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You Had Me at the First Paragraph: How to Make Your Opening Copy Irresistible

Jun 24, 2015 11:14:43 AM

So much which is a pleasure to write is a pain in the neck to read.
-Michael Frayn, playwright

Almost everyone appreciates good writing. Who hasn’t yearned to lay in a hammock and be transported by a good novel full of soaring prose, or led down the path of enlightenment by a great piece of investigative journalism?

Yet not everyone has or wants to take the time to read. This is especially true in the world of marketing where, unlike a book, we try to shimmy our way into peoples’ lives amid a tornado of distractions. This makes an effective introduction doubly important in capturing and keeping your reader’s attention.

Here are some tips for making your opening copy more enticing.

Have something to say
Readers today can access millions of pages of content with the touch of a finger, and after scanning, they decide in about two seconds whether the story is worthwhile.

Before you add another thimble of words into the vast verbal ocean, check your ego at the door and ponder whether you’re about to say something new or revisit something old in a fresh new way. If not, it’s time to stop and re-evaluate.

Get to the point fast and first
Movies take about ninety minutes to reach a thrilling climax. But good ones introduce the characters, their motivations and the main dramatic thrust in the first fifteen or less. Let readers know your basic premise quickly, and they’ll be much more likely to follow you.

The so-called inverted pyramid is a longstanding mnemonic in journalism that shows how a story should be structured. It calls for discussing the most important elements first (who, what, where, when, etc.), then filling in the details later. While that approach can rob your work of suspense, the basic idea is sound.

Answer W.I.I.F.M.?
If you’re writing to sell someone something, the reader needs to know “What’s In It For Me?” right up front. That includes the main benefit of your product or service, along with any incentive for responding. Too often, writers saunter in with a three- or four-paragraph preamble before spilling the beans. My advice: show off your writing chops somewhere else.

Make them laugh
Not everyone is a comedian, and not all subjects lend themselves to humor. But sometimes even the most dramatic stories can be made more interesting with a little comic relief.

Reveal a little-known fact
Who knew that cardiovascular disease kills more women than men? I didn’t until I read a recent article written by the American Heart Association. While I wince when writers pack their work with statistics as a substitute for critical thinking, “looking at the numbers” can be a very effective way of unveiling your topic.

Slam the reader into the center of the drama
Much as we might deny it, car chases, shootouts and other high drama get our attention in the movies. Carrying through the above example, you might open with a scene from an emergency room busy treating a women after a heart attack. Then pull back and tell your story.

Err on the side of provocative
Between content with titles like “Porn on Ketchup Bottle” or “Stowaway Cat Stuns Pilot” (I am not making these up), writers must compete with a sideshow of tawdry topics to get noticed these days. Without stooping to this level, sullying your brand or tarnishing your reputation, don’t be afraid to kick things up a notch. Just remember that connecting with readers demands a strong element of trust. Deceive them with cheap sensationalism and they may never read you again.

Whether a direct mail piece, a blog, email or a white paper, most marketing copywriting seeks to seduce the reader in a very short period of time, either through entertainment, education or persuasion. Call it a form of speed-dating. Take the time to make your opening lines sing, and there could be love.

Michael Walton

Written by Michael Walton

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