How to Write Better Emails

How to Write Better Emails

I can imagine you rolling your eyes at the title of this post. But how would you grade the effectiveness of your written communication? 

Even if you think your emails are above average (similar to how we all imagine we are above average motor vehicle drivers), I hope you pick up a couple of ideas from this post that enhance the effectiveness of your messages. Some of these recommendations, I am not ashamed to say, I only learned recently. 

My email goals:

  • communicate clearly 
  • avoid misunderstandings
  • save time

My assertion: “Making time to craft a better email saves time (for everyone) over the long run.

Here’s a selection of my current best practices:

Clarify your intentions first.

Before you even begin writing, think about the specific action you want the recipient to take. Finish this sentence: “When the recipient has finished reading my email they will……” 

Summarize your topic in the subject line.

People receiving a large volume of emails tend to scan the subject line to decide how soon to open, and whether or not to respond, file, or delete your message. If your subject line is vague, you have already blown your first opportunity to move to the head of the queue.

I scream inside whenever I receive emails with vague one or two word subject lines like, “Meeting notes” (what meeting? when?), or “Sales update”, or “Discuss”, or “FYI”, or “Hi there”. Agh!!!

I find it highly frustrating to have to wade through lists of emails and open each email to re-read the content just to find the particular one I am searching for. Do your recipients a huge favor, and take the time to write a decent subject line explaining the key thrust of your email in the first place.

Email miscommunication and confusion have become such a (mission-critical) problem that the US military has developed a series of subject line prefix codes and require staff to insert them in the email subject line prior to stating the topic:

  • Info: (for informational purposes only. The recipient is not required to respond or perform any action)
  • Decision: (recipient is required to make a decision)
  • Action: (recipient needs to take action)
  • Sign: (recipient needs to provide a signature)
  • Request: (seeking approval or permission from the recipient)
  • Coord: (request coordination with or by the recipient)

I use this system myself and find it to be very helpful with clients and colleagues. I have some additional ones of my own:

  • Question: (when I have a question I would like the recipient to answer)
  • Article: (when sharing a link to an article or blog that I think would be of interest)
  • Suggestion: (when I am providing a casual recommendation)

Here are some recent examples of email subject lines I have sent to clients:

Article: What Instant Delivery Services Could Do to Cities | Bloomberg

Question: Please provide the contact details of your new CFO

Action: Please complete Quarterly Strategic Review survey asap before Tuesday 18 Jan

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front).

For the email body, the military uses the acronym BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). Write a summary of your message in one sentence upfront. Military personnel even use the prefix “Bottom Line:” at the beginning of their opening sentence. That might be overkill for some, but it is a good discipline to instill. I like to think of it as summarizing your entire email as a 280 character Twitter post upfront.

State the key issue you want to discuss in one sentence.

Then start a new paragraph and elaborate on the issue in the following sentences.

Identify yourself clearly.

If you are introducing yourself to someone for the first time, follow up your BLUF with your name, company, and any other contextual information to explain why you are writing to them.

One topic per email.

If you have a number of points to make, you could number your points to ensure they are all read. In this case, your BLUF should state that your email contains multiple points in your opening sentence.

However, it is usually better to split your key points into separate emails so your reader can respond, file, or delete each email individually (each email will have its own distinct subject line). Your goal should be to keep every email short and to the point.

Emphasize text with bold font.

Use bold text for appropriate parts of a message to help the recipient quickly understand what the email is about and easily locate the important stuff.

Tag people where appropriate.

When multiple people are copied on an email, it can be helpful to tag specific individuals to clarify which person needs to take what action e.g.

@Stephen – please provide the text copy
@Bianca – please update the website

Use specific dates.

Beware of using words like today, yesterday, tomorrow, next week, in 3 hours, etc in your email body.

Add specific dates and times, otherwise, your timeframes can be misunderstood or require the recipients to check the email’s sent date/time to figure out what you meant at the time you wrote the email.

Incorrect: @Stephen – I need this tomorrow
Better: @Stephen – I need this by 5 pm Tuesday, 18 Jan

Consider the reading device.

Many emails are read on mobile devices. Ask yourself:

  • Do your recipients really want to download and open the large PDF attachment you have sent?
  • Do they really want to click on hyperlinks and wait while the web pages load?

Do your recipients a favor, and summarize the key points of any attachment or hyperlink in the body text of the actual email, so they don’t necessarily have to open them in order to have sufficient information to respond.

Stay classy.

When you are writing to a friend or a work colleague, it may be OK to use emoticons and text abbreviations, but don’t assume people in your wider networks will respond positively to this approach.

If you are writing your email on a mobile device, typing is more cumbersome, and it can be very tempting to abbreviate your text and be more abrupt than you normally would be with a full-size keyboard. Resist this temptation. Without realizing it, you can come across as being rude or overly familiar. Always err on the safe side and keep your emails friendly, but professional.

Email signature.

Add an automatic email signature with your company branding and standard contact information. Make it easy for someone to add you straight into their contacts list or enter your details into a CRM without creating a whole lot of extra research on their part.

And, does anyone give a hoot about your screeds of legal disclaimers?

Set Boundaries.

For internal staff, I set clear boundaries on after-hours communication. I have an 8 to 6 rule. In my opinion, after-hours is after 6 pm in the evening through to 8 am in the morning during weekdays and all day on the weekends in each person’s time zone. During after-hours, I do not want team members to send nor respond to internal emails or messages.

I recommend using the “send later” or “schedule send” feature on your email so as to not disturb people after hours and send your message at 8 am the next business day. I especially discourage sending messages on the weekend. It sets a bad example for the team and can make people feel obligated to respond. The only exception would be emergency situations, and in these cases, I recommend using a personal phone call or SMS text.

Here’s my guide for how to create a “User Manual” to clarify and communicate your personal expectations with team members.

Measure twice, cut once.

Double-check that you are sending the email to the right person. Always use a spell check and grammar check tool (I use Grammarly) and proofread before sending, especially if you are tired and in a hurry. I also use the “un-send” option in Gmail which gives me a 30-second window to pull the email back in the event I notice something missing after I press “send”.

If you are sending marketing emails or sales proposals ask someone else to proofread before sending. When you are too close to a project you can easily miss some glaring typos and errors. First impressions count.

Never write an email in anger.

Draft a message out to clarify your thoughts if need be, but don’t send it. Just like diamonds, emails are forever. Sleep on it overnight. You will be glad you did because things always look different tomorrow when your emotions have died down. I repeat, sleep on it. Wait 24 hours, then re-craft your email the following day. You will thank me for this.

Better still, wait 24 hours, then pick up the phone.

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Until next time…
Stephen