As I type this, I’m picturing you as a wild animal, perhaps a hungry leopard.
I watch you prowl through the African savannah. You’re on the hunt for a belly-filling meal. When you pick up a scent, you decide in a split-second whether to follow it or move on in search of a tastier kill.
It may seem as if my imagination is running wild, but I’m actually employing a targeted strategy intended to keep you reading. Writers and web teams developing content for museum websites could benefit from a similar mindset, because hungry leopards have much in common with online readers.
Museums gaining attention online
Attracting, gaining and keeping people’s attention online is a rather different challenge to engaging visitors in a physical museum.
We all know that people visit museums for a range of reasons, from learning and entertainment to inspiration and connection. What all these visitors have in common is that they have each made a positive decision to walk through your door. Once there, they want to gain a return on the investment they made by travelling to your site and choosing to spend time with you. Even if they don’t explore or read everything, they’re likely to stay with you for a while.
Online visitors are far more fickle. At any moment they can – and will – click away. So, whether you’ve arrived at this article by searching, browsing or following a social media link, I know I have limited time to win your attention.
Museums engaging online readers
All writers dream of readers who have time to sit back, put their feet up, switch off distractions and immerse themselves in your ripping yarn. If you’re writing for an online audience, however, your readers almost certainly won’t be giving you their undivided attention.
Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan once said, “We’re not talking to an audience. You’re talking to one person and they’re only half-listening. It’s a mistake to think that everybody’s clinging to your every word.” Wogan was talking about radio, but his words apply equally well to web content.
For me, that means accepting that many of the readers I pictured as leopards are already enjoying a meal elsewhere; they didn’t even make it past my first sentence.
In an online piece for Slate magazine, tech columnist Farhad Manjoo shared these facts of online reading life: if 100 people land on your story, about 38 will click away immediately. Another 3 will stop when they need to scroll and around 28 will disappear before they’ve made it half-way through.
In short: even if your marketing efforts lead someone to land on one of your webpages, you lose people. They drop off at multiple points, but the greatest number disappear at the very start. Hence the playful first line I used for this article.
All the hard work that goes into researching topics, sourcing images, developing webpages, targeting SEO and marketing posts or articles on social media could be wasted if you don’t give due consideration to the text visitors find when they land on your museum’s site.
Writing an opening line
First lines have always been important. As writer William Zinsser says, “The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence your article is dead.”
When your reader is online, you must work even harder to avoid premature death. That first line has to offer more than straightforward information. It should give a flavour of what’s to come while also nudging the reader towards a feast they can’t resist.
Some of the best ways to do this are by provoking or surprising people. These two examples do just that.
Provoking and surprising first lines
“It’s hard to conceive of the idea of anonymity nowadays”.
This opening line from the Art Institute of Chicago may well prompt you to consider whether you agree with the statement and in what circumstances. Those ten words could, after all, provoke entire university essays debating the concept of anonymity. If we stop and think about a big idea like this, odds are we may decide to read on.
In the article Whittling away in anonymity the line helps introduce a striking object from the collection, whose maker remains anonymous. The piece goes on to explore the once popular pastimes of whittling and woodcarving and the impressive outputs left behind by unknown Midwest carvers. We end up questioning whether these individuals would have remained anonymous in today’s Instagram culture and whether they would have cared.
While the Art Institute of Chicago first line is worded as a straightforward statement, the following opening sentence uses a surprising analogy to provoke a reaction:
“Described as the ‘tarts of the insect world’ butterflies dress up like no other insect”.
Before I read this Auckland Museum piece, even my over-active imagination had never pictured butterflies as ‘tarts’. The description conjures up many different thoughts and will drive some people to read on in order to find out more.
The Super-sized butterflies article this line introduces goes behind the scenes of the Museum, sharing highly-magnified images of butterflies, which look like “a hot mess of sequins, neon needlepoint or a gold-threaded tapestry”.
Tense, teasing first lines
Each of the examples above shares a broad, general statement. More powerful first lines zoom into a specific issue or moment.
Washington Post feature writer DeNeen L Brown starts her stories at “the tensest moment”, a specific pinpoint from which she then fans out. Brown likens this to cinema, where we might first encounter a zoomed-in shot, before the camera pulls back to reveal the wider scene.
If these opening moments introduce a person, there’s a good chance some readers will develop an emotional connection with them, propelling them to read on.
The next four examples all do this, though one uses a human-like animal rather than a person.
First up, this succinct line from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta shares just enough information to make us want to know more.
“Amy Sherald is trying to reshape art history”.
Many of the Museum’s followers are likely to know that Sherald painted the official portrait of Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Even if we don’t have that knowledge, the line still intrigues. Either way, we’re teased with the tacit promise of finding out more about Sherald and her aim to disrupt the art world.
In the article What’s behind the gray skin tones and arresting eyes in Amy Sherald’s portraits? this sentence leads into an exploration of the art and philosophy of the artist, who paints only people of colour. Overall, we learn that Sherald wants to transform expectations of the kind of art shown in museums and offer visitors new ways of seeing themselves.
The following example from Wellcome Collection is equally succinct, but presents the perspective of the writer rather than a third party:
“My first panic attack was caused by holes”.
It’s a clever approach, since the essay Why the scariest monsters look almost human is ultimately a more general discussion about the horror of human-like monsters. Yet, by starting off with a personal slant, we are drawn into the topic and may well read on.
This strategy of moving from the personal to the general is also used in this opening line from an article published by the Natural History Museum in London:
“When you walk into The Marine Mammal Center near San Francisco, the first thing you notice is the smell”.
By addressing us directly, the sentence immediately gives us the opportunity to become a character in the story. We can imagine ourselves in that specific situation, sharing the experience of the writer. The moment is heightened by a sensory hint; we can’t help wondering what that smell must be like.
It turns out the stink comes from 1000lbs of fish, a daily breakfast served to patients at the world’s largest marine mammal hospital. The piece, Elephant seals: a giant survival story, goes on to introduce us to the hospital’s northern elephant seal pups, using them as a gateway to an uplifting tale of how such a heavily-hunted species bounced back from the brink of extinction.
An animal of a different sort features in this excellent example from a National Museum of American History article:
“The world infrequently notes the passing of a squirrel,“ announced an Arizona radio station on August 10, 1949.
The unusual, strangely formal, phrasing in the quote, catches our attention because it’s not something you encounter every day. We wonder who this squirrel was and what they did. We might even conjure up a mental image of a celebrity squirrel funeral (at least I did). What’s more, we are positioned in a specific time and place. I’ll eat my own taxidermy squirrel if anyone who reads this doesn’t immediately want to know more.
The rest of the Fur the war effort piece tells the remarkable tale of Tommy Tucker, a squirrel who spent the 1940s travelling the USA raising money for the war effort, often while wearing a dress. It’s a quirky story, fittingly introduced by that quirky quote and appropriately signed off by an image of Tommy today, preserved – silk pink dress and all – for posterity by his own taxidermist.
How long should an opening line be?
The National Museum of American History introductory line is the longest of all the examples I’ve shared, but still comes in at under 20 words. Anything longer than that and you’re taking far too long to pique your reader’s interest, particularly if they are reading on mobile.
As BBC News mobile editor Nathalie Malinarich points out, “Tolerance of padding on mobiles is a lot lower – so people are even quicker to drop out. You have to get their attention instantly…” That’s a challenge when you can’t pack as many words across a mobile screen as a PC.
The 15-word opener to this article stretches over three lines when I read it on my own Android phone. Even at this length, I need to scroll to read it (because it appears below the website header, a section header, the article title and my byline). I’m therefore taking a risk, because many people won’t scroll unless I’ve already gained their attention.
When this piece is shared on Twitter, I can just about see the whole opening sentence, but when shared on the MuseumNext Facebook page, it is curtailed; I’ll only see the ‘hungry leopard’ part if I click through to read the article on the website. Again, that’s a risk. I’d have done a better job if I’d got that opener down to a dozen words or less.
Building on your opening
Opening lines are, of course, just that: a way into a longer piece, a doorway into an entire experience.
The next step is to write a second sentence that drives people on to the third, and so on. Each sentence should build on the one before, moving from the specific to the general and sharing only as much information as the reader needs at any moment.
To keep people reading, you need to construct a coherent and focused journey that takes your reader from that teasing provocation to the conclusion of your story.
As we reach the conclusion of this piece, I should acknowledge that first lines aren’t the only way to gain attention online. They combine with the title, design and any imagery to provide an at-a-glance offer to a potential reader. Some sites also include a ‘standfirst’, a brief summary of the article that follows the headline.
Each of these has a role to play in setting the scene for what the article is about and driving click-throughs, but it is the first line that acts as an acid test.
Lengthy, clunky or dull opening lines can sour any brief interest your prospective readers might have had in reading your content. Craft that first line to be succinct, specific and intriguing and you might just stop those hungry leopards in their tracks.