How to Write a Winning First Sentence

October 27th, 2016

how-to-write-a-winning-first-sentence

This is an excerpt from Master Content Marketing, a new book by Pamela Wilson of Rainmaker Digital.

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” – Stephen King

I haven’t seen much written about the most hard-working sentence of your content.

I believe it’s important to look at it as a separate element from the rest of your content and not lump it into the main content you write.

Here’s the most important thing to remember about the first line of your piece of content:

The job of your first sentence is to help the reader make the transition from your headline into your introduction—and to keep them reading.

They’ve read your headline, and they’ve clicked. But their hand might still be hovering over that Back button. A compelling first sentence will keep them on the page.

How to Write a First Sentence That Makes Your Reader Yearn for More

There are a few tried-and-true approaches for writing compelling first sentences. Let’s examine them, so you can try them yourself. I’ll include examples of each approach, too.

Certain approaches may feel more comfortable for you: If you’re a natural storyteller, opening with a story might seem appealing. And if you enjoy writing copy that captures attention, the “pitch”-style opening sentence might seem easy and fun to write.

My recommendation is that you start by using whichever first sentence style feels easiest to write. Simply focusing on writing an especially compelling first sentence—no matter the style—will help create a more effective opening to your article. Most writers don’t pay that much attention to this one sentence in their piece—you will, so yours will be better.

Once you’ve mastered the style that comes most naturally to you, move on to exploring some of the other types.

It’s important to offer varied content to our readers: We don’t want every article we write to open the same, predictable way.

So pick a style below, and use it more than once. Use the example sentences below to discover how to structure an opening sentence using each style. Make the most of the impact you can have with that style, and move on to mastering the next one.

Note: All “facts” in the examples that follow are completely made up. That’s why they’re so shocking!

The Storyteller’s Opening Sentence

If you’re a born storyteller, this opening sentence style will feel very natural to you. The goal with this style of sentence is to draw the reader into a story—one that’s already in progress.

Imagine there’s something fascinating happening inside a room behind a closed door. You and the reader are standing in the darkened halfway outside, and you crack open the door to get a glimpse of the action inside the room.

Of course, if this were a movie script, at the exact moment you open the door, someone will say something absolutely riveting, or someone will do something that leaves your mouth agape with surprise. That’s how you keep people watching the action: You draw them in at a point of high interest.

Examples:

Madeline stood on the scale—palms sweaty and dreading the result—only to stare in shock at the number that appeared on the display.

Late on a Tuesday afternoon in April, they booted me out of their investor’s club because they realized I was onto their dishonest schemes.

Patrick grabbed the arm of his new acquaintance and fired up his mobile phone: His business had a website he was proud of, and he couldn’t wait to show it off.

Storyteller opening sentences work best when you invite people in during a peak in the story. Once they’re engaged, you can build the rest of the story in a way that gives your opening sentence context and meaning.

The Pitch-Style Opening Sentence

Have you ever strolled through a carnival before? Pitchmen and women call out to you from all sides, trying to engage your attention in their games or rides. They use a proven formula for their pitches, and you can use the same for your first sentence. It makes a surprising claim and promises a big result. It looks like this:

[Astonishing Claim] + [Desirable Result]

Examples:

Daily sun exposure could help you avoid doctor visits in the months ahead.

In a case of vacationing your way to success, studies have shown that scheduling more time off is a proven method to achieve your goals.

10 minutes a day is all you need to guarantee income in your retirement.

Because pitch-style opening sentences promise a big result, they keep your reader engaged. Readers wonder how you’ll back up your bold claims, and they keep reading to find out.

The Suspense-Creating Opening Sentence

The aim of this style of opening sentence is to create impossible-to-resist curiosity about the content to follow. It draws from some of the same aspects of the opening sentence styles we just covered: the storyteller and the pitch. But you may find it simpler to write, and it doesn’t involve any special formula.

The effect you want to elicit after the reader reads this style of sentence is for them to wonder, “Wait . . . what?” You want them to feel they must continue reading so they can resolve the question that’s formed in their minds.

You’ll accomplish this by saying something that’s surprising, mysterious, universally interesting, or a little shocking. That something can be a recently-discovered statistic that will support the point you want to make. It could be the hard-to-believe result your latest client achieved. Or it could simply be a strange analogy that came to mind when thinking about your topic.

Examples:

78% of all Americans believe that standing while working will prolong their lives, and they couldn’t be more wrong.

I picked up the phone and heard my long-time client Sam say, “How do I slow down the orders coming in? I can’t keep up!”

If you want to get more done every day, approach your to-do list like like you’re going to make a sandwich with your time.

The key here is to say something that will create curiosity and make the reader feel compelled to continue to read, so they can get their questions answered.

The Compelling Question Opening Sentence

The compelling question opening sentence creates curiosity, too. It asks a question that’s provocative and makes your reader think.

Warning: It’s easy to get this style wrong. You want to avoid asking a question that can be answered by “yes” or “no.” Don’t ask, “Have you ever wondered why tea is the most popular drink in the world?” Your reader may respond, “Nope!” and immediately click away.

Instead, building on the concepts we’ve already talked about, ask questions that seem like the beginning of a story or that create a “Wait . . . what?” reaction. Make a promise that will keep your reader on your page.

Examples:

Did you know there are three foods most of us have eaten all our lives that are proven to increase inflammation and chronic disease?

Have you ever watched some stock prices go through the roof and wish you’d invested in those companies when they were cheaper to buy?

Did you ever wonder why people wait for hours to get inside some restaurants, while other places sit empty?

Opening sentences that use compelling questions work when they combine the approaches we’ve already discussed. They give your reader a sense that they’re entering a story that’s already underway. They create curiosity that motivates the reader to stay engaged. And they make them want to keep reading to resolve the question you’ve asked.

The Surprising Statement Opening Sentence

Here’s another tried-and-true technique for roping in a reader from the very beginning: Make a bold statement that your content promises to back up. You could base the statement on data you want to share, personal experience, or an anecdote you want to use as an example. The idea is to say something that is a little shocking and unexpected to—you guessed it—create curiosity that will keep them reading your content!

Examples:

65% of our human interactions now happen virtually rather than in person, and the result is we’re losing interpersonal skills at an alarming rate.

If I was completely honest with myself, I knew that I had adopted a style of dress that had the result of making me disappear in the eyes of the people around me.

Sarah stepped gingerly onto the stage—expecting her nerves to overwhelm her—and instead was pleasantly surprised to feel right at home.

How to Captivate Your Reader With a Winning First Sentence

Help your reader make the transition from your headline into your content with a first sentence that keeps them on the page, engaged in your content.

Master the opening sentence style that feels most comfortable to you, then explore another style. You don’t want to bore your readers by starting all your articles the same way.

Think about your first sentence as an entity in and of itself.

It has an important job to do—it needs to pull your reader from clicking on your headline into engaging in your content. Use the ideas here, and spend time crafting an opening sentence that will do this important job well.

What’s your favorite first sentence technique? Have a favorite way to open a piece of content? Share it in the comments!

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