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