That confounded first sentence


May 17, 2010 by Stephanie Janard

You’ve been staring at the single word “the” on an otherwise blank screen for…how long now? Fifteen minutes? Twenty? Longer? Regardless, few experiences elicit such a frustrating sense of helplessness when a deadline looms.

While most writers avoid a meltdown reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s beleaguered author in The Shining, two tactics are sometimes taken instead that are almost just as bad for the eventual reader. Either the writer begins with the freshman essay-ish “Webster’s definition of…” or they
launch straight into a product feature description.

Don’t do either if you want your reader to finish the rest of the piece.

Instead, try something different. Pique the reader’s curiosity and trigger an irresistible
desire to find out more. Ask a thought-provoking question. Point out a surprising statistic. Share a quirky anecdote.

The point is to open with an intriguing statement that “anchors” your main message. You’ll find it much easier to build the rest of your piece from there.

If you must begin your piece with a statement about your product’s benefit, try to do so without directly stating it. Instead, prove it.

For example, one of my clients manufactures computer embedded subsystems. A chief selling point about the product is that it powers a richly diverse range of applications around the world.

But instead of writing basically just that in a brochure I wrote for them, I opted to begin with an open-ended question that compelled the reader to find out more – while establishing the selling point in the very first sentence:

“What does a military translator in Afghanistan have in common with a grocery store clerk in Ohio?”

As the reader soon learned, both depended on an RFID application powered by my client’s embedded circuit board. This easily paved the way for discussion about the product’s scalability for different uses.

To really double the impact of an intriguing headline or opening sentence, pair it with an equally compelling graphic. This makes it possible to lead in with statements that will grab and hold a reader’s attention, even for the driest subjects.

Take an Albany Life ad written decades ago by the acclaimed copywriter Alfredo Marcantonio, pushing a retirement fund.

Ad graphic: A still photo of Ronald Reagan in full cowboy costume starring in an old spaghetti western.

Accompanying headline: “Will you be as fortunate finding a second career?”

That’s Golden Age Advertising. And we’d do well to remember its lessons – one of which is that on paper (and today, online), imagery and copy take the place of your best salesperson. Use some of the tips above and start selling more – from the very first sentence.

Stephanie Janard is a freelance copywriter based in North Carolina. She specializes in B2B copy for a wide range of  industries, with a particular focus on technology-related  products and services. For more information, email Stephanie at or call 828.288.2831.


3 thoughts on “That confounded first sentence

  1. James Adkins says:

    Thank you for the article you wrote for Carolina Country. You said that the national average for US Homes were 800kws and yours was 1800kws. Has yours
    improved since you have “made changes?” If so, how much?
    I certainly agree,with this article on your blog. I stopped reading newspapers
    many years ago, because today’s edition read the same as yesterdays. In my town(Fayetteville,NC) all the news? is very slanted. It is more like opinions than news. Thanks, James Adkins

    • Stephanie Janard says:

      Hi, James. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my Carolina Country article; I appreciate that. I’d say we cut our monthly utility bill by at least twenty-five percent this winter compared to last winter. As luck would have it, though, as soon as you save on one thing, something else else comes along. The first level of our house requires oil heating, and the prices for that have gotten higher this winter. Got any suggestions? 🙂

      – Steph

      • James Adkins says:

        Yes, I do have a suggestion. My house also has oil furnace, but I never turn it on except wnen my great grand children come to visit. I have a “Grandpa Bear Fisher” wood heater. I can buy wood much cheaper than oil. My supplier ask if I was saving money by burning wood. My answer was that, ” Yes I think so, besides, I know who I buy wood from, they are my neighbors. I don’t know anybody in the oil producing country”. Keep it American. I havn’t bought oil in two years. James Adkins

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