Billy from a TV production company writes: “Hello Elena, I know you simply can’t wait to kick off the festive season and are counting days until Christmas.”
Top marks for presumptuousness, Billy. You “know” that I “can’t wait”? I can, actually, because I don’t celebrate Christmas.
You also suggest that I am “counting days”. Are you implying that I draw a cross on my bedroom calendar every evening, like a 10-year-old?
I admit that I did this a few years ago when The Bridge was on every Sunday. But there is no way you could have known that. The TV drama that you proceed to tell me about may as well be very good – but with this obnoxious intro, you’ve lost me.
And here comes the best part. Billy sent his Christmas email on 15 August.
Opening sentences are important. Get them right, and the reader keeps on reading. Get them wrong, and she swiftly moves on.
Sales pitches often open with a randomly presumptuous claim. Billy’s message is a good example, but here is an even better one. Elizabeth, who works for a bike manufacturer, gets in touch: “Do you remember, Elena, when, as a kid, you were riding your bike with your hair swaying in the wind?” This is creative stuff, Elizabeth. I like your “hair swaying in the wind” thing. Is it a metaphor? Are you writing a novel? Am I your heroine?
The problem is, you don’t know me. Otherwise, I would have told you that I first got on a bike when I was 20. And my hair was short at the time, so didn’t sway in the wind. Seeing you invent stuff about my life is highly irritating.
Harmless platitudes of the “I hope you are having a fabulous day” variety are another popular intro. “Fabulous”? How many people do you know whose days are “fabulous”? I hate getting out of bed.
And what if such excessive cheeriness hits your inbox at a difficult time? I got one such message the day Byron stopped delivering to my postcode, and was depressed for a week.
But the worst offenders are those pitches that open with some sort of philosophical statement. Like this one, from a “preeminent leadership group” (a.k.a. a mid-management headhunting firm): “In our age, the understanding of who you are and what you can become is increasingly important.”
Unless you can be objectively categorised as a genius, and your field is humanities – so if you are a Nietzsche or a Coetzee, not a Zuckerberg or a Musk – pontificating about “our age” makes you an absurd figure. Because, with all respect, you have no clue.
What you do is go to the office, interview job candidates, and fill vacancies. If you were a Nietzsche or a Coetzee, you would indeed use this experience to write a seminal thesis on the state of humanity. This thesis would be then taught at universities and translated into many languages. It would become a book of reference for generations to come.
But you are not a Nietzsche or a Coetzee, so please stick to writing about what you know: the market for mid-management jobs.
So this is how to write an intro. DON’T: presume; include platitudes; step outside your (intellectual) league. DO: tell me everything I need to know in the first sentence. If you follow this advice, your pitch may just work.