After King Kong was machinegunned off the top of the Empire State Building by a swarm of biplanes, the movie’s filmmaker/explorer, Carl Denham, stood over Kong’s carcass and sonorously proclaimed, “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
That’s nonsense, of course. It was very much the airplanes, and, if not them, it was the explorer who kidnapped Kong from Skull Island to make a fast buck exhibiting him to the swells on Broadway.
Nevertheless, the lines neatly wrap up the film’s plot (ape meets girl; ape loses girl; ape finds girl; girl gets ape killed) and sends everyone home satisfied: “Yes, Edgar. It was that scantily clad girl you spent the whole movie ogling who killed Kong. That’s what blondes do, Edgar. They kill you.”
And that’s what people want from their fictions: tidy endings that tie the plot threads together in a pretty bow.
Thought leadership articles are different. As they are fact-based, there shouldn’t be any dangling threads that the ending (or close, or, in journalistic parlance, the kicker) needs to tie up – not if the article has done its job. In a well-constructed article, all sentences and paragraphs are wedded to the argument – the problem and the solution – and by the time the article concludes, the reader only wants to know one thing: What should I do about this tomorrow?
In our outlines, we call that “The Call to Action.” The call-to-action needn’t have the elegance of Denham’s closing peroration (although stylishness, if one can pull it off, is never a bad thing), but it does need to stress the utility of the article. That is, the close should urge the reader to do something with the information the article has provided.
One way to do that is to return to your article’s central metaphor, if you have one. For example, we helped write an article on the importance to financial institutions of having well-written, clear compliance policies ready when the regulators come knocking. We compared it metaphorically to having the proper number of life jackets aboard your boat when the Coast Guard stops you for a routine inspection. It’s the first thing they look for. If you have fewer life jackets than passengers, that gives the impression that you’re a careless sailor, and the Coast Guard will turn your boat upside down, looking for what else you’ve messed up. If you have the right number, the inspection becomes less rigorous. So, the close of this article read:
Having well-thought out policies and procedures is the equivalent of having the correct number of life jackets on board your boat. That helps avoid making a negative first impression. If you invest the time to make sure your institution is shipshape, your exams will be less onerous, and you will most certainly be better able to navigate whatever squalls arise on your journey.
Now, this is not literature; the metaphor is a bit ham-fisted and over-extended. But you get the idea. And the reader receives his or her marching orders: Get those policies and procedures written – and written well – to avoid arousing the suspicions of your regulators.
In our hierarchy of must-haves in thought leadership content, the close is the least important. In a strong article, the call to action should be implicit in everything that’s come before. (One editor at Harvard Business Review regularly red pencils the kickers we write, telling us we don’t need them. We try to take that as a compliment.) Frequently, authors use the close to summarize what they’ve already said, and that risks boring and frustrating the reader. So, before you torture yourself over your close, ask yourself if you really need one. You don’t want someone finishing your article to say, Oh, no, it wasn’t the ideas that killed the piece. It was the close.