Opening sentences: how to start an email

Posted on 20 January 2015 by Emily Stella

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.