We’re going back to basics today to talk about an element of broadcast writing that still confounds even some of the most experienced reporters: the host intro (aka, the lead, or lede).
Sometimes the problem stems from a basic lack of understanding of the story’s focus. Yes, it is possible to do days of reporting, conduct scores of interviews, and gather hours of tape … and still not be quite sure what the story is really about.
Well, it’s a story about cats, you know, and how they can bring down your blood pressure … but it’s also about how they need different types of food depending on whether they live indoors or outdoors … and I also got some great tape with a guy talking about the proper shape of a litter box and I really want to get that in!
Stay tuned for a post about that lack-of-focus problem in the near future. It’s an important issue that also speaks to the role of the editor in the story visioning process.
This post, however, is for reporters who know what their story is about but need a little help crafting an intro that’ll tee it up so they can hit it out of the park. (I really have no business writing baseball metaphors, so my apologies if I bungled that one!)
It Doesn’t Matter What You Say if Nobody’s Listening
A boring host lead can make your audience tune out.
A good host lead is your opportunity to have someone else tell listeners how fascinating your piece is going to be and why they should drop everything to listen to it.
My friend Kerry Donahue tells her graduate students at Columbia’s Journalism School to think of the lead as a promise to the listener: “You give me 3:45 and I’ll tell you this,” where this = something very specific and engaging.
Whether you think of it as a promise, a great PR opportunity, or both, you’ll use it to its greatest advantage if you follow these …
5 Simple Rules
1. Be Active
2. Be Current
3. Be Selfless
4. Be Brief
5. Be Specific
1. Be Active
The simplest part of this concept is to write in active voice whenever possible:
PASSIVE: A bill raising taxes was passed by the legislature today.
ACTIVE: Lawmakers voted to raise taxes today.
Watch out for that word “by” – it’s the telltale marker of a sentence in passive voice.
This rule also includes that old demon, burying the lead. We’re so used to telling stories chronologically in our daily lives:
Last week, my cat threw up a huge hairball, so today I shaved off all his fur.
It goes strongly against our grain to tell the story out of order, but if this were a host lead, think how much more effective this would be:
I shaved off all my cat’s fur today. I made the decision after he threw up a huge hairball last week.
Watch out for top lines that start with a time marker like “last week” or “last month.” Resist the urge to tell the story chronologically, and start with the most current bit of information.
2. Be Current
This is a spinoff of burying the lead, but it’s important enough to warrant its own section.
Whether you’re writing a newscast spot or a human interest feature, listeners needs to know why they should hear this story today, as opposed to last week or three months from now. That reason is the story’s peg – you can read a lot more about pegs and their importance in this post from late last year.
The peg needs to be in the lead. It can be tempting to put the peg at the end of a piece, in an effort to solve the pesky dilemma of how to finish a story, but think about it from the listener’s point of view:
LEAD A: A local nonprofit is helping refugee children deal with trauma through art.
LISTENER RESPONSE: How nice. But I really need to dry my hair now. (SFX: loud hairdryer drowning out your story)
LEAD B: A local nonprofit will find out today whether it’ll get a $5 million Gates Foundation grant for its program to help refugee kids deal with trauma through art.
LISTENER RESPONSE: Wow, I wonder if that group is really worthy of such a big grant. My hair can air-dry for four minutes while I find out.
3. Be Selfless
Many reporters have told me they don’t want to put their “best stuff” in the lead for the host to read – they want to save it for themselves. There are two responses to that:
a) Once again, it doesn’t matter what you say if nobody’s listening.
b) Isn’t your “best stuff” all the compelling tape and nat sound you’ve gathered, along with the creative storytelling you do throughout the piece? It’s ok to let the host spend 15 seconds telling listeners about the crux of the story.
There’s also an urge not to “give it all away” in the lead. I support the idea of creating drama and mystery but not to the point of completely obscuring the story. For example:
SELFISH: Thousands of people shop at the local Wal-Mart each week. Yesterday, many of them got a big shock.
SELFLESS: A shopper at the local Wal-Mart stripped to his underwear and streaked around the aisles for 15 minutes yesterday before security personnel apprehended him.
Now I ask you, which of those two leads makes you most want to listen to the story?!
4. Be Brief
While we shouldn’t save all the “good stuff” for ourselves when we write leads, we also don’t want to make the host tell the whole story. We love our hosts, and they work hard, so be nice to them, and don’t make them say all of this:
LONG AND WORDY: A crowd of potential Republican contenders for Democrat Joe Smith’s U.S. Senate Seat is already shaping up, and among them are two current Congressmen and two state lawmakers. But a recent poll shows none of them has what it takes yet to unseat Smith. Instead, as Jane Doe reports, the one person who could do it is a former Governor.
Whew, I’m exhausted just reading that! Try this on for size:
BRIEF: A new poll shows former Governor Tom Jones is the only person who can unseat Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Smith in next year’s election. The survey suggests none of the Republicans currently in the race have enough support to win.
If you have a lot of details that you don’t want to put in the body of the piece, ask yourself whether you really need them in the first place!
5. Be Specific
A meeting happened today? That’s boring.
Something was decided at the meeting? That could be interesting.
Nothing happened at the meeting? You probably don’t need to report it anyway!
BORING: A local education task force held its monthly meeting in Boring City today.
INTERESTING: A local education task force says Boring City should close ten elementary schools to save money.
BORING: The census bureau announced new population numbers today.
INTERESTING: Florida will gain two Congressional seats because of new census numbers released today.
First Things First
One more thing before we close:
I’m still surprised to hear a lot of reporters say that the lead is the last thing they write. A good lead will identify your focus, not just for your listeners, but for you as well. It will help you write the rest of the piece. So, I leave you with this:
WRITE YOUR LEAD FIRST!!
1. None of the examples in this post are actual leads. The Wal-Mart streaker story probably has happened somewhere, but any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental.
2. No cats were shaved or otherwise harmed in the writing of this post.
Happy lead writing, and here’s to New Beginnings!