The three most common complaints I hear from business leaders regarding the emails they receive from employees are: 1) Unclear; 2) Too long; and 3) Unorganized. They describe these emails using words such as 'long-winded,' 'rambling,' 'un-actionable,' 'vague,' and 'time-consuming.' Despite the good intentions of the sender, the busy recipient demotes these laborious emails to the bottom of the heap, which results in either a delayed reply or no reply. To ensure your emails remain at the top of the list and get a prompt response, apply these five best practices.
1. Make the Subject Line Clear, Specific, and Actionable
State the main point, question, or action item in the subject line. For example, avoid a generic subject line that reads, "Quick question...." Instead, just ask the question: "Are You Attending Today's 3PM Budget Meeting?" If you need your boss' signature or approval, avoid writing, "File attached," or "Proposal." Instead, request the action and imply urgency: "Please Sign Attached Training Proposal By 5PM Today To Ensure 20% Discount." Also, capitalize your subject line like a title--it adds an air of importance and declaration.
2. Keep Your Message Short
As a rule of thumb, keep your emails under 100 words, which requires less than 30 seconds to read (about the size of this paragraph). This is especially important when you're sending emails up the chain of command. I recently worked with a director-level client whose emails averaged an encyclopedic 400 words per email! Her boss, a vice president, told me this was not only 'driving him crazy' but was negatively impacting workflow. For the sake of efficiency and clarity, he insisted the director learn to 'cut to the chase' in a few short sentences.
3. Organize and Prioritize Your Points
When you are sure the recipient wants and needs more detail than a short message (such as a project update or business review), craft the first paragraph as a brief executive summary in 100 words or less. That is, if the recipient reads nothing else, he or she will get the gist of your message right away, including your purpose, key points, conclusions or recommendations, plus your requested action (if any). Think of this first paragraph as what the reader must know. In the second paragraph, briefly write what they need to know such key data, findings, or supporting points. Finally, in last paragraph(s), write what you want them to know. Label this section with a heading such as "Background" or "Details." Follow the must-need-want format and your message will be prioritized appropriately.
4. Number Your Points
When you have multiple items to cover in an email, organize your points using bullets or a numbered list. This format provides an easy-to-read structure for recipients and makes it easy for them to respond. Imagine you need critical details from a colleague to plan an upcoming client meeting. The subject line could read: "Please Reply With 5 Key Details For Friday's Smith Meeting." The message then reads, "Hi Sam, To ensure you have a successful meeting with your client this Friday, please provide these five critical details by 12PM tomorrow: 1)... 2)... 3)... 4)... 5)... Thank you!"
5. Use Professional Language
Every business email you send is an opportunity to present yourself as a credible confident professional who is well organized and respectful of other people's time. A certain degree of formality is required in all business communication, including email. By all means, be friendly and personable, but avoid becoming too casual and informal. For example, don't use texting shorthand and chat room acronyms. Stick with Standard English, capitalization, and punctuation. Also, before you click "Send," proofread the email to ensure correct spelling and a professional polite tone. Please remember to use "please" and "thank you."
If you would like to learn more about writing effective emails, please read Chapter 14 in my book, Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results (available in Kindle and hard cover). It features over 30 additional email-writing tips to ensure your messages get the respect and timely reply they deserve.