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.

I live my podcast life a quarter hour at a time

How we found our ideal episode length for The Distance

In the communities of podcasters and aspiring podcasters that I frequent on Facebook and elsewhere, a frequent topic of debate is the ideal length of an episodes—25 minutes? An hour? I also get asked from time to time how we came up with 15 minutes for The Distance. I’d love to tell you that we thoughtfully deliberated episode length during the planning process for the show, drawing on years of collective storytelling experience to arrive at our decision, but the truth is that the 15-minute guideline just kind of happened—and then became a useful constraint that’s guided our production ever since.

The Distance started in 2014 as longform written stories of about 2,500 words each. At the end of that year, as Serial was wrapping up its first season, we started talking about trying audio for our stories about long-running businesses. The consensus was to do a show that wouldn’t be overly complicated to produce. As a super basic test of this concept, Shaun (Basecamp’s video producer, who would eventually become the co-producer on The Distance) took the first-ever Distance story about Horween Leather and recorded himself reading it, audiobook-style. That clocked in at 10 minutes and 30 seconds, which he pointed out was a nice length for a short train ride or walk to the grocery store.

I admit that I dragged my feet a little on the podcast idea, mostly because I come from a traditional print journalism background and had no audio experience. Once I came around on the podcast, I decided I wanted to do actual audio stories and not just audiobook-style readings of the written articles. (After a few months of releasing both a written and audio version of a story, we went podcast-only.) Here’s what I posted in our Basecamp discussion:

Why did I suggest 15 minutes? I honestly don’t know. Probably because 10 minutes seemed too short, especially relative to most of the 30- or 60-minute podcasts I listen to, and because it’s natural to think of time in quarter-hour increments. Also, I was terrified of doing audio and 15 minutes already seemed like a daunting amount of space to fill.

So from day one, I had the 15-minute guideline in my head. And I found that even though I wasn’t timing my scripts as I wrote them, the resulting episodes would always be around 15 minutes. Maybe I’d internalized that time limit without knowing it, or maybe I’d gotten adept at gauging how big of a story I’d get from a particular subject and adjusted my story selection process accordingly. (If a subject yielded a larger-than-expected story, we could always do a multi-part series, but I wouldn’t pursue a story where it seemed like there wasn’t enough of an angle to sustain 15 minutes.) When I worked in newspapers and pitched stories to editors, they would usually ask, “How much room do you need?” This is because a print newspaper editor has to plot physical space on a page in terms of column inches. I got pretty good at sizing up stories in a literal sense, and these same instincts have served me well in audio.


As we’ve gotten past 50 episodes of The Distance (hurrah!), I’ve come to really embrace the 15-minute episode length. It forces a particular kind of economy in storytelling, making us ruthless in cutting anything from an episode that might be boring, tangential or self-indulgent. If an early version of an episode comes in significantly over 15 minutes, I have to justify that length. More often than not, I don’t miss what gets cut. It makes the stories better and more focused. And keeping the episodes at 15 minutes means that our workload stays manageable, especially as we’ve increased the production values on the show to add music and spend more time on editing. The Distance is just Shaun and me. We release stories every other week and don’t have seasons. If we were to, say, double our episode length while keeping our current level of quality, it would require a significant rearranging of our workflow—how I select stories, the amount of time I spend doing interviews, and then the editing process—that I’m not sure is sustainable as a two-person operation.

I’ve heard from some people that they’d like our stories to be longer, and there’s evidence to suggest that listeners prefer shows with episodes that run closer to an hour. But for now, 15 minutes is working well for us. As I mentioned before, we have the option of doing a two-parter if a story merits more time—and we’ll be doing just that later this month. Yes, there’s more prestige in longer stories, and I’ve been guilty of fetishizing length for its own sake too. But we’re in good company with our 15-minute episodes. I love shows like The Specialist and Curious City, which are also on the shorter end. There are lots of differently sized spaces in people’s days when they could be listening to shows. Sometimes it’s nice to have an episode that fits into a short errand, without the need to pause and pick up the story again later. The Distance might be about long-running businesses, but we don’t want to be long-winded.

Surely you have time during your day to listen to 15-minute stories about interesting businesses like a t-shirt printer or a wacky supermarket! You can subscribe to The Distance on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music or the podcatcher of your choice.