There’s a principle I was taught in journalism, and it’s this: it can be dangerous to ask a question in the introductory paragraph of your story, because readers might answer it very differently to the way you do – and most often, they’ll be facetious.
I have that impulse when people send me an email that starts with, “I hope this email finds you well.” I’m always tempted to write back, “Well, actually, I’m not well at all. My lower back is sore and I think I have a repetitive stress injury from too much tweeting. And you know, I really didn’t sleep well last night. Also, you didn’t find me. Because if you had, you’d be standing right here… Is it your turn to hide now?”
Silly, I know, but it’s a phrase that grates, because I know the only reason people use it, is because they don’t know how else to start their email. Because it’s so widely used, it feels meaningless and insincere. And I’m guessing, but ‘insincere’ is probably not the tone you were hoping for when you emailed your most important client and opened with that phrase.
The most basic principle I teach my business writing students, is that we start at the end – with the person who’s going to be reading our email, or report, or other important document. How well do you know them? Is it appropriate to be enquiring about the health and wellbeing of complete strangers? Is it any of your business?
So, how should you start, then?
Well, a lot of the time you can just get straight to the point with the reason you’re writing. If it’s someone you know well, and you know they broke their leg last week falling off the ride-on mower, however, then you can enquire specifically about how they are after their injury. That will come across as sincere and friendly.
Small talk for the sake of small talk, however, is uncomfortable for everyone – whether at a cocktail party, or in someone’s inbox.
Be sincere and authentic, or say nothing at all: match the tone of your missive to the relationship you have with the reader, and your communication will be valued because it doesn’t waste anyone’s time with meaningless platitudes.