- On May 21, 2014
“Toni Murden McClure was the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the first American to ski overland to the South Pole. She has led expeditions up Mount Rainier and the Andes, and through Kenya and Alaska.”
Are those the first lines of a feature on women and extreme sports? A profile about Ms. McClure for Vogue?
They are the opening sentences of an article in Harvard Business Review about leadership. The article goes on to talk about management principles, but the first paragraph is about Toni McClure. Before she could achieve these feats, that first paragraph concludes, she had to learn how to lead.
A student I know asked me to review her application essay for graduate school. She started by declaring her commitment to advancing a progressive political agenda and devoted her first paragraphs to a discussion about our country’s political machine and its effect on her aspirations.
She got personal in her third paragraph, recalling the summer a gay friend came out. He was scared to return to the conservative school they attended. She sprang into action, revitalizing the school’s gay-straight alliance, rallying supporters, and creating a safe space for him to enter the community.
“That’s your introduction,” I told her. “It says what you stand for and sets up what you hope to achieve.”
She got in.
No matter your topic, humanize it. That old cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words, also applies to the well-chosen tale. Avoid introducing anything with general, abstract statements. A story about a person is the best way to grab your readers’ attention and set the scene.