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There are eight other people reading this post along with us. In just a few minutes, there will only be the two of us.
Don’t believe it?
The challenge was already insurmountable. People read about 18% of your blog post. Readers are overwhelmed with information and are purposefully not reading for their own sanity. Heck, we’ve been bemoaning the death of reading since 1991, and even again in 2007.
So what to do about getting readers to read? How do you keep people reading to the end?
Let me introduce you to introductions. Introductions are first impressions. You get to make them once.
Your blog post introduction must have a hook. Here are six good hooks to use in your blog post introductions.
“Niagara Falls has traveled 7 miles upstream in the past 12,000 years. Let’s hope you’re growing your web traffic at a faster rate.”
Start with a fact that is interesting, because not all facts are. Facts that are uninteresting are facts that:
Pick facts that have nothing obviously to do with your topic (Niagara Falls and website traffic?), or are perfectly in line with your topic and thesis, but are so shocking as to be gasp-worthy. Unrelated facts make the reader think “how is this bozo going to tie that into the topic at hand?” while shocking facts make the reader think “that CANNOT be true, can it?!”
Either way, it’s a hook.
There are two ways to tell the end of the story first and have a successful hook.
Find a way to tell the end of the story without giving away the surprise.
“The 20,000 customer registered in our system, and the team let out a victorious yell. We’d hit our goal, thanks to the red button.”
How does the story end? Because that’s a perfect place to start.
In this example, the introduction tells the reader what happened, but it doesn’t do so in a way that ruins the surprise. There’s a lot of action, both by the final customer and the team. There’s the suggestion of a competition and success (a goal was met). And there’s a cryptic suggestion that a red button did something amazing. Plus, 20,000. That’s impressive for anyone wanting lots of customers.
This would be a less effective version of the introduction for that post:
“After five months of intense A/B testing in which we tested different CTA button colors, we finally hit 20,000 customers. Red was the winning color.”
There is jargon. There are unexplained acronyms. An inanimate button has become the winner instead of the people (customers and the team). What little action there is, is passive. And you spilled the beans on what the post was about: A/B testing colors.
Give a heads-up summation without giving away the surprise.
This method gives your reader some respect by saying “hey, this is what I’m going to talk about with you today. If this is interesting, stick around.” Derek Halpern tends to get right to the point with his blog posts, and often introduces them by telling readers what they can expect if they keep reading.
Adding “a quick request” is a fine bit of intrigue for the reader. “What in the world could Halpern want from me?” the reader thinks, and keeps on reading.
Knowing what’s coming and how things will end is helpful for readers. It gives them an idea of whether or not they should take the time and what expectations to have. The danger for you, the writer, is if you have an unexciting topic and give your readers a heads-up to that.
“Today I am going to talk about the value proposition of going paperless at your office, and ultimately prove that you will want to buy a small scanner and ban the paper.”
Meh. That’s not an introduction to remember for all eternity.
Halpern’s version has a bit more intrigue and zip, though, admittedly, some readers will appreciate the above example. It has its place, but isn’t the greatest hook.
“I once wrote a newspaper story that killed a man.”
That’s the actual blog post introduction I wrote on a post for this blog. It’s a one-sentence anecdote. That’s an extremely short anecdote; most anecdotes are longer, like those you find in this post about social proof in which several anecdotes are used.
Anecdotes are wee bitty stories that put a larger idea or thesis in a different context. Speakers know that starting with a story instead of a philosophical or fact-filled lecture is a sure-fire way to get people’s attention. It’s the same for your readers.
What makes a good anecdote?
Something that happened to you, in your life.
This makes you the expert on how to apply the story and what it means. I would rather hear an anecdote about your trials and failures rather than the tired anecdote of how many times Edison tried to invent the lightbulb.
Something either funny or poignant.
Make ’em laugh or make ’em cry (or somewhere close). At the very least, end at a different level than where you started. You start at ground zero with your reader. Your anecdote can’t end there. It’s no hook if it does.
Something related to your thesis.
Don’t be that speaker that tells a random joke or story and then segues with an “but I digress” and launches into Yawnville. Your anecdote should illustrate your thesis in a new way, or start leading the reader’s thought patterns towards where you want to take them with your thesis.
A quote can work.
Quotations can work, and sometimes make a fine opening. But people quickly get in the habit of using the words of others to boost their own, so watch out for overuse of this technique. And avoid quotations that are overused for your niche. Steve Jobs had some good things to say, but after a while, those excellent words lose their power because they are overused. Find new quotations from surprising sources.
And avoid quotations that are overused for your niche. Steve Jobs had some good things to say, but after a while, those excellent words lose their power because they are overused. – @JulieNeidlingerClick To Tweet
Yes, there are stupid questions, and a good share of them are rhetorical.
In their best use, asking a question is a fine way to force the reader to identify with the problem you are about to solve. Questions can be powerful.
But some questions are a waste of time.
Go easy with rhetorical questions.
“What are we going to do about your low-performing blog?”
Rhetorical questions cannot be answered by the reader.
They are asked not to prompt thinking or discover knowledge, but to make a point.
They are often dramatic. They can be insulting.
“Have you stopped beating your dog yet?” is a classic example. The question assumes someone is being cruel to an animal. It can’t really be answered. Or “How do you solve a problem like Maria?“, which assumes first that Maria is a problem.
It’s similar to what I see being used a lot in lead generation and calls-to-action where one button says “Yes, I want more traffic. Take my email!” while the other button says “No, I want to see my website die a painful slow death.” Rhetorical questions set up the reader in a similar, psychological way. The reader has to accept the underlying assumption in order to answer. It can work, but if you make an offensive or insulting assumption, your reader leaves.
Use rhetorical questions carefully.
Don’t ask questions intended to limit the answer.
Pet peeve alert: I despise when people speak in questions so they can pre-empt any difficult or real questions and give softball answers. Here’s how it works (and I’m sure you’ll recognize the technique):
“Do I love web traffic? Yes. Did I mean to send my disgruntled blog readers a skunk in the mail? Of course not.”
By asking the questions you, the writer, want to answer instead of providing the answers the reader wants, you can create the appearance of forthright and complete discussion without actually doing so. Plus, you slip into passive voice of sorts, where you don’t own the action and behavior. How does that work in an introduction?
“Do I love web traffic? Yes. Do I know the secret to building it? You bet.”
Ok, we get it. But what a waste of your reader’s time.
“My love of web traffic is bested only by my ability to build it.”
Kind of a silly example, but you get the idea: be direct, not passive.
Don’t ask obvious questions.
Every time I find myself tapping out an introduction that starts with “do you want more traffic on your blog?” I’m sure somewhere a philosopher dies. What I’m trying to do is tell the reader “yes, this is the post you were looking for” but what I’m really telling the reader is “I don’t know how to write.”
“Do you want more traffic on your blog?”
Really? That’s your Bob Woodward?
“98 percent of blog owners want more traffic. Yeah, we don’t understand that remaining two percent, either.”
You can identify with your reader without asking them obvious questions that they skim over.
Once in a while — but not too often, mind you — he sends out an email of Unusually Short Stories. He also posts them on his web site. He is all sparseness and tortuous brevity, his unusually short stories impeccable. They hook, and leave you hanging off the cliff.
Take a page from Bruce’s book: these are the introductory paragraphs that get readers hooked. I know, because I’ve sat and stared at them willing the next sentence to appear (which will not happen).
I’m a firm believer mimicking and dissecting the successful work of others as a form of practice. Artists often paint from the masters to learn about color, light, and technique (I’ve done it). While at a writers’ conference a few months ago, best-selling author James Hall told of a class he taught his graduate students (which included Dennis Lehane) where they were instructed to find a novel they loved and write their own novel based on the structure of it. He later turned this class into a book called Hit Lit: Cracking The Code Of The 20th Century’s Biggest Best Sellers.
So let’s look at Bruce’s example. What makes it work? It’s only two sentences, and I’m dying to read the next paragraph.
The setup tells us there is a competition known only to us (we have exclusive knowledge). There is a setting, both in place and time. And we know the startling end result. The cliffhanger isn’t what happened next, but what happened in between. How do you get from intriguing point A to hilarious and startling point Z?
So. A cliffhanger can be either “what happens next” or “what happened in between.” Let’s say your headline was:
How We Went From Zero To 10,000 Customers In Just One Year.
Here’s an example of a “what happened in between” cliffhanger:
“We started with three team members and a plant in the window. One year later, we were taking sledgehammers to the office walls.”
The rest of the post talks about how you grew your customer base, and how it meant your team grew, too, and you had to expand your office space. (Or how things went poorly and you demolished the office in a fit of rage, but let’s hope not.)
“You were getting 100 new sign-ups a week, and thought your email conversion rate was as good as it could get. But you were wrong, and I’ll tell you why.”
Confrontation is sure to get a reader’s attention. Of course, not all confrontation is created equal. There is insulting and trollish confrontation (always wrong), and there is gentle confrontation. A gentle confrontation takes a soft swipe at a controversy, or pokes a long-held belief of the reader in a way that encourages them to read on and reconsider. What happens when you do that?
So in the case of the first reaction, gentle confrontation can be a friend. In the case of the second reaction…less so.
Either way, introductions that are confrontational can often lead to active comment sections.
Introductions are meant to transition to the guts of the blog post, right? So the order of creation should be the almighty headline, then the introduction, and then your fantastic content.
Well, no. That may be the final arrangement of things, but probably not the best way to write it.
While introductions are the first impression for the reader, they ought to be the last impression for the writer.
In this video, writer Carolyn Mohr explains it well. Your blog post is made up of the same elements Mohr describes:
Only after you have finished your thesis, your analysis, your conclusion — the meat of your post — do you attempt the introduction. After all of that has been written, you know better off what your introduction is. Your thesis is what needs to drive your post, not your introduction.
When I write a blog post, I often toss an introduction at the top as little more than a placeholder. Then I continue on with the post using the writing system I’m used to. At the end, I inevitably change the introduction I wrote at the beginning because the content may have taken a surprising turn, the tone changed, or my understanding of the topic is better than when I started.
After headlines, introductions carry a lot of weight. You are always grappling for your reader to stick around, and an introduction that hooks the reader and keeps them on the line is a good way to do it. It’s also incredibly tough to write, especially if you write a lot of posts and have used up all of your “tricks” for hooking readers.
November 26, 2014
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