Writing an email is the easiest thing to do. Writing an effective email is not.
Sending an email is easy, getting your message effectively across, is not.
Any professional in the workplace receives an average of 100+ emails a day and the click-through rate is less than 5%. So, following the right email etiquette at work and getting your recipients to actually read your email is in itself the first hurdle to overcome. The next hurdle is, for them to read the complete email and understand it fully & completely. Both these hurdles must be overcome to effectively convey any message via your email.
As an analogy, if you are a keen observer of online marketers, there are tons of ads popping around. The online brands do a lot just to grab eyeballs and then try even harder to make you click. We could perhaps use the same principles the online brands apply into the way we write emails.
Our goal is to develop the art of effective email writing with an end objective to ‘make-the-sale’ i.e. convey the message clearly. As a bonus, effective email writing also helps build a personal brand image at the workplace, your positioning amongst your teams, your colleagues & senior stakeholders.
How to write effective emails?
Understanding your audience
This is the foundation of email etiquette. No email can be written effectively without keeping the audience at the epicentre. The rationale is simple: the style, tone, articulation, level of detail, the choice of words – essentially all the softer aspects of the email – depend on the audience.
For example, the way you provide a suggestion to your manager vis-à-vis to your peers vis-à-vis to your own team will vary significantly, even though the underlying intent remains the same.
Understand your audience and retain that thought throughout the process of writing.
If you have met them in person, you may already have created their virtual persona in your mind. For instances where you have not met them or for more inputs, recall your phone conversations, meetings, check some emails from them to get a perspective of their style.
If you don’t have much information about the personalities you are writing to, then keep the email neutral. Neutral need not be boring. While neutrality of style & tone is adopted, there should be no compromise/ dilution in the richness of the content.
Based on my own experiences and learnings, I try to focus on the underlying objectives during my email writing
While writing to someone senior: my email should exhibit my competence, a humble demeanour, corporate citizen perspective, wanting to contribute
While writing to my peers: my email should exhibit an element of mutual respect, collaboration and team success
While writing to my team: my email should exhibit team success, guidance, steer, coach, elaboration on the wider context, and in some instances, authority.
“Email writing is not essay writing! You don’t want to scare away the reader that the email will require a long time to read and comprehend”
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Writing a meaningful subject line
When you want to write an email, what are thoughts that come first?
While writing an email, one would think about what needs to be communicated, who should be addressed, how do I structure it, etc. It would perhaps be safe to say that the subject line tends to be pretty low in the priority list of things to worry about during email communication.
This is incorrect and a fundamental email etiquette mistake that people make.
Do you recall about click-through rate of less than 5%? Your email needs to be within that 5%. It is obvious that you need to raise the inquisitiveness, interest, curiosity in the receiver to open the email. You have two keys at your disposal for influencing the reader to open your email.
You and the subject line.
When I say ‘You’, I mean you as a person.
Your standing in the office, your position (formal and informal), your… gravitas. This key is valid when recipient(s) already know you from previous meets, chats, etc. If you are writing to people whom you have never previously interacted, then they don’t know ‘you’ and hence all the more emphasis on getting the second key right – the subject line.
Please make the subject line relevant. It must also raise genuine interest.
If you are providing a solution option to an issue, then
start with ‘Solution option for…’.
If you have a query on a subject,
you could put it as ‘This is puzzling me’ OR ‘Can you help me with this’.
The latter example exhibits humbleness and generates a positive response from the recipient.
Use the power of the subject line. It is like an Ad on Pinterest, Instagram, trying to motivate the recipient to read it – you need a high click-through rate.
- Make it relevant
- Make it crisp
- Pique the reader’s interest
Do not exaggerate just for the sake of it – be genuine instead. That is, don’t clickbait.
You need to also be absolutely certain that the subject line is aligned with the contents of the email. If people observe a disconnect repeatedly, the chances of them opening your future emails diminish rapidly.
(By the way, I do wonder why some people write ‘reg:’ at the start of their subject line. Do they intend to say ‘regarding’? Isn’t it obvious that a subject line field already means just that! 😊)
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The body of the email
Now that you have influenced the recipient to open your email, the structure of your email meets the eye at the first glance. As a reader, you will observe that you immediately look at the length of the email, the way it has been clustered (i.e. paragraphs or big blob of text), etc. All these are noticed in an instant without even reading the first word.
Content is important; the structure of the content is equally important.
If there are 7 or 8 lines of continuous text, it is very difficult to read through. Difficult-to-read emails take time, which many people don’t seem to have in this digital era. The onus lies on the author to make it as easy as possible & as quickly as possible, for the reader to grasp the contents of the email.
Structure your emails into short sections of text or sets of 1-3 sentences – short, bite-size sentences. Use bullet points wherever possible. There is a tendency to look at tables, infographics as an after-thought. Instead, consider them as a default.
Always start with a pleasant opening like ‘Hope you are well’, ‘How are you doing’, etc. Think of it as a scenario of you meeting someone in person. When you meet, the first thing you do is, greet them. Apply the same etiquette to the email context.
Though it may appear to be counter-intuitive, even emails that are communicating bad news need a courteous greeting. For example, when you are having a performance appraisal meeting with someone who needs to show significant improvement, you still say ‘hello’, you still say ‘how are you’ and you still make him/her comfortable before discussing the key topic at hand.
Emails are no different.
(In casual scenarios when emails are being used as a substitute for a chat window, then moving into the chat style may be OK; but best to keep it restricted to your very close colleagues & friends. It is obvious that in such casual scenarios, post the initial greetings, the follow-on emails ignore the opening)
Length of the email
I cannot emphasize this enough. Email writing is not essay writing!
I will go as far as saying that the maximum length of the email should be less than the page window. Anything more than that, half the recipients will give up.
You don’t want to scare away the reader that the email will require a long time to read and comprehend. The recipient will mark it ‘for later’ and in most instances, never come back & read it.
In the scenarios, where the email is meant to be a detailed report (e.g. market research report or audit findings report), then say that upfront at the start of your email and ensure it is also mentioned in the subject line. This will set expectations with the reader, rather than being taken by surprise.
Closing the email is as important as the opening. As it is the last thing that is read, it must hence be motivating, positive & humble. Additionally, if you expect them to respond to you via email or by speaking later, convey that clearly. To put it in different words, everyone should be aware of ‘what-happens-next’. Closing an email is also a right time to mention your thanks, appreciation and express positivity to the reader. Closing too should be contextual & maintain the consistency of tone.
Some more tips about Email Etiquette
Whilst sending out attachments with your email, try and put a summary in the body of the email too. The summary should be the highlights that are extracted from that attachment (pivot tables, key messages, key outcomes, important findings, etc.). This approach also helps if you are addressing different stakeholders in the same email. Some of them may only be interested in the summary, some others may want to dig into the detail. You are helping both those stakeholders & offering them a choice.
In a context wherein an action plan is to be put in, please use a table to depict clear action items with their owners. If it is just 1 or 2 actions, you may let go of the table and insert it within the text. In such cases, if you are naming your colleagues, highlight their names so that it grabs attention and is hard to miss.
Finally, never ever miss doing a spell check and grammar check. Proof read your emails too. Not everything is caught in the spell check. The ‘quite’ is not ‘quiet’ and the ‘advice’ is not ‘advise’ – or some really stunning ones – ‘reminder’ is not ‘remainder’.
Writing effective emails and following proper email etiquette is learnt by constant practice and keeping an unwavering focus on 2 things – the audience and the content. Owing to emails being an integral part of any workplace, it is an omnipresent tool waiting to be leveraged for building your personal image & positioning. Use it well.
DON’T FORGET TO DOWNLOAD THE EMAIL ETIQUETTE 101 CHECKLIST TO HELP YOU WRITE EFFECTIVE EMAILS EASILY.
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