Making a Good Impression

As Professor of Psychology Alexander Todorov has demonstrated in the context of the human face, we are wired to form snap judgments, making durable inferences in a fraction of a second. Although we are cautioned not to judge a book by its cover, we routinely do so, which is why dust jackets are as much a marketing tool as a protective covering. In the words of one Goodreads discussant, “It is the very first thing you notice about a book and in 5 sec you decide whether to pick it up or move on to the next one.”

Much the same can be said of opening sentences, though in the workplace unlike the bookstore we often have to persevere, despite an unfavorable first impression. But the damage has been done. At best, a slight estrangement is created; at worst, we resent reading further.

It is therefore important for writers to craft strong initial sentences, engaging their readers and drawing them deeper into the text with an implicit promise of more good things to come. Such sentences must strike a balance between sparkle and substance, at once attracting and orienting those who read them. Effective openings are often short and emphatic, as in Ralph Ellison’s most celebrated work, which begins with a simple declarative statement  “I am an invisible man” but they can also be long and provocative, as in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” However, in the world of professional communication, Invisible Man is the better model; its opening sentence is compact enough to be easily digested but also broad enough to form a springboard for what follows.

Similar examples include J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (“All children, except one, grow up.”), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (“It was a pleasure to burn.”), and Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups (“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”).

Outside the realm of literature, the subjects of opening sentences are frequently mundane, but creating a positive first impression is no less critical. Take the following examples:

I write with good news: Lisa Johnson, who impressed us all with her warmth and creativity, has agreed to be our new director of student life.

Or

Following a lengthy selection process, in which we reviewed more than 100 applications and interviewed six candidates, a decision has been reached in the search for a new director of student life, and I am pleased to report that Lisa Johnson has accepted our offer.

The first sentence is clearly stronger than the second, conveying its message straightforwardly yet warmly and saving the details of the selection process for later. The second sentence, in contrast, dwells on the history of the search, which, in an announcement of this kind, is to let the tail wag the dog. And it is the dog, not the tail, that readers want to meet.

Strong and weak beginnings take countless forms and therefore do not lend themselves to templates, but the wheat and the chaff can be separated by asking a fundamental question. Will my opening words whet my readers’ appetite for more? If in doubt, think about rewriting them.