How to Begin Emails with Strong First Paragraphs

Use these simple tips on how to begin emails to ensure your message has the impact you want it to have.

The First Paragraph of the Email Must Be Self-contained

The email’s first paragraph must be self-contained so the reader does not have to refer to another document or recall earlier conversations to be prepared for reading the email. The dates and references to meetings in the example below will help the reader remember the request without searching through files.

On July 15, Assistant Manager Jane Reynolds requested suggestions on ways of expanding our creative department while keeping our costs as low as possible. At a meeting on July 17, our staff members discussed her request. This email explains five suggestions we believe will expand our creative department and keep costs low.

The first suggestion is that… [report continues here]

Everything Jane needs to know to understand why she is receiving the document is in the beginning of this email. When Jane reads the first paragraph of the email, she’ll know what this email is referring to. She can then spend time evaluating the suggestions rather than trying to figure out why she received the email.

Make Sure the Reader Is Clear about the Purpose of Your Email

For all of your business emails, describe the context in the email’s first paragraphs:

  • Why is the reader receiving this email now?
  • What is the purpose of this email?
  • What is the problem that led up to this?
  • What are the circumstances that required this email?
  • What did the receiver request that you are now providing?
Include enough to make sure the reader knows the situation. Don’t assume the reader remembers significant facts. Explain all that is necessary to ensure that the reader knows the background and can respond with understanding. Leave as much history at the end of the explanation as will be helpful to inform the reader about the context of the message.

Example from an email

Hello Bob,

As you know, we’ve decided to focus on quality to bring our products up to the level we all want them to be. We also have been experiencing some errors because the part-time JavaScript programmer we’re using just doesn’t have the time to devote to our projects while going to school.

At the next meeting, I believe we should ask permission to hire a dedicated JavaScript programmer for our technical services staff. I know the idea of contracting one has been raised before… [continues here].

The email beginning is strong. It very clearly explains the context for the message, then introduces the topic to be addressed in the email. It doesn’t spend too much time on the context. The writer wanted to get to the point.

Quote the Reader’s Request in the Context

For emails in response to earlier messages, quote the reader’s request and requirements in the context. Most email programs include the previous email with the message to which you are replying. However, quoting the reader’s request and requirements helps remind the reader. Cut and paste relevant quotations from the reader’s request and put them at the beginning of your email. Introduce the quotations with something like “You wrote” or “In your May 1 email, you asked…”

You may choose to show the quotation has ended by writing, “I respond” or “I reply.” That is not necessary as long as the reader knows when the quotation ends and your comments begin.

For example, here is the beginning of an email that contains quoted material.

Hello Jane,

I received your email. You wrote, “Please email me with any suggestions on possible ways of expanding our creative department while keeping our costs as low as possible. If we pool our minds, I’m sure we can come up with some ways of addressing this issue.”

I have suggestions that will help alleviate the current crunch on our creative department. I believe developing an… [email continues here]

The context and content of the message are clear. When Jane opens the email, she’ll know what this response is in reference to. Jane can then spend time evaluating this person’s suggestions rather than trying to figure out why the person is writing. If the person had more than one part to the request, list each part that you are fulfilling in the first paragraph of the email using the reader’s words.

A strong opening paragraph briefly explains the context, history, and content of the report. It prepares the reader for the information that will follow and demonstrates that the writer is fulfilling the requirements for the email request.

List each Request You Are Fulfilling Using the Reader’s Words

If the reader had more than one part to the request, list each part you are fulfilling using the reader’s words. The reader may have had four questions, or two questions and a suggestion, or other such combination of parts in the correspondence to you. In your beginning paragraphs, follow the organization the reader used and repeat the key words in the questions, suggestions, or other content. Create a list so you show the reader you are responding to every point of interest to the reader. Then, in the body of the report, repeat the same statements as headings so the reader sees the correspondence between their request, your introduction, and the body.

Example

This is the reader’s request to the writer:

We’re concerned that eventually the state EPA may say something about how the de-icing fluids are running off of the tarmacs. Let’s try to hold that off. Give me a report on what we are doing about the fluids, where they seem to be going, the likely state EPA response when we report to them about where they’re going, and some alternative means of disposing of the fluids if we’re required to do so.

This is the beginning paragraph in the email response.

Barton Airport currently allows de-icing fluids to run off of the tarmacs onto the areas of grass bordering the tarmacs. We will be producing a report to the state EPA in another month describing the current status of disposal of the de-icing fluids. This report will contain descriptions of

  • What we are doing about the fluids
  • Where they seem to be going
  • The likely state EPA response when we report to them our plans
  • Three alternative means of disposing of the fluids if we’re required to do so

Begin an email using the identical wording in the reader’s request, presented in the same order, bulleted to be clear.

Write Any Action the Reader Must Complete

Most business writers put the action the reader must perform or the next action the writer will perform at the end of the email. It should be there, but it should also be at the beginning, for four reasons:

  • Some readers never get to the end of the email. They may not realize an action is required.
  • Many readers skim the beginning of the email to see what the email is about, then set it aside after deciding how important it is and when to respond to it. Putting the action at the end of the email means some readers may miss the action they must perform.
  • The beginning of the email is a very strong position. The reader will more likely remember the action and perform it if you place it at the beginning.
  • Putting the action in twice, at the beginning and end, increases the likelihood that the reader will complete it.

You may choose to write the action in different ways so it is less obvious

Action at the beginning: By Thursday at noon, please send me your suggestions for the Friday, 9 a.m., meeting so I can use them as I plan the meeting.
……………..
Action stated again at the end: Thanks for taking out the time to send me your suggestions so I can prepare for the Friday morning meeting. I’ll be working on the planning starting around noon using your suggestions.

Write Any Critical Point the Reader Must Know and Remember in the Email Beginning

When you begin an email, write any critical point the reader must know and remember. Repeat it at the end.

Refer to Attachments Unless You Must Refer to Them Later

Refer to attachments unless the reader must know some information before understanding what the attachments are. One reason for referring to the attachments here is so the reader can send you a note in case you haven’t included them. Another reason is that attachments are apparent, so the reader will be wondering what you’ve sent. Let the reader know in the beginning.

End the Email Introduction by Stating the Contents

End the introduction with a statement of the contents of the email. This is your contract with the reader. In your college classes, this likely was called the “thesis statement.”

Below I explain why we need to respond to this problem now.

If you have more than one central idea, state all in a list. Begin explicitly, as in these examples:

This email contains three issues:

In this email, I explain the agenda, the location, and the information you’ll need to bring with you.

Below are my two recommendations for the software purchase and a way we can convert the data.

You should be able to summarize any email in a sentence. If you have trouble doing so, it may be a sign that your email is too long or rambles. However, if necessary, write more than one sentence in the first paragraphs of the email describing the contents. Then decide whether all of it is relevant to your message.

State the Parts of a Longer Email in a List of Points

In your statement of the contents, specify the parts of the email in a list. Bullet it out if possible. In shorter documents, the contents may be obvious: the content is the response to the context you explained. However, if the contents may not be clear or you are writing a longer document with more than one part, write a sentence stating what is in the document and list the parts.

In this report, I explain the contents of these five reports the client has sent:
  • Year-End Inventory Report
  • First-Quarter Sales Report
  • [list continues here]

State the Exact Number of Points

Use exact numbers rather than “some,” “several,” and so on, as in this example.

This email explains why we need to complete these three tasks before we begin the marketing campaign: settle on a brand identity, isolate the target market we have for this new product, and identify the features that will appeal to this market.

A better way to present the list is to break out the list with bullets.

This email explains why we need to complete these three tasks before we begin the marketing campaign:

  • Settle on a brand identity.
  • Isolate the target market we have for this new product.
  • Identify the features that will appeal to this market.

Break for the First Point Immediately after the Statement of Contents

After you state the contents, break the paragraph and begin the first point. Don’t put words between the statement of contents and first point. That confuses readers. Usually, if you are tempted to put an explanation in after the statement of contents, it is information that should have been in the beginning of the email, prior to the statement of contents.

Dear Marjorie,

You asked me to let you know where the team is on locating a new vendor for the plastics we use. This email contains three points:

  • A list of the vendors we have identified
  • The strengths and weaknesses of each vendor
  • Our recommendation for the most satisfactory vendor and reasons for the choice

1. List of the vendors we have identified

We have identified four vendors that satisfy our criteria. [message continues here.]

Choose Whether to State the Conclusion Immediately after the Statement of Contents

If you have drawn a conclusion you think the reader will accept, state it at the beginning of the email. If you believe the reader will need to read the logic that led you to the conclusion before he or she will accept it, state the topic of study in the introduction and the conclusion at the end. If you state it at the beginning, use a heading such as “Conclusions from Our Study.”

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