Updated: Jun 16, 2020
The first sentence of anything is every writer’s nightmare. Whether it’s a novel, an ad, a report, or a web page, the first line is always the hardest. You’re under pressure because if the opening line doesn’t grab the reader, you might as well give up right there. So what’s the best way to hook your reader and keep them reading?
1. Make it easy to remember.
“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville. Moby Dick
The shorter the sentence, the easier it is for the reader to remember. According to the American Press Association, total recall ends at about 8 words – and when a sentence reaches 20 words only 70% is memorable. So the advantage of a short sentence is that you can sink a powerful thought into the reader’s mind quickly.
Take this banner on the homepage of nike.com:
Just one quick glance is enough to completely memorise the meaning and the exact wording of the banner. 'Bold look'. Says it all, really.
But if your first sentence rambles on, chances are you’ll cover more than one idea. Readers want to be led through arguments one thought at a time. The longer you waffle, the harder it is to follow. And your reader will wander off.
2. Make it human.
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
The other advantage of a short sentence is that it’s closer to the way we speak. Estimates vary, but one TED talk put the average spoken sentence length between 7 -10 words. So the rhythm of a short sentence is something we feel familiar with. It eases us into the copy.
In Charlotte Bronte’s opening to Jane Eyre the language is accessible and concrete. No trouble picturing someone trapped inside because of the weather.
Everyday words make a big impact. Partly because there’s no confusion, but also because they’re the words that are hardwired into our subconscious and have more emotional pull: ‘beat’ will always carry more weight than ‘vanquish’. This example from The Martian is very powerful considering it's only four words:
“I'm pretty much fucked.”
Andy Weir, The Martian
This example shows that swearing is another powerful way to sound human, but it only really works for brands like Cards Against Humanity, with their unique tone of voice. But no matter how offensive they're trying to be, they always sound approachable:
By using everyday words like 'horrible', they seem like real people. The effect wouldn't be the same if they'd said 'disturbed' or 'horrendous':
Contrast that with this poster from Nedbank:
Can you picture 'through-the-cycle thinking'? Thought not.
3. Say something people agree with.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice
Door-to-door salesmen know that if they can get you to agree to one thing, you’re more likely to agree to the next. The sale can come later.
The same thing goes for copy. If your reader agrees with your first sentence, they’re more likely to read the next.
The first sentence of this post was written using that idea. And you’re still reading. What I love about Jane Austen’s line is that the truth is ‘universally acknowledged’ so it must be true.
Here’s the first sentence from the AA on their business breakdown insurance:
Keeping your fleet of cars, vans, trucks and other vehicles moving is crucial to a successful business.
Can’t argue with that. And note how they said ‘successful’ business, which of course is what we’d all like to be.
Or this truism from a Vodafone post:
The way we work has changed dramatically.
No disputing that either – and suddenly you’re reading the next sentence.
Other opening sentences are available from all good writers
There are plenty of other ways to start a piece of writing: surprising, shocking, empowering, poetic and more. But for a guaranteed good start you can’t beat writing something you know your reader will agree with, delivered in a short, easy to grasp soundbite.
Your only remaining challenge? To make all the other sentences as good as the first.