Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Content Writing Strategies: The Tramezzino Approach And the Inverted Pyramid - How To Create Effective Article Openings

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When you're writing a web content your strategy should be to tell immediately to your readers what it is so special about your post that they should stop doing other things and put all of their attention on reading it. More often than not though online publishers start their articles by attacking the topic from very far away.

Photo credit: Lorojoro

As a content writing strategy, some use the "anecdotal lead", which begins the story with an eye-catching tale rather than the central facts. Others place an intro which instead of bringing the core topic in greater visibility, consciously delays the revealing of the article key content to "set up" the reader for whatever is awaiting her.

But while this may be a writing approach that works in the print medium, on the web, the situation is very much different.

In this situation, your reader has not sit down with your print magazine, having made a definite choice to spend time browsing it, but is still evaluating whether what you have written fulfills her specific information needs at this time... and you have a few seconds to facilitate that decision.

This is why it is of the essence for an effective web publisher to present clearly the core value of any article right in its opening sentence.

To explain this editorial approach to my junior staff in the newsroom team I often use the metaphor of the "tramezzino" (Italian style sandwich), which is a popular triangularly shaped light sandwich that is available in Italian snack bars.


Content Writing Strategies:The Sandwich Approach Overview

Photo credit: Newspapers in Education

Newspaper in education

The sandwich approach is nothing else but my own personalized way of introducing inside my editorial publishing policies a concept that is very well known inside traditional journalism circles: the inverted pyramid.

In journalism, "the inverted pyramid" is a metaphor that is used to illustrate how information should be organized, structured and arranged within a text to be published.

The "tramezzino" idea came from the familiarity many Italians have with this tasty snack and for the fact that good tramezzini can be told from bad ones by what's "inside". Furtermore the Italian tramezzino, just like the "pyramid" is essentially a triangle-shaped object which lends itself very well to explaining to someone who hasn't familiar with it, this writing approach strategy.

"The triangle's broad base at the top of the figure represents the most substantial, interesting, and important information the writer wants to convey. The triangle's orientation is meant to illustrate that this kind of material should head the article, while the tapered lower portion illustrates that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance."
(Source: Wikipedia)

So, when I have a new editor, to whom I need to explain the tramezzino-sandwich approach, I tell her something like this:

Think, that you just came into the office, and you knew I and the other people here had been working here for many hours and were very hungry for food. Suppose you coincidentally had a bag full of fresh tramezzini would you say to us: "Hi guys, if eventually you get bored of working and you may want to consider having a lunch break, I could suggest something that may be of interest to you.."? Would you?

To make me and the other newsroom guys immediately happy your best sentence to us would be something like:

"I've got six tramezzini just fresh from the bar, three with tuna and tomato and three with ham and cheese. Anyone wants some?"

The least vague you are and the more rapidly you get to tell them what you have got the greater our appreciation and attention to what you have to say. Or not?

The formula is simple: Say outright what's inside your tramezzino without wasting too much time getting to it.

Why It Is Better to Say It All At The Beginning

1) Online Scanning

On the web people do not read articles like in print. Most of the times when readers land on a web page with an article, they can only see the "above the fold" part of it and with that limited info in front of them, in a matter of few seconds they then take a decision about whether to stay there or to move on to scan other information.

2) Increasing RSS Content Consumption

RSS content distribution is increasing everywhere and more and more people are using an RSS newsreader / aggregator to access all of their favorite news sources from one location. When you start scanning the news coming in through RSS feeds, most people glance at each news title and sometimes at the short article excerpt / intro that immediately follows.

3) Limited Content Consumption Time

Online readers spend less and less time on most sites while investing significantly greater amounts of time on the few pages that really interest them. Decisions about whether to stay on a web page or site are often taken in a very short time and having the key information of an article presented right away facilitates the reader in taking this decision not just on intuition but by providing her immediately with the most valuable part of the content you will be serving him. The sandwich approach is "time efficient" for the simple reason that readers can gather the key information about whatever article or report topic just by reading a few sentences. It is left as an option for them to go further into the article to get more details.

4) Users Don't Scroll

"On the Web, the inverted pyramid becomes even more important since we know from several user studies that users don't scroll,(*) so they will very frequently be left to read only the top part of an article."
(Source: Jakob Nielsen - Useit)

5) Communication Efficient

Assuming that readers are going through your content article in a traditional, linear, from-the-beginning-to-end fashion the sandwich approach allows your readers to quit reading at any point and still come away with the essence of your story. It further allows people to enter a topic up to the point where their curiosity takes them, and without the imposition of details or nuances that they would consider irrelevant.

How To

Poynter's Chip Scanlan's essay on the Inverted Pyramid includes this frequently cited example:

"This evening at about 9:30 p.m. at Ford's Theatre, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harris and Major Rathburn, was shot by an assassin, who suddenly entered the box and approached behind the President.

The assassin then leaped upon the stage, brandishing a large dagger or knife, and made his escape in the rear of the theatre.

The pistol ball entered the back of the President's head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal.

The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.

About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. Seward's apartment and under pretense of having a prescription was shown to the Secretary's sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed and inflicted two or three stabs on the chest and two on the face. It is hoped the wounds may not be mortal. My apprehension is that they will prove fatal.

The nurse alarmed Mr. Frederick Seward, who was in an adjoining room, and he hastened to the door of his father's room, when he met the assassin, who inflicted upon him one or more dangerous wounds. The recovery of Frederick Seward is doubtful.

It is not probable that the President will live through the night.

General Grant and his wife were advertised to be at the theatre..."

- New York Herald, April 15, 1865

As you can see the journalistic 5Ws, 'Who,' 'when', 'where', 'what' and 'how' get addressed right in the first paragraph. As the article progresses less important details are presented.

For this news story, getting the key points up in the opening of the article is not such a difficult task, but in other situations identifying what really counts may prove to be a lot more challenging for writers that have a more limited experience.

If you glance over my suggestions on "How to create your own content templates" you will see that I follow always a content structure that is very much like the "inverted pyramid" approach.

I suggest to give your readers the key info contained in your posts right at the beginning as to capture their interest without being unnecessarily redundant or trying to lure the reader in by long and mysterious intros.

Like when in company of one those people that want to ask you something but do not have the courage to do that directly, bad article intros start approaching their key matter from very far and take a long time to get there.

Great friends as well great content share the commonality of not holding back information to please you or lure you somewhere you wouldn't have gone. They both tell you what's inside the sandwich right away. Tuna and tomatoes! Ham and cheese! That's all you need to know if you are hungry.

Do the same with your readers by always telling them right away what is the precious stuff you are going to tell them inside each article you write.

More Resources

Originally written by for Master New Media and first published on August 20th 2008 as "Content Writing Strategies: The Tramezzino Approach And the Inverted Pyramid - How To Create Effective Article Openings"

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posted by Robin Good on Wednesday, August 20 2008, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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