Bury the lede

How can we keep people interested?

Technology doesn’t always give us the highest quality outcome. Sometimes it just buys us more convenience.

Look at coffee. It used to be a pain to prepare and drink. Then in 1850 Folgers started roasting and grinding it for us. It wasn’t as fresh, but it sure was fast.

Or look at photography. Today, smartphones put everything from supercomputers to cameras into our pocket. But the pictures pale in comparison to what my 5lb DSLR can take.

But we compromise. Sometimes convenience wins. Writing made a similar compromise.

The telegraph was a huge improvement in communication compared to smoke signals. We could now transmit messages over long distances.

But man, were those early messages expensive. A trained operator needed to type each letter by hand. And so compromises were made to shorten and change the message. For example, when the Wright Brothers completed their first flight, they couldn’t gush to their parents. Orville had to send this:

Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas . Orevelle Wright

(Yes, his name was spelled wrong)

Newspaper articles also had to change. They couldn’t be narrative. They had to get to the point immediately. Just the facts. And the inverted pyramid style of writing was invented.

Get the important stuff out first. Everything else is less and less important.

It’s a style that lives on today. Not because we need help anymore in transmission, but now when newspaper and magazines are laid out, it helps an editor to quickly chop off a writer’s article from 500 words to 400 words, and worry little about changing the quality of the writing. Just cut from the bottom.

And we wonder why people aren’t interested in our writing? Look at the rules we’re following. Most of us learned in high school or college to “write well” with the inverted pyramid. Get the necessary stuff out first. The 5 W’s (Who, what, when, where, and why). Don’t bury the lede.

But we weren’t taught enough how those styles are tools, and even compromises, for specific situations. So, that’s how most of us write everything.

Even an attempt at some form of narrative gives into the idea it still needs a “TL;DR” (Too Long; Didn’t Read).

Yet think about what you read and watch that keeps you interested. How do you think Game of Thrones turns out as an inverted pyramid of a story? You’ll get punched in the eye if you TL;DR that for a fan who’s behind.

But we keep doing it to ourselves. Sometimes even others do it for us:

Very much appreciate the share, but you blew one of the best parts — the surprise.

Skip the TL;DR.

If you have people requesting that from you, let them move on and find more headlines to read. It is your job though to keep them interested throughout your writing. If you still feel like whatever you’re writing would benefit from a TL;DR, consider throwing your post away and just Tweeting something.

If you’re going to write 500+ words, give them the importance they deserve. Keep people interested by flipping the inverted pyramid back, and making your writing more and more interesting as it goes along, not less. Give your readers a journey. Make them something to be inspired about at the end of a piece. A TL;DR rarely moves anyone.

Of course, there are situations that require conciseness. Just the facts. Anticipation that people will just read the headlines. But don’t cargo cult the styles of newspaper and magazine writers for all the writing you do. Better yet, don’t worry about rules from high school and college. Ignore style and grammar. Learn to tell a better story. Surprise people.

I’ve had an above average bit of success as a writer and getting people interested in my work. My secret? I bury the lede.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.

Write like you talk

You’re a better writer than you let on

A handful of years ago I was volunteering for an organization here in Chicago where we helped high school kids prepare for their college applications. These kids were the first in their families, often underprivileged, to be applying to college.

One Saturday I met a student who wanted help editing his application essay. We went over to the computer lab and he pulled up a draft he’s been struggling with.

The essay was fine. It read grammatically well.

But it was terrible. It was dry and uninteresting. Artificial intelligence could have probably auto-generated it from a history of other applications.

I doubt any recruiter would remember him. How were we going to fix this?

Most of us trying to write to gain an audience, inspire people, market ourselves, etc. are all doing it wrong.

We stick with the education and rules we learned in high school and college: “Don’t end sentences with prepositions.” “Don’t start sentences with conjugations.” “Sentences have subjects and predicates.” We focus on the perfect paragraph and essay structure.

And if I asked most people to write an essay about their day. It’s likely going to come out a lot like my mentee’s. Stiff, formulaic, unoriginal.

But if we had an intimate conversation over coffee, the story about your day would be remarkably different. You wouldn’t worry about the word you used to start a sentence, or which of your sentences made up paragraphs. Instead, your struggles, achievements, and thoughts would hit my ears before you had a chance to think about: “Can I end a sentence with ‘at’?”

And because you weren’t worried about a hundred rules of grammar while you were talking to me, I’m that much closer to your internal voice.

The voice that makes you unique and interesting.

So my first step with the student above was just to ask who he was, what he does, and what he observes all day. And then I just typed what he said. A lot of it was run on sentences, and sentences without verbs. If he turned this draft into his high school English teacher, he’d have failed an assignment. So we edited it a bit to fit grammatical rules that someone reading a college essay might expect.

But what was on that computer screen was a story in his voice. A story of how just four years ago he came to the United States, poor, with a single parent, and could barely speak English.

Then over his high school career, not only did he become an amazing student, he became a man for others. He was tutoring kids in math and leading programs to help students who were in situations that he was in just a short time ago.

When he was done, I was sitting there, mouth open with goosebumps. Some jerk must have been cutting onions next to us.

His essay was original, dramatically compelling, and told an inspiring hero’s journey.

This kid was awesome. And an essay finally came to him because he stopped worrying about the correct way to write, and just wrote like he talked.

If you find yourself struggling to get who you are onto the page, record yourself talking on your phone and write out the transcript later if you need to. Just get your voice on the page first before you start worrying about a bunch of rules.

When you finally have YOU on the page, now go back and make your bits bend to the style you want them in. But be careful with spending too much time on the grammar and the rules. Go back and make sure it still flows like you’d actually say it. Read it out loud to yourself. You’ll know when you sound fake when you stutter a bit trying to read a sentence back.

Because we aren’t trying to get an A in an English class. Most of us aren’t journalists for the New York Times all trying to write in a similar and strict style.

We’re just trying to contribute to a real conversation. And we want to meet you.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: youtube.com/nathankontny where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life.

And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups you should try Highrise.