Why should anyone pay attention to what you have to say? Just because you write a press release, an advert or create a brochure, it doesn't necessarily follow that anyone will want to read it. So how do you hook your reader? The answer is surprisingly simple!
Ask questions! Questions, by their very nature, involve people. A good rhetorical question immediately involves the reader. By asking the reader to consider a short, punchy sentence and its relevance to them, you immediately focus their interest on what you have to say.
What to do
Keep it simple. For an example of how to get it wrong, just look at the following question:
'How can you keep up with the latest development trends - games development, leveraging XYZ controls, extending existing applications to the Intranet and Internet - when it all changes so quickly?'
It's far too long and convoluted and probably lost your attention. Don't make your readers work harder than they have to.
A progressive series of shorter questions framed in simpler language is more likely to catch their interest. Thus 'How can you keep up with the latest developments?' 'Do you understand computer jargon?' 'Would your business benefit from a website?
Using questions not only demands a reader response. In transforming a command into a question, you transform aggressive antagonism into a rapport-building exercise. For example: 'This is you!' becomes 'Is this you?' The tone is far less aggressive, and consequently is more likely to win the reader over.
Vary your style. As well as asking questions, use bold statements in your copy. If you've got the balance right, this will stop a single technique becoming overused and losing its effect. A bold statement such as 'Your company is headed for ecological disaster!' can be as attention-grabbing as a question, if not more so, particularly when it is not just one statement among many others.
Having raised the key issue in the headline, or shortly after, don't then stray from what initially involved the reader. Keep on relating the rest of the copy to the question. Otherwise the reader will quickly lose interest.
Pitfalls to avoid
Although questions involve the reader, you want to be sure of their response. Avoid posing questions where their answer is in doubt. If people respond the wrong way, you've lost them. In this case you might want to use a statement.
Thus instead of asking, 'Can you rely on your computer back-up systems?', you might say, 'When your computer lets you down, your customers go elsewhere!' which grabs the attention in a different way.
Don't ask questions that seem unanswerable. Just as they should be short, they should be reasonably specific. For example: 'What's the real story on the Internet?' is a non-question. It's too general and, as such, has little meaning. Instead, a question focusing on one aspect of the Internet would be more personal and relevant - for instance: 'How can the Internet benefit your business?' The more specific the question, the more powerful it is.
Beware of boring your reader. Questions don't have to be brutally terse but they must intrigue the reader. A dull question will provoke the response 'Don't know, don't care!'
Strengthen your questions
A good question can hook a reader. But some questions fail to throw down the gauntlet. For example, 'Is your mail delivered?' looks good enough on the face of it. You, however, would probably have asked, 'How much of your mail is delivered?'
The former invites a yes/no response. The latter triggers worry... about disgruntled customers... payments being delayed... customers switching to your rivals...
That emotional response will help you carry the reader forward and will help make them more receptive to the rest of your message.
This article was first published in Synergy, the free email newsletter from NRG.