Once upon a time . . .
How many great tales started with those four little words? Every story needs to start somewhere, and this literary opener takes readers to a time and a place far away. It sets the scene for the entire story, and invites readers in.
If you want to learn how to write better content, start with your beginnings. Introductions either captivate readers or cast them away. Unfortunately, they’re often written haphazardly during the first draft, with little or no tweaking after your content develops into the final stages.
Take a Note from a Journalist
If you went to journalism school, you studied the inverted pyramid, and if you analyze your introductory paragraphs, you may find that you still write in that style when producing content.
Didn’t go to journalism school? Not a problem—I didn’t either. Here’s a quick rundown: The inverted pyramid device shows how information should be prioritized when shared with the reader. It places the most newsworthy information at the beginning. Introductory paragraphs will have the who, what, why, when, and where. Then, the rest of the content follows up by disseminating the important details and finishes with general information the reader may be interested in.
Let’s consider an article I recently found in my Twitter feed that piqued my interest. Here are the first two sentences of “Scientists May Have Just Discovered a New Organ—And It Could Be the Biggest Yet,” published in Mental Floss:
“A new study published in Scientific Reports boldly proclaims that researchers from NYU School of Medicine and Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center, both in New York City, have identified a new organ in the body, thought to be the biggest organ of them all. Called ‘the interstitium,’ what has long been thought to be merely tough, dense connective tissue running throughout the body—beneath the skin, the visceral organs, around arteries and veins, and in the fascia tissue between muscles—is really a network of fluid-filled compartments whose structure easily defies viewing by traditional methods, the researchers say.”
While the rest of the article is quite detailed, the reader gets a complete understanding about this new discovery in just two sentences. It’s enough to both engage readers to continue with the article and appease them if they choose to move on and read something else.
Let’s face it—in today’s goldfish-brained society, readers don’t often stay the course of an article or essay. By giving them the most newsworthy details right away, readers can leave the article at any point feeling satisfied that they have a good understanding of what the whole represents. However, there are downsides to this method. If you give it all away too soon, your audience might leave. (To be honest, I didn’t finish the Mental Floss article.) Cue the high bounce rates and decreased time on a page, and your analytics will start tanking. Plus, if your readers do leave, all that hard work you put into creating the content is wasted.
How many times has someone told you how impressed they were with the beginning of a book they’re reading? First sentences can be especially impactful, and there’s a lot that content writers can learn from fiction. Take Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, for example. Here’s how it begins:
“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
Image attribution: Karim Ghantous
Now, granted, the title itself gives clues to what the book is about, but that very first sentence sparkles. It’s not only memorable but it sets the stage for what readers can expect from the book. It creates questions that will keep them reading. Why are the Lisbon girls killing themselves? The only way to find out is to continue reading.
Take a page from the books and borrow any fiction techniques that will elevate your content. For example, foreshadowing gives the reader a hint of what will unfold in the story, and I see this technique used well in content marketing all the time.
However, let’s not forget about Chekhov’s gun. Don’t know what it is? It’s a literary principle that states that every element introduced must be significant to the telling of a story, and no unnecessary elements should be introduced if they don’t play an important role. If you start off your writing with a few key descriptions—such as a gun on the nightstand—your reader needs to understand soon why that detail is there. The gun must come into play in the story. So, when borrowing from fictional elements, keep this principle in mind. Don’t introduce or hint at something that is insignificant to what you’re trying to share with the reader.
The Immediate Hook
Ask a question. Make a bold statement. Begin with a quote. However you introduce your article, do it quickly and with impact. It’s time to awaken the readers.
Between the decreasing attention spans and the ever-busy lives we lead, writers only have one chance to make a strong first impression and keep people reading. The hook is the Wam, Bam, Pow needed to jolt the audience to attention.
“One of the Biggest and Most Boring Cyberattacks Against an American City Yet,” an article by Ian Bogost in the Atlantic, models this technique with a one-liner introduction. It begins:
“Want to hear a boring story?”
This works because of the immediate connection Bogost gains with the reader. I mean, he’s talking directly to them. There’s no option for the reader to ignore him. It demands a response. Second, how does a person even answer that question? What would you say if it happened in a face-to-face conversation? Yes? No? How about, Well, not really, but go on then!
I like the immediate hook technique a lot. (I started this very article with it.) Yet it’s a tough one to teach or explain. Think of the immediate hook as a quick attention getter. If you’re learning how to write better content and introductions are your current focus, consider using something simple, such as a statistic or quote to open your articles. Statistics—especially those that are alarming—work well to capture your readers attention. Did you know that every 98 seconds someone in the United States is sexually assaulted? Were you aware that over a hundred Americans die as a result from car accidents every single day? Both figures get your attention, and depending on what you’re working on, a statistic may be the perfect way to rope in a reader.
Quotes are another interesting option for hooking your reader. However, use them with caution. They must be chosen carefully so that they completely match the overall content you’re writing. They can’t be too long or too short, and they should be memorable. Choosing the most popular quotes may be your go-to, but that doesn’t mean you need to scan the Internet for hours for a quote you’ve never even read before in the hopes you’ll find something that matches your article. Instead, interview an expert, which you’re likely already doing to include in your articles and essays, and let their words speak for you.
Image attribution: Lou Levit
Then, once you’ve graduated from quotes and stats, start playing with one- or two-sentence openers of your own that stop readers and demand attention. You won’t be perfect at it immediately, but as with all writing, a little trial and error will make you a better writer. Start by imagining you’re having a real conversation with a friend. What would you say to really shock them into paying attention? Try it in your writing. This is also a great point to pull in your editors and ask for advice. Tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and ask if they have any advice on how to make your immediate hooks any better. Work together and eventually you’ll see improvement and feel more confident crafting your own strong openings.
Share a Personal Anecdote
Have the opportunity to write in first person? Embrace it. One way to build an instant connection with your readers is to jump right in with a personal story that relates to the content you’re writing.
In Bogost’s aforementioned article in the Atlantic, he uses the hook in his first sentence and then moves directly into a personal story—one that admittedly is quite boring. He says:
“I can’t submit an expense report for a recent out-of-town work trip. I’ve got all the receipts, except one from long-term parking at the Atlanta airport. A sensor lets me in and out of the parking lot there, and my account gets charged automatically. Later, I can download a receipt from a website, which I submit to accounting at my university, which creates an expense report, which eventually processes a reimbursement.”
Unless you know Bogost personally, this story seems superfluous, but it’s not. It sets the scene using one ordinary occurrence that was affected by the major ransomware attack on the city of Atlanta. One situation out of hundreds, actually more like thousands, that are occurring because of the cyberattack that the article is ultimately about. And—because he continues sharing his personal minor setback—the anecdote opens up more space to discuss how attacks like these are affecting us as a society. It goes from an immediate personal concern to a humanistic issue in the span of one article.
As a creative nonfiction writer, I find myself using this technique quite often. (Does this make me a narcissist? I prefer the term storyteller.) However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have its downsides. For example, you run the risk of alienating readers who simply do not care about your personal experiences.
Also, you need to choose your stories well. Similar to Chekhov’s gun, your story needs to be relevant to your angle. Don’t bother sharing personal information if it doesn’t accentuate your article. If it’s just extra fluff, your readers will sniff that out with disappointment. Personal stories make you, and your content, more relatable, but if it feels forced, it will turn your audience off.
So, with all these options for introducing your work, which do you choose when you’re learning how to write better content? Simple: all of them (just not at the same time). A good writer doesn’t take one introductory technique and use it every time. Variety is the spice of life, and so it goes with writing.
Which of these introductory techniques are your favorite? Will you commit to trying something new? Let us know in the comments.
To learn more about brand storytelling, please see Storynomics, a book authored by Skyword CEO Tom Gerace and legendary story expert Robert McKee.
Featured image attribution: Tom Ezzatkhah
The post Start at the Beginning: A Content Marketer’s Guide to Crafting Great Introductions appeared first on The Content Standard by Skyword.
About the Author
BiographyMore Content by Erin Ollila