurately describes the company’s product or strategy. It could be old or stylized. It could be phasing out or changing. Verify that this is the best image to use, clear permissions, and secure the highest quality rendering.

8. Thou shall love thy editors – for critical thinking and direction… for headline improvement and copy edits… for probes that help you become a better, more insightful reporter… for the push that forces you to answer the unspoken question.

9. Thou shall be objective unless thou art writing a review. Eliminate words that convey your personal feelings or are intended to sway the reader. For example, using a phrase like, “Their seemingly good solution” suggests that you think otherwise, much like “the alleged offender” implies the person may be innocent.

10. Thou shall own up to thy mistakes. If something was missed or misunderstood, it won’t be the first time. That’s why credible publications run corrections and why book publishers use Errata Sheets. You don’t necessarily have to apologize for your opinions, but if the product is “black” and you say it is “white,” then it’s smart to fess up.  Sometimes blaming an error on a typo is a gentle way to avoid taking the full hit as a writer – but in the end, being responsive and responsible will go a long way toward your success.

laptop-acer-small-clean-screen-c-2012-wordsonthefly Amen.

The Glamorous Life of Writers

The angst. The torment. The suffering…

The celebrity. The persona. The fame…


I’ve been hanging out with Mikael Blomkvist, publisher of Millennium, the most out-spoken magazine in Sweden. At least in my mind … at least according to author Stieg Larsson. Yup. Like many, I’ve been sucked into his riveting novels starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and now, The Girl Who Played with Fire.

It probably didn’t hurt that I saw the Swedish films before reading the books, so I can easily conjure up images of Blomkvist and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander. (Wonderful casting, I might add.)

Like so many writers-turned-celebrity, Blomkvist is brash, bright, and saddled with an insatiable libido. He’s got a tough exterior but a warm heart, and he wrestles constantly with ethics. He is surrounded by an aura of intrigue – wrongly convicted of libel, ruggedly independent, bent on uncovering corporate crime.

He’s not too unlike Superman, aka Clark Kent, another writer/journalist who teamed up with his Metropolis newsroom pal, Lois Lane, to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Think about it… from Citizen Kane to Ugly Betty, publishing has been central to so many plots. Remember Early Edition where a Chicago newspaper mysteriously arrived a day early so the hero could change the course of history? What about the eerie author played by Johnny Depp in that movie where he grew corn? (Unfortunately, the title Secret Window was not memorable) Think about Stephen King’s  Misery where an injured writer (portrayed by James Caan in the film) was held hostage by an obsessive fan (played brilliantly by Kathy Bates.)  All these writers led interesting, if not anguished, lives.

Writers and journalists seem to constantly be shown in the glow of glamour and excitement. They have agents, ride in limos, get room service and leave a trail of successful manuscripts in their wake. And yet, most of the writers I know are hunched over their computers at midnight, eat at their desks by daylight, and try their darndest to beat deadlines while coming up with the next great scoop. Not much glamour in that!

Even worse, writers who once commanded significant salaries and public respect have been undercut and underminded by a glut of writer-wannabees who blog, boast, and self-publish prolifically and often, carelessly.

I guess I’ve bought into some of the mystique, too – but the “glamour” I know is the gutsy, unsung kind… the kind where writers stay up three days straight covering a national election or catastrophic disaster. .. the kind where they go to jail rather than reveal a source… the kind where they forfeit personal comforts to get the story – and get it right.

shakespeare-line-drawing-smEven we creative or copy writers, who are not on the front lines of news gathering, know that writing can be exhausting and yes, boring, just as easily as it can be exhilarating and inspired. Interestingly, the least competent people I know are the ones who say with a flourish and feigned nonchalance, “Oh, I’m a writer.” Yet the best writers I know are the ones who are humble, helpful, and massacre words with great delight in their intentionally illiterate e-mails.

The real glamour is not in the wardrobe but in the trenches, not in the book signings but in the legwork to get there. My tribute is to the writer who laboriously survives 53 rounds of reviews by people who can’t string two words together… and to the fact checker who makes sure we haven’t lied.

Praise goes to the diarists and letter-keepers, the note-takers and doodlers, the poets and preachers, who capture words, craft them, and preserve them.

While I’d love to say “my staff is waiting to fluff my pillow,” it’s more like “my cold coffee is waiting on the counter as I hammer out one more graph before falling on my face.” Ahh, so much for the glamorous life – but what a good feeling it is when the words actually work.