How to Nail Your Opening

Bubkes.

That’s what happens when you write a great headline, get scores of people to open your post, but then bore them with a lame opening.

They leave, and you accomplished nothing … except making them less likely to ever believe one of your headlines is worth clicking on ever again.

That’s why it’s essential that you nail the opening of your blog posts. To do so, you must open with a bang.

Want to learn how? Come hang out with me and Demian for 15 minutes and we’ll explain it to you.

In this episode of The Lede, we discuss:

  • The tip that both Brian Clark and Darren Rowse listed as number one
  • Why your opening sentence should be short — even as short as one word
  • What you should do every time you find a great anecdote or quote
  • Where in a story you should begin (hint: it’s not at the beginning)
  • A very, very important lesson to remember about quotes
  • Why you should copy and steal, especially from yourself

Listen to The Lede …

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The Show Notes

The Transcript

Click here to read the transcript

Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede Podcast: How to Nail Your Opening

Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing brought to you by Copyblogger Media. If you want to get a content marketing education during your drive to work, while you work out, or while you walk your dog, this podcast is the way to do it. And if you enjoy what you hear here on The Lede, we’d sure appreciate your telling a friend about us or giving us a rating and a review on iTunes.

I’m your host, Jerod Morris, and today I’m joined by Copyblogger’s Chief Copywriter, Demian Farnworth, as we continue our series on the 11 essential ingredients of a blog post. Ingredient #1, which we covered in our last episode, was a magnetic headline. Ingredient #2 is the open, where your words must begin your post with a bang.

Copywriting legend Eugene Schwartz would famously spend weeks on just the first 50 words of a sales piece. Brian Clark wrote that a great headline mixed with a lame opening is like inviting someone into your house only to slam the door in their face as they approach. Demian, what is your single most important tip for grabbing your readers’ attention and pulling them into your post, instead of pushing them out?

Demian Farnworth: The single greatest tip when it comes to openings has to be this idea that your first sentence should be short. This idea, I think, originated with Joe Sugarman. He had this idea that your headline should stop your reader in their tracks with a captivating promise. Get people to stop, and then your opening is where you convince them to continue to read.

Sugarman’s view was that he treated it as a slide from the headline to the first sentence, to the second sentence, and so on. He’d say that your only goal behind the headline was to get them to read the first sentence. Your only goal behind the first sentence is to get them to read the second sentence, and so on. And through experiments, and through writing, and through his copy, he always started with a really short first sentence. It could be a one-word, two-word, three-word, four-word sentence. Five, six is probably pushing it. But just that one word. And the goal behind was to shock, to awe them, to make them laugh, get them in a state of kind of expectancy and anticipation. So it’s that idea that your first sentence should be very, very short.

Jerod: And one strategy, one way to do that, is you can ask a question. A short question.

Demian: Right.

Jerod: As we were getting prepared for this I was reading some posts from Brian Clark and Darren Rouse, a couple of guys who know a lot about writing good blog posts, and both of them, in their post about how to write blog post openings, their number one strategy was asking a question. And we know from studies that have been done that in headlines questions can double, triple, and quadruple your click-throughs. It stands to reason that as the first sentence of a blog post, it can also serve that purpose of grabbing the reader and pulling them in, as you said, so that then they’ll go on to read the second, and the third, and hopefully the fourth sentence.

The question serves a number of purposes. Like I said, it draws the readers in. It can show your ability to empathize. And it gets your reader, if it’s a rhetorical question, it gets your reader nodding “yes” and keeps their eyes moving down the page.

Demian: Right.

Jerod: Which, again, fulfills that goal of keeping them reading from sentence to sentence. So in addition to the questions, what are some other strategies people can use inside that opening?

Demian: So the question is, obviously, one way to start it. That creates curiosity and gets the reader thinking, and it’s that thinking that equals, as Brian said, active engagement with your writing, and that’s a very good thing. The second thing is to share some sort of anecdote or a quote.

A lot of times you’ll see people start with a quote. They might share a short, little, punchy, interesting quote from Mark Twain, and then explain the relevance of that particular quote to what they’re talking about. Of course, when you use a quote it has to be relevant to what you’re talking about. The quote that you’re sharing has to be meaningful to your readers. It has to speak to some sort of pain or problem they’re trying to solve.

And of course, you can share an anecdote or some kind of story. The key about this, too, and it goes back to everything, is that how you tell that story is really important, starting off with the first sentence being very short. But also too, when you’re telling a story, and this is a trick that novelists will tell you, that screenwriters will tell you, is that you start in the middle of the action instead of starting from, for example, telling how you packed your luggage and then boarded the plane, and then climbed 35,000 feet, and all of a sudden both wings just broke off, and you’re heading toward the ground. A good writer, a good opening, a good anecdote would start right in the middle, where the wings have just broken off and you’re screaming your head off. So make sure when you tell that anecdote, or that it starts in the middle like that.

Jerod: Actually, it’s funny that you mention that one because we had that Copyblogger essay contest, and Anthony Sills, who won it, he actually opened up his starting with an anecdote right in the middle of being already up in the air on the plane.

Demian: Right. Right. Exactly.

Jerod: Certainly that one works. It’s proven.

Demian: Absolutely. So the other — a few more words, like what we call invoking the mind’s eye, and that’s sort of like producing this mental image in a reader’s mind. And the way you do that is just by using words like “Imagine this …” “Picture yourself …” “Do you remember when …” And what’s different with this than, say, with the story part, is that what you’re usually doing here is you’re sort of projecting the future. You’re kind of painting a picture of what their life will be like if they take you up on your offer, if they take you up on the promise that you made in the headline. So you say, “Imagine when you get to …”

Another way is to use an analogy, a metaphor, or a simile. A really powerful simile, a really powerful metaphor can kind of grip people. It can elicit that emotional response that you want from them. Last year a really popular metaphor was “the fiscal cliff,” and that one worked so well because people get it. It was visceral. People know what happens when you go over a cliff, right? A good thing, because it gets ugly quickly. And so that was a good metaphor for “If we don’t do something about this financial situation, we’re going to be ruined.” So use a good analogy, or a good metaphor, a good simile.

And of course, you could cite a statistic. And again, you have to be careful with this one too, because you have to cite an interesting, unique, useful, and shocking statistic. If you choose a statistic that’s been worn out and has been overused, it’s going to get ignored. People are going to say, “Oh, you know, you’re not telling me anything new by that.” And to give you an example, what I mean by this is back to our essays, we saw a number of people citing the statistic of how many blogs are out there. Sort of, like, “300,000,000 blogs are published a day.” And the problem is, that’s old news. I mean, that’s like the Geico commercial, right? Everybody already knows that. So you’re not going to interest anybody, or keep people reading.

So you have to find a statistic that stands out, that’s new. You have to find some research that’s never been talked about, and it’s hard work, and there’s no doubt about it. It’s really hard work. You have to do your homework in order to find this. Or, you know, possibly you could go the other way around. You find that statistic, and you say, “I need to use this somewhere,” and you might not have a place to use it at this moment, but you need to hold onto it.

Jerod: Right. And that leads us right into our next topic, which is having a swipe file.

Demian: Mmm-hmm.

Jerod: Which is being able to keep track of all of these different anecdotes, and stories, and quotes. And to go back to what you said about quotes: Make sure the quote is accurate.

Demian: Mmm-hmm.

Jerod: This being the Internet, there are a lot of bad quotes out there. Wrong quotes. Even one that we take for granted. For instance, the quote that Gandhi supposedly said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Demian: Right.

Jerod: I was going to use that. I wanted to use that in a blog post, and I decided, “Let me make sure he actually said this,” and it turns out it’s paraphrased from a much longer paragraph. Now the idea is the same, but it’s not actually a quote.

Demian: Right.

Jerod: And you don’t want to kill your credibility with your blog post opening, right? We want to open with a bang, not a thud.

Demian: Mmm-hmm.

Jerod: So if you’re going to use quotes, if you’re going to use statistics, even if they’re ones that you’ve heard and you kind of take for granted, make sure they’re correct, right? Make sure you have your sourcing right.

Demian: Right.

Jerod: And then you know, when you come across a story — this is a big frustration for me, and maybe you can speak to this too, Demian. I’ll come across an anecdote or a story, and I’ll think, “Man, this is perfect! I know I can use this somehow, but I don’t necessarily have a topic in mind right away.” And if I don’t write it down I will forget about it, and I lose it.

Demian: Right.

Jerod: And I always end up lamenting: “Man, I know there was that great story, I don’t remember it.” If you keep a swipe file, if you stay disciplined with it, something I’m really trying to do more of now, you may hear a story today and you don’t have anything, a blog post, that it fits for, but in a year you may. And you might not know how to open that blog post. You go back and look at your swipe file, and you’re kind of going through, you’re going through, and a-ha! You’ll see, “Hey, this matches up well, I can use it.” Don’t let those great stories or anecdotes go to waste. Just write them down and save them for when the time is right.

Demian: Exactly. And pre-Internet, a copywriting swipe file was an actual physical folder that you kept, manila folder that you kept, where you clipped out newspaper stories, or you clipped out ads that you saw, and you used to stuff everything into that particular folder. Of course, nowadays when we talk about a swipe file, we’re usually talking about apps or browsers, because I save a lot of stuff that I come across on a browser app called Readability. Or I’ll just save it as an actual bookmark, or I’ll use Evernote to grab a certain selection of it, and save it to that, and keep it in a particular notebook. So you’re saving all that information in there.

And thinking about this idea of a swipe file, for instance, you can plagiarize your own stuff. If you’re writing a blog and you’ve been writing for quite some time, you probably have some pretty successful blog post openings that you can go back to and borrow, and sort of template from. For example, I saw a documentary a couple of years ago about Jack White and Jimmy Page and The Edge, and it was called “It Might Get Loud,” and there was a certain scene with Jack White where I just knew “I’ve got to use that somehow,” but I couldn’t figure out how. I didn’t have anything at that moment. It was actually about two years later that I found the appropriate place to do it, and it was in a blog post called “How to Become a Remarkable Writer.” So I kept that there, waiting for it.

That particular opening, I’ve also used before. Like, that opening worked so well that down the road I used it in another way when I was trying to figure out how to open up another blog post. And so what I’ll do sometimes if I’m stuck on an opening, I’ll go back and look some of my more successful ones, and there are some that serve as a template, and so I’ll just take that and rewrite it with new words, with new a situation, with new language. But I’ll rewrite it, using the sort of same template, because I know it works and it’s gotten good reactions, it’s gotten good response in the past.

Jerod: Yeah, which is a great tip. And the only thing to be careful with there is if you’re writing something where it’s going to be a single audience, you can repeat that. You do want to be a little bit careful if you have a daily blog and the same people are coming back and reading you. You do want to re-use things that work, but you also don’t want it to get overused, so that people end up just not reacting to it at all. So just be careful to re-use it, but just not too much. And it’s a fine line, and you just have to know that based on your readership.

Demian: Right. Exactly. The last thing I want to do is become predictable, and any time that I’ve used an opening before, there have been three to nine months in between each one, or I’m visiting an entirely different audience. And this is a great idea, because there is this copywriter that I’ve been studying lately named Mel Martin, and they call him “the greatest copywriter nobody’s heard of,” because he was sort of this industry secret that, once people got him on the books, they didn’t want to share him with anybody else. But he wrote these great ads, and he plagiarized the dickens out of himself, but he did it for different industries.

For example, here are four of his most famous ads:

  • This one says, it opens like this. “For golfers who are almost, but not quite, satisfied with their game, and can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong.”
  • Number two: “For adults who would love to pick up their education where they left off or start again in the right direction, no matter how long ago they graduated, or got married, or got a job, or got drafted, or just quit school.”
  • Here’s number three: “For people who are almost, but not quite, satisfied with their own cooking and can’t figure out what’s missing.”
  • And then, finally, “For everyone who has ever felt mad enough to write a letter to the New York Times …”

So obviously Mr. Martin has found a formula that works, and he just uses it. He repackages it for a different audience. Now if he was still going after the golfer audience, he would obviously have to change his headline in order to get more readers, to get more eyeballs, to get more reaction. Don’t be afraid to look at past openings and see if they could work for you.

Jerod: Exactly. The lesson is always “do what works.”

Demian: That’s right.

Jerod: And once you find something that works, do it, and there are a lot proven methods that work, so use them. Follow them. And we’re going to be talking about a lot of those proven methods as we move forward with this series, “The Eleven Essential Ingredients That Every Blog Post Needs.” Today was Opening with a Bang, and our next episode will be on “Use Persuasive Words.” So be sure that you join us for the next episode of The Lede when we talk bout that. Demian, thanks for your time, and we’ll talk to you soon.

Demian: Thank you very much, Jerod.

###

*Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.

About the author

Jerod Morris


Jerod Morris is the VP of Marketing for Copyblogger Media. Get more from him on Twitter or . Have you gotten your wristband yet?

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Comments

  1. Great stuff, Jerod.

    Tuning in when schedule clears :)

  2. I wanted to say you guys made a very good point about writing short sentences in the beginning.

    I read a lot of blogs every day, and it kills me when I see a first sentence going on for over 50 words. I remember a journalism professor made it a point that the first sentence of any story we write be no longer than 25 words.

    And, to be honest, he could never be more right. Anything longer than 25 words starts to drain your readers’ interests. It’s practically a proven fact in the journalistic world.

  3. Great series here, Jerod! I’m glad you transcribed the audio. I’m just more of a visual person and like to read. I got a lot of good ideas for starting out my posts. I like the short first sentence idea. It does grab the attention. Thanks!

  4. Getting to hear Demian’s voice for the first time was terrific fun! Although I had trouble getting past the pronunciation of his name. I’ve clearly had it wrong. And I detect a slight accent of some sort. This fascinates me. But enough of that! I should’ve been taking notes instead of marveling over cadence. I do love the writing tips almost as much as the audio experience. ;-)

  5. Very valuable information for those us not “schooled” in copywriting. Have you ever considered building this series into a more in-depth course? More examples, etc.

    Love it all . . .

    • Mike, thank you for the kind words. None of what we discuss on The Lede is really new, per se. It’s all the same stuff Copyblogger has been teaching for years, just with different names and voices saying it. :-) I highly recommend that you sign up at my.copyblogger.com and start going through the ebooks. They are like a master’s course themselves in copywriting and content marketing.

  6. Great content guys. I couldn’t agree more about a good headline and a strong first sentence. One of my favorite writers who does a masterful job with this is Lee Child. His first paragraphs instantly draw you in. His Jack Reacher character almost always has a dilemma on the first page. Here is an example.

    Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through a city. Or maybe the easiest. Because at five o’clock on a Friday nobody pays attention to anything. Except the road ahead.
    ~Lee Child: One Shot:

    Child starts with one word. He then draws you in with something we are all familiar with. Sitting in traffic at 5pm on a Friday afternoon. Then he lays out a question… Who is moving unobserved in the city?

    Classic hook, line and sinker.

    In looking back at his popular books, most start with a short sentence of five or six words. POW! By the end of the first paragraph you are in the story. You can learn a lot about writing a great opening by downloading sample chapters from Amazon and examining the first few sentences.

  7. Thanks for the article Jerod. I’m in the process of creating a new landing page for my business website and am struggling with the opening sentence. This article provided me with some great ideas to implement.

  8. For those business owners who want to include a provoking statistic in a lede but don’t know where to start, http://www.statisticbrain.com talks numbers.

    For instance, 53% of women said they would end their relationship if they didn’t get anything for Valentine’s Day.

    So, if you want to keep your lady, get busy.

  9. Before I listen to the podcast. Lemme guess – the secret to a good opening is the element of surprise? Sorta shock the reader and/or intrigue them into wanting to know more?

    I like Jon Morrow’s analogy of a street performer needing to keep peoples’ attention from the first word to the last word on the post.

    Anyhoo … Can’t wait to listen to the podcast now. Talk soon.

    :-)

  10. “The tip that both Brian Clark and Darren Rowse listed as number one”

    Here’s a little tip from me (42 years a journalist and oft-published author). When mentioning people, don’t assume your audience knows who they are.

    A descriptive phrase – and I’m guessing in this instance it would be something like, ‘top-rated SEO expert’, or ‘MD of award-winning SEO company’ – would add weight to their tip and add validity as to why we should all be interested in it.

  11. Hello,

    It’s been a while since the last podcast was recorded (almost a year paused). It’s great that this podcast comeback to action again, keep covering useful topics and don’t stop again!

  12. Thank you. This promises to be a great series. Keep it coming.

    I saw the documentary “It Might Get Loud.” Not to be missed.