The speaker had just been introduced. A slide behind him had his name and institution on it. A program in each member of the audience's hands had the same information. And still, how did he begin?
'Good Morning, my name is Gary Anderson and I'm a managing director at Acme and I'm here today to talk about...' Yet again the chance to make a powerful first impression by a presenter was lost. The audience settled in for another mediocre presentation, and they were not wrong. All too often business leaders forget the classic adage 'you never get a second chance to make a first impression.' In both written and oral communication it's just too easy to begin with the mundane, the uninspired, and the ordinary.As we're designing presentations or crafting emails or letters, it's acceptable, perhaps even easier, to start by writing the heart of our content. How will we shape it? What flow makes sense? What matters most to my audience? What aspects must be included and what elements are optional if time, or space, allows? But once the draft of your communication is complete, then step back and consider the total package you are delivering to your reader or audience and decide carefully how you wish to begin.
Each year we likely see hundreds of presentations at work or professional conferences. The speaker who commands our attention from their first breath is one we want to listen to. At TED 2009, Elizabeth Pisani, an AIDS researcher with unconventional methods of field research, did just that. She looked out at the audience and began 'People do stupid things; that's what spreads HIV.' She had us. She then went on to discuss four distinct groups of people (drug users, sex workers, gay men, and health policy nerds) and what each found to be rational. Her talk, from her very first breath, was brilliant, well-designed, and powerful. It began well and just got better.
In this era of double-digit unemployment, many of us are either job-hunting or helping friends and colleagues who are searching for employment. After crafting a cover letter, set it aside, do something else as a distraction, and then return to it with fresh eyes. Imagine you are the hiring manager and this has landed on your desk or in your in-box. Does the letter capture your attention from the very first moment?
All too often the letters I see are all about the applicant. 'I found your ad on my favorite job website and I think I'd be great for...' Consider who are you writing to and how you can make a first impression that gets out of your world and into his or hers. 'Your need for a motivated self-starter (from the job description) matches my desire to move from product sales to selling service.' The point is to think of the recipient's desk, his priorities and needs and address those. Your name is on the return address portion of the envelope, at the top of your resume, and at the top of the cover letter, so resist beginning with 'My name is Beth Jones and I want...' Consider the reader.
While we may only see scores of business letters in a year, we see thousands of emails. There, the first impression is obvious: the subject line. Pause from this post for just one moment and glance through your inbox right now. Don't open and answer any emails, but just see how many actually capture your attention with the subject line. I'm guessing fewer than 10%. Worse yet, many subject lines give us no clue what's contained in the email. 'Follow-up from yesterday' or 'update on project' do nothing to capture our attention or give us a sense of what's in the email. So many executives read and respond from their BlackBerries or iPhones, we need to make every single character count.
The key to writing a powerful subject line is to do it last, right before you hit send, not before you've written the email. Yes, I know, that requires returning to the top of the email to fill in the subject line after you've finished writing the email. But only then do you really know what you're saying in the body of the email. It's also a fantastic opportunity to double-check that you have the correct recipients listed on the email (not too many, not too few).
We have hundreds of opportunities each week to make a first impression. Whether it's a formal presentation to hundreds of strangers, a cover letter to a firm we'd like to hire us, or an email to a group of coworkers about next week's company picnic, consider that first impression and make it count.
JD Schramm, Director of the Mastery in Communication Initiative at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, teaches a variety of communication course to MBA students. He can be reached at email@example.com and is more likely to respond if the subject line captures his attention.