If you've ever read a research paper that had you head-bobbing after the first sentence, then you know how important the introductory paragraph is. You have a limited amount of time to grab your reader and pull her in, so don't make her yawn in the first sentence. The best introductions start in a way that creates a connection between the reader's interest or experience and the research and conclusions you intend to present.
Defining Unfamiliar Terms
In a paper that deals with a particularly specialized topic or a term your audience is unlikely to be familiar with, you can start your introduction by defining a central word or phrase. Do not use this if a definition will not add useful information. Starting an essay with a dictionary definition of a common word, for example, is a cliched and shallow practice that you should avoid. Instead, give a definition while hinting at the angle, focus or thesis of your paper.
Adding an Anecdote or Quotation
This method eases the reader into the substance of your paper by providing a memorable and relevant story or a quotation from a well-known person or work. Pick something that is engaging in its own right, but that also creates a connection to your research paper's central thesis. You may draw, for example, from a legend or myth that seeks to answer the same question you did or share the experience of a famed researcher in your field. A dictionary of quotations can help you find quotations related to your topic.
Creating a Contrast
One way to help a reader grasp the scope of your topic is to start with the part you do not cover or a position you disagree with. For example, you may state what a long-standing theory holds, then transition, with a word like "however" or "but," to describe the contrasting conclusions your research leads to. This technique is particularly useful in argumentative essays or if you will be presenting your paper in a setting where alternate conclusions will also be proposed.
Following the Funnel Method
Like a physical funnel, a funnel method introduction starts broadly and gets progressively narrower to end with the thesis statement. This technique provides a natural way to create a connection between your reader's broad familiarity with your field and your specific research topic. If your topic has multiple components, such as "teaching math to developmentally disabled kindergarten students," you can start with a sentence about one component and narrow it by adding another component in each sentence. In this example, you might start with a broad statement about teaching math, then teaching math in kindergarten, then state your full thesis.
Foreshadowing the Conclusion
Sometime, providing your conclusion in advance can help the reader understand what to look for as she reads the rest of your paper. When using this method, bear in mind that the reader will not yet know about the research, methods and context you explain in the paper. Frame your conclusion as a simplified hint about the direction in which you will be moving, rather than a detailed or technical statement. Make sure that the conclusion of your paper adds more information and develops the results you hint at in the introduction.