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Stop press! Why every PR and marketer needs to learn news writing and the inverted triangle

Posted by Tim Richardson on 29th May 2024

Writing’s easy…if you know what you want to say. And that’s the problem. Figuring out what you want to say can sometimes be a struggle — even for those involved in creating B2B content.

At the heart of any great creative work, there’s an inherent conflict between presenting the facts, figures, and data required to market to a B2B audience and the creative ideas used as the conduit to sell it.

It goes without saying that you need to know why you’re writing and who your audience is. In other words, you need a content strategy.

But you also need to know what you’re trying to say, and how you’re going to say it. And it’s here that B2B PRs, marketers, and comms people can learn a thing or two from journalists.

Straight out of the newsroom

One of the principal techniques used by journalists to produce their stories is called news writing. It’s a technique drummed into the subconsciousness of every cub reporter that’s ever set foot inside a newsroom. Why?

In essence, news writing is about grabbing the reader’s attention and saying everything you want to say upfront in the first sentence or two. It is about distilling what you want to say in 20 or 30 words.

Some people describe it as putting the conclusion at the beginning of the story. Or putting the most important information first. But I think that’s too simplistic.

News writing is more than that. It’s about clarity. It’s about brevity. But it’s also about untangling a story — whatever that story might be — and putting information into a logical order. Sorting out what’s important. And what’s not.

It’s often depicted in terms of an inverted triangle or pyramid separated by a series of horizontal lines to represent paragraphs (pars).

Why an inverted triangle? That’s because the most important information is contained in the opening paragraphs. And as you make your way through the story, the information — although all relevant — becomes less and less important. In other words, it’s a hierarchical way of writing where the information decreases in importance throughout the story.

The inverted triangle is invaluable for all content producers

The beauty of this approach is that even if people only read the first paragraph or two, they should — if it has been written in a true news writing style — ‘get’ the story.

Clearly, the more they read, the more they will learn. But if they don’t, no matter. Because they will have ‘got’ it — the story, the message, whatever it is you want to say — from the opening paragraph.

While this approach to writing is a must-have for the newsroom, it’s a technique that any writer worth their salt needs under their belt — regardless of whether they work in PR, marketing, sales, or comms. 

Above all, if you employ news writing principles in your writing — be it marcoms, blogs, editorial or thought leadership — it means you’re thinking about the most important people in the world. Your readers.

Putting readers first

After all, just because you spent two weeks and a hefty budget putting together a glossy brochure for a new product launch, it doesn’t guarantee that a single word will be read.

As a writer, you have to do everything you can to attract and engage your readership.

That’s why you have to earn the right to be read. That’s why the news writing technique is so important — whether as the structure for a finished piece…or just to help you create a framework for a brief.

Don’t just take my word for it. Nielsen — the go-to leader of internet-related research that has a deep understanding of how content is consumed online — has been an advocate of news writing for decades.

As far back as 1996, Jakob Nielsen — co-founder of the eponymous research firm — was trumpeting the conclusion-first writing style in an article about Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace.

In 2018, Nielsen published a short guide to news writing that contained a brief ‘how to’ guide to write in the inverted pyramid style.

Unsurprisingly, its justification for this approach was based on years of research into people’s reading habits online.

“The inverted pyramid is perfectly suited for the web — on any screen size. We know that users don’t read carefully online. They have little patience for content that doesn’t engage them. Users scroll, but only when they think that the content they want or need will appear on that page. The inverted pyramid style addresses all of these aspects of user behaviour.”

The snag is, Nielsen stops short of explaining how to do it. We’re going to go one step further and put that right in a future blog, so keep your eyes peeled.

Tim Richardson