Make your opening sentence work for you
People often start emails with a nicety – a meaningless opening sentence that poses as an introduction:
‘Dear John, I hope this email finds you well.’
What a useless comment. First, it says nothing. Second, it’s weirdly formal when email is, for the most part, an informal means of communication.
Your opening sentence needs to say much more about you and the reason for your email.
There are certain questions we ask ourselves every time we start a new email:
Why am I writing this email?
What do I want to tell my recipient?
What do I want them to do as a result of my email?
Your reader will ask themselves their own set of questions when they open an email from you:
Who is this person?
What are they emailing me about?
How important is this email to me?
Do I need to respond?
Your opening sentence needs to incorporate a personal introduction or refresher on who you are and a superbly succinct summary of what your email is about. That way, your reader can mentally categorise your email straight away.
Let’s look at a scenario. Joseph works in the finance team. He needs you to send him a bunch of documents for the annual accounts. Joseph starts his email like this:
‘Dear Sophie, I really need you to send me some documents to help me with this year’s finances.’
This is a bad opening sentence. You last heard from Joseph this time last year, his name doesn’t ring any bells with you and a vague mention of finances gives you no real insight.
Taking the reader into account, Joseph has another go at his opening sentence:
‘Dear Sophie, It’s that time of year again…’
We now know this is someone you hear from once a year. It might be someone in graduate recruitment or the finance team – or your dentist.
‘…I’m preparing the company’s annual accounts, which are due at the end of the month.’
OK, it’s definitely the finance team. And the accounts need to be filed by the end of the month. Ding ding ding, this is important.
If you’re really stuck with your opening sentence, try some of these tactics:
Emailing someone you don’t know
Find a point of reference or something in common between you and the recipient:
‘I’m working with John Smith on Project Galaxy.’
‘Susie Green at Company X said I should contact you.’
‘I saw you last week at the Aberdeen Directors’ Conference but didn’t have a chance to introduce myself.’
Avoid starting with the phrase ‘By way of introduction’ or ‘I’d like to introduce myself’. It’s a waste of words.
Replying to an email
If someone’s sent you information or documents, you can start your reply with a thank you. You’re acknowledging receipt and being polite at the same time. But keep it succinct; it’s not the main reason you’re emailing.
Referring to a phone conversation or meeting
‘To follow up our call earlier…’
‘As we discussed at yesterday’s meeting…’
Avoid using phrases such as ‘Further to our call earlier…’ and ‘With reference to our discussion at yesterday’s meeting’. They’re stuffy and verbose.
Confirming an arrangement
First of all, are you sure this email is necessary? If you made the arrangement yesterday, the other person probably doesn’t need a reminder.
If you’re writing to someone senior or a client, keep the tone formal:
‘This is to confirm our meeting at your office tomorrow at 1pm. Does the arrangement still work for you?’
A less formal reminder could look like this:
‘Can I confirm we’re still on for lunch tomorrow at 1pm at the Pret in Euston station?’
It’s best to include all relevant information: time, location and anything you both need to bring, which avoids pinging emails back and forth with details.
It needs to sound sincere. I think it’s much better to say ‘I’m sorry’ than ‘I apologise’, ‘Please accept my apologies’, or the perfunctory ‘Apologies’.
Top tip for opening sentences
If you’re stuck on the first line, don’t spend hours staring at a blank screen. Write the rest of your email and come back to it.
In an online Writing Tune-Up class, an attendee wrote what he wanted to get from the class: "My most time-consuming task is developing a good opening sentence. Any tips on that?"
Yes! The first sentence can be the trickiest one to write--not just for novelists and essayists, but for business writers too. Here are three tips and many examples to help you write your first sentence with less effort and more confidence.
1. In your first sentence, answer the question your readers are asking: What is this about?
"This report explains our plan for refurbishing returned, damaged products."
"This recommendation offers a solution to the problem of delayed responses to customer inquiries."
"During a recent claims adjusting process, we discovered some concerns with your property that must be addressed."
"I am pleased to inform you that we have hired a new Vice President of Human Resources."
Too often writers open with ineffective "throat clearing" that loses readers and gets in the way of the real message. Answering the question "What's this about?" at the start of the communication will help you avoid wordy, unproductive openings.
2. Start your first sentence with "I am writing to . . ."
"I am writing to update you on changes in our travel policy."
"I am writing to request permission to reprint your recent article on finding the right mentor."
You may think this approach is inelegant and obvious. Maybe someone chided you, saying, "Of course, you're writing! You don't need to tell people that!" Nevertheless, the opening "I am writing to . . ." helps you and your readers recognize the purpose of your message.
Once you have drafted your message, you may be able to eliminate or edit the opening "I am writing to." For example, you can remove those words from this opening sentence:
"I am writing to Thank you for your generous contribution to the auction benefiting the senior soccer team."
You can shorten "I am writing to request permission" to "I am requesting permission."
3. For a persuasive message, include you or your or both words in your first sentence to focus on your reader and your reader's needs.
"When you think about your financial future, do you feel confident or anxious?"
"Get answers to all your benefits questions at this Friday's Benefits Fair and Field Trip."
"You and your team can get first choice of interns by participating in our new recruiting program."
"If you are interested in offering your executive communication classes in Canada, please consider hiring me, a Canadian consultant with significant experience in persuasive speaking."
Use these opening sentences as models for a variety of writing tasks:
Respond to a letter of complaint: Thank you for writing to us about your experience in the airport last week.
Confirm an agreement: I am happy to confirm our agreement about the summer institute.
Provide a reference: Jessica Dell has asked me to provide information to you in support of her job application, and I am pleased to do so.
Request a letter of reference: I am applying to graduate schools in marine biology, and I would be very grateful if you would write a letter of reference for me.
Request approval: I would appreciate your approval to attend a training program on project management to meet my annual performance goals. Here are the details:
Request information: I am seeking the answers to two questions about customs declarations for a shipment to Russia.
Share information: I received some important information from Dr. Owens, and I believe it will be useful to you as you analyze the research data.
Explain a change in policy: I want to let you know about a new tuition reimbursement policy we will implement in January.
Report on a site visit: This report covers observations on your hazmat program by the Safety Inspection team that visited your site on November 12.
Deny a request: Thank you for writing to ask about attending the conference in Baltimore. I wish I could approve your request.
Apologize: Please accept my apology for missing the meeting yesterday. I am sorry that a medical appointment prevented my attending.
Congratulate: Congratulations on successfully passing the bar exam. Your hard work has paid off!
Invite: You are invited to Venture Capital Chat on Thursday, December 4, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Arena Theater.
Market a training program: Do you ever feel awkward or lost at networking events? This 90-minute program, Networking Made Easy . . .
Introduce a procedure: This procedure explains how to complete an action form to request services from Building Maintenance.
Introduce a new employee: I am pleased to introduce Kathlyn Vargas, Manager of Training and Development.
Introduce yourself: As a second-year student in the Executive MBA program, I am writing to request a brief meeting with you to discuss opportunities in market research.
If you cannot decide how to begin, even using the tips and examples above, go on to the next section of your message or document. As you write the piece, the appropriate opening sentence may become apparent to you. You may even realize that your intended second sentence or section is perfect as the opening.
Don't struggle with openings. Many business readers prefer that you get to the point rather than presenting an elegant, clever opening. Think "efficiency" rather than "masterpiece."
Note: This article originally appeared in my monthly newsletter, Better Writing at Work. For more tips that take your writing from adequate to excellent, get Clarity, Conciseness, Zing, and More: 262 Ways to Take Business Writing Beyond the Basics.
Which types of messages are hardest for you to start?