SMU 102 - Session 7: The Inverted Pyramid
Purpose/Aim of this session
The Inverted Pyramid style, also known as 'front-loading', involves placing the key benefit or point you want to make about a product or service in the first paragraph of your copy. In effect, it introduces the most important details you will develop over the course of a brand message. This technique is particularly important for online audiences, who have low attention spans. Online readers often scan rather than read.
It's an effective writing approach for people who are new to copywriting. It's a format that allows writers to structure their copy to ensure that all of the key elements are included. It also aides in placing the right information in the right place at the right moment in terms of producing copy.
Online copywriters use this technique for two important reasons: Firstly, so readers quickly decide whether or not to read the entire brand message and, if they do decide to pass on it, that they get all the key details. And secondly, having the most compelling - and the best - information at the start of a piece of copy.
Learning Aims for this session:
- You will analyze and explore how to organize your brand message to grab readers’ attention, keeping their attention and leaving a lasting and favourable impression
- You will analyze and explore copywriting structures that can increase online reader satisfaction
- You will develop approaches to copywriting that will help online readers understand information more easily
Learning Outcomes for this session:
At the end of this session, you will be able to:
- Demonstrate an ability to explain how the inverted pyramid supports the writing of clear and concise copy
- Explain the ways in which the inverted pyramid supports Sugarman's concept of the slippery slope in copywriting
- Evaluate and apply traditional branded storytelling concepts and approaches to the inverted pyramid writing strategy for online audiences
- Apply theory to practice by developing and producing reader-focused copy
How this Session Works:
- Read through the Overview that accompanies this session. This provides an overall context for the session
- Work your way through the items on the Preparatory section that accompanies this session
- Listen to the Lecture that accompanies this session
- Work your way through the branding scenarios in the "Scenario" tab. Scenarios are practical activities to develop your critical thinking and apply your knowledge to a specific component of copywriting
- Work your way through the template in the "Template" tab. The template will support you as you take the first steps in developing your own brand messaging copy
- You can browse through some carefully selected material in the "Reading Room" tab. These materials will build upon your knowledge of copywriting
SMU 102 Session 7 Study Activities
- Preparatory Activities
- Reading Room
The Inverted Pyramid reverses our copywriting workflow by putting the essential information first. We then follow with further supporting details. This writing strategy helps the reader get to the point - and purpose - of our brand messages instantly. It’s a writing method that lets any reader make a quick judgment about whether to read on for a bit more detail.
As you're probably beginning to realize, this style of writing is critically important for digital / online copy.
The inverted pyramid approach to writing gets the message across as quickly as possible. To do that, we say as little as possible, and put the most useful and relevant content first. It may seem like an unusual approach to writing. The truth is, we see it every day. It's the writing format used in journalism.
It’s a writing approach that enables us to speak plainly and openly - and use a tone of voice that's appropriate to the audience.
After the headline, it is the second most important element in making our slippery slide slippery, especially for online audiences.
Put more important content first (front-loading)
When a page is longer than the screen it’s displayed on, putting important content first gets it above 'the fold' – the point at which the remainder of the text and content is hidden from view. Headlines, the first line of text and email subject lines are always above the line.
All content ‘below the fold’ is what is not shown on the screen. You’ve seen this before when you’ve seen ‘read more’ links after a paragraph or two of text online. Keeping websites, blogs, etc in mind, below the line content is the content you have to scroll down in order to see and read and/or engage with.
The inverted pyramid approach to writing aids scanning. When we scan text online, we take in titles, headings, subheadings, the beginnings of paragraphs and first words of sentences.
It helps a reader decide quickly whether they’re in the right place...and whether or not what they are being invited to read is relevant to them.
Short and succinct
The inverted pyramid forces copywriters to remove any paragraphs, sentences and words that don’t directly help get your point across.
It encourages us to always find ways to say something in fewer words.
Front-loading applies to how information is organised and presented in our paragraphs and sentences. When using the inverted pyramid, we start paragraphs with the most relevant words, to work like a header to the paragraph.
Use headlines and headings
A strong, attractive headline at the top of a page can make the difference between the page being read or ignored. Keep in mind all that you have learned about strong, emotive words. Headlines and subheadings benefit from being displayed in a larger font and high-contrast, so they attract the eye. Once you’ve attracted the eye, a headline and subheadlines need hooks to catch your reader’s attention.
Use headings within a document to make it easy to scan the document’s meaning. Good journalistic headings read like a bullet-point summary of the document’s contents, so a reader can scan down the page, get a quick idea of what’s on the page, and decide whether to read in more detail.
Consider the user’s goals
When describing something they can do, describe it in those terms. The imperative voice (commanding) is attention-grabbing and helpful, so it should go at the front of a phrase. "Get blah here”", "Subscribe to blah", "Place order", "Quit that bad habit" (Remember, the user should be in control, and likes to feel in control)
Be factual, not cryptic
Your tone of voice should be immediately appropriate to the audience, and their relationship with the website, blog, etc they are engaging with.
Don’t be cryptic. Don’t assume you have your audience’s undivided attention. You probably don’t. You really have to work to grab someone’s attention online.
Start in the tone of voice you mean to use. You don’t have the time to expect your users to work out what you mean – tell them quickly, before they go.
Remember you’re operating in an environment of low trust. You only have a short opportunity to get your message across. Imagine you’re stopping people on the street. Don’t oversell, set out the facts plainly and clearly. Be enthusiastic, but not pushy.
Use Active voice
English grammar uses two ‘voices': active and passive.
Active voice is when something does something (actively). Passive voice is when something is done to something. e.g. "The user clicks the 'About Us' link" is Active, whereas "The 'About Us' link is clicked by the user" is Passive.
Active good, Passive bad. This is because passive voice uses slightly more words than Active, and takes slightly more decoding.
- It takes less mental decoding: it’s more linear, it feels simpler
- It's front-loading: "This is telling me about something I can do"
- It’s more specific: "It's telling me *I* can do something"
- It keeps the verb/object order "upload new contact information" (like a good hyperlink!)
- It's slightly shorter, and big isn't clever
- Read the following article about the inverted pyramid style of writing. It' an excellent introductory guide to the overall process:
Brech, J. 2014. Inverted Pyramid Style, Web Wise Wording.
- This second article builds upon the points introduced by Brech. The article below covers the Pros and Cons of the inverted pyramid writing style:
Scanlan, C. 2003. Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid, Poynter.
- Marketer Tihomir adapted the traditional inverted pyramid used by journalists for copywriting. His diagram is below (click the image for a larger version). A link to Tihomir's explanation about his diagram is beneath the diagram.
The Architecture of Digital Copywriting: How to use the Inverted Pyramid in journalism and structure your online content: http://writenomore.com/tag/digital-copywriting/
- The diagram below has been created to visually represent the relationship Brand Personality Traits, the 7 Story Elements, the 6 Levels of Meaning and copywriting - emphasizing the (very) confined space digital copywriting operates within. It synthesizes our brand messaging and copywriting knowledge gained from SMU101 An Intro to Branding with the first four sessions of this unit.
At the start of the Digital Copywriting unit, we mentioned there are some similarities between copywriting and journalism. When it comes to producing copy for digital and online platforms, the convergence between journalism and brand messaging becomes quite apparent.
The inverted pyramid is a handy approach to those who are new to brand storytelling. It helps focus inexperienced writers on structuring brand copy. It also lends itself to more concise, specific and focused copy - which means more effective copy.
It gives you a clear starting point, mid-way point and end point. This format allows you to know what kind of information needs to go where within your copy for online audiences.
This writing approach has been used to great effect in journalism for nearly two centuries. So it has stood the test of time. While news stories tend to be 'cold' and rather emotionless, the challenge for copywriters is taking this approach and adding emotion to it. Just remember the power words, emotional triggers and all of the other key story telling elements we've covered so thoroughly.
The video lecture for this session has a journalism focus and covers the topics of leads (or headlines / openings, in other words). Transfer and apply what you've learned about copywriting to the information contained within the video. Compare what's discussed to the new digital copywriting diagram that is in the Preparation section of this lecture. Map the key points raised and the specific aspects of copy to the diagram.
We've prepared a diagram to accompany this session, which you will find below. The diagram maps how the inverted pyramid works within Digital Copywriting's confined space.
We suggest downloading it and having it to hand as you watch the lecture video.Read More
The scenarios below illustrate various copy writing fails. Reflect on why and how each fails. And apply this understanding to your own copywriting.
Work your way through the scenarios given in the document below, reflecting on the thinking points that accompanies each. You will apply this thinking to the template activity that accompanies this scenario.Read More
Use the template below to guide you through using the inverted pyramid writing strategy for your online brand messages. The questions below are provided to prompt you to reflect on the brand message you have been developing throughout this unit.
Use the copy you produced for the Template 6 activity to answer the following questions given in the template.Read More
The Reading Room for this session provides carefully selected resources for you to further explore copywriting concepts, elements, issues and practice.
Brasso, J., Hines, R. and FitzGerald, S.D. 2014. PR Writer's Toolbox: Blueprints for Success, Chapter 6. Electronic Media Writing, Kendall Hunt Publishing. http://www.kendallhunt.com/uploadedFiles/Kendall_Hunt/Content/Higher_Education/Uploads/Basso_Hines_2e_Ch6_100813.pdf
Gharibi, S, Danesh, Dr S.Y.S., and Shahrodi, Dr. K. 2012. Explain the Effectiveness of Advertising Using the AIDA Model, Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business, Vol 4, No 2, June 2012, pp. 926 - 940. http://journal-archieves19.webs.com/926-940.pdf
Mill, D. Content is King: Copywriting and Editing Online, Chapter 1: Copywriting for online
versus offline, Butterworth Heinemann. https://booksite.elsevier.com/samplechapters/9780750663175/9780750640985.PDF
Stanford University, Purple Path Behavior Guide, version 0.50. Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab.