Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

In a recent business writing class, a participant said she wanted to learn to do this better in her writing:

“To succinctly communicate historical information or the why behind an email, and transition into the purpose or request I am making.”

I could not help her reach her learning goal. No, that’s not true–I would not help her. Here’s why:

She had the wrong goal. Email readers do not want to read the “historical information or the why behind an email” before they learn the purpose or request. They want the purpose or the request first. Then they may want the why. They rarely want the historical information.

Here is an example:

You are writing to ask someone to recommend software or a web site you can go to for templates to create forms. Do not begin by explaining that you are making new forms. Do not describe how out of date your forms are. Do not admit that you feel as though this is something you really ought to know without asking. Instead, start like this:
Hi, Grace. Can you recommend software or any web sites that would help us create some new forms in our training department?
If there is any other information that would narrow your request and help her answer better, provide it.

Here is another:

You are writing to ask someone to give a presentation to your team about the new accounting rules. Do not begin by stating that there are a lot of new employees in your area. Do not explain that one of your goals for the year is to provide six hours of training for each employee. Do not write about how important accurate accounting is to everyone at your company. Start like this:
Hi, Rob. I heard from Stewart that your presentation on the new accounting rules is really helpful, and I am hoping you can offer it to our team.
Or this:
Hi, Rob. Our team would benefit from a presentation on the new accounting rules, and I am hoping that you will agree to talk to us as our resident expert.
Then continue with how you will make it easy for Rob to give the presentation.

Starting off with background information and explanations does not work in email. It’s like starting on the wrong foot when dancing with a partner. The partner wonders, “Hmmm. This is awkward. Where are we going? I’ll try to follow.”

In fact, starting with background works in very few documents. If you think such information belongs at the beginning of a message, ask yourself “Does my reader have to have this information first? Without it, will my purpose or request make no sense?” If your answer is yes, explain. Otherwise, start off on the right foot. Get right to your purpose or request.

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Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact. A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors. A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media. Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.