Last week I mentioned the opening of St John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the word … I didn’t have the space to add the perennial writer’s question: But which words should I begin with?
It’s one that business writers, particularly, struggle to answer. How seldom in the world of work do we read anything that draws us in and engages us right from the opening sentence? On the rare occasions that we do, it completely changes the way we think about the organisation whose voice we’re hearing.
One of the great privileges of my working life is to sit on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest. I was glancing recently at last year’s annual review and I came across this from our 2009 guest director, Richard Holloway:
‘Annual reports tend to be jaunty affairs, celebrating past achievements, as the organisation in question strides confidently on into the future. Well, it wouldn’t be dishonest to adopt that tone in reviewing my own wild fling … as guest director this year, but it would be the wrong way to begin, so I won’t start there.’
It takes a lot of confidence to write an opening like that and Richard, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, now broadcaster, writer and chair of the Scottish Arts Council, is an exceptionally confident communicator. It’s also very personal, and he goes on to explain that his involvement arose out of the misfortune of our director, Catherine Lockerbie’s unexpected leave of absence.
But why should we be so unused to hearing a truly personal voice in the business world? Why do chairmen’s and chief executive’s statements, not to mention letters, brochures and mailshots, so often sound robotic? Whatever the reason, their opening words set the tone for what follows and frequently leave us as readers struggling to stay interested.
Richard Holloway’s opening does at least three things that more or less guarantee we’ll go with him. He pokes a little gentle fun at the genre, so we know at once that this is not going to be earnest (which is not to say it won’t be serious); he introduces a lively voice, his own, which is not that of the organisation, but which we know speaks for the organisation; and he tempts us with a question: why doesn’t he want to start with the jaunty view?
Personal as his voice is, this is nevertheless a piece of business writing in an important public document that reports on the affairs of our book festival to a very wide range of interested and influential people. I’m sure that any one of those who read the opening sentence would have felt compelled to read on.