A killer headline is bound to hook you some readers. But does writing one mean you'll snag those slippery web surfers hook, line and sinker?
Nope. If your opening paragraph doesn't have substantial pulling power, they quickly become the ones that got away.
In this post, I'll share seven techniques the pros use to capture the attention of the reader and get them excited enough to keep reading.
Understand, as we look at ideas and examples, what we're calling an "opening paragraph" should be interpreted a bit liberally.
These passages, which writers call "the lead" (also spelled "lede"), might be a series of short sentences or paragraphs. You've probably noticed the better writers typically use shorter, and more, paragraphs to make their blog posts easier to read online.
1. Put your reader in the story
In her great book, Everybody Writes, writer extraordinaire Ann Handley begins her chapter on the subject of ledes by suggesting you should "put your reader in the story."
You can accomplish this a variety of ways. The key is to touch your reader somehow.
"Readers want to be comforted. They're looking for connections, for like-minded spirits. They want to feel understood. The most seductive opening paragraphs empathize with a reader, and make him feel less alone. So show your reader you understand him and you'll help him." - Henneke Duistermaat, Enchanting Marketing
When I'm writing an opening paragraph, I often imagine my challenge is to get my reader to nod his or her head, thinking, "Yeah, that's me."
Check out how Miranda Hill goes about it from a post on SmartBlogger.com in a post she wrote about getting a neglected blog back on track...
"Come on, fess up!
You've done the unthinkable. You've let your beloved blog wither in the shadows of neglect.
Once a thriving haven of ideas and wisdom for your adoring readers, your blog is now just a wasteland of stale posts."
It's important to understand the post Miranda wrote isn't for everybody. She's qualified the reader with her headline, Ignored Your Blog for Months? 13 Tips for Getting Back on Track.
The headline makes it clear the post is for those who have ignored their blog for months. The opening puts the reader in the story, nodding her head, feeling understood.
As promised, I have many more tips for writing a compelling opening. You'll note in some way, they all adhere to the idea of putting the reader in the story.
2. Ask a question (or two)
A good question, one that presses on a problem or challenge can work wonders. It's one of the most tried and trusted tactics for increasing the pulling power of your opening.
Master blogger Jon Morrow nails the question approach in this post featuring tips from Stephen King...
"Have you ever wished you could peer inside the mind of one of the greatest writers in the world and find out exactly what makes them tick?"
This approach to writing leads appears to have proven so effective for Social Media Examiner, they use it in nearly every post. In fact, they like to double-up on the questions atop each post and then explain the lesson that follows...
3. Present an interesting fact or stat
An interesting fact can provide a tasty hook. And it doesn't even need to be literally relevant.
"Pick facts that have nothing obviously to do with your topic or are perfectly in line with your topic and thesis, but are so shocking as to be gasp-worthy." - Julie Neidlinger, CoSchedule
Julie offers this quirky example...
"Niagara Falls has traveled 7 miles upstream in the past 12,000 years. Let's hope you're growing your web traffic at a faster rate."
4. Quote someone famous (or not)
I suppose the advantage to quoting someone famous is, well, they're famous. However, you can write a great opening by quoting someone not-so-famous, but relevant.
In any case, quotes work. You see this tactic used not only in blog posts, but at beginning of book chapters, speeches, webinars and many forms of communications.
Fun example here... On a Copyblogger post, Dean Rieck has it going on with a cool combo of opening paragraph hooks.
- A Robert Frost quote
- A "myth" (to challenge convention)
- A quirky little image
5. Offer an anecdote
Who doesn't love a story?
Starting a piece of writing with a storytelling style anecdote will catch your reader's interest.
I love the strategy - here's me using it in one of my most popular posts ever, SEO Simplified for Short Attention Spans (which inspired a book by the same name).
So what do I have going on in that opening paragraph?
- Characters and dialogue
- Feelings ("Gulp.")
- A question
- A teaser
- A heavy helping of empathy... "If SEO isn't exactly your cup of tea..."
I nailed that one. Thank you very much.
6. Bond on a problem
Bloggers use this approach for writing opening paragraphs or ledes a lot because it's non-threatening and über empathetic. It simply goes like this...
You launch into your article by identifying a problem you once had - and solved - which you believe your readers have too. The idea is to establish commonality.
Instead of hunting around for examples on this one, I'll freestyle a few to demonstrate.
What if I wanted to write a post about cutting down on coffee, assuming it's a challenge I overcame?
"I might as well have injected the caffeine with a syringe. My morning routine was ten parts coffee and zero part nutrition.
Maybe you're strung out on a French Roasted buzz right now. I may be able to talk some sense (and fruit juice) into you."
How about a post about considering meditation for the first time?
"Ommmmm. Ommmmm. Chant. Repeat. Find your center and be mindful.
I know, your take on meditation might be like mine once was: it's freaky, frightening. You feel silly doing it.
I got over it. I convinced myself to try it. And now I'm here to tell you if you want to escape some of the stress that's dragging you down, it's not time to medicate, it's time to meditate."
You feeling me?
7. Introduce a threat
In three sentences, the opening I wrote for this post made the case that you lose readers with ineffective opening paragraphs.
I introduced a threat. You chose to keep reading. The threat concerns you.
No doubt, we lost some readers too. While this post may be intended for all bloggers, the opening helped qualify some and disqualify others.
My aim, really, was to deliver this lesson to those that identify with the problem.
Powerful writing does that.
I give the same lesson when teaching headline writing: when you turn some people off, you turn some people on.
Again, I'll freestyle to provide some examples of this powerful tactic for writing leads - let's say you're doing a post about lowering your golf score by improving your putting...
"You putt like a putz. You leave ten-footers three-feet short and yank the next putt to the left.
Here's a great method I've found for minimizing your three-putts and slicing strokes off your score."
Next example: your post is about taking better care of your rose garden...
"Your roses are red, but not for long. You're blue. Let me tell you what to do."
One more (because this is fun)...
"Your new puppy is a pleasure by day and a whimpering little depriver of a good night's sleep after dark. What can you do to calm that little canine of yours?"
If you're picking up on this approach you've gathered how the opening paragraph(s) state: (1) This is your problem and (2) You should keep reading to learn the solution.
Marcus Sheridan makes the point in an excellent post about writing a great first paragraph:
"The two core elements of a great opening paragraph are simple to remember: expertise and empathy." - Marcus Sheridan, The Sales Lion
One last thought...
Expert and novice bloggers alike often struggle to write great openers - so much so that they often burn an hour or more peering at a mostly blank page sweating it out with perfection paralysis.
Here's the fix. Skip the opener. Move on and write the article you've outlined or organized between your ears and save your lede for last.
My friend Kristi Hines, who's a great blogger, knows the drill...
"For me, the lead is the most difficult part of the article to write. I've found that when I get stuck, the best approach is to write the rest of the article and circle back to it. By that point, I know exactly what I've covered in the article and that makes it easier to introduce the content. Otherwise, if I try to force the lead out first, I end up procrastinating on the whole piece." - Kristi Hines, Blogger
I can empathize with you. Writing a great opening paragraph is no easy task. I've been there thousands of times.
It's a mind game.
Read your reader's mind. Then write something that invites them to keep reading.
This post originally appeared on the Orbit Media blog.