I have written several times about the first minute of an opening, a final argument or a public speech. The sad fact is that people stop listening quickly if you don’t grab their attention immediately. They must see there is something in what you are saying for them. Either amusement, fact or important information. Without a grabber, ears and minds start closing.
Just as you know the quality of a musician in the first 20 notes, you know the quality of a speaker in the first minute.
Today there is a wonderful article by the prolific writer Simon Schama on why he loves Dickens and Orwell. In one part of his article he discusses the so-called death of the long essay. His diagnosis of a great essayists is the same as mine for the great speakers:
“The great essayists are all virtuosi of opening sentences that pull you into the matter with a dead-on observed moment or an epigram: Orwell again, in “Marrakech” (1939), a single-sentence paragraph: “As the corpse went past, the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.” Or William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating” (c1826) with another insect-opener, the aspirate alliteration mimicking the scuttle, at once ominous and pathetic: “There is a spider crawling along the matted floor of the room where I sit … he runs with heedless, hurried haste, he hobbles awkwardly towards me, he stops – he sees the giant shadow before him, and, at a loss whether to retreat or proceed, meditates his huge foe.”
Or MFK Fisher (1908-1992), the greatest of all food writers since the man whose work she translated, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), and whose essay “Pity the Blind in Palate” (from The Art of Eating, 1954), begins: “Frederick the Great used to make his own coffee, with much to-do and fuss. For water, he used champagne. Then, to make the flavour stronger he stirred in powdered mustard.”
The flourish of the curtain-raisers put the reader on notice that a strong, memorable essay is, inevitably, something of a performance, its virtuosi never shy of doing the verbal fan-dance even when they pretended, like Orwell, to despise showiness. From William Hazlitt to Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Hughes and David Foster Wallace, the strut of the ego is part of the pleasure.”
I love his description of this as “curtain-raisers.” The perfect description of what we have to do. Like a stage play, we open the curtain to start the action and the audience is anxiously looking for a thrill. Let’s not disappoint them.