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.

When “When” is Enough


Several weeks ago I had an opportunity to hear Newsweek/Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief  Tina Brown speak about changes in content delivery, shortly before  announcing their plans to discontinue print publication of their well known news weekly.

I had already grabbed a copy of the magazine and tossed it into my tote, which for me, was like catching up with an old friend. I’m one of those people who received a student-rate subscription in high school and continued subscribing well beyond college graduation. In more recent years, I’ve been a casual reader.

In flipping through my issue later that night (September 24, 2012), I fell into my usual bad habit of thumbing through the magazine back to front to see if anything caught my eye, before settling down to “read it right.”

I must have noticed Damon Linker’s article on page 53 first which started “When Tori Amos set out to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her seminal debut album…” because I soon came upon the top left page of an article about hospitals (page 46, by Marty Makary) which started “When I was a medical student.”

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until I flipped back to page 42, to find part of an article about the television program ‘Homeland.” It started “When Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa set out in early 2010…” (this section was part of a larger article about Secret Weapons by Eli Lake) and on page 41, it contained a paragraph that began, “When asked why more women make it as targeters than men, Graham said…”

I don’t think the similarity in sentence structure hit me until I backed up to page 34 and saw an interview by Leslie H. Gelb with economist Paul Volcker that stated, “When Paul Volcker speaks, Republicans and Democrats, Labor and Business, listen.”

All of a sudden, I realized it was “when this, when that.” That’s a lot of “whens!” Merriam Webster says that this adverb derives from Middle or Old English, or perhaps Old High German, citing “hwanne” and “hwenne” as the origin. “When” denotes a period of time broadly or specifically.

I was quite young when I learned that Americans say “When” to indicate when to stop filling a glass.  That always seemed silly and somewhat random, until I realized it was variation of “Say Goodnight, Gracie” followed by “Goodnight Gracie.” (Credit that to George Burns and Gracie Allen.)

“When,” if used with beverage pouring, is really just a sassy response to, “Tell me when to stop pouring.”

As a writer, “when” offers an easy way to set the stage. “When Mrs. Springer was a young girl, her family used kerosene lamps.” But could we say it another way? “Even as she started to lose touch with the present, Mrs. Springer could still hear the crank of the old kerosene pump that fueled the lamps in her childhood home. She remembered painstakingly bringing her mother a can of the precious liquid each afternoon before the sun set, alternating between relishing the smell and being repulsed by it.”

“When” comes in handy when writing historical accounts or conveying parallel timelines. “When the czar’s foot soldiers stormed the village, Hannah was already gone.” Try it a different way. “By time the Cossacks arrived at the village, Hannah was clamoring up the hill, clinging to a bundle of food and clothes, perceptible as no more than a speck on the horizon.”

Don’t get me wrong. “When” is a perfectly adequate word, but it risks being overused. One exception:  The Beatle’s “Rain” . “When the sun shines, they slip into the shade… when it rains… when it rains and shines.” Can’t quite get enough “when” there.

Don’t Bury the Lead… Except…

burying-the-lead-illust-c-wordsonthefly-smA few days ago I was working on a direct response campaign for two offers. We’ll call them Super Deal and Super Deal Plus. My gut instinct was to tout them in the headline, but when I saw the design, I realized an inherent flaw: I knew what these deals meant but nobody else would. These were not household words.

I ended up flipping the emphasis by calling them New Customer Offers (another slight deviation from the actual headers) and then described what they were. I figured if I didn’t grab the prospect at the outset by saying, “this is a deal just for you,” they wouldn’t stay long enough to figure it out.

That’s made me think of the adage, “Don’t Bury the Lead” – or should you?

LEAD WITH IT: Most of us who write for commercial purposes know that words like “New,” “Free,” and “Announcing” are critical components of the header (or at least should be used in a graphic call-out.) It’s important to feature words like these for product launches: “New gizmo. Free trial.” OR “First Remedy for This Affliction.” Those who test copy may learn that combining the key phrase with a price incentive adds power to the punch: “Announcing Blue DooDads: Buy one, get one free.”

But there isn’t a hard, fast rule. The writer has to be intuitive.

MAYBE BURY IT: One good exercise is to imagine several scenarios from the prospect’s point of view: “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time – I’m intrigued – so what’s it all about?” OR “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time — I haven’t a clue what it is so I’m moving on,” OR “I know this company/product and they always have interesting offers, so let me look,” OR, “I don’t know what this item is but it’s 50% off so I that interests me.” OR “I don’t need this thing, but I’m intrigued by the hologram on the front/the goodie inside/the black on black design so I’ll remember this company in the future.”

LEAD WITH IT FOR COPYWRITING: Sometimes a plain vanilla lead is best, especially when the client is all business and you have to get to the point quickly: “XYZ 2.0 now available” OR “Legal Amendment.” But sometimes copywriting is most effective when you tease: “Hands-free driving” OR “Ever hear of Gritzlefritz?” Kind of makes you want to read further.

BURY THE LEAD: Sometimes saving the punch line or potential lead for the end is the way to go. I find this particularly helpful when writing for fundraising. Don’t tell the whole story but create an emotional connection at the outset, roll out the facts, then seal the deal with a tug at the heart strings: “Timmy really isn’t asking for much, is he?” OR “When we finally met Samantha, she held out her hand with a shy smile.” Probably more effective than saying, “Timmy and Samantha want your spare change.” (But then, you could do that. It’s just a different technique.)

LEAD WITH IT FOR NARRATIVE WRITING: Sometimes you can achieve a “wow” moment when you start strong and use the lead to establish the premise. By doing this, you are letting the reader in on a secret, helping them feel smart as the plot unravels. That kind of lead might sound something like, “As Clifton sat alone in the Boardroom, night fell over the city, turning his penthouse view into a laser light show. His pinstripe suit and shock of white hair reflected oddly in the polished table as he ran his fingers absent mindedly over the surface. A slow, halting sigh escaped from below his moustache. How he arrived here is a story that’s hard to believe.”

BURY IT AT THE END: When looking for that perfect close to a novel or editorial piece, your lead can become the clincher. While you could certainly start by saying, “Rachel left Tiny Town, USA, when she was just sixteen,” you could also lead up to that moment, then end with a line like this: “She shut the door behind her and never looked back.” OR “She said good-bye to Fido and walked into the wee hours of the morning, tapping the mailbox as she went by.” When you want an ending open to discussion, create some doubt: “As the car drove away, a small voice could be heard coming from the field. It was hard to tell whether those muffled sounds were cries of sorrow or ironic laughter.” Doesn’t that just leave you wanting a sequel?

As a writer, you usually know when you have nailed it. You get a chill, a shudder, a fist-pumping “yes” moment that tells you there’s nothing else to say.