These days it’s nearly impossible to do your job without at least some email communication. No matter what your profession, email is now a necessary evil in the business world.
Even if you don’t think of yourself as “good at email,” you’ve surely been on the receiving end of a BAD business email.
Some emails are so poorly written they make you angry:
“Seriously? Did you just fling this dense, hot mess of 11 point Arial gibberish at me? And now I have to try and decipher this crap?”
Almost like the sender is TRYING to confuse you…or maybe getting paid by the word?
So, as you think about email and your job, you have to ask yourself:
Will you be the guy who continues to plop steaming, incomprehensible word casseroles into people’s inboxes without a second thought?
…Or will you be the one who writes clear, effective business emails people actually look forward to reading?
If you’re in the first camp, go ahead and stay the course, I guess. But if you want to write more effective emails, read on, my good man. Below are 5 tips that can drastically help improve your business email communications:
1. Assume the Reader Doesn’t Care
I’m not trying to be a downer here, but let’s face it:
The recipient has not been sitting around waiting for your email. You have to MAKE them care.
Sure, if you’re the CEO or a big-wig client, maybe they’ll pay greater than average attention to your email. But generally you shouldn’t count on that.
Assume that your email needs to fight for attention among many other competing distractions and priorities. In practice that means:
- Keep it short and to the point. The less they have to read, the more chance they’ll understand the main points you’re making.
- Make it as “jazz hands” as possible so there’s no way they can misunderstand you. Remember, they’re not hanging on every word. They shouldn’t have to (and likely won’t) work hard to understand what you’re trying to say.
Clobber them over the head with a clear message so they can’t possibly miss your meaning.
Before sending your email, take a final look and ask yourself:
If I were [recipient] and I got this, would I care? Is the main point obvious, and is there anything I can take out or better emphasize so it’s completely clear?
2. Front-Load The Important Content
There’s an expression journalists live by: “Don’t bury the lede.”
It means, don’t keep the critical info until the end of a story—start with the most important part. If the president is making an announcement about whether he will extend the war effort, it makes sense to lead with that information in the news article.
If, on the other hand, the article started by talking about about the length of past wars, or the actions of past presidents extending past conflicts, that would be burying the lede.
As consumers, we’ve gotten used to this style because it’s an efficient way to communicate important information quickly.
Yet so many people bury the lede in their business emails.
How many times have you gotten a huge email that rambles on forever, then at the end the last sentence FINALLY asks you do something? Or delivers some shocking and critically important information: “By the way, we’ve been secretly been replacing the full-strength coffee with decaf for the last 3 months. Sorry about that.”
If the ultimate point of the email is a request to take action or to communicate important news, why not start with that? And even better, why not bold that point?
Don’t bury the lede.
3. Create Structure With Bold Headers and Bullets
Even with a plain text email, you need to think about the layout of your content—how it’s organized on the page.
Once your email grows beyond a couple paragraphs, you have to give it a clear structure the reader can follow. When you don’t have an obvious “skeleton,” your email starts looking like a huge blob of text—which is not exactly fun to read.
Breaking up your content into obvious, topic-specific paragraphs is good. But even better is to use bolded subheads for the major those content buckets. That will help make your email more easily digestible in easy-to-read, bite-size chunks.
Within those content buckets, you can make the key points even clearer by using bullets:
- Bullets are easier to scan than wordy paragraphs
- You waste less time worrying about flow
- No one will miss your beautiful prose
(See what I did there?)
4. “Headline” Major Points to Quickly Communicate the Story
So, let’s take this one step further:
Once you’ve figured out the major content chunks and thought about bolding your subheads, why not make your headers work even harder?
I see a lot of emails where the subheads are just neutral content headers that don’t tell you anything, like: “Our Approach” or “Update on Merger.”
Sure they do a good job of bucketing out the sections…but they don’t give you much information on their own.
By re-writing those headers as “headlines,” you can quickly convey the most critical information.
For example, the subhead “Our Approach” could be re-written to give at least a teaser of what that approach is, like “Q1 Focus on High-Volume Accounts.”
This way, you get the gist of the content from skimming the headline, then the paragraph below expands on it. But if, heaven forbid, someone just skims your email (I know, shocking to even think about!) they at least get the main idea before ADHD’ing back to some random Facebook update.
With this blog post, I could have easily bucketed these paragraphs under more neutral subheads—ones that didn’t give you much information:
Instead of “Front-Load Important Content,” the header could have just said “Order” or “Prioritization.” Or instead of “Headline Major Points…” it could have said “Subhead Specificity.” Those don’t tell you anything!
Headlining your subheads makes it much easier for readers to quickly get the main points of your email.
5. Tell Recipients What to Do With Your Email
If you’re taking the time to write an email, there must be a reason, right? I mean, beyond trying to look busy and pass the time at your desk?
Hopefully, you have some objective for sending your colleagues or clients this email. Maybe it’s one of the following:
- To inform them of some relevant update
- To request that they do something, to take action of some sort
- To provide context or background for something else you’re sending them—maybe a more in-depth reference document
- To motivate or persuade them or express your opinion about something
Whatever it is, as the sender of this email YOU have to make it clear what the objective is. Don’t make them guess.
After they read your email, they shouldn’t be sitting there thinking “Ok, awesome email—top notch! But, umm….what am I supposed to do with this information?”
Sometimes you get a pass for informational emails that are obviously just updates. But more often, your “highly informative” email will leave your team wondering if they’re supposed to take action of some sort.
Try to be clear about whether you’re sending them something for their information, for their eventual reference (is there any urgency?), and what the next action might be on their part.
In some cases, you may not know what they should do with the information you sent them. In that situation, it’s okay to ask for their thoughts on next steps. Point is, you always need to include a clear call to action—or to clarify that no action is required.
Conclusion: Make the Extra Effort to Craft Better Emails
Email is supposed to make communicating more efficient—to make our lives easier. But much of the time, it has the opposite effect in the business world.
Especially if you work in an office, you know how brutal it can be keeping up with the sheer quantity of email. But when you add in the poor quality of some of those emails…well, that just makes it even more painful.
Do yourself and your colleagues a favor: start writing better emails.
If you put in the effort to craft better emails at work, you’ll be more efficient, you’ll increase your ability to persuade and lead others, and best of all, you’ll be spreading good inbox Karma, which is sure to reap rewards down the line.
Do you have any other tips for writing good business emails? I’d love to hear them. Share your thoughts in the comments below!