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.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 20th 2007, 8:10 AM
Comment by: Paula Z.
As an archeologist turned Web entrepreneur,I have also discovered the power of history's little stories to generate not only compelling leads, but also irresistible content.
Monday August 20th 2007, 9:02 AM
Comment by: WordyGerty's girl
Excellent hook, eager to see book...I see useful for volunteers--who may not be writers--who aid hospice residents to prompt/compose memoirs, their own histories! Wish I'd had this decades past both for copywriting and ESL tutoring option.
Monday August 20th 2007, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Liz C.
What a great idea! Thank you for that- I am tasked with writing some leads for the company website and the 5W approach seems stale.
Wednesday August 22nd 2007, 11:33 AM
Comment by: David F.
I have used CURRENT "history" in writing copy to great success. Example, in this radio ad I wrote for an insurance agent:
"Number of patients admitted to emergency rooms across the USA yesterday: Approximately 23,000. Number of people who woke up yesterday expecting to end up in a hospital's emergency room: Zero." This ad touched on the vulnerability of being human, of making mistakes, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time....a facet of the human condition just as applicable today as it has been through history.
Friday August 24th 2007, 1:14 PM
Comment by: Jeremiah K.
I love the idea. Finding the "right" historical hook would be the greatest challenge, but well worth the search.
Monday October 8th 2007, 12:50 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I love this idea. As an English teacher who is challenged every day on how to "sell" my lesson to the class, this could be a tool in my tool belt. But from a curriculum perspective, I also see great potential to encourage reading and research across the curriculum for our persuasive essays.

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