Dip Into History to Write More Powerful Leads

One of the toughest jobs in direct marketing is getting your target audience to read what you have written. After all, if your sales letter, direct-mail package, e-mail or Web page isn't read, it fails totally. No readers, no results.

That's why writing an effective lead is so crucial. The lead – those all-important first few paragraphs – will either hook the reader or produce a yawn.

Michael Masterson discusses proven lead-writing techniques in Section 23 of the basic course. You can, for example, draw attention to a problem, make a bold promise, ask a provocative question, or quote a startling fact or statistic.

There's another technique – one that's surprisingly underused – that I'd like to talk about today. 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 an 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, the history lead isn't always the best choice. But it can work well for an astonishing variety of direct-response campaigns.

Recently, I wrote some sales copy featuring the J.F.J 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 J.F.J. 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. But it seemed a bit stale, even for a technical market. 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 Harbour. 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 have seen into the future, they would have been astonished by the size and power of the J.F.J. de Nul."

Better? I'll let you be the judge.

Here's another lead I wrote 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 their delinquent 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 direct-response ads to sales letters to e-mail, 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.

[Ed. Note: Steve Slaunwhite is a freelance professional copywriter specializing in B2B direct marketing. He can be reached at www.steveslaunwhite.com.]

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Published: March 10, 2004

3 Responses to “Dip Into History to Write More Powerful Leads”

  1. I like the history lead. It makes for a more interesting opening. To me it piques curiosity and makes the reader want to learn more without resorting to crass self interest or (as you show here) dry, colorless facts. It dovetails nicely with my preferred approach to marketing as a "client education" process. Thanks for the great article, Steve.

    Paul Ramirez

    Paul RamirezJuly 7, 2010 at 10:51 pm

  2. This was my take on using that principle. I used history firt then pulled it into current topic;

    "An investing strategy, first used in 1693, that has triumphed through every war, depression and financial meltdown that could be thrown at it for the last 233 years” And every penny was, and still is backed by the U.S Government…

    Dear Fellow investor, As it comes to a conclusion, regardless of your political views about the war in Iraq we have learnt one thing. All wars are horrendously expensive in terms of both lives and money.

    Jamie SylvianJanuary 15, 2012 at 8:36 pm

  3. Steve's tip about starting a copywriting letter with a related historical lead is flat out wonderful. Not only are the historical lead examples fun to read, but they make me want to find some of my own. Plus, they make the take-away point easy to grasp.

    Guest (Ann Slaughter)October 1, 2014 at 2:58 pm


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