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Many of us spend huge chunks of our days writing email. If this is one of your jobs, here’s how to write better email….
Did you know that more than half of the people who receive email cite it as a source of workplace complexity, confusion and resentment? Those are not good odds!
But as a writer and communicator, you can help turn the tide by making your own emails a model of clarity and efficiency — and save some of your own time, to boot. Here are 13 tips for how to write better email:
1-Don’t send emails reflexively! I know I’m sometimes guilty of sending too many emails. Before we even let the thought of emailing cross our minds, we should consider whether it’s the ideal form of communication for our purpose or if we could handle the issue better with a phone call or personal conversation. Here are six times when it makes way more sense to speak with someone rather than email them: when you want to apologize, when you expect lots of questions, when you have to explain something complicated, when you’ve taken too long to respond, when you want to discuss something personal, when the issue you want to discuss is especially urgent.
2-Be short and succinct. Emails seem fast and easy to you, the sender, but remember the challenges your recipients face. Recall your own inbox with 353 unread emails… Don’t ramble on and on. Instead, get to your point quickly. If your email is super short, odds are higher that you’ll get a faster response. Plus your reader will surely appreciate your superior communications.
3-Have a specific subject line. I receive way too many generic subject lines. When the line is highly specific — example: “Tornado may affect delivery of your purchase” — I find it much more motivating to read. (Also the email is easier to find later.) Do your readers a favour by giving them subject lines that present a summary of the information contained in the message. And, here’s a trick I learned from a really smart executive assistant: If there’s a deadline involved, put it in the subject line, e.g.: DEADLINE, Friday, July 19.
4-Be clear about what you want people to do. Put your request or “ask” high up in the email. Don’t bury it in the middle or towards the end. If you want the person to write a report or attend a meeting, tell them that right away. Your clarity will improve their response rate.
5-Discuss only one idea per email. Don’t jam 10 different messages into one poor email. In fact, don’t even jam two. Just as “one person; one vote” should be a respected principle in politics, the concept of “one email; one idea” should govern your email behaviour. I received five emails from my webmaster this morning. Did I blame him for cluttering up my inbox? No! Each email addressed a single idea (and the subject line matched). I LOVE getting email this way. It allows me to stay organized and to find important information more easily later.
6-When trying to set up meetings, be sure to list your availability in the first email. There’s nothing worse than the endless email that goes back-and-forth 15 times between parties of seven. If you need to set up a meeting between two people, be sure to begin your email by listing your own availability. (i.e.: I could meet on Monday between 2 and 3; on Tuesday, any time after 11 am, and Wednesday between 9 and 10 am.) If you need to set up a meeting between multiple people, don’t do it with email. Use an app like Doodle.
7-Check your tone. Email appears to be an inherently relaxed style of communication but there are many traps within. First, if you’re writing a business email, it’s essential to keep your tone professional. No smiley faces or too-casual language. Also, whatever the style of email, be aware that humour — irony in particular — is especially hard to convey because so much depends on the tone of voice. Even with friends, you’d be wise to avoid humour in email and save your best jokes for your phone or in-person meetings.
8-Make your email scannable. Use super short paragraphs, employ bullets or numbers, consider subheads (for necessarily long emails.) And, just as important, pick a legible font at a reasonable size and don’t overuse boldface or italics. (BF and italics work best a few words at a time. If you use them for entire sentences, you’re killing their effectiveness.)
9-Always CC the minimum number of people. I become irritated when I get messages that my eyes really don’t need to see. (The waste of time of clicking on the email, reading it and then having to throw it in the trash always gets under my skin.) And this irritation becomes incandescent when the email contains a single sentence saying something like “thank you,” or “I agree,” copied to a dozen people. I have one particular client who does this sort of emailing all the time. Argh!
10-On the other hand, if your email offers a compliment, (as from time to time, it should!) be sure to CC the person’s boss. Everyone appreciates a compliment but they’ll get even more value out of it if their boss is made aware.
11-Don’t assume privacy. Don’t send anything by email that you wouldn’t want posted — with your name attached — in the staff room. Email is not secure. I learned this memorably 30 years ago when the IT person at my job shared with me several nasty emails that the Big Boss had sent. The IT guy was trying to help me with some ugly office politics — and he did — but his action underlined the essential insecurity of email.
12-Be sure to proofread. Have you ever looked like an idiot because of spelling or grammar mistakes in your emails? Don’t ever send emails right away. Instead, develop the habit of saving them as a draft and editing them an hour later before sending. I know this strategy will seem like a hassle but you’ll save yourself a lot of embarrassment if you approach email in this fashion. Even better, it will prevent you from sending “angry” emails without thinking twice about it.
13-Don’t reply to emails you receive too quickly. Dampen your enthusiasm for the speed of email. If you’re dealing with an issue where speed is essential, pick up the phone. Otherwise, process your email only several times a day. If you’re the type of person who always responds to email in less than five minutes, you’re training your colleagues to expect that rate of response from you. Instead, train them to expect the reverse. My own copy editor never replies to emails on the same day. As a result, I know that if I want an immediate response, I need to call her.
Email has made our lives easier and more efficient in many ways. But it’s also created a host of new problems. Don’t become famous as a bad communicator simply because you haven’t developed a thoughtful process for how to write better email.
If you want to become a more productive, confident writer, consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’m holding a no-charge webinar this Friday (July 19/19) to introduce you to the principles I teach in the program. Join by emailing me. To learn more about the program, go here and if you want to apply, scroll to the very end of the page and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.
My video podcast last week aimed to help writers understand how to deal with publishing contracts. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
How do you write better emails? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/10 will be put in a draw for a copy of my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!