How to grab a CEO’s attention

The way to grab the attention of a busy executive—whether you’re writing a magazine article, white paper, blog post, or email message—is to lead with your key ideas. Allow me to explain.

Every week I read multiple email messages written by intelligent people, with a common and serious flaw: they bury the most important line—the very reason for the message—down at the bottom. Lengthy and seemingly pointless explanations for why they need to call a meeting, or visit a client, or ask for a budget increase, precede the reason why they’re writing the message in the first place. As a result, important ideas and requests lie unread and unanswered, either deleted or ignored by their harried recipients.

Much has been written about effective email communication, but the vast majority of emails that cross my desk would be improved by following one simple rule: convey the most important point in the first sentence of the message. For example,

Begin with: “Please respond with your approval to send Joe Customer 300 free widgets. I think he deserves these free widgets because of X, Y, and Z.”

Rather than: “Back in December of 2012, a shipment was lost… Then Joe Customer called customer service and got cut off… Then he visited the warehouse and stubbed his toe. That’s why I think we should send Joe 300 free widgets.”

If you take too many words to get to your main point—and your request for action—you will lose your audience. The same principle that keeps emails from languishing at the bottom of a decision-maker’s inbox also applies to writing articles and white papers on business topics—particularly those meant to grab the attention of the C-suite. Even for a more verbose, 3,000-word document, the first two or three paragraphs should include a full synopsis—a sort of executive summary—of what readers should hope to get out of their time invested in reading. Usually this synopsis should include:

1. A short description of the difficult business problem you’re attempting to solve;
2. A few sentences on your proposed solution; and
3. At least a hint of what readers might stand to gain if they take your advice.

The ability to skim this information in the first couple hundred words allows executives to decide whether it’s worth their time to read further, or to which of their team members they’ll forward the piece.

When you’re dealing with busy individuals—policy makers, business leaders, and other overloaded decision-makers—it’s absolutely critical to get your key ideas right up top. After all, these key ideas are what makes your stuff distinctive—and burying them after pleasantries or background information guarantees their dismissal.


Alia Samhat

Alia is a partner at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and content development. She spends her time working with writers, marketers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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