My business relies heavily on communication, especially, over distance to clients spread across the country relying on email.
I know more than anyone else what an effective tool email could be – as well as the dangers of poorly written, overused, email communications.
So, how do you write effective emails? How do you make sure your message is properly conveyed and is concise and understandable?
The first thing to remember is don’t overcommunicate by email!
It’s tempting isn’t it, because we spend so much time at work in front of a computer today? I’m working on something and need to ask a co-worker a question – I’ll fire off an email.
I want to respond to a customer’s review or invitation – which she sent by email – so of course, I’ll use email to reply.
But if you’re stressed by receiving so much email….why pass on the stress? Why not pick up the phone or even use IM or text from your phone?
Sometimes, the voice conveys so much more, especially if something is contentious or difficult. A conversation – proper conversation – can cut through so many messages and misunderstandings.
Once you’ve worked out the most effective way of communicating and decided that it is by email, then think about these 10 ways to write effective emails:
- Write a meaningful subject line
- Keep the message clear and concise
- Avoid attachments
- Be polite
- Check your tone
- Use THINK
- Don’t assume privacy
- Distinguish between the formal and the informal situation
- Respond promptly
1. Write a meaningful subject line
The subject line of your email should be informative and tell the recipient what your email is about.
A blank subject line is just laziness and disrespectful. In the same way, if you are replying to an email, the “RE:” subject line is woeful – at least change it subtly to indicate the reply, perhaps by adding a date of the reply, or an alternate subject to show what you are thinking.
The standard “RE: Situation Report” says nothing other than that you are replying. Why not change it to “RE: Situation Report-My View As At May 6th”?
Subject lines should be informative and tell the recipient what the email is about. A subject line “Meeting” tells them nothing. However a subject line “Meeting To Discuss Policies: Lunchroom Friday 8.30AM” tells them not merely what but where and when.
You can also write subject lines that show your recipient what they need to do, for example:
- “New Procedures – Managers Please Approve by Friday 9th”; or
- “Friday’s Event – FYI Only, No Response Required”
This provides your recipient to apply their own prioritisation in a mailbox full of emails.
2. Keep the message clear and concise
Emails need to be clear and concise. Keep your sentences short and to the point. The body of the email should be direct and informative, and it should contain all pertinent information. Don’t be tempted to include all sorts of “good-to-know-but-unnecessary” information. If they need to know it should be in the message. If it would be interesting for them to know, say so and ask them to contact you for a fuller discussion.
If you need to communicate with someone about a number of different issues, write a separate email for each issue. This makes your individual message clearer, and it allows your recipient to reply to one topic at a time. It’s important to find a balance here. You don’t want to bombard someone with a dozen emails, so if it makes sense to combine several, related, issues into one email, then do so.
But when this happens, keep each issue simple with numbered paragraphs or bullet points, and format your email so it is easy to digest.
To keep your message focused, just remember to ask yourself why you are writing. If it’s in response to something, then just respond. If it’s to ask the recipient to take an action, then ask.
3. Avoid attachments
Unless you absolutely cannot avoid it – such as asking for a signature or in the communication of legal documents, avoid attachments.
For a start, attachments could carry viruses, and in some email apps are treated as spam and quarantined.
Attachments force your recipient to open and read them, which makes them question if they should read your email “when they have more time”.
If you are sending something with an interesting point, why not cut and paste the relevant parts into your email, or paraphrase the relevant issue?
Even if you absolutely cannot avoid sending an attachment, you should try and summarise the relevant parts, and also tell your recipient what you need them to do with the attachment. Should they read it? Should they sign and return? Should they focus on a page and get back to you with their perspective?
4. Be polite
I should start by saying that it is good practice not to fire off a reply as soon as you get an email, especially if there is something contentious.
Writing a reply when your blood is up is definitely not world’s best practice!
Calm down, mull it over, compose your reply (several times!) before you actually click on the “reply” button!
On top of this, people think that emails are less formal than letters, so they shorten the “pleasantries” or write something as they would speak it. However emails are a matter of written record – and they reflect your professionalism and other organisational values. Unless you really are very good friends with someone, avoid slang, jargon and informal salutations or other informal language. Certainly, do NOT swear!
People think “Dear Someone” is too formal for an email. It may be, depending on your relationship with the recipient. However, at the very least, start with “Hi Someone” and end with “Kind regards” or “All the best” or whatever is informal but polite as an ending.
5. Check your tone
One of the biggest problems with email is that we can’t check body language.
If I were your friend and I stood in front of you smiling and said “I knew you’d do that, you old dog” you’d probably smile back.
However, friend or not, imagine you received an email that said “I heard what you did, you old dog” – what would you think?
What if you received an email that said “I need your report by 5 PM tonight or I won’t be able to include it in my submission” would you think the person might be angry when perhaps they feel just fine? It would be better if they sent a message that said: “Thanks for all your work on your report – could you get it to me by 5 so I can include it in my submission that I need to send off by 6?”
Remember that people can’t see you when they read your email so check that it “feels” correct in accordance with how you actually feel.
6. Use THINK
THINK stands for True? Helpful? Inspiring? Necessary? Kind?
Ask yourself as you write your email if what you are saying is true. Is what you have included helpful?
Consider if the message is inspiring – I don’t mean Martin Luther King inspiring – I mean does it inspire them to take the action you need, is it clear what you need them to do, and have you specified any sense of urgency?
The final test before you press send has got to be if what you are saying is necessary? If you are being critical, is that necessary for their performance?
And then, be kind. This is more than just including common greetings – are you being kind to your reader by ensuring that you are spelling correctly, being grammatically correct so they can understand you, and so on.
Take a moment to review your email for spelling, grammar and punctuation.
If nothing else you want to look professional, but good proofreading also avoids misunderstanding. Correct your punctuation so that “Find inspiration in cooking, your family, and your dog” does not become “Find inspiration in cooking your family and your dog.”
Also, as you proofread pay attention to the length of your email – can it be made more concise without losing information or meaning? People are more likely to read short concise emails than long rambling missives, and they’ll retain most of the information from a short email than from a novella.
8. Don’t assume privacy
Emails can be forwarded, printed and shared, or simply made public.
A simple rule is not to send anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to be posted, with your signature at the bottom, on the wall of the cafeteria. Be careful about including private information or confidential views. Make sure you use THINK because if you strayed, even a little bit, from the truth and others see it out of context, you will seem to be a liar or misinformed.
On the other hand, understand also that others may want some privacy, so be very restrained in clicking on the “forward” or “reply all” buttons.
9. Distinguish between the formal and informal situation
You can use emojis if you are writing to a close friend, or in an out of work context. But make sure you can distinguish the formal from the informal.
Again your work email should reflect your professionalism.
10. Respond promptly
You’d hate to be kept on tenterhooks for a reply, so show your correspondents the same amount of respect and courtesy and respond to them promptly.
Even if you are busy at the moment respond with a note that you have received their email and need to finish something, but you will get back to them by a certain time or date. This provides full communication between the two of you.
Now over to you.
I’d love for you to get over to teikoh.com and in the comments section, tell me how you use email and what you think are email’s pros and cons.
While you’re there, make sure you register your email so that I can send you these business tips to help you grow your business directly to your inbox.