When you pick up a newspaper or browse online, what is the first thing that grabs you? Probably a headline or image. As a writer, you could craft the most elegant prose ever - but most people have short attention spans, and they are inundated with communications vying for their precious time. Why should they read what you write?
Journalism has the answer. Journalism is cut-throat and competitive. Journalists compete with each other to convince editors that what they have to say is important enough to merit publication.
Journalism is about selling in the same way as content marketing. Whether you’re selling an idea, a service or Dyson spares, learning how journalists grab readers’ attention helps you succeed in getting your foot in the door.
1.What do you want to say?
Journalists have to open with something big. Known as the hook or the news angle, the journalistic opener has to provide information that is “new” and thus worth reporting.
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Even in longer “thought pieces” or feature-style articles, the journalist has a topical reason for writing – such as a ransomware attack on the NHS, a Royal wedding, legislation that everyone needs to prepare for, such as the General Data Protection Regulation.
In content marketing, it could be a new take on something people already know, a new way of seeing something or doing something, or revealing your way of doing business for the first time. It needs to be an idea that makes the reader stop and think they need to read on.
2. What is the benefit?
What is the takeaway for the reader? Journalists always ask themselves how they want the reader to benefit - what will they find out about? New research about dementia? A new drug for cancer? A new financial product that will get you rich quick?
How will what you write improve your readers’ lives? What is it that you can impart that no one else can? Where is the value? If there is no reader benefit, then don’t waste your time on the article - readers won’t.
3. Organise your arguments
When you know what you want your piece to achieve, work out all the possible arguments for the case you want to present - then make them.
On the basis that you don’t want to lose your reader along the way, it’s a good idea to put your hardest-hitting arguments first so they think: “Wow – that’s a great point. Is the rest of the article that good? Must keep reading…”
4.Think of a headline
Which of the following headlines grabs your attention: A significant new vector for online infection isolated on server in South Dakota? Or Major malware outbreak threatens to wreak havoc in global financial markets?
It’s the second one. (It had better be the second one.) ‘Major’ and ‘global’ lend the story a sense of scale and relevance outside the one specific location. ‘Havoc’ presents a problem and a threat. ‘Malware’ is a single word term that people recognise; ‘vector for online infection’ is a garbled mouthful of euphemism.
Make it clear, make it relevant, make it matter, and make it short.
5. Write a “read-on” intro
All journalists know the power of a strong intro.
The intro - the short first paragraph of one or two sentences - should be hard-hitting to make the reader want to read on.
Don’t write too many words. Make a single powerful point that obviously goes somewhere. The intro to this piece warns you that you need to hook your reader immediately. That’s an incentive to find out how you hook readers and keep them reading.
6. Avoid repetition - except for emphasis
Don’t repeat yourself. Stop if you’ve run out of things to say. There’s nothing worse than someone who drones on and on…and on…and on...
Sometimes, however, it can be effective to rephrase your most important point as your conclusion – to ram home your central message. Sometimes a key word or phrase at the start and end of a paragraph stops readers getting lost and taking away the wrong message. Don’t repeat yourself - unless you need to.
7. Don’t be shy
Readers read your work because they want to learn from what you have to say - so stick your head above the parapet and give your opinions. If you present yourself as an expert, readers will want your expertise.
I once wrote an article for a technical audience about the pros and cons of genetically modified tomatoes. All I knew about tomatoes was that they’re great in salad. I researched and made myself an expert. Once I could write with confidence, people wanted to know what I had to say - because they believed it implicitly.
8. Get your timing right
Journalists know that news is only news for a limited time. They know their article has a lifespan for achieving the maximum impact. What’s the point of phoning to vote for your favourite The X-Factor contestant once the lines have closed?
The cliché “strike while the iron’s hot” is relevant here. If your piece isn’t current, it won’t get read.
9. Know who you’re writing for
Knowledge of your audience is vital. Imagine the editor of The Daily Telegraph writing “Jeremy Corbyn is the best political leader that ever lived and he would make a fantastic Prime Minister”. He’d lose readers in their droves and his job, to boot.
Ask yourself what motivates your readers, why they need you, what they need to know. Promoting a new steakhouse to a readership of vegans isn’t smart.
10. Recycle and develop
Successful journalists, especially freelance ones, are recycling fanatics. They give previous articles they’ve written new angles, new facts, aim them at different audiences in a different tone of voice to suit.
They identify subjects in the public discourse - Making Tax Digital, smoking in outdoor public places, longer sentences for animal cruelty, MPs expenses - and reinvent the wheel every time they write.
Think of how you can reinvent the wheel. Think of how many different ways you can express something – perhaps serialising an ebook as part of a marketing campaign to achieve a specific goal.
B2B content can be as cheap as chips - but think with a journalist’s mind-set and you will be on your way to spinning words into gold.
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