How to Lose Your Reader with Just One Question

You run the risk of immediately driving away your reader any time you write a lead sentence that takes the form of a yes-or-no question.

In nearly all forms of professional writing, starting your writing with a yes-or-no question is, quite simply, a no-no. Your reader can easily answer “no” and move on without reading further.

Do not give your reader a chance to say “no” before she has gotten any actual information from you.

Yes/no leads provide squat in terms of actual information. Yes/no leads lose readers—often the very readers you want to reach, the very readers for whom the bulk of your content would be meaningful.

“Are you interested in visiting Croatia?” loses readers.

“Are you interested in World War II?” loses readers.

“Are you interested in the Venus’ flytrap?” loses readers.

“Have you ever wondered how blah blah blah?” loses readers.

But a lead that gives readers information (i.e., news/insight) right from the get-go draws in your reader and helps her decide for herself how interested she is in the rest of your article (or story, essay, report, etc.).

“So what?” you say. “If the reader can’t relate to the lead-off yes/no question I’ve written, that reader would be wasting her time, anyway.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, you do want your reader to relate to what you’ve written. But, no, just because a reader can’t relate to one awfully narrow yes/no hook that you’ve used to start your piece, that doesn’t mean that the reader is not affected by the core of the story you are sharing. And that doesn’t mean that there’s not additional reader-relevant content elsewhere in your article.

You want the writing in your leads to be tight—i.e., crisp, clean, neat, clear, straightforward. But you do not want the leads themselves to be narrow—i.e., difficult for readers to get through.

Your lead is the door through which readers enter your writing, and it should be fairly wide. You want as many readers as possible to walk in. And you want the right readers to stay and keep reading.

Image source: dps.sd.gov/licensing/driver_licensing/images/Image69.jpg

Image source: dps.sd.gov/licensing/driver_licensing/images/Image69.jpg

It’s OK if readers walk away after reading a clear, well-crafted lead and determining that the story’s not for them. At the least, they absorbed some tidbit of information from that first sentence. But when a reader reads a yes/no lead and then walks away, she generally walks away having learned nothing—because the typical yes/no lead lacks information.

As mentioned in a previous post on this blog, you shouldn’t be trying to get a lot of people to read what you’ve written. You should be trying to get a lot of the right people to read what you’ve written. And there are more “right people” out there than you might realize. While you can trick or lure the wrong people into reading your content by drawing them in with a sneaky-clever lead, you also can scare away the right people by crafting a lead that’s too narrow. Yes/no question leads are too narrow.

Once again: Do not narrow the appeal of your content by starting off with a yes-no lead. Instead, write a lead that supports the writer’s primary objective: providing meaningful information clearly.

So while your reader might not be interested in visiting Croatia, she still might find an article about Croatia meaningful. She might have friends who live there or who have visited there. Or she might face the possibility of one day having to go there for work. You can provide her with useful, meaningful information without asking her if she’s “interested in visiting” there.

“Visitors to Croatia quickly discover that (1) the nation is famous for its beaches and that (2) there’s a lot more to do outside than just sit on the beach” delivers information that helps the reader decide whether she wants to read more.

We can turn the World War II and Venus’ flytrap yes/no questions into meaningful leads, too.

“A group of local naval enthusiasts has captured the stories of the few remaining Pearl Harbor survivors to make sure their first-hand accounts don’t get lost in the swirl of history” delivers information that helps the reader decide whether she wants to read more.

“The insect-eating Venus’ flytrap plant grows naturally only within a small area of the Carolinas, but thanks to some clever horticultural tricks, you can find it growing in pots all over the globe” delivers information that helps the reader decide whether she wants to read more.

So what about the reader who really doesn’t have an interest in what you’re writing about? Well, assuming that your writing is tight and clear, that reader will figure out pretty quickly how much interest she has in the topic. Sure, knowing you’ve lost a reader can sting a little. Knowing you’ve lost the right reader stings even more. And knowing that you’ve lost the right reader because you did something foolish—like writing a yes/no question lead—stings the most.

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, lstillett.wordpress.com. All rights reserved.

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5 responses to “How to Lose Your Reader with Just One Question

  1. Excellent point about leads! It reminds me of my time in a sales role where questions like “Can I help you?” were discouraged by managers because the answer was frequently “No”. I would add to the discussion of leads, though, that I feel they should be as short as possible.

    • Bryn, you said it. But get out of my head! I’m planning to blog about sentence length before too many months pass. … And great point about yes/no questions beyond the written word.

  2. Wow, great tips. I will remember this, as I’ve been guilty of leading with the yes/no question.

  3. Pingback: Don’t Get Too Cute with Your Writing | L. Scott Tillett·

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