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Snap Your Reader To Attention: How to Craft a First Sentence

By Andrew Moore

I recently had a chance to review your work and what I found shocked me.

Of course, I don’t know you from Adam, but did I get your attention? Are you curious to know what shocked me?

An opening line that draws in your readers is the best way to generate interest in your writing. In journalism, it’s called the lead, and it’s the most important sentence of the story. A lead grabs your readers, plays on their curiosity, and motivates them to read further.

John McPhee, a prominent author and journalist, wrote in a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal that “A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don’t use the lead. A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons or whistles like a train, but because it is absolute to what follows.”

The logic of a lead applies to business and technical writing, too.  A manager swamped by data sheets and engineering proposals is likely to be drawn in by the one with the most engaging opening sentence.

Given the importance of its task, the opening sentence can be difficult to craft. If it’s too dry, too clever, or too cute, your reader might move on.

What’s the key to writing an effective opening sentence? The answer is elusive, as different types may work better in different situations, and different writers will tackle the same problem with different approaches. But for starters, here are five tips:

  • Know your audience – Is your communication for a general audience or a specialized one? A company-wide report will likely start differently compared with one written for the engineering department.
  • Don’t start naming your children after the first date – A good lead will typically hint at your subject material without giving away the entirety of what you have to say. It’s a way to whet your reader’s appetite with the who, why, and where without giving the reader a reason to skip the rest of your document.
  • Be brief – Short and punchy is always more effective than a lengthy explanation. You can delve into details deeper in your piece.
  • Experiment – Try writing several different leads, and then share them with colleagues to get feedback.
  • Go easy on the puns or wit – You may set the wrong tone for your document or turn off those readers who don’t understand your attempts at humor. The best lead hits the ball straight down the middle.

Below is an example of a lackluster first sentence from an actual product data sheet. (The company name has been changed to protect the guilty!)

Acme Security’s XX Series provides maximum protection against even the most malicious Internet security threats while reducing the complexity of security management.

Pretty bland, right? Did you start spacing out halfway through it?

What if we re-wrote it by starting with a bold but believable assertion?

The Internet is awash in malicious security threats. But Acme Security’s XX Series has tightened the noose around those threats while simplifying security management.

How about this one from another data sheet?

The sluggish economy has forced midsized semiconductor and component manufacturers to take a hard look at costs.

Not bad.  It’s short, strong, and clear.  If I were a midsized manufacturer of semiconductors, I’d be interested in reading further.

The premise is simple: Time is a limited resource. In a world where your target audience is continually bombarded with emails, reports, and various other documents, readers have only minutes to scan these items as they move across their desk. To engage people for any longer, you have to snap them to attention.  And you do this by crafting a well-written opening sentence.