What Bob Metcalfe taught me about grabbing the reader’s attention

          Back in the mid-1990s, two well-known technology gurus who had homes in or near Camden, Maine, got together with a dozen or so local technology-aficionados, me among them, and founded Pop!Tech, an annual technology conference—the East Coast version of TED. One was John Sculley, former Apple CEO. The other was Dr. Robert “Bob” Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and founder of a billion-dollar high tech company, 3Com.

The idea was to attract 500 people from around the country to the beautifully-restored 19th century Camden Opera House every October to hear presentations by some of the world’s most famous computer and Internet inventors and developers.

The project was an immediate success. We enlisted some of the world’s best speakers, drew an audience of big-hitters and generated some national buzz—a pretty remarkable accomplishment, since we started out as an entirely voluntary organization, and our venue was just about as far as you could get from Silicon Valley without getting your feet wet.

The conferences were absolutely wonderful—great ideas being discussed by people smart enough to understand them and powerful enough to act on them. But the monthly organization meetings were a highlight too—all of us, including Metcalfe and Sculley, gathering in a large, handsome meeting room in the Opera House, volunteering for critical tasks and making the decisions that would result in a successful conference.

I remember one meeting in particular. Not only were John Sculley and Bob Metcalfe in attendance, but so were Bob’s in-laws, Bob and the late Barbara Shotwell, both of whom had joined the volunteer corps. We were all talking informally, because that’s the way these meetings went, and Barbara Shotwell, a handsome, well-read and rather dignified woman in her late 70s or so, was holding forth, talking about arranging lunches for Pop!Tech attendees.

She’d been talking for five or ten minutes with great enthusiasm when her son-in-law, the famous Ethernet inventor, interrupted her. Bob is a big man—many people think he resembles football coach Bill Parcells and he enjoys the comparison—and he was twenty-five years younger than his mother-in-law. Bob was a reasonably open person in these meetings, ready to consider anyone’s opinion. When he found fault with what he heard, he had this wonderful habit of innocently questioning the other fellow, his questions usually revealing the guy didn’t know what he was talking about.

Anyhow, Bob rather uncharacteristically—and unceremoniously, I thought—interrupted his mother-in-law, a woman who was accustomed to being listened to and taken seriously. When he broke into her soliloquy, she sat up straight and regarded her famous (and very wealthy) son-in-law with a look that would have flash-frozen a geyser. “You’re interrupting me, Bob,” she said, and there was nothing friendly about her tone of voice. “You do that frequently.”

Metcalfe regarded his mother-in-law benignly. “Well,” he said, “if you don’t want me to interrupt you, say the important things first.”

Mrs. Shotwell flashed the evil eye at her son-in-law. “Hummpf,” she said, and turned away from him.

For a moment, the rest of us were silent. Then John Sculley spoke up. “What’s the next item on the agenda?” he asked, sounding quite innocent. And the meeting resumed, like a film that had gotten stuck momentarily.

Since then, I’ve often thought of Bob’s remark. At the time, I’d been impressed by his ability to come up with cool, witty retort, a comeback which couldn’t be contradicted—although I knew he was likely to catch holy hell when he got home.  But as time passed, I found myself thinking of it in another way. I connected it to my craft.

“Say the most important things first,” Metcalfe had advised his mother-in-law. Maybe that makes sense when you’re writing novels too. So many novels start with descriptions—of the scene, of the weather, of a trip, of just about anything. Is this what the reader wants to know about? Is this what he needs to know about, just as soon as possible?

I guess the answer might be yes—if the weather is the most important thing, or the journey, or the scene. But if none of these are among the most important things, why would I keep the reader waiting? Why would I force him to plow through my opening description before getting got to something that actually matters? Is it because I want him to experience my lovely prose? Am I trying to keep him in suspense? Teasing him?

The more I thought about it, the more Metcalfe’s words made sense to me. What better way to grab the reader’s attention than to tell him something important in the first sentence, in the first few words if possible. The alternative is to start off with something that interested me, not him. And whose attention am I trying to get, anyway? My own?

I’ve decided that most readers don’t have any more patience than Bob Metcalfe. They want to hear the important stuff right away. And if I, as the writer, makes them wait, they’re going to “interrupt me”—their attention will drift. They’ll start to think of other things. They’ll look out the window. Will they ever come back to my book? Is it worth taking the chance?

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About Harvey Ardman

I’m the author of twenty published books¬ including two spy thrillers, a popular history, and a number of ghost-written biographies, self-help books and similar non-fiction. I’ve also written many TV documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel and , A & E. In addition, I've written pieces for Business Week, the Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. I have a MS in journalism from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a BS in journalism from Northwestern University. My wife and I live in Maine.
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