“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” may be the best opening line of a novel in English literature. It should be a reminder of the importance of getting your best fact first in what you write.
The opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities sets the stage for the sharp contrasts that make the story compelling. It reinforces and adds dimension to the book title. The reader has a major cue for what to expect.
Many contemporary writers, including ones who write white papers, blogs and op-eds, don’t follow Dickens’ example. They loop into their main theme, sometimes waiting to spring it on the hapless reader until the fourth or fifth paragraph. In an age of short attention spans, exasperated readers often give up and move on.
Journalism students are taught – or at least they used to be taught – to spit out your best fact at the front-end of your first sentence. You want to attack your reader with your best fact, for the same reason you want to make a grand entrance or a great first impression. A wishy-washy beginning to a piece meant to persuade is the equivalent of a limp handshake.
People can disagree on the “best fact.” But it’s indisputable in today’s overloaded marketplace of information and messages, the best fact is usually what attracts readers’ attention and causes them to keep reading.
Placing the best fact first isn’t as easy as it sounds. After identifying what the best fact is, you need to conceive how best to say it. A blandly worded best fact is almost as bad as a buried best fact.
Dickens’ opening line in A Tale of Two Cities works because it is succinct, has a natural cadence and is easy to remember. These are the same qualities that produce great sound bites. The best opening lines are, in effect, written sound bites.
Here are four made-up public affairs examples to illustrate the point:
• A majority of white Millennials believe they suffer as much discrimination as minorities, according to a recent poll.
• Data shows only 2 percent of all U.S. tax dollars go to educate children in public schools, suggesting public education is no longer the national priority it once was.
• Immigrants to the United States pay more in fees and taxes than they receive in public services and health care. That’s the finding from a recent economic study examining the financial impact of immigration.
• Rising housing prices in a community reflect demand outstripping supply and reinforce the need to increase the supply of housing units, especially ones that match the unmet market.
There are lots of excuses to avoid putting the best fact first. None of them hold much water. If your goal is readership, follow the eyeballs of readers. Give them your best and entice them to read more.
It’s worth noting that Dickens didn’t always follow the example he set in A Tale of Two Cities. Other works of his began with murkier opening lines. But one good example is all you need to remember the benefit of the best-fact-first strategy. A Tale of Two Cities actually offers two excellent examples – the opening line and the closing line. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Write like that and you will get read.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.