“Optional intro” – or how to make a speechwriter cry

I have a forehead-shaped dent in my desk now. What put it there? Seeing the words “optional intro.” "Optional intro"—one of the stupidest things you can do to any writing

A client’s staffer sent me back a draft, with a couple of new paragraphs tacked on the front. She had no way of knowing that “optional” and “intro” is my least favorite pair of words. Well, until recently. (I’ll let you guess.)

It turned out to be just a suggestion, her idea to give readers a little personal insight into the speaker’s personality. And that instinct is absolutely spot-on. Take every opportunity to connect the speaker (or if it’s going to be printed, the writer) to the material in a personal way and you invite the audience to connect with the person behind the policy.

I’ll happily work that personal anecdote into the piece. But you can’t just glue it on the top and move on. Unless it’s integrated into the body of the piece, it will mean nothing. The audience (in this case, readers) will focus on the anecdote and ignore the rest. Maybe even stop reading once they see the anecdote has no connection to the message.

This isn’t the staffer’s fault—if anything, it’s mine. We’ve been working together for a while but we’ve never had the discussion about opening strong.

Optional intro: an invitation to lose the audience

My speech clients know they will never get a draft from me that has them thanking the sponsor, or the donors, or even the guests. “No thank-yous” remains one of my cardinal rules. I’ll launch you right into the material, I invariably explain, because you never want to give the audience an excuse to not listen to you.

The same principle holds true for the written word. The first sentence needs to grab the readers. And the second and subsequent sentences can’t relinquish that hold.

If you’ve got a well-written piece, it starts strong. Slap an “optional intro” on it and you can slow that start to a crawl. Or if the “optional” piece is itself well-written, now you have two strong starts. In effect, you’ve put your audience in the passenger seat of a car that roars out in front when the light turns green, only to stop short at a red light a block away and then zoom out a second time. If that doesn’t sound like a comfortable ride to you, don’t put your audience in the passenger seat.

If you’ve got a personal anecdote, I’m happy to weave it into the piece. Without a doubt, the piece will be stronger for it—more personal, more urgent, more relatable. But if you just slap it on top it can be as incongruous—and meaningless—as lipstick on a pig.

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