Make the reader’s curiosity your ally in titles and introductions
The following is an excerpt from Writing to Be Understood: What Works and Why
Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book The Tipping Point opens with the detailed description of a village in Italy. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat occupies the opening passage of Susan Cain’s excellent work on introversion, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Daniel Pink’s 2018 book When launches with the departure of the Lusitania ocean liner from New York in 1915.
Of the nonfiction books intended for a general audience on my bookshelf, a large percentage begin with a story that, at first glance, has nothing to do with the title of the book. Yet I trust that the author will make the connection and I’m curious about what it will be.
We can learn from these expert explainers.
Launching your book with the Lusitania may be a bold move, if you are superstitious. But while the ship sinks, the book takes off by linking the tragic scope of the story with the premise of the work: the importance of timing on human behavior.
Pink, Cain, Gladwell, and countless successful nonfiction authors understand that their first job is to catch the reader’s attention. Without that interest, no amount of brilliant explaining will matter, because the reader won’t be around to notice.
Your window of opportunity for earning attention is quite short; it lasts as long as the title of your piece and, if you’re lucky, the opening lines. You may spend hours, days, months, or years tuning your arguments and building your expertise. Without an effective opening, all that work is for naught.
Marketing copywriters talk about the importance of having a hook, in everything from ad copy to blog posts. The hook entices the audience to click your link, pick up your book, or open your magazine article.
Yet even in the discipline of marketing, you’ll hear different definitions of what makes an effective hook. One classic definition is a short sentence or tagline that de- scribes the primary benefit, like the New York Times tagline: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Marketers also create headline hooks that appeal to curiosity or the fear of missing out: “You won’t believe what happened next!”
The most effective hooks either pitch a powerful benefit or activate the reader’s curiosity.
The chief objective of a title or an introduction is to find the intersection between the audience interest and what you want to communicate. Without an effective beginning, you may lose the reader altogether.
- Books connect with potential readers starting with the title and book description, and continuing into the introduction and first chapter.
- For a blog post, the starting promise may be expressed in the title and opening sentences.
- In an academic article or report, the title and the executive summary entice people to read further.
If you are forming narrative nonfiction, telling a story related to your content, remember that you don’t have to open with the very beginning and proceed in chronological order. The middle of the story may make the most intriguing starting point.
If the target audience already knows something about your topic, then you have a rich variety of angles to consider for your opening. If not, find a relevant connection to their lives (a benefit) or a way to engage their curiosity.
This is a short section from the chapter on curiosity in Writing to Be Understood: What Works and Why. The chapter continues to explore types of curiosity and how to active them. If you’re interested, check it out.