Guidelines for Effective Email Writing

One of the biggest complaints in today’s modern communications is there are too many emails. We step away from our inboxes for an hour and BOOM! Thirty more emails. And then, we start to dig in and have to use extra energy and focus just to get to the main point of each message.

Let’s be honest – we’re all friends here. You’ve read an email and thrown your hands up asking, “What the hell do you want?”

Whether the email is too wordy or the asks are not clear, we easily get flustered when reading a message simply because… if it is taking this long to figure out what this person wants, how long is it going to take me to get through the rest of my inbox?

The reality is you may be the culprit as well. You may be sending emails that cause this anguish and frustration. While we can’t please everyone, we can certainly aim to write the best emails possible for the masses.

That’s where these simple tips come in.

Utilize Subject Lines Powerfully (+ Appropriately)

Subject lines should be clear and concise. They are intended to introduce the email – not be the full message or lead into a mystery. If you’re using the subject line to send a complete request (you know the one, “Can you give me a call when you get a chance?”), you need to stop right now. The subject line is not the place for a message. Most people skip over wordy subject lines and will miss it completely. Additionally, unless you’re writing a marketing email, leaving an air of mystery isn’t going to serve anyone. Be clear regarding what your email is about.

Call out action items in the subject line by using terms like “Action Needed”, “Info Needed”, “Signature Needed”, etc. This is the fastest, most effective way to get a response because you’re setting the expectation right up front.

Include deadlines in the subject line when applicable. Again, you will get a quick response because you’re setting the expectation.

Examples:

  • Signature Needed by 10/31: Company X Final Contract
  • Information Needed by 11/1: Speaker Bio and Headshot
  • Important Event Info: 12/15 Holiday Party

Just by reading those subject lines, you know exactly what each email will contain and its urgency.

Not Every Email is Urgent

As much as we would like to be everyone’s top priority, you need to keep in mind that every email you send is not urgent. Use the “Urgent/Important” flag and “Read Receipt” only when absolutely necessary. My general guidelines are:

  • Urgent/Important Flag: critical response is due under 36 hours
  • Read Receipt: when sending information for review that you need verification each person has read by a specific deadline. If you can follow up later or are asking for a response acknowledgement in the body of the email, do not use this.

I really want to drive this point home, because the honest truth is if you’re the person who is constantly sending “urgent” emails or requesting receipts, your emails will increasingly get ignored. Very much so like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, people start to disregard your urgency based simply on the fact that everything you send seems to be “important.”

Be Thorough but Concise

Now, to the bread and butter of the email – the body. Be quick, clear, and concise – but don’t leave out the details.

First, greetings are not dead. In fact, I’m more likely to feel a connection with you if you add a simple, “Hi Jen.” Unless we haven’t communicated in a long time (or ever), you can skip the “How are you?” pleasantries.

Next, repeat the subject line details. Just because you’ve composed a clear subject line, that doesn’t give a pass to exclude details from the body of your email. Repeat key details such as the meeting name, date, deadlines, location, etc.

And be clear! Don’t say “our meeting next week”. Instead, write “the Company X Board Meeting on Friday, May 20 at 8:00 am.” Whether the email is internal or external, remember that people are reading hundreds of emails a day and need an introduction into the proper frame of mind to absorb your information. Therefore, the more clear you can be the better.

(Pst, bonus points if you include time zones! We live in a global environment – don’t assume the reader knows where you are and your time zone.)

State the ask at the beginning of the email so people understand what they are supposed to do with the email. For example, “In preparation for the Company X Board Meeting next Friday, May 20, please review the logistical details and submit the requested documents.”

Highlight important details by using:

  • Bullet point or numbered lists
  • Underlines or bolding to break up key sections
  • Italics for key terms
  • Font color for deadlines (rethink red – using a friendlier color resonates better with the reader – I like orange)

If appropriate, at the end, state the ask and/or details again. This is especially useful if the email has robust information or you are requesting responses. Following my example from above, close out the email with, “Please send the requested documents to Susan Smith (susan@companyx.com) by Tuesday, May 17.” (This is also the perfect opportunity to use my email hyperlinks tip!)

Don’t forget your helpful closer for questions or clarification.

Finally, be easy to contact – use a signature! I’m always surprised when I receive an email that doesn’t have a signature. What if I want to call you with questions? Make it easy on the reader.

As a last step, do yourself a major favor and double-check for attachments and proofread your email before hitting send. For some reason we’re the best proofreaders after we’ve hit send – haha!

You may find these other email related tips helpful:

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