James Patterson is the world’s bestselling author because he’s mastered the art of grabbing the reader’s attention.
The opening sentence in Kiss the Girls, the second of the Alex Cross series of novels, reads: “For three weeks, the young killer actually lived inside the walls of an extraordinary fifteen room beach house.”
Patterson encourages communicators to write (and rewrite) the opening of a presentation until it’s strong enough to hook the listener. It’s one of the lessons Patterson taught me during a recent conversation about his new memoir: James Patterson by James Patterson: The Stories of My Life.
“First lines can really give you an advantage,” he said. “Grab your reader’s attention quickly.”
Yes, your audience wants to be informed. They also want to be entertained. Here are four ways to hook them fast.
Nobody cares about what you’ll be talking about later unless they’re interested in what you’re talking about now. Save the agenda or schedule until after you’ve grabbed their attention and set the scene.
Setting the scene means that you pull the listener into the story right away.
One of my favorite examples of setting the scene is a TED talk by brain researcher Jill Bolte-Taylor, a neuroscientist I interviewed for one of my books.
Bolte-Taylor told me she practiced the following opening more than one hundred times to get it just right:
“On the morning of December 10, 1996, I woke up to discover that a blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.”
I don’t know about you, but after opening, I’m all in. I want to know what happens next.
Bolte-Taylor’s opening scene has attracted more than 30 million views and made her TED talk one of the most popular of all time.
Setting a scene is one way to grab the listener. Another way is simply to set the tone and style of the presentation.
For example, Patterson told me he often starts a speech by saying, “Hello, I’m Stephen King.” The remark draws a big laugh because many of his fans know the two writers are not very tight (King has criticized some of Patterson’s books). The lines give the audience a signal that Patterson doesn’t take himself too seriously and that they should expect the speech to be lighthearted and fun.
Sir Ken Robinson, a famed educator, delivered the most viewed TED talk of all time by using self-deprecating humor. “I have an interest in education. I find this very interesting. If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education–actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education–you’re not asked.”
Robinson’s TED talk has been viewed more than 75 million times because he set a humorous style early and maintained his funny insights throughout the entire presentation. Robinson’s success as a speaker was that he sparked a laugh and, once he had them hooked, delivered a powerful message about the educational system.
Take out a red pencil and edit your first lines again and again. Rewriting is not a sign that anything is wrong. Instead, it reflects your commitment to excellence. Patterson says he’ll write nine or ten drafts of a chapter before he’s satisfied with it, and much of that time is spent on the opening lines.
Grabbing any audience–readers or listeners–is a difficult task. It takes time and devotion to get craft a strong opening, but it’ll be worth the worth effort when your audience rewards you with their precious attention.