That Fatal First Sentence

This post was written by John White on Wed, 20 Jul 2011 20:45:50 +0000
Posted Under: marketing communications writer,process of writing

Good marketing communications writers nudge readers toward discomfort in the first sentence. It’s too important to waste on lousy copy.

the opening sentenceIf you want people to read your content, you have to first open the door and shake them out of their e-torpor. Your opening sentences need to nudge them away from their sleepy existence, toward the chasm of novelty.

Think discomfort.

Think “must make the reader itch a little bit.”

Think “mustn’t restate the obvious.”

Lousy first sentences

  • Over the last two decades, we have experienced an unprecedented technology boom.
  • Two main objectives exist for any Corporate Real Estate and Facilities (CRE) department.  The first is to demonstrate proficiency in managing service delivery.  The second is to demonstrate ability to implement corporate strategy by solving business issues.
  • An idiosyncrasy, if not a frustration of the technology evolution in health care regards the advances in diagnostic technologies exceeding the capabilities, if not the practical realities of existing, related therapies and corrections.
  • The increasing demands of machine automation pose a unique challenge to the engineers who are responsible for motion control.

Whoopee. These sentences either say restate the obvious, or they state something of potential interest in a way that’s too hard to read.

Allow me to add that any first sentence that includes “today” or “than ever” – as in “Today’s system administrators are stretched in more directions than ever” – is lousy. In fact, it’s worse than lousy: it’s an insult to your readers’ intelligence.

Decent first sentences

  • Literacy education in the poorest schools has often resembled a race between well-intended instruction and mandatory promotion to the next grade.
  • In an era of over-the-top energy costs and multi-billion-dollar state budget deficits, would you think that a federal education grant over four years would go very far?
  • The truly global company knows there is more to ‘going global’ than opening offices in multiple countries.
  • The contact center agent is your ambassador to the customer.
  • When you make sound equipment for 60 years, eventually you can design almost anything – even a heat-tolerant microphone that fits into electronic assembly flow like any other component.

These sentences draw the reader a little closer to the edge of discomfort and novelty. They are inching toward the goal of not restating the obvious.

Good first sentences

  • For your next translation project, how would you like to get a cost estimate simply by answering 13 quick questions? What could be easier?
  • “Better a rough answer to the right question than an exact answer to the wrong one.” -Anonymous (possibly Lord Kelvin)
  • Did you know that browsers are not one-size-fits-all? Did you know that it’s possible – in fact, encouraged – to modify them for better performance on specific chipsets?
  • If getting a software application to market is a foot race, then getting mobile applications to market is a foot race among jugglers.
  • ‘How can I price my games to get more revenue?’ Every game developer, regardless of platform or application store, wants to know the answer to this question.
  • The mobile Web. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

These sentences are novel. They open white papers, case studies and technical articles in ways that try to catch readers off guard.

Readers assume you’re going to bore them. Please don’t.

And the writer is…

Me. (I had “help” on the lousy ones, though.)

Frankly, even the “good” opening sentences could be better. I’m not worried about criticizing them, because I wrote them as best I could for the clients, audiences and situations involved. Not everybody tolerates discomfort and novelty.

Do you have any memorable first sentences? Why are they memorable? Let me know in the comments.

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: emdot

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