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Writing efficient emails

We send and receive many emails each day. Sadly we receive too many that are poorly written. These create more unproductive time as we try to wade through long indecipherable text, to work out what the sender is trying to say or ask for. The purpose of this article is to take a look at some of the steps to enable us to write better constructed emails.

Should you send an email at all ?

So many times I have seen people send out emails for subjects that are not appropriate for an email at all. Examples include;

  1. Subject matter that only requires a short, easy response – Consider making a quick phone call instead, or if not urgent, discuss with the individual when you see them next.
  2. The subject matter is controversial, complex, technical or needs the input of more than one person to get to a conclusion – If the email is likely to generate one of those long email ‘ping pong’ chains, where everyone wants to air their opinion, then don’t do it via email. Holding a short meeting with everyone needed to reach a conclusion is more effective. If you see someone else start this type of email discussion, proactively terminate them by proposing a meeting instead.
  3. Unanswerable questions – Broad open-ended questions like “I have not given much thought to this, but what do you think…?” It is clear that the sender has not done much thinking, and wants to shift the responsibility on to someone else.

Use of To, Cc and Bcc – Minimise the recipients

I am convinced many people don’t even know that Cc exists, blindly addressing an email using the ‘To’ field, to as many people they think might be slightly interested in its content.

I get over a 100 emails a day, and I can honestly say that over 50% I really never needed to see in the first place, and get ‘filed’ right away under ‘Trash’

Email addresses in the ‘To’ field are for people you are directly addressing, either because;

  1. It is information that they need.
  2. Information you need from them.
  3. You need them to perform an action.

Email addresses in the ‘Cc’ field, which stands for ‘Carbon Copy’ are for when you want to include people for information only. People in the Cc address field are not required to respond or undertake an action.

The Bcc field ( Blind Carbon Copy) is similar to the Cc field, except people addressed in ‘To’ and ‘Cc’ never see the names of the individuals in the ‘Bcc’ list. Bcc is useful for large mailing lists, where it is appropriate to hide people’s email addresses, but any use outside these types of email is somewhat unethical and should be discouraged.

Finally every email that you send means that someone has to stop and read it, so think who really needs it and actively minimise its distribution.

Create a meaningful subject line

To help recipients process emails quickly you need to have a meaningful Subject line. Describe the content or purpose of the email in a few words. Nothing is more annoying than seeing email headers that read just ‘Hi’ or ‘FYI’ as you then need to read the actual contents to see if the email is important.

If you just need to ask a simple question or ask for a bit of data, a productivity ninja move would be to just use the subject line, with no message in the body of the email.

Winning first sentence

Many emails don’t get read beyond the first sentence or two. So make sure yours contains the key details and context of the email. Hopefully the recipient will then understand why you are sending the email and want to read further.

Keep it short and sweet

Your emails should be concise and to the point. No one ever won a Booker prize for an email. There is nothing more depressing than getting an email that looks like ‘War and Peace’ late on a Friday afternoon. Long emails generally don’t engage the recipient to give a quick response.

A good guide is to ensure that your email can fit on one page without scrolling. There is a reason why Internet Ad companies like Google pay a premium for adverts that appear ‘above the fold’.

Make your paragraphs short – This will enable people responding to your email to quickly quote and respond to separate sections and points.

Don’t mix topics in your email, send separate emails instead. A person working on project A, will not thank you for making him read 1/2 a page of an email about Project B that has nothing to do with him.

Guy Kawaski suggests, the ideal length of an email is five sentences. This is all you should need to explain who your are, what you need, why you should get it and when you need it by. Ok maybe you can’t get all your emails down to five sentences, but imagine how much more productive you would be if you could. I bet your recipients would appreciate your brevity as well.

WHW – Who, How, When

It amazes me the number of emails that I receive from people requesting a specific action that they have addressed to more than one individual in the ‘To’ field, then completely fail to say to who the action is assigned, in what format they want the response, and when they want it completed. You can imagine the confusion that this causes. People either hang back hoping that someone else responds or waste time when more than one person starts working on a response. In addition the person that does respond then feels obligated to include all the original recipients in the ‘To’ list so that they know that someone has come back with an answer, adding more email that everyone has to process.

Whenever you are drafting an email that requires an action, make it clear to who it is assigned, how you want them to respond and when you need it by.

Be sparing with “Reply All”

Before you hit the ‘Reply All’ Button when responding to an email, consider if everyone really needs to see your reply to the originator. They will thank you if they don’t and you exclude them from the reply list.

Always proofread your emails

This is not only important because improper spelling, grammar and punctuation give a bad impression, it is also important for conveying the message properly. E-mails with no full stops or commas are difficult to read and can sometimes even change the meaning of the text. Always use a spell and grammar checker.

I must confess it is easy to miss a typo when you read your own writing. One trick that I use, is to use the text to speech facility built into OS X, which is greatly improved in OS X 10.7 Lion. To get the computer to read back the text to you, just right click to bring up the context sensitive menu. Then select Speech > Start Speaking. When I listen to someone else speaking the words I have written, it is much easier to pick up typo’s rather than just reading the text.

Inflammatory emails

From time to time we all get an email that makes our blood boil. Human nature often encourages us to retaliate. Don’t, it will always make the situation worse. A good practice is to wait 24 hours to make a response, and never say anything in an email that you would not say in person, face to face.

Use plain text

Always use plain text. You might think that the latest fancy font or pink text looks cool, but not everyone has your taste. In any case that particular font might not be supported on the recipients computer. Formatting errors can make rich text and html emails difficult to read.

Signatures

Make it easy for the recipient to contact you. Include your name, title, organisation, email address, web site, and phone number.

If you are working for a company you may need to add some legal disclaimers for any emails that go externally. However they are pointless for internal communication and can clutter up email messages, particularly when people are replying to an email. Speak to your email system administrator as many corporate email systems can add these legal disclaimers automatically only for external emails.

One of my pet hates is people putting images into their email signatures, like a company logo or their own photo. This adds bulk to the recipient’s email folder. On many email systems these also show as an attachment to the email, that need to be checked to see if a document is attached or not. If you really must do this, then get the image hosted on the company server and create an image block using HTML in your signature.

<img src=“ http://yourcompany.com/Files/logo.png ” alt=“Your Company PLC Logo” width=“32” height=”“32” />

Replace the http address with your file, fill in a better alt tag, and set the height and width you want.



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