Once upon a time

Are you ready for a bedtime story? Well, you’re going to be disappointed. This post is about the power of a good beginning, and the dangers of beginnings that raise the wrong expectations, like the one above.

Here are two examples. One organisation I worked with recently started all its reports, no matter what the subject, with the same heading – Introduction. Fair enough, but what invariably followed was a paragraph about its own history and membership. That’s no introduction, that’s background and context. All it did was to confuse the reader, who just wanted to know what the document was before deciding whether to read it or not.

At the other extreme, I recently read a vivid account of the Haiti earthquake in the New Yorker magazine. One long paragraph simply listed the damage the earthquake had wreaked – it did this, then it did that, then it did the other. Reading it, you might have wondered how long the list would go on, and where the writer was taking you. But the paragraph began with the words “The earthquake seemed to follow a malignant design.” This elegant metaphor turned the list into a drama and had me hooked to the end.

How does that translate into business writing? I think it shows the need for clear and regular signposts (such as that question) to guide the reader through the information. In the end (there’s another signpost), it’s all about being considerate, about getting the reader interested, then helping them through and not messing with their expectations.

And finally, they all lived happily ever after.