Writing tip: Captivate readers with an interesting lead

Wells Fargo Orange County President Ben Alvarado presents a new car to a Cal State Fullerton student who won a contest. Here’s how I covered the story. Photos by Tim Worden.

Traditionally, creative leads are shunned from hard news stories. Those are for features, we think.

Absolutely not. Creative leads can be used in news stories. A lead is the first sentence or two in a story, around 30 words. The inverted pyramid style of journalism has become outdated with the Internet and 24-hour Cable news. We are barraged with news, so a writer needs a way to set his story away from the pack.

This is a realization that just came to me Wednesday in my Magazine Writing college class. My professor has challenged us all semester and I have learned more about journalism and writing from that class than from all my other journalism classes I’ve taken combined (okay, with the exception of the newspaper writing class last semester).

The traditional news lead is: Who, what, when, where, why and how. Blah blah bla. Those are “basic hack,” as my professor calls them, creating a lead that is “boring bull shit.”

My professor’s advice for leads is make them:

1. Clever
2. Creative
3. Cute
4. Have conflict
5. Compelling
6. Subtle

Bam! Our goal as writers is to get our reader to read the article. It is our responsibility to lure in the reader with something he or she can relate to or enjoy.

I used this strategy in an article I wrote for The Daily Titan, my college newspaper that I am a copy editor on. The article was about a student who won a new car and $6,300 in gift cards from Wells Fargo. In addition, Wells Fargo gave the school $5,000 in scholarships. They were given in a photo-op ceremony at a concert at the school’s amphitheater.

1. The “basic hack” writer would say:

“Wells Fargo gave one lucky freshman a new car and $6,300 in road trip spending money, as well as $5,000 in scholarships to Cal State Fullerton, for winning a national sweepstakes Wednesday at the weekly Becker Concert.”

Obviously, a reporter would have a better lead than that, but fundamentally the lead would not veer too far from that. (The nut graph, which explains the context of what happened, would add that the student won by being selected by opening up a checking account with the bank, and saying what kind of car it was.)

2. Wanting to skip the “basic hack” lead, I went with this:

“Wednesday’s Becker Amphitheater noon concert, to the tune of Los Angeles-based rock band State to State, had 80 people listening in, but one fashionably late concert-goer was a bit unusual. Rolling in at twenty past noon: A black 2012 Ford Fiesta.”

It’s a scene-setter. It starts boring. But it builds momentum: Tune>;Los Angeles-based>;rock band>;fashionably late>;concert-goer>;unsual>;rolling.

Then, protracted with a colon, the punchline: A black 2012 Ford Fiesta. It’s unexpected.

I’m not saying my lead was perfect or amazing, but I do think it is a good lead, and I can say that without any reservations since I accomplished my goal of making a “hard news article” into a “hard news story.” The difference is that this is a story about a girl who won a car plus $6,300 in gift cards as spending money, from Wells Fargo. After the lead, my story has a nut graph that explains what the car is there for and how the student won.

I also use a “River City transition,” a transition that is like a magic trick: It diverts the reader’s attention so they do not realize they are being tricked by the scene changing. It’s in red:

“Wednesday’s Becker Amphitheater noon concert, to the tune of Los Angeles-based rock band State to State, had 80 people listening in, but one fashionably late concert-goer was a bit unusual. Rolling in at twenty past noon: A black 2012 Ford Fiesta.

“The car was the grand prize for a national Wells Fargo student contest won by Cal State Fullerton student Tasia Moore. Moore, 18, an art major, also received $6,300 in gift cards as her prize.”

The transition makes the lead and the nut graph flow seamlessly. The reader did not even know that he was being transported from a rock concert at the Becker Amphitheater to something that resembles a press release that says a student won a car and gift cards from a bank contest.

The River City transition is something feature writer Jon Franklin perfected, which he writes about in Writing For Story, something every journalist should read.

Conclusion: Strive for creativity!

____________________________________

Here’s the full article, by Tim Worden and Chris Konte, in Thursday’s Daily Titan:

Presenting the prizes awarded from Wells Fargo’s swepstakes.

Wednesday’s Becker Amphitheater noon concert, to the tune of Los Angeles-based rock band State to State, had 80 people listening in, but one fashionably late concert-goer was a bit unusual. Rolling in at twenty past noon: A black 2012 Ford Fiesta.

The car was the grand prize for a national Wells Fargo student contest won by Cal State Fullerton student Tasia Moore. Moore, 18, an art major, also received $6,300 in gift cards as her prize.

Wells Fargo Orange County President Ben Alvarado, who runs the bank’s Orange County region, presented Moore the $6,300 oversized check at the Becker Amphitheater stage. He then pointed out her car, which came in behind the audience next to the Clayes Performing Arts Building.

“Today happens to be my birthday, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday than to give a car away,” said Alvarado. “Tasia decided to start a financial journey with us, and we’re pretty sure she’s glad she did that, because she’s the winner of our sweepstakes.”

Students had the opportunity to join the contest, which ran from April 16 to Sept. 30, by opening a student checking account at Wells Fargo or by entering online without creating a checking account on Wells Fargo’s website.

“I opened a college (checking) account, and then they automatically entered me in, and then I got a call saying I won, and I didn’t quite know I was a part of the contest. It was a big surprise,” said Moore.

The 2012 Ford Fiesta has a starting price of $14,100, according to Ford’s website.

Moore, a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority at CSUF, said she will go on a road trip with her roommate or friends, but does not know where she will go.

“Maybe San Francisco. Not somewhere too far, I like to stay relatively close,” Moore said.

But her first use of the car was going to work Wednesday night at Victoria’s Secret in Orange.

While Moore won the contest, she will not be the only CSUF student who benefits.

As part of the prize, Wells Fargo gave CSUF’s Associated Students Inc. a $5,000 gift to be used for student scholarships, Alvarado said.

ASI Vice President Katie Ayala said the $5,000 will be split into five $1,000 ASI student scholarships available for the spring 2013 semester.

“Now what we need to do is decide the name of the scholarship and some of the writing questions… We don’t know any specifics yet,” said Ayala.

These five scholarships will join about 23 scholarships ASI offers students each semester. The scholarships have requirements, such as that the applicant have a 2.5 GPA and be enrolled as a full-time student, Ayala said.

“We’re really excited that we were able to get this from Wells Fargo, they’re a great partner corporation and we’re grateful that we have more money to give to students,” said ASI President Dwayne Mason, Jr.

Nationally, Wells Fargo has a large philanthropic presence. In 2011, according to Wells Fargo’s website, the company invested $213.5 million in 19,000 nonprofits nationwide, its fourth year surpassing $200 million.

Nearly $68 million of this was given to 8,000 educational programs and schools around the U.S., as well as $18.3 million in matched education donations.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper that covers the nonprofit world, Wells Fargo ranked fourth among companies in philanthropically giving the most cash in 2011.

“We’re constantly doing scholarships and we’re one of the largest non-profit givers in the country, so we’re always doing things locally… We’re constantly contributing to the community through different programs,” Alvarado said.

Alvardo, who started at Wells Fargo as a teller and has been with the company for nearly 22 years, said the company invests in college students so they can be more financially literate.

“This is a time in your life when you are learning about credit… You’re learning how to prepare your finances so that you can go off and do the things you want to do from a financial perspective and put your education to work,” Alvarado said.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Writing tip: Captivate readers with an interesting lead

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s