- Shorten it.
- Write clearly.
- Start with the most important point and continue with other points in descending order of importance. Don’t assume you’ll be given a level of attention that even your family and friends might not give you.
- Review it before sending.
This is respect for the recipient(s) … care, love. Remember, communicating well is one of the kindest things we can do for someone.
When writing an email, do the recipient(s) a favor and think it through. (A good thing to do regardless of the communication method.)
A 6-point checklist and several other ideas below for those who want to go deeper. Consider it a personal crash course without tuition, an exam, or the teacher watching.
Managers Of People (mops … that’s funny … says me): When did you last talk with your team about improving internal and external email communication? Given the email you see, isn’t a quick review worth the time?
Good communication isn’t just kind. It’s money and culture.
6 points to consider before sending an email...
- Should I call or talk with the person live instead of sending an email?
- What do I want the recipient(s) of my email to know/think about/ or do after reading it?
- Is it likely this will happen? (If not, rework it or consider talking in person or by phone. You could try a text or direct message but if an email won’t work, I wouldn’t bet on a text.)
- What in the email could be misunderstood given what I know about the recipient’s experience, personality, or nature? (Revise accordingly.)
- What words or points are unnecessary or distract from my goal for the email? (Remove them. Needless to say ... is needless to say.)
- Does the subject line help the recipient understand the topic of the email and help them easily find it later? (If not, revise it.)
"Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative … Avoid the use of adjectives." – The Kansas City Star style sheet circa 1915
Ernest Hemingway (American writer) worked as a reporter at The Kansas City Star newspaper before serving in World War I. Hemingway called the style sheet “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing.” So...
Eliminate anything that might be misinterpreted. When you’re sitting across from someone, your voice intonation and body language become a part of the message. Not the case with email (or any written communication).
Word choice, sentence structure, organization of thoughts and visual space matter if you want to be kind to your recipient … minimizing their work to understand you … giving rather than taking moments of their life ... time.
I've seen bloated sloppy emails still get their point across if the reader is willing to put in the extra work. But, again, this is about love.
Use good words.
Nothing fancy. Big words can slow the communication process. Impress people with your ostentatious words at a dinner party, not in your email. Ostentatious words are ostentatious ... showy. (Don’t do it at a dinner party either.)
Use approachable words where you can ... less stiff, formal.* I keep a list of my million pet peeves and do my best to continually improve. If you decide to do the same, you might want to keep it to yourself. It can put unwanted pressure on people and make them nervous about emailing or talking with you. If you know I can't stand the three syllable word 'utilize' and wish everyone would use the one syllable word 'use' in its place, that's unwanted pressure.
Whoops. Did I just do the thing I suggested you might want to avoid? You know me.
* Occasionally, you might want to use formal or stiff words with people who don’t know you. Something casual without a relationship might be perceived poorly.
Consider your goal for the email.
Work your points in descending order of importance knowing that even your close friends and family won’t always read everything you send them. I’ve learned this the hard way over and over and over in my quarter century plus of emailing.
Internally, we refer to this as starting with the end. Some people have a tendency to tell a story before getting to the necessary specifics. Fun for entertainment but not always in email. Unfortunately, even starting with the end won’t always work.
I once led a small volunteer group on a project. I started an email asking for confirmation of receipt of the email and had to circle back with a couple people because they didn’t confirm. At the event, I joked a little with one of them about making me follow up. S/he said, “Everyone knows nobody reads the beginning of an email.” Ironically, this person taught English. I asked, “What grade would you give one of your students if they used the same excuse for a poorly written paragraph?” I didn’t make a friend.
As you might know, I occasionally break the start-with-the-end rule with my emails to subscribers. It’s usually for entertainment or artistic reasons. I did it most recently with an essay on the importance of good communication and a good friend texted me he didn’t like the advice I was sharing. I had to explain the opening was for fun and the conclusion held the real advice. You never want to count on complete attention if you want to be sure someone gets your most important message. It’s the reason I write my books the way I do.
Finally, respect your recipient(s) and review what you’ve written to be sure it’s your best attempt to communicate effectively. What a pleasure it’ll be!
Consider the visual space.
- Make your emails easy to read by breaking up paragraphs (adding white space).
- Bullet or number lists as appropriate.
- Bold or highlight words, phrases, or points you don’t want missed.
Use helpful subject lines.
Use a subject line that helps the recipient understand the topic of the email and helps them easily find it later.
Consider editing subject lines when responding if it might make it clearer for the recipient. For example, if someone asks if I’m available to speak at an event, many times they’ll ask by email using the name of the event as the subject line. When responding, I’ll revise the subject line to ‘speaker: Sam Parker’ thinking it might be more helpful now and easier to find later. I don’t know if this is the case but I’ve never had negative feedback. (Still doesn’t mean I’m right.)
Consider whether your subject line might worry someone. I once used someone’s name in a subject line when emailing a close friend about a mutual friend. My close friend let me know she immediately thought our mutual friend had died. I’ve watched for these things ever since. It’s the reason I use the subject line ‘good things’ in confirmation emails to speaking clients a week or so before an event. My goal is to put them at ease that all is set and I’m looking forward to being a part of their meeting. My thought is if I use any other subject line, they might have a moment of unnecessary concern. It’s in the same vein as when my sister and I call each other and start by saying “Everything’s fine.” Or, when one of my sons called me from college and started with “I’m not in jail.”
Consider the relationship/history/baggage with the recipient.
Do the recipients of your email a favor and consider how they might misinterpret what you’ve written (#4 of the opening 6 points to consider).
If you’ve been married a while and your spouse sighs, my guess is you know the 4 things that sigh means. Same thing happens at work with our internal and external relationships.
If you’re in a management role and you email someone on your team, regardless of how strong or casual you think that relationship is, consider they may not feel as confident in the relationship as you are. Minimize the chance of putting unnecessary pressure on someone.
If all of this thinking makes writing the email too time consuming, consider talking by phone or in person (#1 of the opening 6 points to consider).
A few additional things that have been helpful to us here over the years...
We work to speed things up where we can. Like many organizations, we have an internal language. We’re also small and close. These ideas require understanding and trust. They might cause problems for certain types of organizations, people, or interactions. Use caution, please.
If we can answer or confirm receipt of an email with a few short words, we do it in the subject line. We put it in front of the original subject line with a couple greater than symbols to make it clear the email doesn’t need to be opened by the recipient (subject: Got it. Thanks.>>meeting next week, subject: On it.>>customer quote needed).
Again, this is for a small tight team that knows the language. I once used a thumbs up emoji to confirm receipt of an email from our trademark attorney. For them, I was saying go ahead and do the work. I had to quickly let them know it was only a confirmation that I got their email. Be careful and avoid using internal vocabulary, acronyms, and methods with external people.
If we have a short message we want to relay by email rather than a text or messaging app, we’ll put the complete message in the subject line with a ‘CM:’ in front of it ( subject: CM: today’s huddle moved to 11:15am). This lets the recipient know there’s no need to open the email. We use the all-cap acronym to be sure it’s noticed.
I like to open my internal emails without a salutation and close with ‘Thanks! ‘cm’ or both (unless I want to joke around with someone and add something fun). My thinking is both a salutation and sign off with my name are unnecessary given the from and to lines of the email. But, I include the lowercase ‘cm’ at the end to make sure the person knows it’s the complete message. Again, we’re a small close team. I wouldn’t do this with a new teammate until we got to know each other and they understood the language.
Finally, we work to anticipate the needs of others and minimize forcing people to circle back for more information and/or confirmation. This is a wonderful thing to do for people beyond just email communication but we’ll stay with email.
We do this by confirming receipt of important internal emails and making sure teammates know we’ve handled something external by copying or blind copying them on our response. On the latter, if a teammate emails me asking that I respond to a customer question or comment by email, I’ll copy them on my response to confirm I’ve taken care of it.
Again … all of this is about being kind and effective. You don’t need to do it. You can get by caring less. But, I’ve found the more I try to improve, the more I enjoy trying to find things to improve.
One last thing…
FA (for awareness) over FYI (for your information). More accurate and less characters.
I know. Insane.