The First :10 Seconds

How to grab your viewers attention and never let go. Advice for students and emerging journalists The First :10 Seconds by former CBC National Reporter and RTDNF Board member Lynne Robson.

We are all aware that the people who listen to and watch news programs are BUSY.  They may be driving while listening to radio news; making dinner with the TV news for company.  It is your job to grab and keep their attention for at least the length of the news item you worked to perfect. 

How long do you think you have to win their full attention?  

The answer is 10 seconds; 15 seconds at best. 

That is, basically, the length of your first sentence.  This is not, by the way, my opinion; it is a well-researched reality.  After one sentence audience members, whether they are conscious of it or not,  decide if they are interested in the subject, and are willing to see what happens next. 

That puts a lot of pressure on you to make your first sentence compelling. What can you possibly do in 10-15 seconds to grab someone’s attention like that?

Fact is…asking that question is the first step to finding the solution.  Many good broadcast writers spend a chunk of their day trying to figure out the best way to start their story. What visual/sound and which words.  

Finding the right setting and words sets you up for a story that FLOWS seamlessly from one idea to the next; or scene to scene. A good first sentence establishes the mood and focus.

How to choose your beginning?  

Often, the answer is to look to the around..not always at the centre of the story.

Take a car accident story, for example.  Most reporters have had to write about a fatal crash. The normal reflex is to describe the wreckage.  

But sometimes the story is away from the huddle of first responders, investigators and curious bystanders. One time I walked 50 feet from the accident scene.  There was a red boot in the middle of the road.  A boot that once belonged to a six-year-old girl.  I started (and ended) my script there.  It was simple and powerful.

Sometimes stories are so BIG it is difficult to focus down to something more “consumable” for the opening sentence.  For example, New York when terrorists flew a plane into the World Trade Center.  A city in crisis. A population horrified and terrified and angry.  There were so many options available for an opening sentence.  I chose to start with people with sewing machines on city sidewalks.  They were making flags.  American flags.  So rather than another story that started with the devastated buildings, I started with seamstresses and flags, a reflection of the patriotism and nationalism New Yorkers felt after the attack. 

Especially challenging: finding a fresh way to open a story you’ve covered for 2,3,…5 days or more.  Once, following a terrible bus accident I faced that challenge.  We reporters were kept at a distance for days, watching investigators moving at a snail’s pace. That “problem” became the opening sentence. “This is the aftermath of disaster.. pain staking measurements, mind numbing detail, torturously slow progress”. The very thing that made it seem like a loser story…became the story’s strongest feature.

Those are examples of days I remember struggling to find an opening thought and feeling satisfied with some unusual options.  But the challenge is daily.  From the moment the story is assigned this is your obsession: How to make the first sentence grab and keep the audience’s attention. 

By the way.. as soon as good reporters know how to open their story, the next question they ask themselves is: “How do I end this story?”.. because once you know the beginning and the end, what comes in the middle is obvious. But, the first step in building good structure is having a strong opening. 


As an aside,  this focus on the importance of the first 10-15 seconds is the primary reason experienced broadcasters HATE hearing the last line of the intro and the first line of the story repeated almost verbatim. That is the best way to bore the audience before they’ve even had a chance to engage in your story.