When you’re in a bookstore, how long does it take you to leaf through a book before you know in your gut that it’s worth reading? How many pages do you sift? How many of the first few lines do you read before you’re confident it’s either a winner or a shelf-sitter?
When I was a kid, it took me about 3 to 4 sentences of a novel for me to know. That’s not a brag. In fact, I’m sure I’ve picked up many horrible books. I’m also sure to have left behind countless texts that might have otherwise had a positive impact on my life.
My point is, many readers do this in bookstores. Online? The numbers only get much, much worse. After analyzing 650,000 pageviews, Sumo found that only 20% of their visitors read an article. It gets worse. After reading only 140 words, roughly 1 out of 3 visitors bounced!
How’s that for perspective?
My takeaway? Most intros are a bore, generic, written for machines, yaddi yaddi yadda. There are myriad reasons an intro can suck. But there are many proven ways to write an introduction that grabs the reader from the very beginning.
Let’s look at five of them.
1. Opening with a story
Don’t open with any story, no matter how relatable. Here it helps to think about the angle. Not every story is interesting, and most of them are best left untold.
In my many years of studying fiction, I’ve identified the two biggest drivers in any story worth telling:
Conflict and characterization.
Introducing conflict as early as possible grabs attention.
Forcing the character to make a difficult decision (one that isn’t win-win) enables us to empathize. That’s characterization.
Here’s an opening that combines both.
“Sally had a difficult decision to make. Chase a silly dream by investing her life savings into an ecomm business… or go back to school and dig herself deeper into student debt. She knew she would struggle hard either way, but she never looked back on her decision with regret.”
That’s a relatable problem, one that introduces conflict, characterization, and a touch of curiosity, all in the first paragraph.
If you have to introduce a complex subject, an analogy might work best. (like if you have to explain ROAS vs. volume to non-technical business owners.)
Let’s take a look at the opening paragraphs of a non-marketing topic. From an essay on heat entitled “Fire and Ice” by noted astrophysicist Niel deGrasse Tyson. (Keep in mind, he wasn’t writing for an online audience.)
“When Cole Porter composed ‘Too Darn Hot’ for his 1948 Broadway musical Kiss me Kate, the temperature he was bemoaning was surely no higher than the mid-nineties. No harm in taking Porter’s lyrics as an authoritative source on the upper temperature limit for comfortable lovemaking. Combine that with a cold shower does to most people’s erotic urges, and you now have a pretty good estimate of how narrow the comfort zone is for the unclothed human body: a range of about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, with room temperature just about in the middle.
The universe is a whole other story. How does a temperature of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 degrees grab you?”
(p. 198, Tyson 1996, “Death by Black Hole”)
If Tyson can take a complex subject like this one and make it a fun read, then we as content writers have no excuse to lose our readers in the opening.
3. A Startling Fact or Statistic
The fact or statistic here has got to be startling, or combine it with an analogy. There are so many interesting factoids that can grab attention. (I used to buy Snapples because of the factoids hidden under the caps… until I found out the marketing team made them all up!)
Here’s a somewhat startling fact. According to Brandwatch, 70 million blog posts are published using the WordPress platform every month.
But let’s play around with that monthly figure. Turns out, that averages to 1,598 blog posts published per minute!
Are you startled? I am.
4. A provocative question
It’s always good to start with the goal in mind. This way, you can link the question to the goal of the content piece. (I like “What if…” questions here.)
Let’s say your SaaS is a productivity app. The content piece is about planning ahead and structuring your week. A “What if…” question could be, “What if you could get everything you needed done, and on time?”
But let’s say we wanted your audience to picture it. We could rephrase this as, “What would your life look like if you got everything you wanted done 2 years ago?” This encourages your reader to feel the scene, while hitting at the pain point of lost time. (This one hits home for me.)
If you were a skill training app, we could take a random interesting factoid. How about how turtles can breathe through their butts underwater? (It’s true!)
Not all skills are worth developing. If the content piece is about investing time into identifying the skills you need most, then it might start like this:
“What if you could breathe out of your butt? Not a very useful skill for you, but turtles can do it underwater.”
Yes, it starts with a question, but the factoid is there nonetheless. Better than starting with “Turtles can breathe through their butts underwater. Can you? Even if this has been a lifelong goal of yours, investing time into this skill will prove futile.”
5. A curious scene
Grab your audience’s attention by presenting a curious scene. It’s like you’re inviting them to join you at a “crime scene” as an investigator.
Content like this introduces the setting with words like, “Picture this” or “Imagine that…” (These terms should be weeded out during the editing phase, so readers have a chance to jump in immediately. They do work great as placeholders though!)
This accomplishes two main psychological goals:
- You’re presenting them with a personal challenge.
- You’re inciting their sense of curiosity, and priming them for a potentially rewarding experience.
Let’s take an example from a movie this time, the action classic Speed. This quote from Dennis Miller’s character Howard Payne could’ve been an amazing intro for an essay on bomb diffusion:
“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”
A curious scene indeed.