You’ve researched your article. You have an amazing headline, great facts, images, and hookable subheads.
All you have to do now is write a killer introduction to reel them in.
Well, get it wrong and you lose the reader and they will leave before they get to the heart of the piece.
Get it right and your audience will spend time finding out more.
Correctly done, an introduction paragraph is short, concise and tells the reader why they should care. But it’s harder than it looks.
It is as true for content marketing, a thesis, or an assignment, or any other type of long form writing.
Fortunately, help is at hand. Content marketing is journalism and journalists have long had a framework for dealing with problematic introductions.
First off: an admission on our part. These tricks aren’t our ideas.
They have largely been lifted from Essential English for Journalists and Writers – the 45-year-old bible for journalists written by former Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans. We have applied them to content marketing.
Below is a set of basic guidelines outlining what to do and – more importantly – what not to do when writing introductions.
Force brevity with the ‘Nokia method’
Remember the Nokia phone before predictive text?
To get a letter the texter might have to push a button as often as three times.
And the words would be viewed on a small screen. Tedious for the texter, but helpful to us.
One result was shortened words. Another (more useful) was that people were forced to think about ways to shorten what they wanted to say. So:
- Think about the whole story.
- Remind yourself about the tedious process of using a Nokia phone pre predictive text.
- Imagine you need to pitch the idea to your boss via the phone.
- What is left will form the basis of your opening paragraph.
Use the delayed intro for extra impact
The effect of the intro can be amplified be means of a delay. It is higher risk but the reward can be greater punch if you get it right.
It could be argued this piece uses a delayed intro.
Here you disregard the main story and use something that catches the reader’s attention. Then you follow on with the main outline of the story.
Google has responded to the thousands of emails it has received from SMEs by launching a series of educational videos.
You can tell Google needed to do something different when it brought in the animators behind South Park to produce its latest content.
- Look for a standout fact about the story for the intro.
- Explain the story and the intro in the second paragraph.
Focus on the reader to keep them interested
It is easy to become derailed by a subject and the message you want to convey. But it’s not about you. It’s about the reader.
They just want to know why your content matters to them.
- You should start with the most important point up front. That is what matters to the reader, not you.
- Put aside the bulk of the information you need to convey and imagine what singular point is going to affect the reader the most.
- This personal relevance should be the lead point of any introduction.
Tens of thousands of people will have to reclaim their own parked cars if attendants in 1,500 privately-owned garages strike on Wednesday.
Is better than:
City parking garage attendants last night authorised a strike that could lead to a walkout on Wednesday, disrupting thousands of motorists.
Start the article with the end in mind
This is not in Essential English, which is largely concerned with news. However, a good feature will round off with a reference to what was said in the beginning.
- When writing your intro, spare a thought for how you might end the article.
- Apart from news, a lot of writing is cyclical with the end leading back to the beginning. Here is an example of a random profile feature from the Sunday Times.
Alexis Stenfors talks like an addict. He talks about trading with the gentle fragility of those in recovery: so wary of the thing that made him feel alive, so nostalgic for what was killing him.
He still checks the markets — it is almost like he is an addict who is not fully recovered. “Exactly,” he says softly. “I’m not fully recovered. I probably will never be.”
- This is not a rule. However, your most important point is how your product will help the reader. It makes sense that you reference that point at the end.
Keep your intro simple, keep it short
Many people try to fit too much information into the introductory paragraph. If you are going to lose a reader through information overload, don’t let it be early on.
- Keep the first paragraph to between 25 and 40 words.
- Give only the main overview of the story.
- Use the second paragraph to hold any detail you were tempted to add to the first.
Using quotes for the introduction
You might have a fantastic quote that underpins your whole article.
This could form part of the delay method (above). And yes, you should push your most important content up front.
But beware. Quotes for intros mean the reader has to do more work. They will wonder who is speaking or what the story is about.
On the other hand, readers like to see quotations and they bring personality into the story.
- If you are determined to push on, then the quote needs to be a showstopper.
- Does it convey personal relevance? If not, it will need to entice the average reader to delve deeper.
- Use the delay method.
Think about power words as well as the keyword
No, this is not about Google keywords. One subtle technique, which also works in headlines, is to use a descriptive keyword.
These power words instantly convey emotional meaning to the story.
- Typical examples of power words are ‘free’, ‘focus’, ‘imagination’, ‘exclusive’, and ‘exploit’.
- Look through your introduction and ask yourself whether you can find any stronger words. There is a list of power words here.
- Remember, you are trying to find words that convey an emotional meaning that is in line with your content.
Watch out for information overload
One of the best reasons to keep an introductory paragraph short is that it forces you to avoid including too much information.
Don’t feel obliged to stick to the what, why, where (etc) format. The main job of the opening paragraph is to be read and to pull people in.
Even the most experienced writers are tempted to add too much colour to the opening.
- As a rule, try for a simple sentence for an intro. And limit that sentence to just one idea.
- Push any other details further down.
- Evans’s quote is apt here:
“Trying to make one sentence carry too many details or ideas. That is a fault in a sentence anywhere. In an intro it is fatal.”
Questions are for the writer to answer, not the reader
Want to turn the intro into a question? It’s a common mistake. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with establishing rapport with a reader.
Or highlighting a problem to which you have the solution.
But you should generally look to put it further down. Intros are for informing the reader, not for asking them questions.
If you are tempted to use them, remember the following:
- Advertising copywriters use questions a lot. As a content marketer this is something to avoid.
- Follow up with the answer in the next line.
Keep your stories in the present, not in the past
The present tense reads better, is more engaging and is easier to understand. The past tense can be confusing.
- There are times when you have to refer to an event that happened in the past. Just be careful as it can change the direction of the story. Worse, it can create questions for the reader.
A new mobile design was the prime aim, the company’s CEO told shareholders at its annual general meeting.
Does this mean Samsung wanted a new design but has changed its mind? No. Better, clearer is:
A new mobile phone is the prime aim, the company’s CEO told shareholders at its annual general meeting.
- And while we’re on the subject of verbs – keep them active. At its most basic, here is an example:
The cat was chased by a mouse.
Reads better as:
The mouse chased the cat.
Attributions should be used sparingly
Of course, your story may be validated by an amazing piece of research or three. And maybe the authors add weight to your angle. Fine, but avoid putting attributions in the intro because:
- It diverts attention from the main point and clutters the sentence.
- Unless you’re writing about Nato or the BBC, you’re going to need an abbreviation. Again, too much word furniture and clutter.
- It’s better to reference the research in the intro and run the attribution further down the page.
- It might result in the emphasis falling on the source rather than your story.
There is more to a good article than a great beginning. But a good introduction will get you to the races.
The main thing to remember is to keep intros simple and to stick to the most important point.
And if you are really struggling to write an interesting intro, the problem may actually lie with your idea.
There is one final consideration. Your intro has failed if it needs to be read more than once to be understood.
Having read all this, you find you’re still struggling to put a decent intro together, it may simply be that you do not understand the flow of your story well enough yet.
If that is the case fear not.
Leave it blank and write the rest. You can come back to it later.
The last rule for writers is: don’t get it right, get it written. It’s easier to edit when it’s all on the page.
Essential English for was written in 1972 when Harold Evans was editor of the Sunday Times.
Evans had three aims when he wrote the book. First and foremost, it was designed to be a text book for trainee journalists.
Second and third, it was to bring, both existing journalists and writers in general, up to speed on writing in clear and plain English.
The book has stayed in print despite references to telegrams (updated above as the Nokia Method) and references to dictating a story by phone.
As former host of CNN’s Piers Morgan Live said: “Every journalist in England should read this exceptional book. Harry Evans is a master of our trade and a master of how to use the English language.”
In FirstWord’s view, content marketing can learn a lot from journalism (and vice versa). And that is the primary aim of this piece.