Stacie Zinn Roberts

How to Write a Killer Lead

By: Stacie Zinn Roberts | December 30, 2014 | 

How to Write a Killer LeadBy Stacie Zinn Roberts

The cursor blinked at me.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

White page staring back.

Blank. Blank. Blank.

How could I do it one more time?

How could I write a compelling story about a subject matter so dry it made my lips crack. How?

Has this been you, Dear Fellow Communications Professional?

Have you stared at the computer screen devoid of any idea of how to make a client message about the latest product, program or merger anything but a standard Who-What-When-Where-How and maybe-Why press release?

Yeah. Me, too.

But, in the 25 or so years that I’ve been writing PR copy and articles for trade publications, I’ve learned a secret.

It’s one I’ve shared as an instructor at writer’s classes and workshops. And now, I’ll share it with you, too.

The Key To a Compelling Story: Write a Killer Lead

To write a killer lead means means the four W’s and an H will probably not be there. Not in the lead.


Take a sip of your coffee. It’s gonna be OK.

A killer lead is not about shoveling out information as much as it is about conveying a mood, setting a scene, making the reader feel as if they’re right there with you.

A prime example of this, my friends, is in the lead you just read in this very blog.

Go ahead. Scroll back up. Read it again. I’ll wait.

Did you see what I did there?

  1. First, I brought you into my world, my experience. Were you or were you not sitting at the desk with me as the evil computer screen taunted me?
  2. Secondly, I elicited an emotion. I felt frustration, and I bet you did, too. Eliciting an emotion from your reader not only creates empathy, but it also makes your story memorable. Put some emotion in there and they’ll not only read your story, they’ll care about it.
  3. Third, I added a color and one of the five senses. I gave you color in the white screen. I gave you physical sensation in the cracked lips. If your reader sees your story in his mind’s eye, or feels it in her body, you’ve got ‘em, no matter what the story is about.

To prove my point, here are a few examples of leads from articles I’ve written on less than sexy subjects.

From an Article about GPS Tracking Systems

It’s the middle of the night and the cellphone on your bedside table lights up like a Christmas tree.

The GPS system you’ve recently installed to track your fleet of trucks has just sent you a text message: One of your service vehicles is moving out of the company yard, and it’s 3 a.m.

You hop out of bed, log onto your computer and confirm that, yup, you have a truck on the move.

You call the police and give them turn-by-turn directions to locate your vehicle. The boys in blue pull the truck over at a busy intersection and apprehend the thief.

You’ve just recovered a heavy duty Ford pickup truck, trailer, and $30,000 worth of landscape equipment. And it all happened because your GPS system knows you don’t cut grass in the dark.

From an Article on a Charitable Organization that Helps Heal Wounded Warriors through Golf

Aaron Boyle lines up on the first tee of the American Lake Veterans Golf Course, just south of Tacoma, Washington.

As he takes position to begin his golf round, his father, Ed, balances a ball on top of a tee. Boyle swings and the ball arches into the air, lands in the middle of the fairway. On any other golf course, this simple act would be inconsequential. But Boyle lost an arm and a leg while serving in the U.S. Military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, a specially designed golf cart allows him to balance his body upright, grip it and rip it. It’s all at once heartbreaking yet incredibly inspiring to watch. It’s a miracle. One of many miracles performed here daily at this place where wounded warriors come to play golf, and through the game, to be healed, to be with others who’ve been there and understand, to be made whole again.

From an Article about Using Salt Instead of Chemicals as a Weed Killer

It’s a warm spring day in Central Florida. A group of young men suited up for football practice are sprawled out on the bright green turf of the football field. But they’re not resting after their workout. They’re picking something up off the turf and putting it in their mouths.

What is it?

It’s the rock salt the maintenance crew has spread onto the field to kill weeds and the kids are eating it.

The Killer Lead

Now, be honest, didn’t you want to read the rest of those stories?

Weren’t you just the least bit curious to see how the issues were resolved? How you could donate to the wounded warrior cause? If the kids would die from salt poisoning?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I sit here triumphant because the killer lead works. It is possible to make an ordinary subject intriguing—and isn’t that the point of writing, to intrigue the reader enough to pull him through the story, paragraph by paragraph?

What do you think, can you write a killer lead?

Can you set a scene, make me feel an emotion, draw me a picture with color, or make me feel your story using one or more of the five senses?

Of course, not every piece needs all of these techniques nor lends itself to this kind of writing. Stock reports and merger information probably need to be straightforward.

But, should you have the opportunity to get a little creative, I encourage you to do so.

Flex those writing muscles that may be a little cramped from disuse.

Your heart and soul, your readership, and your clients, will thank you.

About Stacie Zinn Roberts

Stacie Zinn Roberts is the author of the new book: How to Live Your Passion & Fulfill Your Dreams. She also hosts the online show, Live Your Passion TV. Stacie is a motivational speaker, award-winning journalist and marketing consultant through her company, What’s Your Avocado?

  • Mission accomplished! This has my mental wheels turning for intros to Toastmaster speeches as well (but cracked lips?!). 🙂

  • I love, love, love this. I spent a lot of time thinking about (and practicing writing) good leads when I was a journalist. Actually, we call them “ledes” in the newspaper world, but same diff. You get all the W and H stuff in the paragraph after the lede, which in journalism is called the “nut graf.”
    Why they shorten “paragraph” to “graf” in journalism is a whole ‘nother story … 

    Anyway, excellent blog!!

  • tnfletch

    Excellent post! Engaging the reader from the beginning is so important, but so few in business do it well. Any tips on writing good leads with limited space like on social media outlets? If I have to read “check out our….” one more time on Facebook or Twitter I’m going to lose my mind.

  • KateNolan

    Eleanor Pierce Get the lead out of your lede. You journalists are funny creatures. 🙂

  • KateNolan

    You’re hired! Oh, wait, you mean, you expect us to do that now?!
    I love that these are three quick and concise tips for writing leads.

  • Genene Murphy

    You know what’s making me cranky? Not seeing these posts as often as I like. I love that I can come here (while avoiding putting my kids to bed) and know I can find good things worth my time. Thank you.

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    GeneneMurphy What a nice thing to say. Thank you! SpinSucks WhatsYourAvocad

  • njenga

    @WhatsYourAvocad Great delivery! Engaging, Educational and Entertaining… I experience a lot of “give me back my 2 minutes” after reading many UGC articles online. Not yours! I feel like I should be paying for your stuff. Good work! Thank you!

  • Eleanor Pierce People always make fun of me when I write “lede”. TV PRODUCTION HAS RUINED ME!!!!

  • Nice tips, anytime you can make your readers viscerally FEEL what you’re writing, you win. 🙂

  • Great tips and examples! The same question as the one tnfletch asked came to my mind regarding limited space. Usually I have about one or two sentences to connect with the customer in a trade mag or marketing piece because technical and sales folks want to make sure all the product detail is included. I just finished an editorial for a trade mag this morning (before reading your post, ack!), but I feel inspired to try a bit more storytelling in the next project. Thank you!

  • KateNolan Eleanor Pierce And really, the spelling is the LEAST of the weirdness when we’re talking about journalists …

  • KateNolan

    Eleanor Pierce KateNolan This is true! Though, I have to admit, it took me a couple of re-reads to not read ‘lead’ as ‘led’. Must be my mother’s journalistic genes rubbing off because I didn’t last past junior high on the newspaper!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    richwoodruff SpinSucks My best answer is because teenagers will eat anything!

  • richwoodruff

    WhatsYourAvocad SpinSucks especially chemical weed killer

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    biggreenpen So glad I got your wheels turning! Happy writing!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    belllindsay Eleanor Pierce It’s so funny you say that about “lede”. I contemplated that spelling but thought most readers wouldn’t understand it. I think I even went back to my AP Style Guide, just in case. I went with “lead” because it would be most easily understood. But I feel your pain!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    KateNolan Eleanor Pierce Ah, so you would have preferred “lede” as well. Very interesting. I almost did that!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    Eleanor Pierce Thank you Eleanor. How funny that the “lede” spelling came up. I thought I was the only persnickety one who would use it but I didn’t want to alienate readers. Interesting how a spelling choice can cause such discussion. A good surprise!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    tnfletch I agree, it’s even harder with social media. We also see all of the sensationalization of writing on social media in order to garner attention. I think if you can tell a quick story and use active language, you’re on your way. Maybe why a reader might care about a post would be a good place to start, what it means to them?

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    KateNolan Thank you! Blushing …

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    njenga Oh my goodness, that’s the nicest thing I’ve heard all day! Wow! I teach from time to time, plan to do a bit more. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    belllindsay I agree, the emotion is key!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    Word Ninja tnfletch I’ve had really good luck with trade magazines using this technique. The trick is to find a customer who solved a problem using your client’s product or service. If you can fit in his story quickly at the top, then the more technical stuff that comes after can serve to illustrate further this customer’s experience. You can even pull quotes from the customer that confirms that technical information. This way, you can cram in all the technical goop but since it relates to a real world challenger, it suddenly becomes interesting. Does that help?

  • tnfletch

    WhatsYourAvocad tnfletch Good suggestions!

  • Excellent advise! My best pieces are always ones where I can set the scene and hook the reader before delving into even the most boring trade article.

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    Jen Novotny Telling a story helps you, as the writer, to have fun while still spreading the client’s message. No one wants to write boring copy, and no one wants to read it either. It’s a win-win. 🙂

  • gian_filice

    Hello Stacie, 
    Great post! Being a teenage social good entrepreneur, I’ve worked to try to utilize my blog to my advantage. One of my biggest set backs is  not being able to write a “killer lead” in order to produce the right response that cause interest. This was super helpful. Thanks again!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    gian_filice I’m so glad it helped you. I bet you could create some compelling pieces using some of the teenager’s personal stories, (if their parents would allow it.) Good luck to you!!!

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    RE:  Terrific article. Well written and very compelling. Thanks…. John Marshall – Results Driven.

    Thanks, John! So glad you found it useful. Stacie

  • Terrific. Toni Lopopolo

  • WhatsYourAvocad

    puppygirl79 Thank you, Toni! Means a lot coming from you!!!