How do Introductions work?
Introductions have three key elements that scope the story.
All stories need a beginning, and in business communication that beginning needs to bring the reader and writer to a common starting place that prepares the audience for the scope of the piece of communication to come.
A mini-narrative, including a situation (which we call the context) and a complication (which we call the trigger) to lead the reader toward one unifying question is a terrific way to do this.
There are a number of ways to organise these three ideas into such a narrative, depending upon the tone you would like to create for your reader:
Standard flow: CTQA
The introduction begins with a short explanation of the background, purpose, or context that both the reader and the writer agree is true. It is then followed by a description of the issue that triggered the need for this piece of communication, which will naturally lead toward the specific question that the piece of communication aims to answer in the body of the document.
Regardless of the tone you would like to create for your audience, it is best to prepare your introduction in this order to test that the context leads to the trigger and then one – and only one – inevitable question. Once you are confident this is so, feel free to modify the order to create a different tone for your audience.
Direct tone: ACT
This order (Answer, Context, Trigger) is used when the audience is alreayd familiar with what you are recommending and is open and expecting the message
Concerned tone: TCA
This order, (Trigger, Context, Answer) is used when the audience is already aware of – and agrees with – the issues and is anxious about the complicating event described in the trigger.
Assertive tone: QCTA
This order (Question, Context, Trigger, Answer) is used to grab the reader's attention by posing the question up front and then leading toward the answer.
What information goes in the trigger?
The trigger explains why you are communicating about the context
The trigger describes why you are communicating about the context that you have already described. It flows naturally from the context to form a narrative flow that then leads tightly to the central question that the document aims to answer.
Modifying the trigger will significantly alter the question and the nature of the whole story.
What information should go into the context?
The context contains the starting point of your story
The context includes the information that both you and your audience will agree is the right starting point for your story. It is information that is known to your audience, so that you do not surprise them at the start with something unexpected. Rather, it is familiar and helps them ‘get their head' into the space that you want it to be in when they read the rest of the story.
It should lead to an unconscious response from the audience, which is something like “Oh, so that's what this is going to be about”.
It leads naturally into the trigger which will then flow equally naturally to the one and only one question that your communication will answer.
What are the most common problems that occur within introductions?
People often miss and misuse elements
Introductions are critical in scoping your story and should include three key elements:
- Context: The starting point for this story that you and your audience will both agree is true
- Trigger: The reason why you are communicating about the context to this audience at this point in time
- Question: The high level question that your whole piece of communication will address
However, they can be difficult to create and often take a disproportionate amount of time to get right. Typically once we ‘nail' the introduction the rest of the story will flow naturally and quickly.
Here are some thoughts on how not to miss or misuse critical introductory elements.
No introduction at all: Given the importance of the introduction it is surprisingly common to see how often people forget to include an introduction in their communication. Whenever you prepare any communication that is longer than two sentences, you should provide an introductory remark to help your audience understand it now, and in the future should they return to it.
Missing context: Although this is difficult to craft it forms an important part of the journey you want to take your reader on when leading them toward your primary unifying question and answer.
The wrong starting point: The context is often the hardest part of an introduction to ‘get right': it must accurately describe the ‘thing' that sets the right scene for your story, and which you and your audience will both know and agree is true. When crafting your introduction, you may find it easier to think of the trigger and the question before you realise what the context should be. This is common, as is the need to revisit the context after you have prepared your whole story.
The wrong question: Think carefully about the highest order question that your audience will ask you about your topic, and craft the overarching question from their perspective: not from yours. You are, after all, wanting to engage them not yourself.
Including information that is new to the reader: The introduction should only include material that the audience knows and agrees is true. New information should be included in the body of the story, below the answer (governing idea).
Multiple questions: One of the most powerful benefits of preparing a CTQ flow for an introduction is that it will encourage – even force – you to identify the high level purpose of the communication. By including multiple questions that must be answered, you are missing an opportunity to refine your thinking and communicate powerfully.
Do the context and the trigger need to be a certain length?
The context and the trigger need to be in proportion with your whole document
For short pieces of communication such as an email the context and the trigger can be included in the one sentence: there is no need to overcook them. However, for longer documents, the context and trigger would be proportionally longer – possibly running to a couple of paragraphs each for a white paper or longer report.
Why should I include the context if the audience already knows this information?
The context helps you clarify your thinking while also connecting with your audience
Thinking through the context as you write will help you confirm that you are starting the story at the right point – not making it too broad or too narrow.
Writing it down for the audience will help them work out where you are coming from and what you understand to be the right scope for the story. It will also help your audience ‘enter the world of your story' and leave what they were previously thinking about behind.