How to Write Email that Has Impact: Start Strongly

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This lesson is from the online Business Writing Center email training course, Writing Effective Workplace Email. It explains how to write an email introduction that will ensure the reader understands what is in the email, why it is important, and what to do next. The lesson is taken from the Business Writing Center email course Writing Effective Workplace Email.

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The Importance of the Email Introduction

The beginning of an email is the most important position because it prepares the reader for the rest of the email, sets the tone, and has impact. Use the strategies explained in this lesson to write introductions that will give your emails impact and make them successful in accomplishing your objectives.

Write a Salutation

Open with a courteous greeting called a “salutation.” The salutation dates back to the Middle Ages when it was used to help the sender secure the goodwill of the receiver. Then, it might have been something like “My most dear and cherished friend, always on my mind and in my heart . . .” and on and on. Today that has been reduced to “Dear,” thankfully. “Dear” remains the standard salutation even though the person to whom you’re writing is usually not dear to you, and may be notably non-dear to you. The trend in emails is to begin with a natural, conversational opening, such as “Hello” or “Good morning.” You may choose to use the traditional “dear” or any of the other more conversational openings. However, do write something at the beginning, followed by the person’s name. Follow these general guidelines for the salutation:
  1. Address the individual by name; don’t just use “Hi” or “Sir.”
  2. You may choose to use just the person’s name without “hello” or “dear” if you know this reader will not feel you are distancing yourself by doing so.
  3. Use capitals for the initial letter of the first word of the salutation and the first letter of the person’s name.
  4. Keep the salutation in the top left corner.
  5. End the salutation with a colon for formal emails, a comma for informal.
  6. You may include proper titles like “Mr.” or “Ms.” if the formality of your relationship with the person warrants it. You may simply use the person’s first name if you’ve had previous correspondence or know the person well.
  7. Skip one blank line between the salutation and the first line of text.

Introduce Yourself

If you don’t know the reader, introduce yourself using information relevant to the message. If you are writing to a customer, state your name, position, and, if relevant, your duties in the company. Of course, for most emails, the reader will know you. You don’t need to introduce yourself.

Write the Context

After the salutation (or your introduction if you include one), state the context:
  1. Why is the reader receiving this now?
  2. What is the problem that led up to this?
  3. What are the circumstances that required this email?
  4. What did the receiver request that the sender is now fulfilling?
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 immediately. Leave as much history at the end of the email as will be helpful to remind the reader about the context of the message. Example:
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 PERL 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 PERL programmer for our technical services staff. I know the idea of contracting one has been raised before . . . [continues here].
This introduction 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. For messages in response to earlier messages, quote the sender’s request and requirements in this introduction. Most email programs include the previous email with the message to which you are replying. However, it helps establish the context for the reader if you cut relevant quotations from it and put them at the beginning. 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, however, as long as the reader knows when the quotation ends and your comments begin. For example, here is a response to an email message that contains quoted material. Example:
Dear Jane, 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 two 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 he or she is writing.

Write the Action or Important Point

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. The same is true of the most important point, such as the date for an upcoming meeting. Include the action and important point at the beginning for four reasons:
  1. Some readers never get to the end of the email. They may not realize an action is required.
  2. Many readers skim the beginning to see what the email is all about, then set it aside after they have decided how important it is and when to respond to it. Putting the action just at the end means many readers will not know about the action they must perform, which would escalate the importance of the email.
  3. The beginning is a very strong position in an email. The reader will more likely remember the action and perform it if you place it at the beginning.
  4. 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, send me your suggestions for the Friday, 9:00, meeting so I can use them as I plan the meeting.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Action stated again at the end: Thanks for taking the time to send me your suggestions. If you would like me to come over Thursday morning to save you the trip, I’ll pick them up sometime before noon.

For Longer Emails, State the Contents in One Sentence, Listing Parts

Make sure your reader knows what to expect if you’re sending a longer email. In shorter emails, the contents are usually 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 email with more than one part, write a sentence stating what is in the email and list the parts:
In this email, I have listed the reports we need from the client.Below I explain why we need to respond to this problem now. This email contains my recommendations for the software purchase and a way we can convert the data. The marketing campaign will be more effective if we complete three tasks before beginning: 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. This email explains why we need to complete these tasks.
You should be able to summarize any email you send in one sentence. If you have trouble doing so, it may be a sign that your email is too long or rambles. Write more than one sentence, if necessary, describing the contents. Then decide whether all of it is relevant to your message.

Include a Buffer When It Will Help with the Tone

Analyze the reader before you begin the email message. Ask yourself, “Will the reader react badly to anything in this message?” If so, defuse the reaction by beginning with a buffer in which you reassure the reader as much as is appropriate. Don’t minimize or dilute a message that the reader must hear, even though it may not be good news. All subjects and situations have positive components. Start with one of them. This is a harsh email:
Jackson,In the most recent batch, your data had three errors. You have to eliminate the errors, or we’ll have to transfer you out of the department into a job where you don’t work with details. Doris
This is the same message with a buffer. Jackson needs to know the consequences, but Doris begins with some words of encouragement.
Hello Jackson,I really appreciate your effort to reduce the number of errors you have in your work. I’m going to make myself available this week to help you try to reduce them to zero. In the most recent batch, your data had three errors. You have to eliminate the errors, or we’ll have to transfer you out of the department into a job where you don’t work with details. Doris
The buffer must go at the beginning. The message will be painted with the color you use at the beginning, regardless of the words that come later. Here is the same email with the buffer at the end. You’ll feel the difference. The buffer feels like it’s just an add-on the writer doesn’t really mean.
Hello Jackson,In the most recent batch, your data had three errors. You have to eliminate the errors or we’ll have to transfer you out of the department into a job where you don’t work with details. I really appreciate your effort to reduce the number of errors you have in your work. I’m going to make myself available this week to help you try to reduce them to zero. Doris
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