There are a million ways to lose the attention of a reader.
At every line break, every pause in every sentence, every comma, every time they have to turn the page or scroll down… you’re at risk of losing someone.
But after the headline (arguably the most important make or break moment), the first sentence will tell your reader whether it’s worth even another 4 or 5 seconds of their time to see what the lead has in store for them.
First sentences don’t operate alone.
They typically are paired with killer headlines, follow with a hook-like lead, have strong elements that thread through their copy, and finish strong with a call for action.
Like in any communication between you and a potential supporter, client, customer, or donor, if you can stir up some emotion you just might convince them to read on to the second sentence, or maybe even the entire lead.
Here, some of my most recent favorite first sentences from email promotions and newsletters, and the emotions these sentences brought out in me…
Audubon newsletter from October, 2016:
In a battle between a Bald Eagle and a chicken, the chicken is definitely the long shot.
Water.org newsletter from October, 2016:
On the border of Peru and Ecuador, Moses and Dora proudly call a series of small garage-like buildings home.
(Storytelling, empathy, curiosity.)
National Audubon society, October, 2016:
Witness the endangered Coastal California Gnatcatcher, a tiny blue-gray insectivore that weighs no more than a nickel.
The Wilderness Society, September, 2016:
On my way to work I pass pavement and skyscrapers, and I dream of green wild places.
(Inspires a strong daydream-like visual, storytelling.)
Ecotrust, September, 2016:
The Ecotrust community is unlike any other.
(Bragging can often work in your favor and incite a little admiration.)
350.org, January, 2017:
It’s been 48 hours since Trump signed his executive actions on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and already more than 50,000 people have pledged to fight these projects to the end.
(Combining good and bad news makes a strong statement that you are aware of the bad, but are up for the fight ahead.)
Conservation International, October, 2016:
You may have never heard of palm oil, but chances are you’ve already consumed it today.
(A little shock, which when used correctly, is one of my favorite emotions.)
National Wildlife Refuge Association, November, 2016.
On behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, we would like to congratulate President-elect Donald Trump and all of the newly elected and returning members of Congress.
(Demonstrating 1st-rate class. The rest of this email is worth reading, as they inspire us believe the future isn’t as bleak as many environmental supporters think it will be. Of course, since this email was sent, we know better. But at the time, it was an admirable and classy flame of hope in a dark moment.).
Barbara Streisand for NRDC Action Fund, October, 2016:
In my heart, I’m an optimist.
Sierra Club, The Green Life, May, 2016:
Among the outdoorsy set, few topics are as likely to spark heated debate as the trend known as “glamping” (an ugly mash-up of “glamour” and “camping”).
(Spark a friendly debate, humor, and a little curiosity.)
Sierra Club, May, 2016:
Danielle, I’m not kidding: Bees are in serious trouble.
(Get serious, fast. It’s a take on the shock method. And as a bonus they used my name in a sentence.)
NRDC, May, 2016:
I’m Auntie Biotic, the chicken KFC doesn’t want you to meet.
(Humor, intellect, curiosity.)
Let’s Do It! World, May, 2016:
Imagine a life with less stuff, but instead of focusing on having less, rather focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more experience, more growth, more contribution, more contentment, and more freedom.
(curiosity, strong visual that plays to a better future, hope.)
Notice how many of these examples use curiosity and multiple emotions. The more emotions you can incite in a single sentence, the better. And curiosity is hard to resist. That one emotion just might get your reader to finish out the paragraph.
Right now, there so many things to stir up our passion and take our time.
If you’re in charge of writing an environmental promotion, at the most, you’ve got 3-6 short paragraphs to capture them in the lead, and the first sentence had better inspire them to even go that far.
Look at what you’ve written on your computer, on your smartphone and on your tablet. Can you tell what the purpose of your letter is on all of those devices, before your reader has to scroll too far?
And the most important question… does it inspire you to keep reading?