Press Release Leads
Summary Lead (and extended lead)
The most common lead is the summary lead. It wraps up the most important facts of the story in a straightforward statement, laying out the who, what, where, when and why or how...
Look at this summary lead1 and notice that although it presents the basic facts objectively, and without hype, that doesn't mean it has to be lackluster, or devoid of spin, even when the details are complex. The first words of this lead are not the who and what -- in fact, surprisingly, they are the where (don't worry, I'll explain in a few minutes.)
Chicago students will soon be able to study history, math and science as easily and enjoyably as they now play video games -- that's the idea behind a new computerized education project being developed by Consolidated Consumer Products and the American Teachers Association.
The second graf of this release is actually still a part of the lead -- another important point to keep in mind. If you think your paragraph is too long, you can split it into two paragraphs, as an extended lead. When you think the material, or your approach, requires it, do not hesitate to split your lead paragraph into two paragraphs. The following could be part of the previous paragraph, or an extended lead continuing into the second paragraph:
Students will learn a variety of subjects by "interacting" with their lessons on a computer screen. Computer-assisted educational programs are planned for grades 1-12 in history and science, and in math for grades 9-12.
Or take this story from the Chicago Tribune, on March 19, 2001, on the front page of the Metro section:
State officials are planning a major expansion of the city's quarantine zone for Asian longhorned beetles, pushing the boundaries north to Chicago's border with Evanston, according to soucrces familiar with the plan. 2
All leads other than Summary leads are called delayed leads. The key information is delayed, following the first paragraph which uses some device -- narrative, contrast, staccato, direct address, a question, a quote -- to interest the reader.
For this reason, all delayed leads require a "nut graf" immediately following, which does the heavy lifting of the lead -- combining the 5 W's, the angle and the message. Read more about the "nut graf" in the next section, "Narrative lead."
The narrative lead uses techniques of fiction to create an atmosphere or stimulate an attitude in the reader. A narrative lead might include elements of character, setting, costume, even plot -- elements that work in getting readers engaged in a tale. Notice that the character himself ("Johnny") is fictional, but you could use a real-life example as well:
Johnny breaks into a wide smile as his computer game makes happy noises of celebration. It's the same look he used to wear whenever he zapped the villains on the video games he played after school. But today Johnny's not wasting time. He's doing his homework.
Now you need to follow that with a "nut graf" -- otherwise the editor won't know what your story is about. The nut graf should come immediately after, with only the briefest "delay" of the leading information:
That's the idea behind a new computerized education project being developed by Consolidated Consumer Products and the American Teachers Association. Students at all grade levels will be stimulated to learn a variety of subjects, by interacting with their classroom material on a computer screen. Computer-assisted educational programs are planned for grades 1-12 in history and science, and in math for grades 9-12.
Notice how the "nut graf" resembles the summary lead? Now, here's a narrative lead for our Chicago Tribune story:
On the surface, all is calm. A gentle breeze stirs the leaves on the tree-lined street, and children play in the shade of a spreading maple. But deep within stirs an alien being that threatens this peaceful scene...
A good way to enliven your prose is to juxtapose two opposites. It works every time. You can always find something to contrast with the point you're trying to make. In general you should use the contrastive element first, and then the point you're trying to make. For example,
Last summer, students aged 7- 13 wasted on average seven hours a week, playing video games in shopping arcades or on home computers. But this fall, those same students may spend twice that much time playing video games that teach history, math and science...
Then, of course, you'd follow with the nut graf. Here's the same principle applied to the Tribune story. This delayed lead would be even more effective if you did a little research and provided the name of an actual resident you could include in the story:
Last fall, Ravenswood residents grumbled about all the leaves they had to rake. This spring those same residents are praying they will still have leaves to rake come September...
You're familiar with the staccato lead from ad copy -- and so are editors. The staccato lead makes the most of short, pointed little facts spiking the first paragraph, to attract attention. But unless you get right to the point, it will irritate editors. So use this one sparingly (in fact, use all delayed leads sparingly -- but especially this one)... it attracts attention but it can be annoying.
History lessons. Kings and presidents. 1776 and 1492. History gets old fast. But not any longer, if a new computerized educational project realizes its aims...
... and then follow with the nut graf. Giving the Trib story the staccato treatment:
Treelined streets. Rustling leaves. Sunlight flickering through the maples. It could all be a distant memory in Ravenswood, if Chicago officials can't get a handle on the Asian longhorned beetles.
This is the lead that uses the word "you" -- appealing directly to the reader's personal interest. It's another steal from the world of direct marketing and ad copy.
You never thought you'd see the day when your child volunteered to do extra homework. She's already three lessons ahead of her class. Yet there she is, begging to put off bedtime for another half hour, so she can start another lesson...
Like other delayed leads, the direct-address lead could be described as a variation on the narrative lead, since it often makes use of narrative techniques. Using the facts of the Tribune story,
You scraped up the money to buy your own place in a tree-lined neighborhood, where maples blocked the sight of the city traffic. Now you're learning you may lose those trees -- and the quality of life they symbolize...
This gets their attention by asking a provocative question. The question lead often plays off an angle that suggests controversy of some kind.
Will teachers be the latest profession to be automated out of their jobs by computers?
Are the asian longhorned beetles winning the battle for Chicago's trees? City officials are making a desperate stand, fighting it out at the border...
Quotes should never be empty quotes -- that's the most important fact to remember about any quotes in a news story, but especially quote leads. The quote must do the work of communicating the message, not merely representing someone by using his or her name. A good quote will enhance the message by doing what quotes do best -- adding pungency, a personal flavor, or a catchy turn of phrase to convey more than mere information. Notice how this quote lead (followed, of course, by a nut graf) gets right to the key point of the press release in the first four words, at the same time expressing a strong opinion which would not be appropriate in straight, objective news copy:
"Video games that teach are going to revolutionize the world of education, just as surely as the word-processor revolutionized the workplace." So says Jason R. Burton, president of Consolidated Consumer Products...
The asian longhorned beetle story could start with a quote like this one, adapted from material in the actual Chicago Tribune article (but, just to be clear: my quote is fictional -- the real- life alderman did not make this statement... but if I were writing his press release for this occasion, maybe he would):
"The battle of the beetles is turning in our favor," says Alderman Eugene Schulter (47th), "but we're going to have to use every weapon in our arsenal -- including quarantines -- to win this war."
Remember who writes the quotes -- not Jason R. Burton, but Jason R. Burton's PR writer.