Writing a Catchy Lead
The opening paragraph of a pitch letter is the best chance you have to interest an editor. You have only the time it takes an editor to reach for your faxed letter in the in-box and lift it from the desk to rivet his or her attention and prevent it from being tossed directly into the trash. If you pitch by e-mail, and most people do these days, your window of opportunity is even briefer; your subject line must arrest the editor’s habitual ‘‘Delete’’ response.
As with all other good copy, the lead of a pitch should be enticing and informative; it should make the editor want to
read on. Here are some good opening paragraphs and subject lines.
This one is directed to the editor of a financial publication:
Did you know that while 95 percent of female chief financial officers would recommend the career to other women starting out now, only 61 percent of them expect tofinish their careers in the CFO function?
These are only some of the surprising and interesting results of a recent survey of female CFOs undertaken by the executive search firm Korn/Ferry [Korn/Ferry International 2006].
The first sentence is often the hardest part of a pitch letter to write. One of the best ways to formulate an opening line is to single out the most newsworthy aspect of the subject you are pitching, and state it simply.
If you are pitching a case history, an interview, or a survey, you need to build up to the pitch with a provocative opening. The pitch from Korn/Ferry is a good example of this type of opening line: ‘‘Did you know that while 95% of female chief financial officers would recommend the career to other women starting out now, only 61% of them expect to finish their careers in the CFO function?’’ It’s a catchy opening, urging the editor to read on and find out where this fact came from and where the pitch is going. This lead is an example of how to make a dry subject interesting.
When writing an opening line, try to come up with something fresh and intriguing. Don’t use the first paragraph to give a lengthy history of the company you are pitching or explain who you are. (Your name, title, and contact information should be listed at the end of every e-mail or letter.) And don’t tell the editor about his or her readership. Many novice writers make the mistake of opening a pitch letter with something like this: ‘‘The readers of Videography are interested in the latest developments in the video industry.’’ That sentence only reiterates the obvious. Certainly a reporter for Videography will know what the magazine’s readers are interested in. Don’t waste time by pointing that out.
Compose Brief, Informative Text
Once the opening paragraph has caught your reader’s attention, the rest of the letter must flow smoothly and logically. If your opening line is, ‘‘Turn On the Sunlight (TOTS) has developed the world’s first self-cleaning solar roof panel,’’ your next sentence should take a natural step of detailing the facts behind that claim.
Thus, the second sentence might be this: ‘‘The effect of this patented technology means that TOTS’ panels will continue
working at 100 percent efficiency, even in smoggy city and foggy coastal environments where pollution and mineral deposits can quickly lower solar collection efficiency by 30 to 50 percent. TOTS’ breakthrough means more solar electricity generated, more fossil fuel conserved, and more money saved, according to John Doe, Vice President of Product Research for Turn On the Sunlight. Doe contends that the new panel. . .’’ Stick to the facts, and avoid using adjectives, especially words like unique, greatest, phenomenal, and incredible, which are overused and rarely true.
Through use of techniques such as numbered lists and bullets, you can pack in a large number of hard facts clearly and concisely. Whether you use bullets or straight prose, always keep your letter short. Rarely are you justified in writing a pitch letter longer than one page or an e-mail longer than three or four short paragraphs. When you have finished a draft, ask yourself a few questions:
• Is there any redundancy in the letter?
• Is there any information that is not vital to the story?
• Is there a faster way to get to the point?
There are standard lines for ending pitch letters. Each writer has a preference, but most end their letters with sentences such as Cohen’s, ‘‘Looking forward to your thoughts,’’ which implies further conversation. Others prefer to state more explicitly, ‘‘I’ll call you in a couple of days to see if you’re interested.’’