The Four U’s

Here’s how it works: To really grab attention, a powerful opening line(s) that “hooks” readers should have most, if not all, of the following characteristics. It must be Unique, Useful, Urgent and Ultra-Specific.

Actually, three out of these four could be enough. However, any less and your opening line is sure to miss its mark. Let’s see how this works in practice:

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Let’s imagine you’ve just been to France.  During your trip, you toured the Champagne region. Now you’re back home and you want to write an article for a travel magazine about the many fine but local French champagnes. How do you begin your pitch to the magazine’s editor?  Here’s one approach:

“Dear Editor, I would like to write an article for you about the many champagnes in the champagne region of France …”

Read it again.  Where does this opening line go wrong?  To start, it doesn’t offer anything particularly ‘Unique’. Any editor who plucks this from his inbox would most likely think “seen it, done that, been there before.”  And into the trash it goes. Now let’s consider another approach.  Same topic, different lead line:

“Dear Editor, On rue de la Verrerie in Paris, you’ll find a wine shop that sells one of France’s best and rarest champagnes – for just $23 a bottle.”

Aha! Can you see the difference? First, the letter starts right in the middle of the action.  Always a momentum building technique.  But the real power of this new lead is that it’s … well … different. How likely is it that there’s another letter in the editor’s inbox that starts the same way?  Right.  Not very. So that’s ‘Uniqueness’ nailed down.

Next test.  Is the same opener ‘Useful’?   To an editor, here’s what that means. Imagine a reader who travels to Europe. He doesn’t want to feel like a tourist.  He wants to feel like an insider.  Informed.  In the know.  An original. This is precisely the kind of information that fulfills that need. Editor’s know this.  They’re on the lookout for it.  So bingo … you’ve just upped your chances of getting the editor to read on.

Next, we ask, is this line ‘Urgent?’ Not directly.  But it’s at least implied.  A $23 bottle of rare champagne isn’t the kind of thing that lasts. That alone is newsworthy.  And newsworthy is good. But I’d like to increase the ‘urgency’ a bit more. Adding ‘urgency’ creates dramatic tension. And dramatic tension makes editors pay attention. So let’s dig deeper into the story and see what we can find. For this example, I happen to know that the champagne in question is sold at only three Paris wine shops.  And that the vineyard produces only 3,000 bottles a year. Let’s see what happens when we add this info to our letter:

“Dear Editor, On rue de la Verrerie in Paris, you’ll find a wine shop that sells one of France’s best and rarest champagnes – for just $23 a bottle. I’d like to write an article for your magazine that tells the fascinating story of Frances many local champagnes. For instance, only three shops in Paris sell ‘La Rose de Jeane.’  And only 3,000 bottles are produced each year. And this is just one of many unknown but excellent bargains in the local market …”

It’s not perfectly polished, perhaps.  But you can see the letter – and the article that will back it up – has already started to take shape. Suddenly, it’s more compelling.  The information feels valuable.  And it’s starting to sound like nothing we – or the editor – have heard before.

Here’s the last and most important insight.  Pay attention.  Because this is part of the “Four U” technique that pulls everything else together. The most effective way to improve the pulling power of your hook is to make sure it has … are you ready … ‘Ultra specificity’. In short, details sell. Not all details, mind you.  Like a painter’s canvas, if you try to put in TOO many details … you just get a mess.  But if you’ve got details that are relevant … by all means, put them in. Give a statistic.  Describe a taste or a smell.  Dab it with color.  Name an interview source.  Do anything you can to make your reader feel like he’s right there, inside the image you hope to present. Do this, and all the other things – uniqueness, usefulness, and urgency – will almost take care of themselves.


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