Write Better Emails
Last week I wrote about achieving Inbox Zero, which is about efficiently processing a never-ending stream of rambling emails.
This week I’ll be focusing on how to eliminate yourself as a source of those rambling emails. My principle is simple: set a good example, and encourage others to follow suit.
With that in mind, I offer the following suggestions to make your emails easier to digest and more effective:
Being concise is hard. It’s often easier to use twenty words than use five. A really good email will start as a 500-word draft and finish as a 100-word summary.
“It’s often easier to use twenty words than use five.”
A good rule of thumb is to re-read your email at least twice and once more for every additional recipient—aim to reduce your email by twenty percent each time you re-read it.
Get to the Point
This is similar to the first point—if you’re being concise this should happen naturally—but it’s important not to give too long a preamble.
Email is often an extension of our normal speech patterns, and you’ll notice that when you try to ask for something or deliver a difficult message, it’s a natural tendency to waffle or skirt around the issue.
That’s what the DELETE key is for. Waffle in your first draft, delete it in the second. Your audience will thank you for your candour and brevity.
The use of bullets can be quite divisive—some people find it quite natural, while others think email should always be lengthy chunks of prose.
I find that bullets are good for two things:
- Drawing your audience’s attention to the key points you want to make
- Structuring your own thinking and focusing on what’s important
Try not to use more than three bullets, or the impact will be lost.
Have a Clear Subject Line
How many times have you seen a subject line like “Re: Yesterday” or “Quick question”?
Productivity gurus like us process our inboxes according to urgency and importance and subject lines like these are no help at all.
Ideally, you’ll already be using the Action, Review and FYI tags discussed in my previous post. In any case try and deliver the key message in your subject line:
“For Review: Tomorrow’s Finance presentation”
“Action: Please pay the deposit for our holiday booking”
This will greatly improve your chances of being put into the right bucket and your urgent items becoming next actions.
Check Your Splelling
There are two levels for this rule: Basic and Advanced.
Basic: For everyday emails, simply using the spellcheck will suffice. Most email editors have this embedded and many highlight as you type. Make sure you’ve applied all highlighted corrections.
Advanced: For important emails, try to apply more rigorous checks for common grammatical errors like to/too and your/you’re. You may not be a grammar genius, but if your recipient is up to scratch on theirs, spelling errors will undermine your message. If in doubt, get a scholarly friend or colleague to give it the once over (or consider getting it professionally edited).
“I’ve lost track of the number of emails I’ve received where I’ve reached the bottom and thought: “So, what exactly do you want me to do with this?”
State Your Required Outcome
This may seem obvious, but I’ve lost track of the number of emails I’ve received where I’ve reached the bottom and thought:
“So, what exactly do you want me to do with this?”
The required action should already be clear from your subject line, but the body of your email is your opportunity to expand on it:
“It’s important that you speak to Fred today to find out …”
“Please read this and let me have any feedback by …”
For more complex issues, try and use outcome-based language:
“In three weeks we’ll have delivered a great deal for our customers.”
“Resolving this problem will enable us to ship the product on time.”
Highlight Action Points in Bold
This is a similar technique to bullets, but may be more comfortable for those who like to stick to prose. Don’t be afraid to pick a few key words or phrases and highlight them in bold.
Don’t go too crazy with this or your email will look like the digital equivalent of a Tourette’s episode. Pick your words carefully, too—look for action words or power phrases:
“Please provide feedback to Martin by Next Friday 15th Jan”
“Don’t go too crazy with this or your email will look like the digital equivalent of a Tourette’s episode. “
Consider What’s Important to Your Audience
This is more an influencing technique than an email technique, but it’s still a powerful thing to do.
We tend to write emails that state things from our own perspective: e.g., “I need” or “Please help”.
Try and consider things from your audience’s perspective. What is important to them? What benefit will they get from your proposal? How will this message make them feel?
Then try and structure your message accordingly:
“I know it’s important to you that we get this done on time …”
“You mentioned in our meeting that you’re focused on customer service; I have a recommendation that will …”
Include Contact Details
Another seemingly obvious one, but I get many emails per day that don’t do this. If you don’t include a phone number in your email you are effectively saying, “I’m only willing to communicate by email”. This may be true, but for maximum effectiveness, give your audience more options.
Some email clients like Outlook may append a standard signature with contact details to your first email but not subsequent replies. This is frustrating as I am required to trawl through your past emails to find your phone number when I decide to call you in response to your latest message.
“If I’m cc’ed in an email I assume you want me to do nothing.”
Don’t CC People
Okay perhaps this is a little harsh, but it’s a good rule of thumb to try and stick to.
This may be a UK phenomenon (I suspect not) but we as a nation have “cc diarrhoea”. We find it impossible to write a note, particularly in the workplace, unless we have cc’ed our colleagues, boss, long lost auntie.
If I’m cc’ed in an email, I assume you want me to do nothing. You’re effectively saying, “I wanted you to know I’d sent this email.”
If you think about it, it’s a bizarre concept. You wouldn’t ask your boss to listen in on a phone call you made (or send them a transcript). So why do we feel compelled to do it via email?
I accept we’re unlikely to wean ourselves off this habit entirely, but if you set out with the principle of no cc’ing, you should see at least a dramatic reduction in the occasions when you succumb to the temptation.
Kill Your Witty Signature
This is probably no more than a pet peeve, but I’ve never understood why people feel the need to add a quote or witty saying to their email signature.
Newsflash: It does not say, “Wow, this guy is switched on and I should pay attention to what he has to say.” It says, “This guy thinks he’s clever and is regurgitating that tired old quote I’ve heard a million times before for no apparent reason.”
Again, apply the golden rule: Would you do this in normal conversation? Or even in a letter? Of course not. So stop doing it in your emails!
This post turned out to be a lot longer than I’d envisaged (should I have been more concise?), but writing great email involves getting a lot of things right. If in doubt, try and focus on:
- Keeping it concise and getting to the point
- Identifying your target audience and catering to it
- Avoiding things you wouldn’t say or do in a normal conversation
Agree? Disagree? Let me know!
I’m experimenting with sketchnotes. You can see the Write Better Email Sketchnote here.