How to Avoid the Delete Key

Back in the late 80s, my future wife and I signed up for the 14-week Dale Carnegie course in public speaking.

Once a week on Tuesday nights, about 40 of us would gather at the Sheraton hotel in Boston for a three-hour class.

It was challenging – but terrific.

And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that although I began the course scared of public speaking, by the end, I was loving it.

I’m sure I internalized many of the concepts, but today I can only remember three specifics:

  1. Don’t wander around when you speak. Plant your feet and stay there.
  2. Use props whenever possible. Audiences love them.
  3. Always begin your talk with a powerful and compelling sentence.

As it turns out, #3 is even more important when writing for an email audience.

After all, when addressing a live audience, you’d have to be pretty dull – I mean like 7-year-olds playing T-ball, dull – for people to get up and walk out after one sentence.

They’re there, they’re sitting down and other people would notice if they just got up and left. So while they may stop listening, they’re not going away, at least for a little while.

With email, there are no such barriers – everyone is busy and everyone reads with one finger on the delete key.

What keeps them from pushing it?

I’m sure there are dozens of reasons, but a big one is curiosity. As humans, we have a need to know, “What happens next?”

It’s the reason jokes are compelling – we want to hear the punchline.

It’s the reason we keep reading that poorly written murder mystery – we want to know who did it.

It’s the reason you can’t resist clicking on a headline like, Zookeepers Caught in Bizarre Love Triangle. (You just clicked that, didn’t you?)

And, most important regarding the newsletters you write, it’s the reason your opening sentence matters so much.

Because if you can draw readers in quickly, and in a way that has them wondering, “What happens next?,” you’re much more likely to get and keep their attention.

Consider the opening sentence of today’s newsletter:

Back in the late 80s, my future wife and I signed up for the 14-week Dale Carnegie course in public speaking.

It’s got three elements, all there deliberately, and all intended to capture your interest:

  1. Detail. “late 80s,” “my future wife,” “Dale Carnegie course.”
    All of that makes for a sentence that is way more interesting than, “Long ago I took a course in public speaking.”
  2. Irrelevancy. That’s right, ir-relevancy. You’re reading a marketing newsletter and yet the opening line appears to have nothing to do with that.
    That brain of yours can’t help but wonder, “Where is this going?”
  3. It’s the beginning of a story. We like stories; we tell them and hear them all day long.
    And we find them way more compelling than pure facts and statistics (an illogical truth that presidential candidates have, unfortunately, long ago figured out).

    Had I simply opened with a statement about the importance of using strong opening sentences when writing email newsletters, I doubt you’d still be reading.

I watched an interview with Jerry Seinfeld the other day. The interviewer, assuming that Seinfeld’s fame gave him a lifetime pass with audiences, asked if he still needed to be as funny when he went out on stage.

Seinfeld said: “They give you one extra minute. After that, if you’re not funny, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

The way I look at it, if Jerry Seinfeld only gets a one-minute grace period, you and I need to be really good, really compelling and really interesting, right from the start.

Share your comments below!


14 thoughts on “How to Avoid the Delete Key

  1. Kenton

    I give you 4 minutes to capture my attention because you consistently deliver valuable and entertaining content I can use. Enjoy your weekend out of the deep freeze!

  2. Barb Johnson

    I’m trying so hard to get this down about the “bridge sentence”.

    Is this it?

    “And, most important about the newsletters you write, it’s the reason your opening sentence matters so much.”

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      See Laura’s response below, Barb.

      The idea is that it “bridges” between the seemingly irrelevant story and the business lesson.

  3. Laura

    I didn’t do the webinar, but I love games so here is my guess: “As it turns out, #3 is even more important when writing for an email audience.”

    And I always give you way more than 1 extra minute. Haven’t regretted it yet.

    Have an awesome weekend.

  4. Theresa Singleton

    I’m no fan of public speaking. I’ve had to give my fair share of talks over the years, mostly during graduate school and my postdoc (regular department seminars, journal club presentations, student debates, division retreats, etc.). Once, I started a talk by reading my horoscope, which had been read to me by a fellow student earlier that morning. It basically said that I should not have gotten out of bed that day, and there I was having to give my yearly student seminar to update the entire microbiology department on the progress of my dissertation research. My classmate suggested that instead of stressing about it, I should in fact open my seminar with my horoscope entry. It was a great idea; I haven’t been able to make an audience roar quite like that before any other talk I’ve given.
    And now I know why it was so effective. Thank you Michael for shedding some light on this long-lost memory.
    Btw, Seinfeld is never on the clock with me, and neither are you! And for the record, I don’t believe in the horoscope.

    1. Bruce Horwitz

      Theresa – I think you have a winner there – even if it’s not your horoscope for the particular day, you can use that ploy often (just not to the same audience!). In addition to the points that Michael made, reading that horoscope immediately puts the audience on your side – people (almost) always want to help, particularly when asked.

    2. Michael Katz Post author

      Great story Theresa! I agree with Bruce – it gets the audience on your side which is always helpful.

  5. Diane Spadola

    As usual, wonderful newsletter….Perhaps ou should offer a webinar for “Opening sentences that guarantee a click through” The zookeeper was a definite…although I, personally idd not fall for it this time.

  6. Mary Thomas

    Dear Michael,

    I have very much enjoyed your effective writing e-newsletter for several years. Regretfully, I must ask that you unsubscribe me. This is because my life has changed and I am so very busy that I don’t have time to sit back, relax and enjoy your very interesting, always entertaining and insightful posts. I have, currently, 2438 unopened emails and I must find a way to get in control of this mess! Good-bye, and Thank You!

  7. Michael Katz Post author

    Hello Mary!
    I think I can pretty much say that you win the all-time award for nicest unsubscribe request ever. Thanks for reading these past four years; all the best,

  8. Rob Bullock

    Like “Putting your best foot forward”, so to speak?
    Hey I think I’m catching on to this metaphor thing 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your insights Michael!


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