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Writing sensible email messages

Writing sensible email messages

As we've seen before, getting your inbound email under control will give you a huge productivity boost, but what about all the emails you send? If you want to be a good email citizen and ensure the kind of results you're looking for, you'll need to craft messages that are concise and easy to deal with.

First: Understand why you're writing

Before you type anything into a new message, have explicit answers for two questions:

  1. Why am I writing this?
  2. What exactly do I want the result of this message to be?

If you can't succinctly state these answers, you might want to hold off on sending your message until you can. People get dozens, hundreds, even thousands of emails each day, so it's only natural for them to gravitate toward the messages that are well thought-out and that clearly respect their time and attention. Careless emails do not invite careful responses.

Think through your email from the recipient's point of view, and make sure you've done everything you can to try and help yourself before contacting someone else. If it's a valuable message, treat it that way, and put in the time to making your words count.

Get what you need

Although the possible topics and content of messages are theoretically endless, I'd propose that there are really just three basic types of business email.

  1. Providing information - “Larry Tate will be in the office Monday at 10.”
  2. Requesting information - “Where did you put the 'Larry Tate' file?”
  3. Requesting action - “Will you call Larry Tate's admin to confirm our meeting on Monday?”

It should be clear to your recipient which type of email yours is; don't bury the lede. Get the details and context packed into that first sentence or two whenever you can. Don't be afraid to write an actual “topic sentence” that clarifies a) what this is about, and b) what response or action you require of the recipient.

Since the Larry Tate meeting on Monday has been moved from the Whale Room, could you please make sure the Fishbowl has been reserved and that the caterer has been notified of the location change? Please IM me today by 5pm Pacific Time to verify.

This isn't the place to practice your stand-up act. Keep it pithy, and assume that no one will ever read more than the first sentence of anything you write. Making that first sentence strong and clear is easily the best way to interest your recipient in the second sentence and beyond.

Write a great Subject line

You can make it even easier for your recipient to immediately understand why you've sent them an email and to quickly determine what kind of response or action it requires. Compose a great “Subject:” line that hits the high points or summarizes the thrust of the message. Avoid “Hi,” “One more thing...,” or “FYI,” in favor of typing a short summary of the most important points in the message:

  • Lunch resched to Friday @ 1pm
  • Reminder: Monday is "St. Bono's Day"--no classes
  • REQ: Resend Larry Tate zip file?
  • HELP: Can you defrag my C drive?
  • Thanks for the new liver--works great!

In fact, if you're relating just a single fact or asking one question in your email, consider using just the subject line to relate your message. As I've mentioned before, in some organizations, such emails are identified by adding (EOM)—for end of message—at the end of the Subject line. This lets recipients see that the whole message is right there in the subject without clicking to the view the (non-existent) body. This is highly appreciated by people who receive a large volume of mail, since it lets them do a quick triage on your message without needing to conduct a full examination.

Sadly, good email subjects have become something of a lost art, especially among more recent additions to the Interweb. It's a pity, because you're far more likely to get a favorable response from a busy person when they can quickly grok your message.

Brevity is the soul of...getting a response

It's completely depressing to check your email at 4:55 in the afternoon to discover a gothic novel of a message waiting for you, spilling down your screen the distance of 2 or 3 scrolling pages. It's certainly not the kind of thing that excites the desire to engage and respond. I mean just look at all that!

So, although—in typical Merlin fashion—I have only anecdotal evidence and hunches to prove this point, I'd wager that there's one visual trick most likely to improve your message's success: fit it onto one screen with no scrolling. There's a reason those web ads placed “above the fold” cost a lot more than the ones stuck down at the bottom; it's the only part of the page that you're virtually assured that anyone will see.

Whenever you can, try to distill your beautiful epistle down to just one or two points about a given topic, and then whittle that down to the point where there's plenty of white space left underneath your closing. Got more to say? Put it in separate emails with—again—excellent Subject lines, and a descriptive, concise opener.

What's the action here?

If your message includes any kind of request—whether for a meeting, a progress update, a pony ride, or what have you—put that request near the top of the message and clearly state when you will need it. Do not, under any circumstances, assume that your overwhelmed recipient will take the time to sift through your purple prose for clues about what they're supposed to be doing for you.

Depending on the style of your team and the volume of mail they create, you might even consider adding functional text headers to the top of the body outlining the exact nature of the message.

This email is:    [ ] actionable   [x] fyi        [ ] social
Response needed:  [ ] yes          [x] up to you  [ ] no 
Time-sensitive:   [ ] immediate    [ ] soon       [x] none

Sure, it's geeky, but how many minutes have you wasted panning through a sloppy “project update” email only to completely miss the changed deadline or work request buried in the penultimate paragraph?

Remove the guesswork from your messages by thinking of them like friendly, civil work orders; you must not be afraid to ask for what you want, especially if you have any desire to actually have the recipient give it to you.

More good ideas

  • Make it easy to quote - Power email users will quote and respond to specific sections or sentences of your message. You can facilitate this by keeping your paragraphs short, making them easy to slice and dice.
  • Don't chuck the ball - Emails to a thread are like comments at a meeting; think of both like your time possessing the basketball. Don't just chuck at the net every chance you get. Hang back and watch for how you can be most useful. Minimize noise.
  • A reminder never hurts - If you're following-up or responding to an email that's more than a few days old, provide context right at the opening. For example, "You wrote in February asking to be notified when the new asthma inhalers are in stock; here's a link to the items we've now made available on our site...."
  • Never mix, never worry - Unless your team really prefers to work that way, do not mix topics, projects, or domains of life in a given email. Inform everyone of Baby Tyler's adorable antics in a different message than the one with the downsizing rumors and budget warnings.
  • No thanks - I'm not married to this one, but I know a lot of people who swear by it. In more informal settings and in high-volume mail environments, it's not necessary to respond with a “Thanks” email whenever someone does what you asked. Save your gratitude for the next time you pass in the hall; a one-word “Thanks” email can be crufty and unnecessary. On the other hand, don't hesitate to thank someone for their time if they've truly done you a proper.
  • RTFM - If you're asking for help, make sure you've exhausted all the documentation and non-human resources you have at your disposal. When you do ask for help, be sure to quickly cover the solutions you've already tried and what the results were.
  • Skip the overture - If you're writing to a busy person with an actual question or request, resist the desire to swoon for 2,000 characters. Either write a fan letter or a useful email, but mixing them can seem tacky and disingenuous. Just go ahead and ask Gary Gygax for his autograph already.

[Thanks to Cory for exchanges and thoughts that contributed to this.]

mark a. foltz's picture

This article could be shortened...

This article could be shortened to "use good writing style in email," and "write appropriately for audience and context." But it's always nice to have specific tips spelled out.

The checkboxes idea is overboard. If your email requires a checkbox to be understood, rewrite the first sentence. I know checkboxes wouldn't fly in my organization.




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