The anecdotal lead begins a piece with a little vignette or story, or a character doing something. Essentially it begins with a person. Business writers who found their subject matter boring invented the anecdotal lead to hook readers. First, you tell the anecdote, then what the piece is about, and follow with the rest of the text.
Readers begin a piece by predicting its subject. If their prediction comes true, they keep reading. But if they find material other than what they predicted, they feel confused, and drop out.
Anecdotal leads predict that the story will be about the person featured at the top. Let’s try an example:
Carole Blizzo stands in line at her local Commonwealth Bank for 45 minutes, finally reaching Harold Peterson, the man she knows as her “relationship banker.” She’s unemployed and four months behind on her adjustable mortgage, and desperate to find a way to keep her home. Peterson smiles, until he learns what she wants, and then he says, “You should have thought of that before,” over and over.
The Obama administration’s Mortgage Relief Program was supposed to help nine million Americans like Carole, but ….
Readers will predict the story’s about Carole, and they want to know what happens to her. But the story never mentions Carole again; she’s just the hook. Readers resent this kind of “bait-and-switch” tactic, and that resentment means they might skip a story they need to read.
On the other hand, Carole might serve as the spine of the story, weaving in and out of the data and analysis. Then the anecdotal lead is functional and unifies the piece, helping the readers’ understanding by providing someone they can identify with.
Besides confusing readers, they can also turn into “a writing job.” If you consider your subject matter boring and think you need a tricky lead to get anybody to read it, you’re likely to overwrite that lead. Anecdotal leads are so much more fun to write than business or government or swine-flu gibberish. If you consider your subject dull, maybe you need a new subject.
Anecdotal leads tempt copy editors to write anecdotal headlines on top of them. The headline is supposed to tell readers what the story is about. If the lead and the headline don’t tip the readers off, they get hit twice with confusing signals.
Can you make anecdotal leads effective? Sure, pick an anecdote that directly concerns the subject, put an informative headline on it, keep it short and simple, and continue the character in it throughout.
Better, don’t write anecdotal leads. Start with a solid headline, write a short lead that tells the reader what the piece is about, and follow with a brief, relevant anecdote that introduces a character readers want to know about.
Tell stories, rather than trying to fake out your readers.
[Yes, I know you love anecdotal leads. How do you make them effective?]