Professional and Technical Writing/Business Communications/Beginning
Beginning A Communication
Reading is a dynamic interaction between your readers and your words and graphics. Your reader's response to one sentence or paragraph can influence their reactions to all the sentences and paragraphs that follow. Consequently, the opening sentence or section takes on a special importance. It helps to establish the frame of mind readers bring to all the sentences and sections that follow. It also grabs the viewer's attention and keeps them focused until the end.
In the beginning, you will learn eight reader-centered strategies for beginning your communications in highly usable and highly persuasive ways. Rarely, if ever, will you use all eight at once. To decide to use one or a combination in a particular circumstance, you will need to build on the knowledge of your readers that you gained while defining your communication's objectives. The chapter's ninth guideline discusses ethical approaches to situations in which people at work sometimes wonder whether they should begin to try communicating at all.
The first three guidelines announce the topic, state the main point, and forecast your communication's organization.
Guideline 1: Give Your Readers A Reason To Pay Attention
The most important function of the beginning is to persuade your readers to devote their full attention to your message rather than skimming it or setting it aside unfinished. At work, people complain that they receive too many e-mails, memos, and reports. Your goal is to convince them not only to pay some attention to the message but to pay close attention. Doing so will be especially important when your communication is primarily persuasive. Research has shown that the more deeply people think about a message while reading or listening to it, the more likely they are to hold the attitudes it advocates, the more likely they are to resist attempts to reverse those attitudes, and the more likely they are to act upon those attitudes.
To grab your reader's attention you must do two things:
• Announce Your Topic
• Tell your readers how they will benefit from the information you are providing
Be sure to do both things. Don't assume that your readers will automatically see the value of your information after you have stated your topic. Benefits that appear obvious to you may not be obvious to them.
Importance of Subject Lines
Subject lines are used to grab the readers attention, and are generally only a few words long. When writing a subject line, keep in mind the following:
• Keep it brief. The subject line is supposed to inform the reader about the content, not be the content
• Make it interesting. When people read your subject line, will they want to read more?
• Make sure it is on topic. The subject line is used to inform the reader of what is to come.
E-mails present a special challenge. They have in effect two beginnings: the subject line and the first sentences of the email. Your intended reader won't read unless your subject line persuades them to open your message. Name your topic precisely and indicate that what you have to say about it will benefit your readers. Take advantage of subject lines in memos and letters as well.
Two Ways to Highlight Reader Benefits
Two strategies are particularly effective at persuading individuals who will overall benefit from reading your communication.
Refer to Your Reader's Request
At work, you will often write because a coworker, manager, or client has asked you for a recommendation or information. To establish the reader benefit of your reply, simply refer the request.
Offer to Help Your Readers Solve a Problem
The second strategy for highlighting reader benefits at the beginning of a communication is to tell your readers that your communication will help them solve a problem they are confronting. Most employees think of themselves as problem-solvers. Whether the problem involves technical, organizational, or ethical issues, the reader or individual will welcome communications that help them find a solution.
Communication experts J.C. Mathes and Dwight W. Stevenson have suggested an especially powerful approach. The key is writing beginnings that builds on readers concerns by offering problem solving/time saving solutions. First, list problems that are important to the readers you are going to address. From the list, pick one problem that your information and ideas will provide the readers with solutions. When you've done that, you have begun to connect yourself and readers as partners in a joint problem-solving effort in which your communication plays a critical role. Once you have determined how to describe a problem-solving partnership between you and your readers, draft the beginning of your communication.
Establishing a Problem-Solving Partnership with Your Readers
1. Tell your readers the problem you will help them solve. Be sure to identify a problem your readers deem important.
2. Tell your readers what you have done toward solving the problem. Review the steps you have taken as a specialist in your own field. For example, you may develop a new feature for one of your employer's products or your findings while investigating products offered by competition. Focus on building up on why your research or information will be significant to your readers rather than listing everything you've personally done to boast.
3. Tell your readers how your communication will help them perform their jobs more efficiently and how their contributions will further the problem-solving efforts of the joint cooperation.
Here are some situations in which a full description of the problem-solving situation usually is desirable
• Your communication will be read by people outside your immediate working-group. The more distant some or all of your readers are, the less likely that they will be familiar with your message's context.
• Your communication will have a binding and a cover. Bound documents are usually intended for large group of current readers and they often filed for consultation by future readers. Both groups are likely to include at least some readers who will have no idea of the problem-solving situation you are addressing.
• Your communication will be used to make a decision involving a significant amount of money. Such decisions are often by high-level managers who need to be told about the organizational context of the reports they read.
Defining the Problem in Unsolicited Communications
In your career, you will have many occasions to make a request or recommendation without being asked to do so. When writing these unsolicited communications, you may need to persuade your readers that a problem even exists. This can require some creative, reader centered thinking.
Guideline 2: State Your Main Point
You can usually boost your communication's usability and persuasiveness by stating your main point in your beginning. Three major reasons for doing so:
• You help your readers find what they most want or need
• You increase the likelihood that your readers will accurately read your main point instead of putting your communication aside before they get to it.
• You provide your readers with a context for viewing the details that follow
Choose Your Main Point Thoughtfully
Choose the main point of your communication in the same way you choose the main point of each segment. If you are responding to a request, your main point will be the answer to the question your reader asked. If you are writing on your own initiative, your main point might be what you want your readers to think or do after reading your communication. For example, if you need your boss to sign off on something, you might make your subject line "Signature Required," and then explain what needs to be signed as the main point of your document.
Guideline 3: Tell Your Readers What to Expect
Unless your communication is very short, its beginning should tell readers what to expect in the segments that follow. A forecasting statement positioned at the beginning of a communication should focus its organization and scope. This will serve a couple of purposes. First, it will narrow the readers attention to only what needs to be addressed. Second, it will deter some of the readers who you are not intending to write for. This could help in avoiding lawsuits.
Tell about Your Communication's Organization
By telling your readers about your communication's organization in your beginning you provide them with a framework for understanding the connections among the various pieces of information you convey. This framework substantially increases your communication's usability by helping your readers to see immediately how each new point you make relates to point they have already read. It also helps skimming readers to navigate quickly to the information they are seeking.
Tell about Your Communication's Scope
Readers want to know from the beginning what a communication does and does not contain. Even if they are persuaded that you are addressing a subject relevant to them, they may still wonder whether you discuss the specific aspects of the subject they want to know about. Often you will tell your readers about the scope of your communication when you tell about its organizations: When you list the topics it addresses, you indicate its scope. There will be times however, when you will need to include additional information. That happens when you your to understand that you are not addressing your subject comprehensively or that you are addressing it from a particular point of view.
Guideline 4: Encourage Openness to Your Message
Other chapters in this book have emphasized that readers can respond in a variety of ways as they read a communication. When they read a set of instructions you have prepared, they can follow your directions in every detail or attempt the procedure on their own, consulting your instruction only if they get stumped. Because the way you begin a communication has a strong effect on your readers' response, you should always pay attention to the persuasive dimension of your beginnings. Always begin in a way that encourages your readers to be open and receptive to the rest of your communication.
Readers' Initial Reactions Can Vary
Ordinarily, you will have no trouble eliciting a receptive response because you will be communication with fellow employees, customers, and others who want the information you are providing. In certain circumstances, however, your readers may have more negative attitude toward your message. In such situations, you will need to take special care in drafting the beginning of your communication if you are to win a fair hearing for your message. Your readers' initial attitude toward your message will be negative if the answer to any of the following questions is "yes". If that is the case, try to pinpoint the attitudes that are likely to shape your readers reactions to your communication, and then devise your beginning accordingly.
• Does your message contain bad news for your readers?
• Does your message contain ideas or recommendations that will be unwelcome to your readers?
• Do your readers feel distrust, resentment, or competitiveness toward you, your department, or your company?
• Are your readers likely to be skeptical of your subject or situation?
• Are your readers likely to be suspicious of motives?
The strategy that is most likely to promote a positive initial reaction or to counteract a negative one differs from situation to situation. However, these are the three strategies that often work.
Strategies for Encouraging Openness
• Present yourself as a partner, not as a critic or a competitor. Suggest the you are working with your readers to help solve a problem they want to solve or to achieve a goal they want to achieve.
• Delay the presentation of your main point. An initial negative reaction may prompt your readers to aggressively devise counterarguments to each point that follows. Therefore, if you believe that your readers may react negatively to your main point in your beginning. If you delay the presentation of your main point, your readers may consider at least some of your other points objectively before discovering your main point and reacting against it.
• Establish your credibility. People are more likely to respond favorably to a message if they have confidence in the person delivering it. Consequently, you can promote openness to your message if you begin by convincing your readers that you are an expert in your subject and are knowledgeable about the situation. This does not mean, however, that you should announce your credentials, you merely burden your readers with unnecessary information. Avoid discussing your qualifications when writing to people, such as your coworkers, who have already formed a favorable opinion of your expertise.
• Ask for assistance. Most individuals are more receptive to new ideas when being asked for help. Even if you know everything about the situation, you might not be able to solve it on your own. In these situations it would be beneficial to ask the reader for help. This shows your reader that even if you know everything there is to know on the situation at hand, you don't know everything there is to know. When writing, it is often important not to come off as arrogant or snobbish. Sometimes we have to swallow our pride to get things done. Try to connect with people on the same level. Acting like you know more will invite more negative reaction.
Tell Yourself A Story
Although the strategies suggested will often encourage openness, don't employ them mechanically. Always keep in mind the particular attitudes, experience and expectations of your readers as you craft the beginning of a communication. You might do this by telling yourself a story about your readers. The central figure in your story should be your reader, an individual if you are writing to one person, or a typical member of your audience if you are writing to a group. Begin your story a few minutes before this person picks up your communication and continue it until the moment he or she reads your first words. Although you would not actually include the story in your communication, creating it can help you decide how to begin.
Guideline 5: Provide Necessary Background Information
As you draft the beginning of a communication, ask yourself whether your readers will need any background information to understand what you are going to tell them.
Situations that might require information at the beginning
• Your readers need to grasp certain general principles in order to understand your specific points.
• Your readers are unfamiliar with technical terms you will be using
• Your readers are unfamiliar with the situation that you are discussing
Not all background information belongs at the beginning of your communication. Information that pertains only to certain segments should appear at the beginning of those segments. In the beginning of your communication include only background information that will help your readers understand your overall message.
Guideline 6: Include a Summary Unless Your Communication is Very Short
Summaries help busy managers learn the main points without reading the entire document, and they give those readers an overview of the communication's content and organization. For longer communications, especially those that are longer enough to have covers and tables of contents, these summaries are longer and often printed on a separate page.
Guideline 7: Adjust the Length of Your Beginning to Your Readers' Needs
There is no rule of thumb that tells how long the beginning should be. A good, reader-centered beginning may require only a phrase or may take several pages. You need to give your readers only the information they don't already know.
Readers Should Know the Following
- The reason they should read the communication
- The main point of the communication
- The organization and scope of the communication
- The background information they need in order to understand and use the communication
If you have given your readers all this information, and have encouraged them to receive your message openly, then you have written a good beginning, regardless of how long or short it is.
Guideline 8: Adapt your Beginning to your Readers' Cultural Background
Readers' expectations and preferences about the beginning of a communication are shaped by their culture. The suggestions your have just read are suitable for readers in the United States and some other Western countries. However, costume carries widely. You must have good understanding of the communication customs of your readers' culture in order to create an effective opening. If you do not have this understanding, do some research or seek out someone who is from that culture to ask them.
Guideline 9: Ethics Guideline: Begin to Address Unethical Practices Promptly and Strategically
Suppose you learn that your employer is engaged in an action you consider to be unethical. Or you are asked to write something that violates your sense of what is ethical. Should you speak up or express your concerns in writing? New employees are sometimes advised to wait until they have achieved security and status before trying to bring about change. But that means you could spend years before addressing a practice you regard as ethical. Ignoring an unethical act would be seen as unethical in itself. When determining how to draw attention to something you consider to be ethical you face a challenge similar to that of figuring out how to begin a memo in which you will recommend a course of action with which you believe your readers will disagree.
3 Strategies for Changing Unethical Practices without Risking Your Job
- Plant the seeds of change
- Use reason rather than accusation
- Remain open to others' view
You may someday witness a practice that is so outrageous that you will be willing to risk future promotions and even your job in order to stop it. If you find yourself in that situation, seek the aid of influential people inside your company. If the practice you object to violates the law or a government regulation, alert the appropriate agency. This is called whistle blowing. There are some state and federal laws to protect whistle blowers.
10 Questions to Ask Yourself
As you plan your letters, e-mail, and other routine communications ask yourself the following:
- How well do I know this person?
- How much do they know about the topic discussed in the letter?
- How will they respond to what I will need to say? In what ways can I use this communication to build rapport for the firm?
- What exactly am I trying to accomplish with this message?
- What is their level of knowledge about the concepts discussed?
- What is their attitude toward me and the firm?
- What previous business dealings have I/we had with them?
- How much and what kind of information should I include, based on their profile?
- How technical can I be in presenting my message?
- What strategies can I use to make this message easy to read and understand?