Journalists craft leads. Fiction writers grapple with first sentences.
But in thought leadership, the "rules" for those first few words (or paragraphs) of your article are anything but black and white.
An article about key industry trends might start out very differently than one about business lessons from your father, for example — yet both could be great thought leadership articles.
All that flexibility creates writer's block. So, where should you start?
My best advice can be summed up in three words: “Don’t stress it.” First, focus on getting all of your ideas down on paper, then revise — and revise some more — especially those opening sentences. You may not be writing a novel, but they are important.
Then, when you’re finally ready to refine your opening thoughts, here’s some advice.
A Few ‘Rules’ for Better Readability
Rules are made to be broken, including these — but they can also serve as helpful signposts along the way.
- Keep it short. We know you’re passionate, but readers want to get to the “meat” of your article fast — and that generally takes place after the introduction. Keep your opening lines brief, clear and persuasive. Avoid overly long paragraphs.
- Start strong. Pick your strongest fact, anecdote or opinion and let it speak for itself. You get a few seconds to hook your reader — use it. (Tip: Find all the adjectives and adverbs and delete those you don’t need.)
- Show, don’t tell. Avoid long passages of explanation. Readers look to thought leaders to distill complex ideas into actionable insight — show them how to do something instead of lecturing them on what to do.
- Avoid weak words and generalizations. If your article starts with, “It is generally understood that…”, your reader has already clicked away. Trust me.
- Make your mission clear. You don’t need a term-paper inspired “thesis statement,” but the reader should, within the first couple lines of your article, get a sense of where you’re headed. Otherwise, how will they know whether to keep on reading?
4 Opening Strategies That Always Work
These four methods are tried and true, and work for just about any topic.
- Start with a compelling statistic or fact (from a trusted source). This is an easy and gripping way to get readers’ attention and prove your case within a few lines. Make sure to cite your source with a hyperlink. Digital marketing expert Neil Patel uses this technique often — and to great effect.
- Start with a (brief, entertaining) anecdote. Your unique experience is what distinguishes you from all the other voices on the web. So rather than explain a problem, why not bring it to life with a quick story or anecdote, as Influence & Co.'s John Hall does in his Forbes.com article?
- Start with a surprising, provocative statement or opinion. This is trickier to get right, but if you’re writing a piece that goes against conventional wisdom in your industry, or perhaps is responding to a trend or matter you disagree with, it can grab readers — those who agree and those who disagree. Like when Jack Welch opened a piece saying he agreed that micromanagement is vastly underrated.
- Start by describing a common problem or challenge. I’ve written about the power of the word “you” before, and it applies here too. Describe the problem or issue you plan to explore by putting the reader into the story. For example:
If you’re like most executives in this industry, you’ve probably spent good money finding and training new hires only to fire them a few months later. I've been there.
There are plenty of other ways to get started — with a question, for instance — but these four will set you up for success as you develop your own favorite approaches.
The Most Important Strategy of All: Start Anywhere, Revise Later
Remember, our editorial team is here to help — so even if you think your introduction is less than perfect, don’t wait to press that “submit” button. We can refine it with you and offer some tips for improving it during the editing process. After a few submissions, I think you’ll find, as most writers do, that getting started isn’t as hard as it looks.
For more writing tips, click on the “Branding & Publishing” category in the blog menu at the top of this page.