Section 4.3

Order of Ideas in an Email

The order of ideas in the body of a document, electronic or otherwise (here body refers to everything between the introduction and conclusion), is based on content and goals. However, your ideas should unfold in a way that makes sense and is readily accessible to the reader.

Particularly for longer email messages, it can be helpful to keep in mind these general organizational principles:

1. In many emails, the most important ideas should appear first, with less important ideas appearing later.

Why? Your reader will be more likely to continue reading if the ideas seem significant. In addition, if your reader is unavoidably interrupted, at least he or she will have read your most important points.

2. In other emails, ideas appear in a logical chain.

In an email about a technical topic, for example, you may be explaining complex ideas to people who are unfamiliar with your subject matter. To succeed, you must think like a teacher, introducing ideas one at a time to your audience and explaining each one clearly before you move on to the next. You may actually end up developing your most important idea last — after you have explained all the preceding concepts the reader must understand in order to grasp your big idea.

A cautionary note: where you develop the big idea last, you should still have at least introduced this core theme in your email’s opening lines.

3. Content can also be presented in chronological order.

Many email messages contain short narratives, details, or examples that are generally best explained in chronological order. In other words, the writer starts at the beginning, proceeds to the middle, and concludes with the end. An anecdote or example can last a couple of sentences or multiple paragraphs. Unfortunately, some businesspeople overuse chronological structures in cases where another organizational principle — principle ı on the previous page, for example — might be better.

These principles apply even to the very compressed form of a shorter email, where the writer won’t necessarily have a separate introductory paragraph. Imagine, for example, that you are writing an email to your manager, Mindy. You have researched some new technology, and you have concluded that investing $ı0,000 in new hardware and software will save your department about $30,000 per year in support costs. You have written and are attaching a two-page report describing the new technology and detailing the cost reductions.

There are a couple of ways someone might try to structure such an email. The approach in Figure 11 is a very common one, but is not as effective as the approach in Figure 12.

Figure 11 • Chronological Order of Ideas

Figure 11 • Chronological Order of Ideas

Figure 12 • Most Important Idea First

Figure 12 • Most Important Idea First

In Figure 11, the writer, Marcia, presents the information chronologically. In other words, what happens first — the spending or the savings? The spending, of course, and it is the spending that leads the email. Though the writer quickly proceeds to the savings, what happens if the reader, Mindy, is very busy, or feels concerned about the tight budget, or is about to be interrupted by a phone call? She may focus too much on the spending first, without ever reaching the savings benefit.

The second email, on the other hand, follows the first organizational principle described above; it puts the most important idea — the savings — first. The initial ideas actually appear in reverse chronological order, moving from what happens second (the savings) to what happens first (the spending). For the sake of getting the big idea across right away, it makes sense to reverse the chronology so that something engaging and important can launch the email. The new emphasis is apparent in the shift in subject line as well; the weaker New Technology Purchases in Figure 11 is replaced with Technology Cost Savings Proposal in Figure 12.

The approach used in Figure 12 makes it more likely that Mindy will respond favorably, and efficiently, to the request for the purchases.

Keep in mind that, especially with long email messages, the choice of organizational structure is not necessarily an all-or-nothing decision. Principle 1 may be at work in one section of an email while 2 or 3 dominates in another section.