The one thing all good customer stories have in common is contrast.
Contrast between where the customer was and where the customer is - and you can capitalize on that shared trait by following a simple formula for writing introductions to your customer stories.
In the process, you’ll save time, and write better introductions. But before taking the formula and plugging and chugging, you should know how it works.
Where the Formula Comes from: The Contrast Lead
The idea of leading a story with contrast isn’t new - it’s a technique for introducing a story that you learn in any basic journalism class. And it’s called a contrast lead.
The contrast lead compares two opposites. For example, a contrast lead might compare poverty and wealth, stress and relaxation, or the new with the old.
3 Examples of Contrast Leads
Here’s an example of a contrast lead from the University of Pennsylvania (emphasis mine):
"Ten years ago, Mark Zuckerberg was a college sophomore sleeping through his college days while staying up all night coding his little known website, "Facemash." Today, Zuckerberg is worth $46 billion dollars, that website, now called Facebook, is one of the most popular social media sites in the world."
Notice the parts that are bolded in the first three lines versus the second two lines? That’s the contrast. This introduction contrasts past with present, lack of money with absurd wealth, and anonymity with worldwide popularity.
Here’s another example from Writing With Cheryl (emphasis mine):
"School teachers went on strike this fall for the third time in eight years, but the city’s 62,000 public school pupils were told to report to class."
Here again, we’ve got contrast, except instead of contrasting the college-student version of Mark Zuckerberg with the billionaire version, the contrast is between school teachers on strike and pupils going to school.
Here’s one more example that’s a bit more relevant to customer stories:
"Even at the age of 12, Robert Key spent most of his days locked in his bedroom hunkered over intricate drawings of imaginary buildings.
Today, 40 years later, he’s still hunkered over those drawings. Only now, he’s in the corner office on the top floor of a Midtown high-rise. And those drawings are now buildings etched into the skyline of every Manhattan sunset."
I’m sure you could guess what parts I’d bold to identify the contrast, right?
“Age of 12”, “imaginary buildings”, and “in his bedroom” contrast with “40 years later”, “buildings etched into the skyline”, and “corner office”, respectively.
Why Contrast Leads Work: The Information Gap Theory of Curiosity
By now, you can see how this works - but why does it work?
It comes down to what George Lowenstein called “the information gap theory of curiosity.”
Here’s the gist:
When you’re reading and two facts are presented that contrast with each other, an information gap is created and that makes you curious. You as the reader feel compelled to fill in the gap, and the way you do that is by continuing to read.
It’s a technique that copywriters have used since the heyday of Madison Avenue - here’s a headline that taps into the information gap theory of curiosity:
This is the most bare-bones version of the formula you can get:
Just [time period] ago, [customer name] was [describe the problem/challenge they were having before your product].
Today, [customer name] is [describe customer’s current state].
Fill in the blanks and you’ve got (at the very least) a serviceable introduction to your customer story.
A Few Reminders
Before you use this, a few reminders.
First, don’t describe your product when you’re describing the customer’s initial challenge. This is about the customer, not you… yet.
Second, make the contrast as striking as possible. The more contrast there is between your customers' former and current state, the larger the information gap - and the more curious your reader becomes.
This is where details become very important, because details are what create the contrast.
Think back to the Zuckerberg lead. Did the writer have to include the bit about Zuckerberg being a college sophomore sleeping through his college days?
Probably not, but those details put the image of college in our mind - we think of instant ramen and dingy dorm rooms and that stands in stark contrast to the billionaire presented in the next few lines.
Make it Your Own
Finally, don’t feel beholden to the formula. Build on it. Take parts out. Add parts in.
Just make sure that you’re serving the story.