Whatever Happened to the Inverted Pyramid?

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(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON LINKEDIN PULSE)

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.

Subtle Choices = Big Differences

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If someone said to me, “I have red roses and yellow daisies in my garden,” I would think of red roses as the focal point and daisies as ground cover.  However,  if they said, “I have yellow daisies and red roses in my garden,” I would think of yellow as
dominant with red as mere highlights.
The order of information can dramatically change interpretation and perspective.

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I was recently working on an email campaign, and as all responsible freelance writers do, submitted it for review. The edits were minor but one stood out. The call to action had been changed on one of the targeted pieces. This altered the motivation from empowering (I’m smart; I want to do this) to obligatory (We, the authority, strongly suggest you sign up) Now, there was nothing wrong with that statement, but did it belong here?

I’ve always felt that direct response requires a delicate balance between inspiration and persuasion. A subtle suggestion can alter the impulse to act and turn it into a dead stop. Too much information can kill the spontaneity by making the decision weighty. Not every writer — and certainly not every client — can appreciate these subtle differences,  but we can at least be aware of the choices we make.

Here are a few ways to shape the message:

Placement – is your statement the major thrust of the message or used as a reminder?
For example, does your email announce an event as the lead: “Greetings friends, Be sure to mark your calendars for Wednesday, February 25th at 2:00 when we will host a webcast about XYZ” OR does it intentionally present product news up top with a PS that says, “Don’t forget our webcast about XYZ will be held…” Both are right. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

Punctuation – do commas identify key information in a way that is irrelevant or important?
For example, does your press release play it straight: “Big Enterprise CEO, Mr. Jones, announced today that they have acquired ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere” OR might your inset information lend color and credence? “Mr. Jones, CEO of Big Enterprise and also an avid diver, pledged to acquire ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere, once he saw the blue waters and coral reefs.”

Aggregation – can the way you combine information work to your advantage?
For example, is your contest copy bland because you are trying to meet legal requirements, or could you say it differently to create excitement? “A $1,000 cash prize will be awarded to each of the first five correct entries drawn” OR might you say, “$5,000 up for grabs! Be among the first five correct entrants drawn, and you could win $1,000.” You’re not making any promises, you’re still explaining the winning process, you’re keeping language legal, but you’re aggregating the total prize value for more impact.

Details – do your descriptive phrases intentionally add value or are they used as “throw aways” to draw attention elsewhere?
For example, does your ad say, “This hand-woven hammock, made by expert craftsmen from the Village of Ropeville, is guaranteed to last for life.” OR – do you shift the emphasis from the guarantee to the workmanship? “This lifetime-guaranteed hammock was carefully crafted by Ropeville artisans who enjoy a 300-year legacy of hammock-making. “ Neither is wrong, but it’s your choice as a writer, to control the benefit you promote most prominently.

With that, I’m going to step away to focus on some other work… or might I say, “Stepping away from her desk, she paused to look at the sunlight dancing off the snow.” The latter is far more interesting.

The Non-Christmas Cactus — or The Art of Continuity

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Today, on the shortest day of the year, a soft snow is falling and the skies are as gray as my sweater. Our bird feeders, now on new hooks, have attracted a fresh invasion of feathered friends: woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches.

The holidays are upon us which means traditions are everywhere.  Old toys and ornaments… candles and song … costumes and centerpieces… are surfaced by families across the country. Handed-down recipes come to life in kitchens big and small, turning the air into a sweet and spicy cultural celebration that says ‘home’ in a U.N. of languages.

In the corner of our front room sits a “November Cactus,” a cactus that never learned it was supposed to bloom for Christmas, but rather, selects its moment of glory just before Thanksgiving.

Whenever I look at this now-woody plant – a plant that has since begotten many “children” that live on counter tops and kitchen tables far and wide – I think back to its origins. A close aunt had passed away unexpectedly, and my young son had joined me in cleaning out her apartment.

With most of the heavy lifting done, we turned to her window sill and saw a little Christmas cactus struggling in rock hard soil. It was stunted, misshapen and not particularly attractive, but just when I was about to toss it out, my son suggested we bring it home.

My thumb was never as green as my mother’s, but I’ve generally had good luck with plants, so we rescued it and repotted it. We put it outside under a tree in summer and brought it in before the frost. Shortly after, we saw pale white points appear at the ends of the succulent leaves that grew from the thick branches. Within days, the plant became a sea of light pink blossoms that dangled delicately, lasting a few weeks and then dropping, as our own special autumn, on the living room floor.

It really doesn’t matter that our cactus runs ahead of schedule. By holiday time, it’s fresh and green again and each year, it reminds me of my aunt.

The continuity of this cactus is not unlike what writers need to do in developing ideas and plot lines. There has to be a “constant.” It could be a premise, a quest, a catch phrase or gesture. It’s something that recurs and creates familiarity with the character or theme.

Continuity in writing, much like in cinema, has to be monitored closely.  A stubbly beard in one scene can’t suddenly be long in another. That limping gait so carefully described at the outset can’t carelessly be forgotten when the character breaks into a run.

Just like this cactus, continuity anchors us when writing. It’s a stake in the ground, a frame of reference. It gives us bearing and perspective.

Some writers keep careful notes to track character development lest they forget a small detail. Was that scar on his left hand or on his right wrist? Did the dog have three brown patches or four? Was the music playing before or after dinner on the night the crime was committed?

As our November cactus nears its 20th year, we pause to think of all that occurred during this fleeting expanse of time. Despite the ups and downs and unplanned changes, the joys and disappointments, the misadventures and the good adventures, this slightly confused but persistent cactus soldiered on and gave us a gift each year.

What nice assurance that all was right in our small corner of the world.

Let this post serve to wish you the comfort of continuity in the New Year — and a profusion of unexpected blooms.

The Little Shoe

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It might seem trite to say that every item has a story, but surely, some items have better stories to tell than others – and for a writer, this is a magnetic pull that wants to be drawn out.

So it is with a little shoe I found at an antique shop in Prescott, Arizona. Truth is, this isn’t a shoe but a wooden shoe mold, style 600, size 6 ½ E – most likely intended for toddler feet.

In that Prescott was a lively ranching and gambling town at the turn of the century, I sensed that this mold shaped shoes for the children of local farmers and homesteaders, shop keepers and adventurers– children who no doubt grew up being part of the nation’s historic fabric.

Prescott is home to “Whiskey Row,” the 100 Block of Montezuma Street that at one time, as I recall, boasted 18 saloons… establishments with names like the Bird Cage, Hooligan’s and Jersey Lilly. This shoe mold may not have been crafted there but perhaps transported from Lynn, MA, where the shoe industry began.

That’s another piece of history lost to most of us: Jan Matzeliger, born in Dutch Guiana (Suriname), invented the shoe-lasting machine which could produce 150 to 700 pair in a day. This innovation forever changed the industry and turned Lynn into the “shoe capital of the world.”

But I digress…

Regardless of origin, this little shoe carries mystery with it, and for writers, mystery means intrigue, and intrigue means good reading.

I’m currently using “concealment shoes” in a book I’ve been writing for the past 12 years. This is the kind of manuscript that’s complete in my head but requires a vacation by a lake or solid block of time to be typed out.

In this context, old shoes were sometimes entombed in Colonial homes to ward off evil spirits. Perhaps it was thought that they contained the essence of the people who wore them – a human quality that would surely scare away ectoplasmic intruders.

The point here is that we writers should be aware of our surroundings and nurture the ability to look at everyday things with a sense of curiosity.

An old door key is one item that stands out. Ditto for a letter from a soldier. A seashell can conjure up images of pirates landing on a beach; grandmother’s sewing kit brimming with jet buttons and souvenir needle cases from a World’s Fair certainly tells of another time; that gnarled piece of roadside metal might well have fallen from a space ship or a car wreck that changed someone’s life.

Imagination is the lifeblood of writers, and just as a ‘medium’ is said to be a conduit to ‘the other side,’ intriguing objects can be a path to a plotline.

My little shoe makes me think of a small grave on a grassy hillside where the Great Plains spread out to accommodate Conestoga wagons.  I see a tow-haired boy in patched overalls; I feel the dust in his throat and behind his neck. But I also hear the squeals of a little girl in gingham as she scampers after her siblings, unaware of a danger about to befall.

This little shoe suggests hearth and home; a hard life, simple joys… but perhaps it is just the beginning of a bigger story that tells of celebrity or crime. Perhaps it is literally “a first step.”  Who wore this shoe – and what ever happened to the other one?

Stringing the Line

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I’m not sure when I began using a clothesline – could have been in a moment of nostalgia or environmental concern – more likely motivated by not wanting to spend money on electricity or having brand new jeans shrink 3 sizes. I don’t use it for everything, but it’s great for shirts and pants that benefit from brisk breezes and sunlight.

This year, my line was frazzled. For some reason, the cotton fiber disintegrated around the core. When used, it would disperse a cloud of dust that made me cough. With fall upon us, I decided this was a good time to string up a new line, and so doing, I realized it was a lot like writing.

First, I unraveled the twine, careful to keep it taut and anchored at both ends. Then I tied it and wound it multiple times around each hook. I punctuated it with  new clothespins, interspersed with the old, testing it out later in the day to make sure it held strong. I now step back and admire it, suspended bright and clean among the trees. The purpose remains somewhere between functional and aesthetic.

You may not want a clothesline in the front yard, but there’s something rural … homey… down to earth about it.  A lot like employing a style of writing that is gritty and unpretentious.

Clotheslines reveal a changing color palette:  blues, grays, browns, and burgundy in the cooler seasons; pink, aqua, celadon, salmon and white in summer. The line reflects the setting.

Occasionally the line supports memories –  a wizard’s hat and cape from a long-ago Halloween,  beach towels and handmade coverlets, an all-black array of tee shirts emblazoned with the names and images of rock bands.

A sturdy clothesline bridges time. Remember the teachings of the clothesline when writing:

1. Replace worn cliches with something crisp.
2. Anchor solidly in the context of the story or message.
3. Space word choice so you don’t repeat too often.
4. Punctuate as needed.
5. Mix daring information with comfortable reference.
6. Don’t weigh it down with verbosity.
7. Change up the palette – make it colorful at times.
8. Step back, review, and don’t be afraid to cut it.
9. Reposition phrasing for balance, continuity.
10. Take elements apart and reconfigure until they look right.
11. Don’t let anyone tell you how to string your line, but observe how others do it. (OK, maybe a good editor)
12. Use your line to let characters air out emotions and anger.
13. Admire your line but remember it may not last forever.
14. Invite someone to try it and see how it works.
15. Don’t shoo away birds that sit on your line; they will add interest.
16. Make sure your line will weather all seasons.
17. If your line gets tangled, unwind it and make it linear again.
18. When your line sways in the wind, enjoy it as open to interpretation.
19. Consider a second line for support.
20. And don’t forget your by-line.