10 Writing Tips to Make Your Emails Less Terrible
Every email you send is going out into a blizzard. Business professionals spend 16 hours a week reading emails, and most are sending or receiving more than 100 per day. Punching through this noise demands a radical rethink of the way you communicate.
Your recipient has just a few seconds to decide if your email is worth reading, and to try and get the gist of what you’re after. So change the way you write. Here’s how.
1. Have a clear objective
The only purpose of a business email is to create a change in the reader.
Before you send an email, ask yourself, “What do I want the recipients to do?” There are two possible answers: Respond to your request (“Can you tell me which of these two logos you prefer?”) or act (“Here are the steps required to sign up for the new health plan.”) If you expect neither response nor action, then you’re just creating clutter; don’t send the email.
2. Write short
Keep your email to 250 words maximum. According to email software provider Boomerang, every word over 125 begins to reduce email response rates. If you have more to say, link to a more detailed document or, if absolutely necessary, attach one.
3. Make the subject line meaningful
Recipients will open emails whose subject lines explain what’s coming (for example, “Product tradeoffs that will enable us to meet the deadline.”) Remember, that subject line becomes the topic for threads of responses. If you’ve called the email “Stuff I became worried about this morning,” nobody will know it’s important, or be able to find and refer to it later.
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4. Get directly to the point
Forget the friendly warmup. The first two or three sentences – no more than 20 words – should explain exactly what the email is about. For example, when the Boston Globe changed delivery suppliers in December last year, it found that the new company was unable to deliver all of the papers on time. Here are the first few sentences of the email that Scott Steeves, the head of the Globe’s union, sent to get other newspaper workers to help:
Dear members —
We are in crisis mode. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the papers not getting delivered this past week. We are looking for people to work tonight delivering papers in the Newton area.
It worked, too. Dozens of reporters and other staff got the Sunday paper out in the wee hours of the morning.
5. Think outside the paragraph.
Busy readers skim emails. Help them figure out what yours is about. Include headings, bullets, graphics, and links. They’re a lot more inviting than a wall of paragraphs.
6. Stick to one topic.
People flag emails and use them as a to-do list. If you’re covering separate topics, create separate emails and send them to separate lists.
7. Write like a human.
Dump the jargon and just say what you’re looking for, in simple terms. If you’re writing to customers, they’ll appreciate a description that’s designed to help them, not intimidate them. And if you’re a manager, your staff will be grateful for a message that doesn’t require a secret decoder ring.
8. Don’t compose email on a smartphone.
You can go ahead and read or even respond to emails on your phone. But if you’re creating a message to send to multiple people, you’re going to want to think about it and edit it – and that’s a whole lot easier on a computer.
9. Reply to senders, not to everyone.
Get in the habit of hitting “Reply” rather than “Reply All.” Unless everyone else will benefit from your response, only the sender needs to see it. And you’ll avoid the highly embarrassing “Reply All” gaffe.
10. And finally, consider just talking to people.
Sometimes a conversation is more productive than a chain of emails. If you’re frustrated with people’s inability to understand what you’re getting at, just walk over or pick up the phone.
Josh Bernoff is the author of the new book Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean, and the co-author of three other books on business strategy.