Opening most messages with a summary of the key points provides a valuable framework for the reader.
When you open a proposal, whether it’s three pages or 30, the first thing you see is an executive summary, which orients the reader to what the proposal contains. It’s a standard part of proposals, and the same concept can be applied to email messages, but it rarely is. Instead, writers begin with background information and ease into the message, arriving at the main point in the third paragraph.
News stories don’t begin, “The purpose of this article is to bring you up to date … ” In the opening sentence, you have essential facts and details to know what the article is about.
Encapsulating the highlights of a message – an email, a letter, a formal memo, or a short report – is a valuable way to open messages and letters that are three paragraphs or longer. And even if the message is shorter, apply the same thinking:
How can I write the opening couple of sentences to tell the reader the reason I’m writing?
This summation of the key information might be one sentence, but it’s usually two to four, perhaps a little more, depending on the length of the message.
The opening should not contain a lot of detail, just a few essential facts that tell the reader why you are writing, and perhaps a piece of background to provide context. You can elaborate on these points in the body of the message. The opening is the difference between what you see through a microscope and what you see out your window.
Here is the original version of a short email:
As part of the ongoing expansion project, several departments have submitted renovation plans that exceed $500,000. My understanding is that any plans that cost more than $500,000 will not be funded. Brian Jones sent me the attached message, and on Page 3, he said that the company is willing to consider projects, even if the cost will exceed a half-million dollars.
Can you please confirm that this is the case? Is it correct that the company will pay for construction that costs more than $500,000? I’m hoping you can send me a note clarifying this before noon tomorrow.
The main point, the reason the message was communicated, is in the second paragraph. Why not open with, Please confirm for me that the company will pay for construction costs related to the expansion that exceeds $500,000. I hope you can answer before noon tomorrow.”
A synopsis has two benefits:
- It engages the reader quickly because it brings the important information into focus.
- It saves the reader time, because once the reader has the key facts and the context, it’s easier to process the remaining information. In the world of reading comprehension, the essential information at the front of a message is called anticipatory text, because it enables the reader to sense what is coming. That makes it easier to process the rest of the message.
All messages are likely to have some secondary details that provide supporting information. They can still be in the message, just not ahead of what is essential.
If you could benefit from more writing tips, join us for a webinar September 8th, called “Influencing Your Audience: Crafting Messages that Motivate.” Learn subtle persuasion techniques to use immediately, even in email, to make your messages convincing.
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.