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I love spending a night out at the movies. The smell of the popcorn, the excitement in the atmosphere. The hush of anticipation when the lights go down. The opening lines, powerful beginnings that take you on a journey to another world…

Powerful beginnings are the thrust of any good story.

The first lines pull us into the storyteller’s world. No matter how a story is told – written, visual, or verbal – the first lines are crucial for catching us and drawing us in deeper.

Consider the following well-known story openers:

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”  Star Wars

“All children, except one, grow up.” Peter Pan

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” The Princess Bride

“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” 2001 – A Space Odyssey

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.” The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

How did you feel when you read through these? Did you feel like you needed to know more? Or perhaps you recognised the story, and it all started coming back to you.

The right words clue us in that a story is coming, arresting the attention of our wired-for-story brains. Powerful beginnings give you bits of information that tantalise, sparking our imaginations. We start wondering about the scenario those words create and we need answers!

The essential first words give us enough information to begin to form a world, while leaving just enough unknown that we must continue to find the answers. 

What does this mean for your story?

In today’s saturated media world, powerful beginnings are critical to captivate your audience from the start.

You literally have seconds to grab attention to get your audience to:

  • Open your email
  • Listen to your presentation
  • Click on your ad
  • Open your website and read beyond the home page
  • Read your blog post
  • Watch your video

If they do none of these things, they’re not going to purchase your product or use your services. Information is coming at us from every direction, with no sign of stopping. If you don’t spark interest straight away people are just going to click on to the next thing.

So, how do you instantly captivate your audience?

First, to get results, you have to be noticed. Use storytelling elements that stimulate anticipation, build suspense, engage your audience and bring them into your world.

I’ve got a few tips and tricks to share with you.

Dial up curiosity.

Pose a question. State a strange fact that makes them question the world as they know it. Did you know the national animal of Scotland is the unicorn? Did you know that bees sting other bees to protect their nests from invaders? Or that the pharaohs of ancient Egypt lathered their slaves in honey to draw flies away from themselves? (True delegation of task, perhaps!). Arousing curiosity in the first 3 minutes makes for a powerful beginning. Just make sure your interesting fact has relevance to what you’re about to say – confusion is not the impression you want to make.

Introduce conflict.

Think like a mystery writer. Look for sources of conflict in your story and introduce them in the beginning, setting the context for what is to come. The audience knows a resolution must be down the track and they will listen and absorb the story until they get one.

Charles Dickens famously started A Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” WTF? How can it be both? Starting a story with conflict instantly engages the part of our brain that tries to make sense of information while searching for something to relate it to.

Make it personal.

I recently opened a speech at the rural marketing conference with a personal story about my grandparents who were shareholders in the first dairy factory in NZ at Edendale. This told the audience something about me and established a common thread by linking my history to a rural industry. Telling a personal story is a powerful beginning to connect on a human level.

Be eccentric.

Dare to stand out. The unconventional ones always get noticed, and that’s what you need to get a foot in the door.

Richard Branson named his entire company Virgin in a bid for attention, and his continual wordplay (such as his autobiographies Losing My Virginity and later, Finding My Virginity) carries it on – we immediately know it has something to do with the eccentric Sir Richard, and we start conjuring up what we already know about him.

Outside the box thinking can lead you to creative, quirky ideas that grab attention. But beware of being too extreme, because if the rest of the story doesn’t live up to the start people will be left feeling disappointed.