The shape of storytelling in an attention-starved world

Using the inverted-pyramid style of storytelling, with your most important news or message at the top of the article and less-important information further down, is often the most effective way to reach your audience. This applies all across the University of Minnesota but rings especially true for stories with a marketing or PR message.  

For a person who loves to begin stories with an anecdote or by setting a scene, it was slightly uncomfortable to make that first paragraph so straightforward, so relatively boring. But it’s true. In these times of information overload and endless social media feeds, you often don’t have the luxury of verbosity when trying to reach prospective students and other University audiences.

Research suggests that some 80 percent of readers don’t consume an entire story. Rather, they scan headlines and maybe read the descriptive blurb or the first paragraph. If that’s the case, it’s best to impart your takeaway information at the top.

There are exceptions, of course. If you’re writing a long profile for an alumni publication—either in print or online—then an entertaining, wordy lead may intrigue your inherently loyal readers. But in other scenarios, readers may leave your words unnoticed.

The inverted pyramid, as most of you know, is a staple of newspaper writing and Lesson 1 in college news writing classes. You put the “Who, What, When, Where, Why” at the top—all in the first paragraph for extra credit—and the supporting information (project/research results, quotes, etc.)  beneath that. If the reader stops short of reading the entire piece, you’ve still imparted the key information.

Here’s a good recent example from the School of Public Health:

“In a mass exodus accelerated by the pandemic, nearly half of all employees in state and local governmental public health agencies across the U.S. left their jobs between 2017 and 2021. A new study finds that if this rate of employee departures continues, more than half of the nation’s entire public health workforce could leave their organizations by 2025.”

In just that one paragraph, we’ve learned all we need to know to be … well, alarmed.

Here’s the beginning of another story:

“The late-afternoon sunlight streams through the southern windows of Carly Camden’s office in Jensen Hall. The neatly stacked bookshelves that frame her desk are a stark contrast to the piles of paper and folders that cover it. A tea-stained mug bears a message that seems a metaphor for her latest research project: ‘Go big or go home.’”

There may be a great payoff to that fictional intro, but we may have checked out and gone home.

And remember, using the inverted-pyramid style doesn’t mean that the pointy end of the pyramid can’t carry some weight. Think of ending your story with a great quote that summarizes the gravity of the research or the power of an educational experience for a student.

Just don’t “bury the lead.” It’s the treasure you want readers to discover early.