“Friends, Romans, Copywriters! Lend me your ears …”
Copywriting those opening words is a finely crafted art of the first impression. The reader’s snap decision of that impression —”ho hum” or “oh wow!”— is crucial to the whole story. Writers call it “the opening hook”. To me, a great opening hook is like an elegantly designed door: it makes you want to have your picture taken in front of it. In other words, you want it to be in your story.
Properly practiced copywriting hooks you in because you consciously or subconsciously recognise it as your story (it’s relevant, it’s meaningful, it’s interesting and/or it’s useful). So that opening is crucial and requires all the copywriting skills you can muster. Done well, you arrest-connect-engage your reader into the story. Done poorly, the story ends before it begins.
How do you write an opening that simultaneously fires up the story and the interest of the audience?
“The best stories usually hook you with their intro,” says one of The Copy Book’s top 32 copywriters in the world, Tony Cox, and adds that “they start as they mean to go on, rather than clearing their throat before getting down to business”.
In other words, never underestimate the pulling or pushing power of those first few words.
Let’s take a stroll through the boulevard of show-stopping opening hooks from literature, advertising and Copywriting in Action. Our first stop is a left turn into Literary Lane.
Perhaps our greatest teachers of the compelling opening hook are the novelists past and present. They all demonstrate the pulling power of an opening hook with it’s many possibilities.
Open any novel to the first chapter and read that first sentence. While some are more compelling than others, you can be sure of one thing: they’ve spent hours thinking and crafting that sentence into a seductive invitation to read on.
Look closely and you will see a lot going on in that set up: idea, imagery, tone, style and mood.
It all boils down to one aim: hooking you into the picture through one of our six senses — seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting and knowing (insight).
I’ve selected a few of my personal favourites to get you up and running. Just reading their openings will help you get half-way over the learning curve.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. (Neuromancer; 1984; William Gibson)
You see and you’re in.
Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness. (Desert of the Heart; 1964; Jane Rule)
You see. You learn. You’re in.
–Money … in a voice that rustled. (JR; 1975; William Gaddis)
You see and hear and you’re in.
The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes. (Girl at War; 2015; Sara Nović)
You see. You learn. You’re in.
“Unemployed at last!” (Such is Life; 1903; Tom Collins)
You feel and you’re in.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice; 1813; Jane Austen)
You see. You learn. You’re in.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of reason, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. (A Tale of Two Cities; 1859; Charles Dickens)
You feel. You learn. You’re in.
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. (Love in the Time of Cholera; 1988; Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
You taste. You smell. You’re in.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. (Everything I Never Told You; 2014; Celeste Ng)
You see. You’re in.
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” (The Satanic Verses; 1988; Salman Rushdie)
You see. You learn. And before you know it … you’re in.
There’s a thousand more of these powerful preludes to all types of writing. It’s what all writers great and small rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until it’s cooking and hooking.
In my experience, nothing focuses the mind more than copywriting opening hooks (second only to cracking the code for an arresting headline). A great opening hook is what sets the tone for the rest of the story. It’s the game changer from generic to genuine, bland to beautiful, predictable to peculiar, valium to verve.
And nobody else knows that better than an A Grade copywriter.
Perhaps it’s all too easy to choose from the many “killer openings” by literary writers. So let’s now detour into Advertising Avenue. I’ve chosen a few of the 32 greatest copywriters in the world from The Copy Book, (arguably still the best book on copywriting by copywriters).
Let’s begin with Australia’s king of copy, John Bevins, for the Bankers Trust Australia Group. This is No˚6 in a series of long copy ads providing “insight for investors”. The headline for this one reads: The Swedish Chimpanzee Method (Plus a Sounder Way To Get Rich).
If you perservere with this wall-to-wall text, you will be rewarded with an introduction to Dollar Cost Averaging, the minor marvel that could help make you rich. But first, to Stockholm, and a chimpanzee named Ola.
By acknowledging the reader’s first impression of “way too many words to bother reading”, the target audience is immediately disarmed. So they can’t help but read on and find out the rich reward to be had. This is empathy and enticement in one action. The all important connection is made between writer and reader. Now the storytelling begins, and we all love a good story about a clever animal.
Perhaps the Queen of Conversational Copy is Susie-love-a-jolly-good-natter-over-the-garden-fence-Henry. She’s a UK copywriter famous for her Commercial Union Assurance ads. She’s even more famous for her line “we won’t make a drama out of a crisis” which entered the language in the 70’s. The headline for the first ad in the series is While others were assessing the damage, we were paying for it, and the intro reads:
On the morning of January 11th 1978, you might have been forgiven for mistaking the streets of Sheerness for Amsterdam or Venice.
Besides its engaging dialogue between reader and copywriter, she creates a vivid image that is as dramatic as the story is catastrophic. You just need to know what happened. Why? Because we all love a good disaster story with a happy ending.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, the Hemingway of Madison Avenue, Ed McCabe, was writing copy on a tablecloth in New York for a little Italian motor scooter called Vespa. Picture a double garage with one of those big American gas-guzzling Fords parked inside and beside it, a petite white Travel-Italian-Style Vespa. The headline reads: Maybe your second car shouldn’t be a car. The opening line of copy in a paragraph all of it’s own for maximum effect:
You have to imagine America in the 60’s with their love affair for everything BIG! Now that’s knowing your target audience like they’re sitting right across the table from you. This establishes a connection (I know you’re laughing; so did I at first) and launches into compelling reasons for buying a Vespa:
It makes a lot more sense to hop on a Vespa than it does to climb into a 4000-lb automobile to go half a mile for a 4-oz pack of cigarettes. To begin with, a Vespa can be parked.
The joke may be on the Vespa at the beginning, but by the time Ed gets through all the logic, the joke is on the reader who’s second car isn’t a Vespa.
Indra Sinha can boast going to the same Bombay school as Salman Rushdie and, like most of us, spends hours on a single sentence before it sings. Here’s an opener for one of his police recruitment ads where the picture shows a gritty close-up of a skinhead spitting at a police officer, and the headline asks: Could you turn the other cheek?
Cool customer, are you? Okay, let’s see how far you can get before you blow your stack.
Then he writes a number of real life scenarios where the reader is the police officer challenged to respond to situations of abuse, threats and physical violence. Writing this ad was a result of two months research interviewing officers. This involved crouching terrified in the back of speeding patrol cars; being on the scene of knife-fights; witnessing officers calm battered wives; and joining a chase for a burglar across back gardens. All in a day’s work for police officers. What that opening line challenges you to do is discover something profound about yourself.
As you can see, accomplished copywriters ask the same question as accomplished literary writers: How do I hook my reader in? Give yourself plenty of hours for the intro. It is the gatekeeper of good storytelling. That’s why my Copywriting in Action course spends a whole session on the art, psychology and music of writing introductions.
Now I’ll put my money where my mouth is. Here are some opening lines by participants of my Copywriting in Action course. This time I won’t give a commentary. I won’t describe the concept. Nor will I explain the context of the story. Instead, I’ll just show you the Before Versus After drafts and let them speak for themselves. I’m sure by now you can join the dots for yourself.
Saving money can be hard, especially as a barista.
Baristas. They’re a rare brew.
We want to say thanks for your donation to the 2019 Climate for Change Crowdfunder.
A million thank-yous for standing with the 1.4 million students and supporters around the world who attended the historic School Strike 4 Climate on March 15, 2019.
Well, this just goes where you both take it. Sometimes the guy can be really nervous, but that’s okay. It’s almost cute. But this just means you will have to lead the conversation a bit more. Keep prattling on and asking him questions until you sense him relaxing.
Sweaty palms, check. Pounding heart, check. Lost for words, check. Yes, it’s a romantic fact, both of you are going to be nervous on the first date.
Through authentic, compelling stories ReSPIN speakers help community groups and organisations understand the effects of gambling harm on individuals, families, friends, employers and colleagues.
The gambler. The loved one. The enabler. Each one will tell what the news and ads don’t tell you about the real impact of gambling.
Ministers rely on you to provide them with the information they need. We use official briefings to get this information to them.
We all want to be sure the right people have the right information at the right time. Only a clear and precise brief can do this.
Hands on Development provides disadvantaged Nepali women skill training in tourism and hospitality.
Tour with us. You not only have a trip of a lifetime but also set up disadvantaged Nepali women for life.
Scammers will pose as genuine sellers and post fake ads on classifieds websites, and may approach you through email or social media.
I don’t care who you are. As long as I know your weakness I will find my way into your hard-drive and your accounts to steal your identity.
Copywriting opening hooks will determine whether or not your reader will read on.
“Friends, Romans, Countryman! Lend me your ears …”
“Friends, Romans, Copywriters! Lend me your ears …”
Yes, even the opening of this post took me about 15 minutes to figure out. And then I came back to it after my first draft of these 2005 words and changed “countryman” to “copywriters”.
It could be argued that opening hooks are a more difficult challenge for us copywriters than our literary brothers and sisters. That’s because we’re writing to a reluctant audience. There’s a huge amount of suspending disinterest to be done. What’s more, this is a sentence-by-sentence challenge.
After all, who wants to sit up in bed and read your copy?
All the more reason to make sure your opening sentence comes with a guaranteed hook. You may never get into a listicle of “famous opening lines”, but you will learn how to make that first impression entice your reader into your story.