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What’s the Worst way to Start? -- (Part 2)
By Paul Krantz

If you’re like me, you are always looking for better ways to entice readers into your copy.

Look at the sentence above and you’ll see the second worst way to begin any written communication: with the word “if.” (For the worst beginning, check out this earlier post.)

Why is the if-lead so weak?

One basic human need is the desire to feel special or unique. When you begin a conversation with your readers with “If you are like …” you are taking away that sense of specialness. This blunder is compounded by one of the most common types of if-leads:

“If you’re like millions of Americans, you’ve never considered owning a ferret.”

Now your reader is not only less than unique, he or she is a member of some huge, random collection of people. Though the desire for membership is also a human need, we all want to believe that we are part of a special group, not one of millions.

A second problem with the if-lead is that it can give your reader a reason to depart.

“If you want to decorate your home like a pro, consider these expert tips.”

At its core, this lead says, “my article (memo or report) is worth your time only if you meet some specific requirement. In this case, you must have a desire to decorate like a pro to find this article useful. The reality might be very different. You might very well desire a more attractive home, yet not want to go the extreme of emulating a professional interior decorator.

Finally, there is the if-lead that insults the reader:

“If you think the rich pay too little in taxes, think again.”

With a lead like this one, you may think you are intriguing the reader. Actually, you are implying that readers who disagree with you are dumb. Not the best way to ingratiate yourself with your audience.

Some if-leads are effective

“If you want to impress your boss, staying late is probably the worst move you can make.”

This time, the if-lead works on two levels. First, you have identified a (nearly) universal desire without implying that the reader is a dolt or like every other human being. Second, you have provided some useful information. This example is particularly effective because the tip runs counter to what we usually believe, that working harder is always the key to success.
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