How to write emails so people stop ignoring you

by Barry on May 28, 2010

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Being able to clearly and concisely communicate using email is one of the most important traits for just about anyone working in the corporate world. It doesn’t matter what your role is, or how senior you may be, if you cannot communicate well using email, it is a huge handicap.

The most important consideration is to ask yourself before sending any email is “can this email be avoided?”  We need to break the addiction from email. I’m not saying that we should not use email, but do you really need to send an email to the designer / writer / account director / your boss who sits 20 feet from you? Instead get up and go talk to that person. It will be good for both you and your waistline. If they are not close to you, call them on the phone. This allows a real two-way dialog to occur. Remember that  email at its best is a one-way communications tool.

The next thing to consider is that everyone is in a hurry and you need to make your emails scannable to the reader. Many people read their emails on a Blackberry or iPhone, or they use the preview screen built into Outlook and Notes, so they are only seeing small chunks at a time. You should start by stating the desired action of the reader and backfill afterwards. Open the email by telling people what you want them to do such as “Please review and approve this estimate” or “Need decision on xyz by Tuesday 5pm”. This should be the first item in your email. Use an active voice (that is, avoid a passive voice). Don’t state “This estimate needs to be approved”. After you state the desired action, as needed, you can give the back story with the full explanation afterwards. The challenge is that this is opposite most people’s writing style as typically everyone wants to give the back story first, building up to the desired action. Or even worse, they throw everything in the email but never state the desired action, requiring the user to guess at what they need to do.

To recap:

  • State the desired action in opening of the email
  • Be action oriented – do not use a passive voice
  • Be concise. Only give the back story if it is required. And give it AFTER you state the desired action

Below are many more tips that I’ve compiled over the years for communicating with email.

Structure your content

  • Use a technique practiced in the print and advertising industries called “writing above the fold”. This means that you need to state the most important parts to the reader without requiring them to scroll down.  In the newspaper world. the term “above the fold” indicates the part of the front page that sits above where the paper is folded. This section tends to get the most eyes. On web sites, it references the part of the page that sites in the user’s browser window without requiring them to scroll downward. Write your email with the “fold” in mind
  • Chunk it. Let me eat my meal in bite size pieces. Use bullet lists to organize your ideas
  • Highlight keywords (e.g. bold subheads or use the color red). Don’t overuse this feature without risking that your email will look like a Christmas tree
  • Write concisely. Don’t use 50 words when 10 will do
  • The clearer your request or idea, the more likely it is to get done
  • Keep it SHORT. No pontification
  • Know your audience and craft your email accordingly
  • When communicating deadlines and critical items, call the recipient first on the phone. Then follow-up a “Per our discussion” email
  • For really short messages, put the content in the subject line followed by <eom> (this means “end of message”)
  • If there a long list, instead of using bullet points, number them so that they are easier to refer to
  • Never count on the email “recall” function to work. There is a good chance that it will inform the recipient that you’re trying to recall the message, which calls attention to whatever you are trying to hide
  • Keep in mind that the company you work for has the right to read your email. You probably already knew this but it helps to remember that your boss or your network support desk might be monitoring your every word
  • Love may not be forever but emails are. Anything you send or receive via email is part of the company’s permanent record and can be audited by outside parties. Don’t put anything in an email that you would not want shown in a courtroom. Even if you delete the email, it still exists on the company’s servers
  • Avoid large attachments. Instead send the path to the file, which can be a web site or an internal server location
  • Make it easy for people to contact you. Use an automatic signature on all emails. Include your email address and phone number. Include the email address since if your message is forwarded, the email address in the header may be lost

Tips for the To and Cc fields

  • Double-check the names in the To and Cc fields
  • Be careful with the “autofill” feature in email. It can be very embarrassing sending an email to the wrong person, especially to the wrong client (I’ve done this myself!)
  • For critical emails, I recommend that you leave the To and Cc fields blank until you are done crafting your email.  It is too easy (and embarrassing) to accidentally send out an unfinished email
  • Do you really need to send the email to everyone you listed? Avoid using email as a CYA tool
  • No Bcc’s ever. It is too easy for the recipient to do a “Reply All” which would alert everyone that they were Bcc’d. Instead forward them the email after you sent it to the original distribution
  • Be careful when sending to blind distribution lists as you never know who are on the lists

Use the subject line effective

  • I’ve seen teams include the client and project name as a prefix in their subject lines, which makes it very easy to scan for. Some people even create automatic filters that filter the messages based on these prefixes
  • Include the required action in your subject heading. Common prefixes are: “READ: xyz “, “APPROVAL REQUESTED: xyz“ or “[Dell]: xyz”   (remember that it is helpful to include the client’s name in the email subject)
  • Replace vague subjects such as (“Information on XYZ Project,” or “Status Report Q1”) with better “hooks” such as (“Need your input on Tralfamadore Project,” or “Analysis of recent problems with the new Veeblefetzer.”)
  • Don’t be afraid to change subject lines on threads if the subject changes. Make it relevant

Get out of waffle town

  • Don’t use complex phrases and waffle to sound more intelligent. The result is that no-one knows what you’re talking about. Or you smell like a rat
  • “Business writing” is like advertising; we’re all trying to sell an idea
  • Use business English
  • Do not type in all CAPS or all lowercase. It is just annoying
  • Minimize emoticons. It’s fine to use J once a while, just don’t overuse them
  • No jargon or clichés allowed

Proof your work

  • Spell check is a must. Make sure that you turn on the automatic spell check in your email (don’t ask me why it is usually off by default!)
  • Read the email. Read it aloud
  • If it’s really important, print it and read it again or have someone else read it
  • Not sure about something? Ask a copywriter. Steal a copywriters “Strunk & White’s”. Better still, buy your own “Strunk & White’s”
  • Just because you’re writing your email on a Blackberry or iPhone does not excuse you from proofing your email

Tone is emotion

  • Rule 1: Don’t drink and email
  • Rule 2: Don’t rage and email. Before you hit send: Wait. Are you being reasonable? If not, tone it down. Would you be comfortable saying it to their face?  If not, rewrite. Or even better, call the person directly and avoid the email? And for those particular crucial emails, to avoid any premature emails being sent, delete the “To” and “Cc” recipients until you are ready to send your email
  • If you feel rushed because of your emotions, take your time. Put time between writing the email and actually sending it out (wait an hour or two, or a month or two), or better yet, talk to the person directly

Email wars

  • No flaming. If you are flamed, don’t respond with poison arrows
  • Negative emails always come across much harsher than expected and they live forever
  • Never assume your email messages are private or can be read by only you or the recipient
  • If you are in an email battle with another person, immediately stop the thread and talk with the other person

No thank you!

  • Don’t send “thank you” emails to co-workers unless the person did something exceptional. We all receive too many “thank you’s” that just fill our inboxes (however I do recommend you acknowledge emails from your clients!). If you insist on still sending thank you’s, please don’t copy anyone else
  • And if you receive a thank you email, please don’t send a “You’re welcome” reply! (possible exception is when replying to clients)

If you have other tips or advice, I would love to hear them.

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