‘How do I even start this thing?’
Guidance for when your boss asks you to write
By David Hugh Smith
It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday evening. Instead of cheering your daughter at her basketball game, or kicking back with pizza and a favorite episode of Seinfeld, you’re at the office.
Your boss asked you to write a piece that will be read by important people at your organization. She mentioned for the hundredth time you said you were an excellent writer on your job application. And with an enthusiastic “Go! Get it done!” she turned the project over to you.
Since 2 p.m. you’ve made little progress. The problem: How to begin. How to write a great lead-off paragraph so your readers decide the report is worth reading and you keep your job. You mumble to yourself, even as the night crew empties trash from desks nearby, “If only I knew what to say first . . . “
Indeed, people sometimes find when they’ve written their “lead” that the rest of a piece of writing marches behind in orderly fashion. That’s because a great lead can establish straight off what you are going to say. So then you just need to follow your own lead.
(Of course if you are struggling to figure out how to begin a piece of writing, it’s important just to go ahead and start writing. Get down everything you need to say in the way you need to say it and often, when you’ve done that, you are ready to write your lead.)
So, for purposes of offering help to professionals who need to write — and that includes virtually all of us — I offer ideas for ways to begin: a report, a memo, an important letter, a release to the public, an update on social media, a video blast, a newsletter article.
1. The straightforward announcement lead. There is nothing wrong with blurting out the essence of what you need to say. People won’t wonder for even a moment what you are trying to communicate. That said, you must keep in mind how your organization wants news to be presented — and inevitably, they want a positive spin.
Here are ideas for making this easier:
Think about what you might tell a co-worker you’ve had to run to catch up to in the hallway — he’s on his way home from work — to provide important news. And you’re out of breath.
You’re probably going to tell him very directly what’s happened. “Amazon bought our company. The head of their acquisitions department is asking everyone to bring ideas for synergy to work tomorrow.”
For generations, journalism-school students have been told to make sure readers know straight off the who, what, when, where, and how. And that’s a good to remember. Because if you are out of breath — or your readers have short attention spans — you’re not giving your audience enough of the story for it to be meaningful if you don’t remember the four Ws and one H.
Another guideline: use active verbs. Construct your straightforward lead sentences so that the subject of the sentence is doing the action. In fact, as much as is possible, do this for your entire piece of writing. The reason is that active verbs are much more energizing, much less likely to cause a yawn.
Here’s an example: “HR transformed their policies this week and now allows workers to bring pets to work.” That’s more vigorous than “Workers will now be able to bring their dogs and cats to work according to an HR policy change made this week.
Active verbs or not, you want to make sure your words are clear, especially in your lead. You want your readers to immediately understand what you are trying to tell them. If you have time to do this, read what you’ve written the next day to see if it still makes sense to you. And, ideally, show what you’ve written to one or more trusted associates.
One idea for composing leads is to gather elements you need to write about and then assemble your lead. Choose the most important facts; you can save the others for later paragraphs.
Let’s say for Widget Manufacturing Co. you need to send a company-wide email update. And you have the following facts: “Spring sales campaign success.” “Cafeteria.” “Brownies.” “Next two Fridays.” “2 to 3 p.m.” “Marketing director Hal Glutton.” “Glutton talks about ‘our company’s home team.’” “Widget sales up by 35 percent during campaign period.” “Janet Johnson top salesperson, in Los Angeles.” “Sold $200,000 in widgets.” “Chicago top sales district.” “Chicago sales up by 57 percent.” “Company will initiate another sales campaign during winter season.”
Ideally, your lead paragraph will be one or two sentences.
“Sales grew by 35 percent during the spring marketing campaign. Expressing appreciation for ‘our company’s home team,’ sales director Hal Glutton announced Widget will celebrate these next two Fridays by providing milk and brownies in the cafeteria.”
So you gave them the most important facts. If your readers were to just look at the first paragraph they’d get most of what they need to know. Then, in your second, third, and beyond paragraphs, you can go into details.
“Chicago surpassed other sales districts by scoring a 57 percent rise in sales. But it was Janet Johnson, Los Angeles, who sold the most widgets, with $200,000 in sales.
“Mr. Glutton said he is initiating plans for another sales campaign to take place during winter season.
“In the meantime, employees are “encouraged join Janet and me,” and visit the cafeteria from 2 to 3 p.m. for two successive ‘Brownie Fridays,’ beginning this week — and select among five types of brownies prepared by The Goodies Company.
“This will be an excellent time to share ideas about what works for stepping on the sales accelerator,” Glutton said.
2. The story lead.
People love stories. They put a human face on a topic that otherwise could be a boring.
True, starting with a story delays sharing key organizational news. But if a story makes it more likely people will read what you write, and if it makes a deeper impression on them and more likely they react in the way your organization needs them to react, a story could be the way to go.
So let’s look again at Widget Manufacturing. You could start your company-wide email update in this way — especially if results for a sales campaign already are widely known:
“Two years ago Janet Johnson was stuck in an unrewarding sales career. She sold guitar picks for a company providing supplies to music schools.
“‘My worst day was when I called over 30 schools and I wasn’t able to talk to even one person in a guitar department.’
“By contrast, Janet said last week that during the Spring Sales Extravaganza at Widget Manufacturing she got through to purchasing departments an amazing 40 percent of her calls. And half of these she turned into sales.
“Janet was part of what Sales Director Hal Glutton has called, ‘Our most successful marketing campaign.’ Sales were up by 35 percent during the campaign.
“Janet will visit company headquarters these next couple “Brownie Fridays,” Mr. Glutton said. “I know everyone will be enjoying goodies and asking her for tips for stepping on the sales accelerator.”
This series on communicating effectively will continue in the next issue of the Post, when Dave shares more tips for starting a piece of writing.
David Hugh Smith is president of Right Writers, a Brookline, Mass., communications company. He’s also editor of PDC publications. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.