Write a clear, complete introduction for every business document

The importance of the introduction

The beginning of any business document is the most important position in the text because it prepares the reader for the content, sets the tone, and has impact. Use the strategies explained in this lesson to write introductions that will make your business documents more successful in accomplishing your goals.

 

Position of your reply in an e-mail

In e-mails, put your message at the beginning. Don't put it after the copy of the reader's e-mail to you. The reader should not have to skip past his or her e-mail to find your response.

For e-mails and letters, 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 good will 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 for letters 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 e‑mails 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.

Do not write a salutation in a memo. Begin with the content of the memo.

Follow these general guidelines for the salutation:

  1. Address the individual by name; don't use just "Hi" or the very formal "Sir." Don't use the archaic "To whom it may concern." Instead, if you don't know the person's name, use a title, such as "Dear representative" or the company name, such as "Dear Apex Supplies."
  2. For e-mails, 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. End the salutation with a colon for formal letters or e‑mails, a comma for informal.
  5. 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.
  6. Skip one blank line between the salutation and the first line of text.

For e-mails and letters, 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 e‑mails, the reader will know you. You don't need to introduce yourself.

 

The introduction must be self-contained.

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

Example:

On July 15, Assistant Manager Jane Reynolds requested suggestions on possible 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 report explains five suggestions we believe will expand our creative department and keep costs low.

First, developing an . . . [report continues here]

Everything Jane needs to know to understand why she is receiving the document is in this introduction. When Jane reads the report, she'll know what this report is in reference to. Jane can then spend time evaluating the suggestions rather than trying to figure out why she received the document.

Describe the context.

For all of your business documents, describe the context at the beginning:

  1. Why is the reader receiving this now?

  2. What is the purpose of this document?

  3. What is the problem that led up to this?

  4. What are the circumstances that required this e‑mail?

  5. 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 explanation as will be helpful to inform the reader about the context of the message.

Example from an e-mail:

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 e‑mail. 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 messages in response to earlier messages, quote the reader's request and requirements in the context. Most e‑mail programs include the previous e‑mail 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 e‑mail, 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 e‑mail message that contains quoted material:

Dear Jane,

You wrote:

Please e‑mail 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 a few suggestions that will help alleviate the current crunch on our creative department. I believe developing an . . . [e‑mail continues here]

 

The context and content of the message are clear. When Jane opens the e‑mail, 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. If the reader had more than one part to the request, list each part that you are fulfilling using the reader’s words.

This is the introduction to a report on suggestions for expanding the creative department.

On July 15, Assistant Manager Jane Reynolds requested suggestions on possible 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 report explains five suggestions we believe will expand our creative department and keep costs low.

First, developing an . . . [report continues here]

The request asked for suggestions to accomplish two goals: expand the creative department and keep costs as low as possible. The introduction states that the report will address both goals by explaining five suggestions.

Now look at an introduction that does not use the reader’s words:

Example:

This report explains a plan for improving our creative department and cutting expenses.

A “plan" is not the same as “suggestions." “Improving" is not the same as “expanding," and “cutting expenses" is not the same as “keeping costs as low as possible." Changing the reader’s words will create confusion and will not fulfill the request correctly.

A strong introduction 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 report.

 

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 that 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 introduction to the report, follow the organization the reader used and repeat the key words in the questions, suggestions, or other content. Create a list at the beginning 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 his or her 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 introduction to the report:

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 contains 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

The introduction to the report uses the identical wording in the reader's request, presented in the same order, bulleted out to be clear.

 

Write the action.

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

  1. Some readers never get to the end of the document. They may not realize an action is required.

  2. Many readers skim the beginning to see what the document 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 reading the document.

  3. The beginning is a very strong position in a business document. 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 out 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 some time before noon.

 

Write any critical point the reader must know and remember.

Also at the beginning, write any critical point the reader must know and remember. Repeat it at the end.

 

Example e-mail introduction

To see an example of an e‑mail that lacks a satisfactory introduction and a revision that improves it, click on the "Example" button below. The information will appear in a new window. Close the new window when you're finished looking at the examples.

Example

Example report introduction

To see an example of a report opening that has a poor introduction and a revision that improves it, click on the "Example" button below. The information will appear in a new window. Close the new window when you're finished looking at the examples.

Example

 

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