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Webster's dictionary defines a hook as a device especially in music or writing that catches the attention. It is often a device used to get people interested in the subject or to read more. Today some of the best radio personalities use hooks before a commercial break. They will "tease" the listening audience with something they think the audience wants to hear about just so the listener won't change the station. TV series do the same thing by leaving the hero at a climatic cliff hanger knowing that viewers won't want to miss the outcome. Books will give hooks on their cover synopsis and magazines may have a short sentence or paragraph introducing the topic.
What is a successful hook
The key to a successful hook is fairly simple; give the audience just enough information to spark their curiosity, but not so much that they already know everything. A good hook will not lie to the audience, but it may not tell the whole story. In fact, leaving out key pieces of the story is often an effective way to get people interested; many TV news programs will omit key facts knowing that will entice others to listen. The other day, one of our local TV stations aired the hook, "Find out where a thirteen year old girl fought off a sexual molester." The hook works, particularly if you are the parent of a teenage girl. Suddenly rather than turning the channel, you will wait to find out if the molester was arrested or if the location is where your child goes to school. If the news station had said, "A 13-year-old girl, in Denver CO at Colorado BLVD and I-25 fought off a sexual molester who was later caught", not as many people would listen. By including too much information the only people who might care are those people who live at Colorado and I-25.
Or how about a weather report? When announcing the upcoming weather, stations do not say, "It's going to be over a hundred every day until Wednesday when it'll rain, stay tuned for more." They are going to say, "The weather is hot, find out how hot it's going to be and whether or not there will be a break in our future."
How about TV series? Survivor and other reality based TV series are particularly good at using hooks. They'll show an edited piece of footage showing two contestants fighting and make some statement about them dissenting or coming to blows. They might announce that somebody got hurt, but not tell you who, how, or how badly. Think about it; a few years ago, a contestant on Survivor was bitten by a shark. The shark bite was hyped all week, but the victim was not revealed. Nor was it revealed that the shark was fairly small or that its victim was not severely hurt, but by keeping those pieces of information a secret, people watched that episode with morbid fascination. If the preview had shown the shark bite, would anybody have cared? No.
The "So-What" factor
In my profession we talk about the "So-What" factor. The So-What factor is why does it matter? You make an observation, find a process improvement, identify an error, the question becomes "So What?" Why does it matter. Earlier today there was a hook that read, "Did you know that there is a leaky dam in Sri Lanka?" A cynical person might be more surprised if they learned that there wasn't a leaky dam in Sri Lanka! But really, why does it matter? How many leaky dams are there in the world? Is the leaky dam in danger of breaking? Threatening people? Have people tried to get it fixed? Why is this important? Why should it matter? Why should anybody care? Without raising one of these questions, the hook becomes meaningless.
So what does this have to do with DYK?
Over the past few months I've noticed that DYK hooks are boring. They have completely lost their flair. People who review DYK don't know what a hook is supposed to do let alone how to write one.
Today, DYK hooks are just there. When writing a hook give the reader enough information that it catches their attention, but not so much that they realize it isn't something they might be interested in. For example, I once proposed a DYK:
- ... that despite never looking at his cards during the 2007 World Series of Poker, Hal Lubarsky outlasted 6,300 other players?
- ... that despite being unable to see his cards Hal Lubarsky made it to the money at the 2007 World Series of Poker?
The hooks worked because people would wonder how somebody who never looked at their cards could survive that long. Both invited the reader to learn more, why couldn't he see his cards? What prevented him from looking at his cards. I ended up going with:
- ... that Hal Lubarsky outlasted 6300 other players at the World Series of Poker despite playing blind?
This was after, "... that Hal Lubarsky was the first blind poker player to ever make it to the cash in a World Series of Poker Event?" Boring. The hook now tells you enough that you don't need to find out more. Which hook would you be more likely to hear on the evening news? Which hook would you hear advertising the next guest on Letterman? I was told you still need to provide sufficient context. Bollocks. By indicating that he was blind you lost your hook. Too much context tells the story.
Hooks don't have to provide "sufficient context" they have to atttract the readers curiosity. Here's another example:
- ... that federal authorities in New York may have gambled that nobody would fight it when they unexpectedly seized $34 million from 27,000 accounts in the United States?
This hook has several features. First, how did the federal authorities "gamble?" Why did they seize the money? Is my money at risk? Were they justified in doing so? Several of the people reviewing it wanted to insert "online poker players" into the hook. By doing that, you instantly weaken the hook. First, if you aren't an online poker player, you know your money isn't at risk. Second, if you are familiar with online poker, you suddenly have an idea as to what happened. Third, if you have feelings about poker you might have feelings about the justification for the action. They also wanted to remove the word "gamble", despite it being supported (and used) by an expert on the subject. Again, the word introduces the question, "How was it a gamble?" What did the authorities do that made it a gamble? Were they justified? By removing it, you weaken the hook.
A good hook will get people to ask more questions than it answers. If it answers too many questions, then the hook has failed. Too many reviewers at DYK seem to think that hooks should be a synopsis of the article, not an invitation to read.
Sometimes using a persons expectations against them can become the basis for an effective hook. For example, suppose something happened in Paris. Many of today's reviewers would insist that we clarify that the event occured in Paris, Texas and not Paris, France. This could ruin a great hook. Could you imagine how many people would click on an article with the hook, "... that a drunk knocked out the entire electrical grid of Paris for a day?" We can not lie to the reader, but we are not obligated to ensure that the reader knows all of the specifics. Sometimes using the readers assumptions can help create a compelling hook. Remember the old line, "Hook Line and Sinker?" That comes from a time where people were drawn in by hooks. A good hook does not have to reveal the entire story. Care, however, should be taken when holding back a key piece of information. Failing to reveal a fact and deliberately manipulating facts are two different beasts.