The late Nora Ephron is mostly known for the movies she wrote and directed such as You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. However, earlier in her career, Ephron was a successful reporter and journalist. She continued to write highly popular columns and essays throughout her life.
Ephron attributed a lesson she learned on one of her first days in journalism school as a guiding light for her writing career. The lesson was about determining the core point, getting to it quickly, and expressing it in a compelling way.
It’s a lesson that is important for marketers and content developers, as well as journalists. As related in the book, Made to Stick, here’s how Ephron learned the lesson in her freshman journalism class.
The Writing Assignment
The teacher handed out an assignment in which students had to write the lead of a newspaper story. The teacher told them the facts, “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologists Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California Governor Edmund Brown.”
According to Ephron, they all knew the 5Ws formula (Who, What, Where, When and Why), so she and the rest of the class dutifully typed out leads that essentially reordered the facts and condensed them into a single sentence. “Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Meade… will address the faculty, etc.”
The teacher collected the leads the students wrote. After scanning the leads, he put them all aside. After a dramatic pause, the teacher announced, “The lead to the story is: ‘There will be no school next Thursday.’”
Ephron recalls that it was a “breathtaking moment.” In an instant, she realized that writing a story lead is “not just about regurgitating facts—but about figuring out the main point.” You have to convey what it all means and why it matters. Why readers should be interested in the story.
Ephron said that, for every assignment for the rest of the year, the students had to figure out the main point of a bunch of facts to write a good story lead.
It was an extremely effective lesson. Rather than deliver a didactic lecture, the teacher created an impactful demonstration showing them how they had all missed the point of the story and why they needed to determine the core message and communicate it quickly.
The Heart of the Matter
Figuring out what makes facts, figures, and details meaningful to an audience cuts to the core of a story. And there is one question that can help you determine that core message. The question is: “So what?”
In looking over the elements of an article or presentation, you have multiple facts and details. After reading over all the facts, you should ask, “So what?” What does this really mean to your audience and why does it matter? This is all the more important today with blog posts, articles, and marketing messages everywhere, all clamoring to be read or viewed. You not only have to stand out and attract attention, but you also have to give your audience a compelling reason to continue to read or listen to your message.
Marketers often make the mistake of talking around the core message or waiting too long to get to it (“burying the lead”). Or they get so wrapped up in their product or service that they forget to ask the question that everyone reading or viewing their message is asking themselves within the first few seconds: “So what?”
Steve Ballmer of Microsoft is well-known for his impatience with “the long-and winding road” of most presentations. Ballmer notes that both he and Bill Gates used to like the presentation tactic where you take the audience through your path of discovery and exploration, and arrive at a conclusion. He says he no longer feels it’s productive or efficient. And he’s too impatient, anyway.
Barbara Minto, author of The Minto Pyramid Principle, offers a different tactic where you start off with a single point and everything is organized under it. The content of your presentation leads with the answer, then all the points under it are used as validation. The reader doesn’t have to wait to discover the main point.
The get-to-the-point-right-away strategy makes sense, but it can be taken too far. Using the power of curiosity and building up to a moment of discovery is still an effective tactic. You just have to do it faster today.
When you have a clear sense of the core message, and subject all details right from the beginning of your content to the “so what?” test, you help ensure you get to the point quickly and effectively.
The students in Nora Ephron’s class got lost in the details of the story. They figured that by putting the details in a logical order they will have communicated the story. But they missed why the story mattered to the audience.
So in your next communication, whether it be an article, blog post, video or presentation, give everything the “So what?” test.