Creative Writing Tip: “Burn at the First”

I grew up on seventies rock. I remember the advice that one of the rock stars of that era gave about writing a song: “Burn at the first.” He meant (in his seventies way) that the opening of a song must grab your attention immediately and entice you to listen all the way through. Some of my favorite examples from that time include Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane,” and anything from Ted Nugent and Aerosmith.

The same rule applies to public speaking and creative writing. Your speech or story must grab the audience’s attention at the first sentence and not let go. Here are some elements of a successful opening.

  • It starts with an attention-getting opening sentence: “Call me Ishmael.” “Four score and seven years ago.”  An opening sentence that intrigues or engages your audience gets them interested in your work immediately. One way to do this is with a question, such as “Have you ever been to a restaurant where the service was exceptionally good?” Such a first sentence gets your audience thinking and wanting to listen to the next sentence.
  • It sets the mood: You can tell from the first chords of “Cat Scratch Fever” that it is going to be a hard rocking tune. Likewise, your speech or story has to set the mood at the beginning. Is your speech funny? Start it off with a joke related to your topic. Is your story about a serious subject? Make sure your establish its seriousness at the beginning.
  • It creates expectation: Of course, the goal of a beginning is to keep your audience listening or reading. For a speech, introduce the topic of your talk at the very beginning. Consider Steve Scott’s technique of “salting” your presentation by asking questions that raises the audience’s interest and then holding off on giving the answer until later on. For example, “If I could show you a way to get better service at a restaurant, would you be interested?”

With a story, introduce your main character and conflict at the beginning. Give your character a dilemma to solve immediately and set that person up for even greater problems later on.

By making your speech and story “burn at the first,” you will get your audience’s attention and keeping them listening or reading until you play your last chord.


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