Ad and marketing creatives

Dip Into History to Write Winning Leads

One of the toughest jobs in marketing and PR communications is getting your target audience to read what you have written. After all, if your press release, brochure, web page, sales letter or newsletter article isn't read, it fails totally.

No readers. No results.

That's why crafting an effective lead is so crucial. The lead -- those all-important first few sentences -- will either hook the reader or produce a yawn.

There are several lead-writing techniques. Some writers prefer the hard-news style of Who, What, When, Where and Why. (The classic 5 Ws.) Others open with a provocative question, a fascinating fact or statistic, or a familiar problem or issue.

But there is another technique that is very powerful, yet surprisingly underused. I call it: the history lead.

I originally learned this approach while studying the work of renowned copywriter Pat Farley. Writing a sales letter to promote Sotheby's Auction House, she created a fascinating parallel between attending the auction and the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. Here is her lead:

When archaeologist Howard Carter first opened King Tut's tomb in Egypt, he knocked only a small hole in the barrier and then peered through.

Leaning over his shoulder was Lord Carnovan, his sponsor. After a while, Carnovan asked impatiently, "What do you see?"

Another pause. Then Carter answered in a hushed voice, "I see things. Wonderful things."

Every year tens of thousands of "wonderful things" pass through the doors of Sotheby's...

Isn't that an irresistible opening? Doesn't it make you want to read on?

Of course, a history lead isn't always the best choice. But it can work well for an astonishing variety of communications.

Here is a lead I wrote for a product success story featuring the JFJ de Nul dredger. (Note: A dredger is a ship that clears the sea bottom to make way for larger vessels.) Originally I tried the standard just-the-facts approach:

Constructed at the IHC shipyards in the Netherlands in 2002, the JFJ de Nul is the most advanced self-propelled cutter suction dredger ever built. Her 6,000kW cutter drive -- 30% more powerful than those currently in use -- is capable of dredging from a depth of -6.5m to -35m.

Not bad. The opening clearly conveys the facts. But I thought it was a bit stale, even for a technical audience. So I decided to dip into history to make the lead more enticing. Here is the result:

When Caesar conquered Egypt in 48 B.C., he used dredgers to clear the way for his ships into the Alexandria Harbor. No one knows for sure what these dredgers looked like or how they worked. We can speculate, however, that if the Roman engineers who built them could see into the future, they would be astonished by the size and power of the JFJ de Nul.

Better? I'll let you be the judge.

Here's another example; the lead for a sales letter promoting a debt collection service.

Dear Entrepreneur,

In ancient Greece, business owners would attempt to collect on overdue accounts by throwing stones at the customers. This forced a customer to choose between a daily bruising and paying up.

Today, things are more civilized. But debt collection is no less frustrating. Collection agencies tend to be overly aggressive, destroying relationships. Lawyers are expensive, and many won't touch accounts less than $10,000.

Where suitable, I've used the history lead in everything from press releases and presentations to ads and sales letters, and it has almost always improved readership. So the next time you come across an interesting historical tidbit, keep it in your back pocket. You never know when you'll need it to write a better lead.

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Steve Slaunwhite is a marketing consultant, award-winning copywriter, and author of The Everything Guide to Writing Copy. He works with professionals who need better results from their websites, e-mails, sales letters, ads, and other marketing communications. He is also the editor of His professional home on the Web is Click here to read more articles by Steve Slaunwhite.