I was a passenger in a small plane, flying between two towns in the middle of nowhere, when I glanced at the fuel gauge and noticed it was approaching empty.
Those, I must confess, are not my words. They come from a participant in a public speaking class I taught last week. As you can imagine, he had everyone’s attention when he went on to tell the rest of his tale.
(The pilot told him the gauge was broken—not exactly comforting words—but the speaker did arrive at his destination safely.)
I tell you his story because it illustrates my topic of how to begin. This is a challenge that often stumps writers, and I regret to say that many opt for the easy out—a summary statement. You know, something bland and Pablum-y like, “It is no surprise that many entrepreneurs don’t have the time or natural inclination to manage their people effectively and efficiently.”
My advice? Begin instead with the single most interesting thing you can think of. Don’t try an easy joke. (Few things start you off as badly as a joke that has no relationship to the actual topic of the article or speech—it will cheapen your work.)
Aim to intrigue. You might do this with a story—as with the empty fuel tank anecdote I offered at the beginning of this piece—or you could tell an astonishing fact related to your topic. For example: Scientists estimate that from 150 to 200 species become extinct every 24 hours.
You might instead ask a provocative question: What would happen to your family if you died tomorrow? (Be sure to avoid questions that could be answered by yes, no, or who cares?)
Don’t mess around with introductory blah, blah, blah. Just jump in, in media res (Latin for “in the middle of the action”) with the single most interesting thing you have to say. Any confusion your audience feels will be temporary, and they will be eager to learn more. In other words, you’ll be writing with momentum, pulling your readers along as you go.
Writing coach Robert McKee (author of the brilliant how-to-write-a-screenplay book, “Story“) has a name for this. He calls it creating a conspiracy of interest. I love that phrase because it describes how the writer should collude with the reader. You want your reader to be fascinated by what you have to say. Your beginning must be as intriguing and compelling as a secret.
After writing a first sentence or paragraph, ask yourself: “Is this truly the most interesting thing I have to say about this topic?” If it isn’t, rewrite.
A version of this article first appeared on The Measurement Standard.