In essays, the first sentence is where you leave your first impression. And like a first impression, you don’t get a second chance.
Whether charmed or disenchanted, this first line will be a deciding factor in what people think of your article, and whether or not they’ll stick around to read the rest.
Olgivy once said that the first 80 cents of your dollar is spent on the headline, and I’d argue that you better be willing to spend the next 10 cents on the first few lines of any written work.
That said, what are some templates for consistently captivating readers at the beginning of a new piece?
Strong, consistent ways to begin an article
1. Start with a story. It’s been made clear through research in consumer behavior that stories are not only able to capture attention like few other forms of writing, but they are often the most persuasive pieces of writing out there. It’s easy to get swept up in a story, and through imagery, modelling, and suspense, you can truly get people to become enveloped in your message.
Even in business topics this is quite applicable — sharing how you felt, in addition to what actually happened, is something that many professionals/entrepreneurs can easily relate to, especially if the tale is about something that keeps them up at night (a technical nightmare, a PR disaster, a massive win for the company, the day you finally got traction, etc. etc.)
2. Use a relevant quote. There’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulder’s of giants. With proper attribution, a quote works best when it is used to set up the context for an article, like how I used a famous quote from Jobs in my piece on Why Steve Jobs Never Listened to His Customers.
The key, it would seem, is selecting something that connects to the overall theme of your piece, and that matches the emotional goal you have for the reader. Most of the time, this will hopefully be a no-brainer, such as going with something motivational in a piece that seeks to encourage people to take action.
3. Ask readers a question. Have you ever struggled to write an intro for a new article? Though they are always rhetorical in nature, questions begin the thinking process, and can also be used to help guide people along the path you desire (the question in this section intended for you to react with a “Yes, it is quite frustrating.”)
Easy to come up with and often easy to segue-way into your coverage/solution in the rest of the article, questions are tough to ignore and can be used to hold attention in the beginning lines of any written work (which is quite an accomplishment!).
4. Make use of a metaphor or simile. If you noticed at the beginning of this article, I fleshed out the comparison made in the headline by stating how and why a first sentence is similar to a first impression.
Metaphors, similes and analogies are able to convey a concept in a single sentence — that is why they are often so memorable. In the same way a visual asset acts like a “See Fig. C” chart that helps you come to an aha! moment, a sharp comparison can help readers grasp and retain information through a figure of speech.
5. Write a damn good sentence. Potentially the most difficult to do consistently, the “simple” act of writing a damn good sentence can often reap the biggest rewards, as a truly original, well thought out sentence can get passed around along the lines of a well known quote, just on a smaller scale.
In a previous article I mentioned how much of an impact a single line had for me in an blog post about getting the service you deserve: “Customer service isn’t about always being right, it’s about always being willing to make it right.” In assessing the article’s performance, I found many people were sharing it with that exact quote as the context. In this way, writing your own unique “soundbites” can increase the likelihood that people will retain and re-share the article.
A little trick to change your mindset
One thing I’ve done recently to help me envision the big role my first sentence will play in a new article is to actually make the first sentence bigger… in font size!
Drawing inspiration from websites like Smashing Magazine that do this to help encourage readers to finish the first line, I set up my Google Docs to have a larger font for my introduction, forcing me to view it in a way that better visualizes it’s impact.
I find giving visual importance to the first line on the page translates to importance in mind share — I’ll give more thought to that first impression when it’s staring me in the face.
Though I am far from having this down pat, I do believe that when used consistently, this can help anyone’s writing by placing a magnifying glass on your introduction.
I hope you find this, and the rest of this piece useful. Now maybe I should write something up on how to write a better conclusion?