Look at these opening lines from three letters/emails.
I appreciate that some recipients of this email will not be directly relevant to this opportunity [sic]. If that is you, I am sending it to you with the view that you might have relevant people in your network you can refer. If not, then please disregard the email and I appreciate you taking the time to view it.
We appreciate that there are many reasons why you have not paid your fines. Whatever the reason, it is important that you pay your fines before the Sheriff takes action …
I’m an old, senior guy, 78, but I’m attractive and horny …
One is the beginning of an email from a recruitment company I received the other day; another is from a letter sent by the Sheriff’s Office of Victoria to people with unpaid traffic fines; and another, from a personal ad placed by a character in a movie.
The personal ad features in the 2010 movie called Beginners which I watched on SBS last week.
Starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor as father and son, it’s the story of a man named Hal who comes out as gay at the age of 75 after his wife dies. Just a few years later, he himself dies of cancer. After Hal’s death, his son is sorting through his father’s papers and finds the ad his father placed in the newspaper. The son and his girlfriend read the ad, marvelling at Hal’s courage and optimism. “He never gave up,” the girlfriend says.
Why am I discussing a personal ad from a fictitious character?
Because the ad does something the two emails/letters do too. It starts by acknowledging what is most likely a concern for the reader. And acknowledging a concern causes it to vanish.
In the first example, if I put myself in the shoes of the reader, my likely concern on receiving the email is that:
- it has nothing to do with me
- I’m about to be asked to do something (about a matter that has nothing to do with me)
- I’m about to have my time taken up with someone else’s concern.
So the writer handles all this in the first paragraph. He starts by acknowledging the possibility the email will not be relevant to me. Note, the actual sentence he uses is grammatically incorrect. It should read, “I appreciate this opportunity will not be directly relevant to some recipients of this email …”. Despite the error, he manages to communicate the sense of it anyway.
At the end of the paragraph, he closes simply, and with gratitude, “I appreciate you taking the time to view it.”
In the second example, the likely concern for me as the reader is that the Sheriff is about to demand I pay my fines and I don’t have the means/willingness to pay. So the writer’s opening line addresses this, acknowledging that fines are just one of many things I am dealing with. The message that’s communicated to me as the reader is “we understand it’s not necessarily easy for you”.
Bingo! There’s my concern acknowledged. Now, suddenly, there’s a space to start looking to see if I can pay or how I can pay.
In the third example, the likely concern for me as the reader (if I were a gay man) is that the writer is too old at 78, that I might not look good to my friends with an old guy and/or that he won’t be able to perform sexually. So, the writer, the fictitious character of Hal, acknowledges it simply and directly, “I’m old … but I’m attractive and horny.”
Again, bingo! The concern as concern vanishes.
Free to read without defensiveness
Now it may be that I as the reader don’t take up the writer’s offer (in each of the three cases), but it won’t be because I didn’t read. When the writer acknowledges my concern at the outset, it causes it to vanish, leaving me free to read without defensiveness.
It’s the same mechanism, and it was successful in each case:
- in the first case, I read the email in its entirety (instead of not reading, and then deleting it)
- in the second case, over 70,000 people paid their fines which recouped $57 million for the state of Victoria
- in the third case – of course, a fictional one – Hal’s personal ad attracted suitable partners, and he lived with great love in the last few years of his life.
Next time you’re writing a high-stakes email or letter, put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Speculate about the likely concern of the reader when he or she receives your email, and then directly address it in the first couple of sentences.
Then watch what happens.
Take your business communication to the next level …
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