Developmental programs that generate the astonishing neuronal diversity of the nervous system are not completely understood and thus present a major challenge for clinical applications of guided cell differentiation strategies. Using direct neuronal programming of embryonic stem cells, we found that two main vertebrate proneural factors, Ascl1 and neurogenin 2 (Neurog2), induce different neuronal fates by binding to largely different sets of genomic sites. Their divergent binding patterns are not determined by the previous chromatin state, but are distinguished by enrichment of specific E-box sequences that reflect the binding preferences of the DNA-binding domains. The divergent Ascl1 and Neurog2 binding patterns result in distinct chromatin accessibility and enhancer activity profiles that differentially shape the binding of downstream transcription factors during neuronal differentiation. This study provides a mechanistic understanding of how transcription factors constrain terminal cell fates, and it delineates the importance of choosing the right proneural factor in neuronal reprogramming strategies.