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What Nora Ephron Can Teach Content Marketers About Getting to the Point

by Leon Altman  |  
June 7, 2013

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.

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Leon Altman is the founder of Sticky Content Marketing, a writing and content marketing service. Previously he was a copy supervisor at major advertising agencies.

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  • by Hunter Boyle Fri Jun 7, 2013 via blog

    Great piece, Leon. I couldn't agree more with the "So what?" idea. I often think of this from a similar angle: the reader/audience perspective of "WIIFM" - what's in it for me?

    Back in my journalism days, one of my favorite editors advised us to finish writing, then go back and delete the first 2-3 paragraphs (aka the "heavy breathing"). That always made for a stronger lede, and I've passed on his sage advice many times - and still use it myself!

    The colorful Ephron story really drives home your point. Thanks for sharing!

    Cheers - Hunter

  • by Leon Altman Fri Jun 7, 2013 via blog

    Thanks Hunter,

    Appreciate your comments. Love aka the "the heavy breathing."

  • by Mike Kirner Fri Jun 7, 2013 via blog

    Great article and oh so very true.

    I like the "So What?" test and even seasoned pros like myself have to be reminded about how critical this point is when selling, promoting or writing about a service or product.

    It reminded my of a marketing gig I had some years ago with a group of class action suit attorneys. Educated and brimming with confidence, these attorneys were ever so enamoured of telling the world about the myriad of tedious and ponderous details of what it takes to file a claim. I often told them: " No one cares about the details except you."

    Mike Kirner
    Technology Marketing & Social Media Director

  • by Lisa Niver Rajn Sun Jun 9, 2013 via blog

    Leon, I really learned so much from MADE TO STICK. Thank you for reminding about its important messages. I agree with you that: "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." I would also recommend Jonah Berger's Contagious as a follow up as he was a graduate student under Chip Heath.

    Have you written more about Sticky Content? Thanks for this article!
    We Said Go Travel

  • by Leon Altman Mon Jun 10, 2013 via blog

    Thank Lisa,
    Yes I have written more about sticky content. I've written an entire manifesto based on its principles. And my content creation and marketing services I offer incorporate the principles of sticky content. After all, as the word about the importance of content gets out there, more content is pumped out and that means more gets lost in the crowd. So it's more important than ever to create content that sticks. btw: you can find my Manifesto at

    Jonah Berger's book is great and I've been incorporating his findings into the sticky content philosophy. I have a slideshow coming out this week that brings together Made to Stick and Jonah Berger's principles. Will let you know when it's out.

  • by Leon Altman Mon Jun 10, 2013 via blog

    As a technology marketing pro, you no doubt encounter lots of instances where people are enamored with their product and get lost in the details. The "So What?" test is a good antidote in those cases.

  • by Dr. Jessie Voigts Mon Jun 10, 2013 via blog

    Leon, I LOVE this. I have so many bloggers I am mentoring, and they all (WE all!) need this advice. I'll be passing it along, especially to my class of teen travel bloggers.

    The mistake that I see bloggers make, over and over again, is thinking that the world cares about THEM. I want a story, not to read a diary. Thanks for this incredibly useful article. Get ready for viral content because I'm going to share the heck out of it!

  • by Mike Kirner Mon Jun 10, 2013 via blog


    You are quite right about that. Getting to the heart of what precisely makes your product or service different and why the consumer should care is key. It's often astounding how many marketers actually do not know that. Your "sticky content" essay ties in with that and is a good read.

    Mike Kirner
    Technology Marketing & Social Media Director

  • by Leon Altman Mon Jun 10, 2013 via blog

    Dr. Jessie Voigts,

    Much thanks. The bloggers you mentor are in good hands!

  • by Tami Demayo Mon Jun 10, 2013 via blog

    Thanks for the professional nudge, Leon (which I, too, will pass on to my colleagues). I hope I can do the same for you someday.

  • by WebElf Mon Jun 10, 2013 via blog

    I agree! I see a lot of people get an audience, and then mindlessly drone on about their credentials instead of grabbing attention ! Get to the point, make it interesting and do it quickly.

  • by Whitney Vosburgh Wed Jun 12, 2013 via blog

    The art of creative editing... of getting to the point of interest quickly, effectively and vividly is where it is at... short, succinct and sexy.

  • by Leon Altman Wed Jun 12, 2013 via blog

    Thanks Tami,

    I like your phrase "professional nudge." Maybe that's the best thing
    consulting, coaching or articles can do.

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