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Going Negative to Hook Your Audience

Tuesday, 26 Jun 2012 | 1:25 PM ET
Eric Audras | PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections | Getty Images

Which opening line do you prefer (imagine you're speaking to a biz audience and want to get their attention with a quick story):

1) “After a lot of unsuccessful interviews, I finally found work.”

2) "After 10 years in prison, I feared that I’d never find another job in organized crime.”

You may be thinking, "I hate them both—too negative! Also, I'm starting to dislike you."

We’ll come back to that objection in a second.

I like #2 for one simple reason: mystery. We don't know how this story turns out. Opening #1, by contrast, reveals everything.

Years ago, I went to a writing workshop led by the head writer of a well-known sitcom that I’d never heard of.

“My job,” the head writer said, “is ridiculously easy. Every week, the writers pitch ideas for future episodes. I'm the one who decides whether to develop an idea or kill it.

"I've only got one criterion," she said. "Do I care what happens next? If I do, we develop the story; if not, we bury it."

Let's go back to the "negative" objection. Being negative—that is, opening with a problem—is a plus. Problems hook an audience.

Later in the story, the problems need to be resolved. And if it's a business audience, you also need to deliver a compelling point. But that's later.

Think about it. Every story—and life too—is about problems & obstacles, and "what happens next."

Going to see a movie? Suppose it's a light romantic comedy, you're not in the mood for anything heavy.

Still, there'll be plenty of problems.

The story will never be: Boy meets girl, they fall instantly in love, have a beautiful wedding and then live happily ever after.

No one's making that movie. There's no story.

Instead, you'll see: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and then boy does something incredibly stupid. Later, boy does something else that's even stupider.

For some reason, it's always the boy who screws everything up.

But that's another story.

Tip: Hook your audience by making them wonder, What happens next?

p.s. I'm at the airport bookstore, flipping through books, reading first lines.

Best opening: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later" (Richard Ford's "Canada").

Problem, problem, problem.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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