Start Out Spicy: Use Feature Ledes to Combat Boring

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog urging nonprofits to stop writing boring content. I offered some tips on the kind of news values journalists (and your readers) look for to decide if something is worth their time.

Do you readers care that you held a meeting? Not unless someone famous attended. 

Do they want to hear about a grant you gave someone else? Only if you tell them how they benefit personally.

I’ve been thinking more about how spicy, vital causes like yours go with the bland, safe option when they write. Should we blame legal? Tempting. How about the curse of multiple editors? That certainly doesn’t help.

But I think for every finger we point at others, we have to examine the four pointing back at ourselves. Sometimes we feel we have just too much to do to write a creative story about our work. 

Slay the summary lede

So we default to starting our stories with the basic who, what, where and when. In journalism, that’s called a summary lede and it’s the cold oatmeal of storytelling. You’ll get your fiber, but it lacks the zip your work deserves. 

It looks something like this:

Abeja fundraising expert Terri Shoemaker offered nonprofits critical tips about how to prepare a successful year-end donor campaign Tuesday in Phoenix.

But how about trying something different next time? Terri’s tips certainly deserve way better than that snoozer of a lede.

Here in Nigeria, I’ve been teaching some of the nonprofits all the colorful ways that they can start their stories. And I’ve received some outstanding examples of ledes that I think you can emulate in your own work:

1. Scenesetter: This lede quickly describes the scene where the news takes places. The writer carefully chooses details to make a focused point. 

Fatima held her gnarled fingers close to her kind, weathered face. The election official in white, surgical gloves snapped her photo and began tapping on the keyboard.

This was how the election official would identify Fatima as a person disabled by leprosy in lieu of the usual fingerprint. But for Fatima, this momentary indignity was worth it. She was now registered to vote.

2. Surprise: This lede draws the reader in with a provocative and compelling fact. 

Tayo is a trained accountant from Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan city. He should be crunching numbers and climbing the corporate ladder at an international bank in Lagos.

Instead, Tayo calls the remote state of Sokoto home and his work is improving the health and well-being of vulnerable women and children.

3. Contrast: Here the reader compares two things to show change over time, different worlds or distinct viewpoints. 

Some people say that rape only happens to women who wear revealing clothing. But tell that to Aisha. She wears the full Islamic veil from head and toe, and she is also a survivor of rape.

4. Anecdotal: This lede tells a short story to hook the reader. The key is not providing so much detail that the lede gets too long. 

Imam Muazu, a respected religious leader, used to promote his community’s practice of early marriage. He was even preparing to marry off his teenage daughters. But when he became involved in our project, he changed his mind.

He now preaches about the virtues of educating girls and urges peers to follow his lead. And to match words with action, Muazu indefinitely postponed his daughters’ weddings – at least until they complete their schooling.

What do you think? Did these Nigerian nonprofits nail it? Don’t you want to read MORE?

Putting feature ledes to work

Good lede writing has implications beyond your donor appeals and blogs. 

For example, I get asked all the time how to make social media work harder for nonprofits. That’s a bit like asking for the Cliff’s Notes to How to Succeed in Brain Surgery.

But the number one rule in any type of writing, from white papers to Tweets, is to be interesting. Be spicy. And you absolutely have to do this in social media or you’re going to lose your audience to cat videos – and waste your advertising budget in the process. 

Don’t serve your readers cold oatmeal stories. Wake up their taste buds with a hot lede that makes them hungry to read more about your amazing work. 

What’s your favorite spicy lede? Share it in the comments below. 

Laura Ingalls Fuqua is co-founder of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising marketing firm in Phoenix, Arizona. A recovering journalist, Laura has worked over 20 years as a professional communicator in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.