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What the Cop Show “Blue Bloods” Can Teach You About Crafting Great Emails

What the Cop Show “Blue Bloods” Can Teach You About Crafting Great Emails

The CBS hit series Blue Bloods stars Tom Selleck as New York City Police Commissioner Frank Reagan, doing a perfect New York accent. (Just kidding about that last part.)

In a terrific scene, Commissioner Reagan is giving a press conference when a snooty reporter interrupts to ask about a controversial police shooting (involving the commissioner’s own police-officer son). Did Officer Reagan have to kill the man? Was it really necessary? That sort of thing. Here’s the brief exchange that follows. (I’m paraphrasing the dialogue.)

Commissioner Reagan: Okay, let’s pretend for a moment that instead of aiming his gun at a group of schoolchildren, as he was, the gunman is aiming at you. What do you do?

Snooty Reporter: Well, first, I’d… I guess I would want to know—

Commissioner Reagan: Too late. You’re dead.

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What can this teach us about writing better emails (and improving our writing generally)? A lot.

You have only seconds to capture your readers’ attention.

You’re busy. Your readers are, too. And their fingers are always poised over the mouse or mobile screen—ready to switch to something else the instant they start sensing that whatever they’re reading is a waste of their precious time.

As I see it, anything we write these days is like a billboard posted on a highway with no speed limit. You have only enough space for a few words, and your readers are zooming by at 100 miles per hour anyway. So you’d better craft a message that captures their attention immediately, and then painstakingly refine and edit to ensure you’re not wasting your readers’ time at any point.

Here are three tips to help you craft emails that earn and keep your readers’ attention.

1. Limit the text of your email to one screen.

First impressions matter. One reason I used a TV show to find a metaphor for writing better emails is that, although we never think of it this way, email is before anything else visual. In the first instant after they open your message, your readers visually take in the entire email to decide whether or not they want to read it. Think of your recipient taking a mental photo of your message to form a first impression of it. What do you want in that photo?

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If your text is too long to be viewed within the initial screen, your recipient’s first impression will likely be that reading your message is “work.” If they’re focused on anything else at the time, chances are they will close your message to deal with it later. Worse, when they re-open your email, it will turn them off all over again.

Your message should be only as long as you need to communicate the pertinent information to your recipient. If you need more than a full email screen, you’re better off with a different form of communication.

2. Make each paragraph no more than a few lines.

Second impressions matter, too. Long, blocky paragraphs are a big turnoff and tend not to get read right away. Worse, readers tend to zone out as their eyes and mind are forced to do double-duty, trying simultaneously to focus on the substance and also trying to hold their place in the paragraph.

Keeping your paragraphs short also shows respect for your email recipients’ time. Your readers will recognize (although perhaps only subconsciously) that you are taking time crafting the email—chipping away at all but the essential details—to save them time reading it.

Over time, this thoughtful strategy will teach your email recipients to view your emails with more trust and greater priority.

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3. Clearly state your objective or request for action.

Have you ever finished reading an email and thought: What am I supposed to do with this?

If you want your recipient to take action, make your request explicit—in terms of what you need and when you need it. One great way to do this is to make your request stand out physically in the message—by including it on a line all by itself.

“Please make your edits to the attached draft and send it back this week.”

or…

“I need your bio (50 words max) by Friday, June 12, at 12:00pm.”

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You can even bold your action request, if it’s short enough. That way, your recipient can scan your message and, within just a second or two, know exactly what you need. And that’s yet another way of showing your readers that you respect their time.

As you’re crafting any email, always keep in mind how busy and distracted your recipients are—and how quickly you need to capture their attention, with both the substance and the visual layout of your message.

Otherwise, to quote that great line from Commissioner Reagan, delivered by Tom Selleck showing his tremendous acting range (kidding again), it won’t matter how well written or important your email is. As far as your recipients will be concerned, “Too late. You’re dead.”

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robbie hyman

Copywriter

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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