Do Your Emails Suck?

Feel like a slave to your inbox? Improve your writing and you’ll save plenty of time by eliminating miscommunications and the need for follow-up. Email management productivity tips can only do so much if you don’t know how to write an effective email. That doesn’t mean you have to strive for lyrical prose in every message (though I always welcome lyrical prose in my inbox). The key is to communicate clearly and effectively so that recipients know exactly what they need to do in response and you can avoid endless back-and-forth and time-consuming misunderstandings. The following are some basic guidelines for writing more effective emails:

  • Get to the Point: Every email that you write should have a clear purpose. For example, your purpose may be to deliver key information, to request a follow-up action, or to persuade someone to your point of view. In a well-written email, the purpose is stated early (in the first line of the email if possible) and followed by whatever supporting points that the reader is likely to need. Don’t burden your reader with paragraphs full of non-essential details. Don’t make him try to figure out what it is that you want. If you fail to state your purpose clearly or write long, meandering intros before getting to the point, your email is far more likely to get ignored or filed away for “later” and never looked at again. That means you’ll soon be writing another email.
  • It’s Not About You: Always keep your reader’s point of view in mind. Who is your audience? What do they care about in relation to this message? What details do they need to act on the email? Don’t assume that everybody’s priorities are the same as yours or that everyone has your frame of reference. To get the response you want, communicate what’s in it for the reader and make it as easy as possible to respond.
  • Write a Good Subject Line: Your recipients get a lot of email, including plenty of junk from both spammers and inconsiderate colleagues. Your email will likely be competing for attention in a very busy inbox. Therefore, you will always get a faster response if you take a moment to craft a clear and specific subject line that communicates why your message is important. Think about your subject line as a headline – it should make your recipient want to read more. For example, the subject line “Forms” is far less likely to get a speedy response than “Insurance Forms Due Monday.” And remember, if you’re forwarding or replying to a previous email, it may be worthwhile to change the subject line if you are introducing a new topic or purpose.
  • Don’t Take That Tone with Me! Getting your tone right in an email can be tricky. What you see as direct can be interpreted as insulting. What you consider enthusiasm can be read as pushiness. Nobody is eager to respond to an email with an attitude problem. You may even inadvertently set off a hissy fit, snit, or passive aggressive pout. None of these are conducive to productivity. Read over your email before you press send and think about how it will read. Are there any phrasings that could be misinterpreted? Would a “please” or “thank you” hurt? Of course, there are times when you have to deliver bad news or negative feedback and you can’t avoid a little bit of tone. In those situations, you’re probably better off scheduling a face-to-face meeting or phone call to minimize misunderstandings and give everyone a chance to clear the air.
  • Write Like a Grown-up – When you’re writing a professional email, spelling and grammar really do count. Save your uncapitalized, run-on sentences and your excessive LOLs and !!!s for the American Idol message board. If you want your email to be taken seriously, take a little time to proofread for embarrassing errors. And the same rules apply when you’re emailing from your PDA. People may cut you a little extra slack if they know you’re composing on a tiny keyboard at a stoplight, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to write like a grade schooler.
  • Don’t CC the Entire Free World: Think about who REALLY needs to see the message and leave everybody else out of it. Once you get a reputation for reckless CC’ing, your messages are likely to go to the bottom of the priority list.

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