Writing More Effective Email

mailboxesCommunicating via email isn’t hard. Doing it well is what’s difficult. I receive between 200-400 emails a day, several of which require me to take some action. While there are plenty of posts out there on which software is the best, how to empty your inbox, and how not to check it at all, there probably needs to be a few more posts on how to WRITE better emails. In all cases, these apply to more of your professional emails than correspondence with your cousin, although don’t be so quick to dismiss sending better emails to friends and relatives, too.

The Subject Line

The subject line of an email is the first chance you have to tell me why you need my attention. Lots of people waste the subject line. They put “hi” or “Meeting tomorrow” or “an idea for you.” None of these are useful enough. You have approximately 25 words to use to convey the payload of the info. The first 10 count even more. Try something like one of these:

  • DECISION NEEDED: Picking the corporate logo today
  • SCHEDULING: Check Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday
  • PROMOTION HELP: Looking for some blog and Twitter love
  • [chrisbrogan.com] seems offline. You might want to check.
  • MICROSOFT DEAL: Should we take it? (from JYang@yahoo.com)

In these cases, I’ve ALL-CAPPED the major point or action required, and given you a sense of what you’re going to do next for me. It’s prepping you for what comes next. Just like scary music in a movie means the killer is in the closet, you know what’s coming next, and so you mentally prepare for it.

Main Points at the Top

Unlike writing a novel, where you build up to the important stuff, most emails would be better if you put the main points up at the very top, the way newspaper stories are written. Start with the lead, and then flesh out the details, as need be. This way, someone who’s busy gets the main thing you’re telling them or asking them right away up front. Some examples:

  • We’re going ahead with the deal. To close it, I’ll need you to gather three years of financials, and have them ready by Friday.
  • I’m looking to meet with you while you’re in town. I’m available at the following times.
  • My new social media site about dogs launches tomorrow, and I’m looking for some blog love.
  • I’ve got a client who wants to launch a social media strategy. Can you fly to Phoenix for a Thursday meeting?

In those examples, I understand that an action is requested, and I even understand what comes next in all cases without reading much more. The supporting info is great, but I can guess most of what’s necessary right there. One line in, and I’ve got the gist.

(Believe me, LOTS of email comes with a novel I have to read to get to the part where someone asks what they need from me.)

Closing the Loops

We leave open loops in email all the time: places that can revolve back and forth in email circles for five or seven spins. For example, try to plan a lunch with seven coworkers. If you have eight restaurants, it will take something like 30 emails if people follow the average paths. Too many open-ended questions, and too much up-in-the-air to nail down. Look at these two examples:

Open Loop: Let’s get together for lunch. What day is good? Where do you want to go? Should we invite other departments or keep it a team meeting?

Closed Loop: Let’s get together for lunch. I’m thinking Thursday at 11:30 (to avoid the rush) at Lemon Tree. Let’s keep it just a team lunch this time, but maybe next time, we’ll invite others. Work for you?

The differences are obvious. Know why people don’t send the closed loop type email? They’re worried that they seem bossy. Here’s the truth: most times, most people don’t really care about the details. If you recommend, it will come out quickly that Surendra is off Thursday so Wednesday is better, and Melissa is allergic to seafood, etc. Closing the loops early helps everyone.

Just so I’m clear: closed loop email means to me that you’ve taken back-and-forth cycles out of the process.

Email vs. Phone

There are times when email isn’t the right medium for the job. I’m not a very big phone fan, but sometimes, when I see email go into a circle, or when I can’t understand someone’s tone very well (people can get really angry-sounding in email very fast), I’ll grab for the phone. Sometimes, a fast back-and-forth gets things out of the way easier than trying to clarify and nit pick.

Most of the time, email is a faster medium for me, but don’t forget to pick up the phone.

Things NOT to Say in Email

We tend to think that pressing delete removes the email from the universe. If you work in a publicly traded company (at least in the US), your email is more than likely archived the moment it crosses the server. Meaning, every single character you’ve ever typed out to someone, and anything that’s ever come into your account has been stored and archived by your corporate IT department. Think web-based email is safe from such prying? Not so.

With that in mind, think about all the things you maybe wouldn’t want to have come up in an investigation, even by accident. Think of how you talk about your customers. Think about what you’ve said personally to friends, lovers, and enemies.

Think about that with regards to everything you put down in email.

Finally, a Little Clip

I thought I’d put up a little visual aid using Jing and Screencast.com, who graciously provided me with a big account to try out the service more.

Link to the video is here. (It was too wide for my site).

Your Ideas

Have you written about writing more effective email? Do you have tips and advice to share? Let’s add that to the comments, too. Making a good resource for email writing would be useful to folks, so if you’ve got great advice, please share.

Photo credit, FotoDawg

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