How to write more effective business emails, or eliminate them altogether.


It’s all too easy to fire off an email.

Compose. To. Subject. Message. Send.

The problem lies at the other end, where it sits with tens, hundreds, thousands of other unread emails, awaiting attention.

With a little thought you can lighten the load on your recipient’s inbox by writing shorter, clearer and more actionable emails.

The onus is on YOU to respect your reader’s time.

But before you start, ask yourself this question…

Do I actually need to send an email?

If an urgent response is required, consider picking up the phone instead. Likewise, for anything happening in the next hour or two, like a meeting, a phone call might also be better.

If you’re only replying to say “Thanks” or “Great”, don’t bother. And if you need to write out a long list of questions, a telephone call might be less work for both parties.

Start with a meaningful subject line

All emails look the same when they arrive at your inbox — the only clue about what’s important being the subject line and the identity of the sender. As you can’t change the latter, ensure the former works as hard as possible.

Making the topic clear is doubly important for group emails, where your message will matter more to some recipients than others. For example, “Help! How do we handle the stock shortage?” is better than “Help!”.

If the context of an email has changed, the subject line should too.

“Revised launch schedule” rather than “Re: re: re: Meeting”.

Try not to start your subject line with “URGENT!” People are unlikely to believe you, no matter how many exclamation marks or red flags there are.

Keep your email short

Business emails don’t need pleasantries to be polite.

People want to clear their inbox and move onto the next task, not have a leisurely back-and-forth about last weekend, the weather, or your kids. 

Moreover, as emails are increasingly read on mobile devices, shorter emails become more desirable than ever. Reading a lot of text on your phone is not pleasant.

Aim to use 5 sentences or less. If you write more, open with a summary of your reason for writing. Flowery email novellas won’t win you a Pulitzer Prize, so avoid long words and sentences.

And you’re not writing a text message either, so go easy on the text speak, THX!

Edit, ruthlessly.

Use fewer words wherever possible.

To write is human, to edit is divine.

— Stephen King

Often you can take out 50% of what you’ve written, making the remaining points much clearer as a result.

Avoid fluff like “in my opinion”, “to be honest” and “the fact of the matter is…”. Try writing “Thanks” instead of “Thanks in advance”. Keep things simple and short.

And for an easy win, cut out old or irrelevant segments from the email thread. There’s no need to include the previous twenty emails — two or three should suffice.

Strive for clarity

Don’t use an abbreviation unless it’s one that 99% of the general population would understand, or an everyday business abbreviation like NDA.

“Today” is much clearer than “C.O.P.”, and “I’m away until Friday” better than “I’m OoO”.

Similarly, avoid any acronyms that could be a PITA* to decipher.

Use bullet points to make long lists more readable, and bold text or *asterisks* for emphasis.

Your writing should illuminate your meaning, not mutilate it.

Don’t make your email so short that context is lost.

If your email prompts a request for clarification from the reader, you’ve just doubled the amount of work for everyone.

Don’t make the reader guess what you mean, or what you are referring to.“Did you get my message about the meeting on the 19th? Can you come?” is better than “Did you get my message?”

And “I’d love to speak at your conference next month” beats “I’m available”.

Clarity trumps brevity.

Avoid open-ended questions

If you send someone several long paragraphs of text and ask for “Thoughts?”, they might be unsure on which parts you want feedback on. Be clear on what you want the reader to do.

Well-intended questions like “How can I help?” can be equally unhelpful.

To avoid this, bundle your question with a few possible suggestion —  “Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?”

You can also use If/Then statements to reduce back-and-forth. For example, “Can you meet at 4pm?” becomes the more actionable “Can you meet at 4pm? If not, please advise 3 other times that work.”

Go easy on the attachments

Instead of attaching large files, send a Dropbox or WeTransfer link.

Don’t include images in your signature. They could be blocked by the recipient’s email program, or lost in transit. Writing your business name in plain text is probably better than attaching a logo.

Don’t email in anger

If something’s got your goat, allow yourself a cooling off period before sending your email. Angry messages always make things worse. (And any emotional content that’s communicated electronically is open to misinterpretation). 

Cut the crap from your email signature.

Do you really need that “Please consider the environment before printing this email” signoff?

Do you need to boast about which phone you have? A simple “Sent from my mobile, excuse brevity.” might be more professional than “Sent from my iPhone/iPad/BlackBerry/mobile”.

Equally, legal disclaimers are usually unnecessary as they won’t hold up in court.

In short, if you’re using something in your signature because everyone else is, you can probably ditch it.

Before sending, proofread.

  • Is your email as short as possible without eliminating context?
  • Are you asking for specific answers to simple questions?
  • Have you checked for spelling mistakes?
  • Is your attachment actually attached?

Great!

Hit send.

You’ve just made someone’s inbox a slightly less toxic place.

What tips do you have for writing better emails?


Appendix

Books on writing
If you only read one book on writing, make it Writing That Works, How to Communicate Effectively in Business, by advertising executives Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson.

Tools for writing
Hemingway is a free tool which helps make your writing clearer. It highlights long sentences, complexes phrases, and use of the passive voice; all of which can muddy your emails. I’m sure Ernest would approve.

Tools for reducing email
There are thousands of new apps and project management apps claiming to make business communication easier. I haven’t tried them all, but the ones that work best for me have inbuilt notifications systems, which replace those old-fashioned email notifications when you are online.

Having ditched Basecamp a while back, I’m now using Slack (for internal team communication) and Trello (for project management) on a daily basis.


* In case you’ve been wondering, PITA stands for Pain In The Ass.

Posted to Writing