How to grab readers with a compelling opening line

Journalists use a powerful first sentence to pique interest. Use that same technique to engage your audience—internal or external—and keep them scrolling, all the way to your call to action.

How to write better ledes

Many writers lose their readers right away with one glaring misstep: a lifeless first sentence.

Without a WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”) element or something striking to pique their interest, readers will bail out for something else—anything else.

The first sentence, or “lede,” must drive the reader onward—often by asking a pertinent question, posing a problem to be solved, or offering a quirky take on a current trend or issue.

Here are seven steps for grabbing readers’ attention—and then delivering the goods and following up with a cogent directive:

1. Start with power.

  • Pounce on your focus right away—your insight, not something borrowed from another source.
  • Keep your lede concise.
  • Avoid old news; save supporting research and context for later.

Some weak ledes stem from the author’s timidity about making an assertion. Instead, he or she opts to draw on gravitas from an outside authority or provide context from years past.

Instead, be that authority yourself, and keep your initial offering fresh.

2. Avoid these terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ledes:

  • I just finished reading a book about…
  • Back in 1993…
  • In previous blog posts I discussed…
  • Whenever I conduct a presentation…
  • It used to be that…
  • Les Izmoore’s latest article asserts…
  • In the early days of Twitter…

What makes them bad? There’s no news, no insight, no hook to grab the target audience. They make dated references or cite outside sources.

“Heck,” the reader figures, “there’s nothing new here. I should just go read that other piece.”

3. Fine-tune your opening line.

Once you know what you want to say, determine how you want to say it.

Consider these first sentences, culled from our websites, which offer an interesting assertion, pose a quandary to be considered, or simply deliver relevant news:

  • Everyone wants to be indispensable at work.
  • “Tronc” will soon be just a memory of a misguided rebranding effort.
  • For a business, taking a stand on public issues is a double-edged sword.
  • When should CEOs weigh in on political issues?
  • Google wants to simplify its advertising products.
  • IHOP was just messing with us. Surprise, surprise.

Note that they all get to the point quickly; the longest is 13 words. Ledes that drone on for several lines are daunting. Readers might not conduct a precise word count, but one look at a hefty clump of text will send most heading for something more accessible—and many won’t come back.

4. Begin in the middle of the narrative.

Straight chronology is boring: First this, then that, then the next thing … ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

In “The World According to Garp,” author John Irving starts not with the first element in the timeline, the gradual decline of the once vital Steering River, nor even the burgeoning of the Fields family footwear fortune. Instead, he begins with Jenny Fields’ slicing—with a discarded scalpel—the arm of a relentless cad:

Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie .

Really, which is the most compelling? An arid riverbed, a warehouse full of insoles, or an indignant nurse cutting up a persistent paramour?

I’d go with the masher and the slasher. I want to know what happened.

For professional communicators, depictions of bloodshed (even leavened with dark humor) are generally not required. Still, grabbing attention is vital to convincing readers about an idea’s merit or persuading them to act.

Rather than starting with the nuts and bolts of a brainstorming session from several months prior, for example, pick one salient takeaway—or a notable curiosity—from your successful project to introduce your case study. You can fill in the backstory later.

5. Back up your assertion.

Once you’ve hooked the reader, you can provide the substantive information, such as:

  • Research: studies, surveys, outside sources
  • Your own professional experience or anecdotes (Limit first-person pronouns, though.)
  • Case studies: how other organizations have addressed similar issues

Condense the corroboration into relevant, persuasive nuggets.

6. Offer your guidance.

Here’s where you can show off your bristling expertise, your keen insights, your world-altering solutions. Don’t be afraid of formulaic structures. They work.

To organize your advice, try one of these formats:

  • A list with bullets or numbers
  • A narrative with subheads

To avoid confusion, use only one set of numbers in a given piece.

Your numbered or bulleted items should be consistent within a particular grouping, too. All should be of the same grammatical construction—a gerund phrase or, as in the numbered items here, a directive, telling the reader what to do.

7. Conclude with—wait for it—the conclusion.

Rather than rehashing what came before, though, offer a call to action. As in the lede, the WIIFM factor is essential.

Let your readers know what to do and how it benefits them—every step of the way—doing so with clear, vivid language.

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