Ruthless Email: Write Better Emails

by Annie

in email herding

Compose New Email ScreenSo far, in our Ruthless Email work, we’ve focused on the email we get – the subscription lists, the newsletters, the old mail, the mail we can and should delete.

Today, we’re shifting our perspective a bit and turning our critical eye towards ourselves and the emails we write.

The good news is: this stuff is entirely within our power to control.

The bad news: well, change is hard, y’all …

Better Email Rule #1: Shorter Is Better

I’m not saying you should only write short emails.

And I’m definitely not evangelizing or even suggesting you should try that five sentences bullshit.

Look, email is not the devil. It’s not even the biggest productivity obstacle around (though it’s definitely a big enough one to warrant paying some attention to).

It’s a tool. And tools are meant to be used for a purpose.

So, make an effort to limit your outgoing emails to precisely the length they need to be to achieve their purposes, and no longer.

Sometimes, emails need to be longer.

Case in point: when I sign up a new client over at Stage Presence Marketing for our $49 WordPress setup package, there’s a lot of information I need to impart, due to the deal’s conditions.

I tried accomplishing that via a page on my site, but I still got a crap-ton of questions. Folks just respond to and process email better than being asked to click a link and read a page. (I am going to put that page back up, but it’ll be in addition to this email.)

So I crafted an email template that outlined all the information I kept getting asked over and over.

I’ve uploaded that email template here as a PDF so you can refer to it – it’ll be used to demonstrate a few other principles later on this post, too.

That email needed to be long. An email confirming a time/date for a phone interview for your blog? Does not need to be long.

So implement these three guidelines, and work on making them habitual:

  1. Ask yourself before you respond “How long does this need to be? What do I need to communicate here?”
  2. Before you send an email that’s over 7-10 sentences in length, challenge yourself to cut it down to that size. How much can you leave out without failing to accomplish your response to #1 above?
  3. If your email does need to be longer than 7 to 10 sentences, don’t send it immediately. Remember: there’s almost no situation you will face in your day that requires an immediate email response. Think about it. Even in life-threatening emergencies. (Truly life-threatening situations get talked about on the phone. NOT in email.) So, don’t respond immediately – take your time and do it thoughtfully when you do have time later on.

Better Email Rule #2: Craft a Strong, Searchable Subject Line

Let’s agree right up front that, except for chatty emails between friends, cute subject lines are the devil.

Also the devil: vague subject lines that could refer to just about anything, and subject lines that are actually the first line of the email, which is not then repeated in the body, leading to massive confusion on the part of the reader/recipient.

A good subject line achieves the following:

  • Directly relates to the email content
  • Avoids vagueness and banalities (ex: “help, urgent” or “what’s up?”)
  • Isn’t overly long OR misleading

Some good examples of strong subject lines:

  • Recommendations for hotels in Chicago this fall
  • Family reunion schedule of events
  • Need roommate for BlogWorld

Better Email Rule #3: Write Like Writers & Pay Attention to the First Line

Writers know: That first sentence is all-important in novel manuscripts.

It’s pretty significant in emails, too.

Use your email’s first sentence to summarize what follows. This helps your reader focus their attention on the subject, and leads to better processing on their ends.

This is especially true with longer emails, but it’s also helpful with the 5-sentence kind, too.

Better Email Rule #4: Use Formatting in Long Emails

If you do need to send a longer email, consider using formatting tools to help your reader organize the information in their minds, process it, and figure out their next steps. Refer back to that PDF of my “Cut to the Chase” Client Info email again, and you can see this in action.

  • I’ve used a larger, red, bolded font for calling special attention to each crucial section.
  • I’ve used bold on its own (same color and font size as the rest of the text) to emphasize key words, which helps keep the reader’s interest – I really need these folks to read the whole email!
  • Lastly, I’ve used yellow highlighting sparingly, and only for the purpose of calling out the client’s next steps – the things the recipient has to do next.

You don’t need to get that creative, by any means.

For most emails, even just adding a simple “heading”- or “subheading”-styled will help the recipient process the content adequately. You can do this simply in rich formatting email clients by using bold and underlined text on a summary phrase for each main section of your email.

Another way to use formatting cleverly in your email to enhance readability and improve response rates is to number a list of questions or directions.

Bullets also work for this purpose, but for some reason, I find recipients process numbered lists more effectively than bulleted ones, at least when it’s a list of questions or how-to directions.

Better Email Rule #5: Acknowledge Receipt When Your Reply Will Be Long

Every so often (OK, OK, every single day), I get emails from clients that have a long list of questions. I want to make sure we keep the conversation properly contained, and of course I want to make sure I answer my clients’ questions adequately.

Instead of dashing off a quick and inadequate response, or just leaving the sender hanging, try sending a quick acknowledgement email: “I got your email and will get back to you later today.”

Or whatever.

Doesn’t take more than 2-3 minutes, tops, and goes a long way towards reassuring nervous senders.

Better Email Rule #6: Let Recipients Know About Attachments

One of many reasons I love Gmail is that it lets me know when I’ve written “I’ve attached” or “Attached please find” but I’ve not actually attached a file.

But that tool only works if I let my recipient know about the attachment.

It’s an easy thing to add – only take an extra three to five seconds (maybe more if you’re not a quick typist), and it adds an extra layer of insurance that the recipient will actually see the file.

Given the tiny print many email clients use to display names of attachments, and the fact that some tack on attachment notices to the very end of the email, it’s a good thing to do.

Better Email Rule #7: Explicitly State Expectations and Deadlines

If you need a response by a certain date, or before you can proceed with some action on your end, get in the habit of saying as much explicitly in the email.

You don’t need to add a full paragraph to do this. Something as simple as “Action Required: Response Within Three Days” will suffice (though to my ear, that sounds a little harsh and bill-collector-y, so you might want to soften that up a bit).

Better Email Rule #8: Remember You’re Writing to Other People

OK, this one might sound a bit odd, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep it in mind: your recipients aren’t computers.

Nor are they you, the email sender.

Each email you send arrives in its own vacuum-packed package, stripped of your body language and tone of voice and eye twinkle and all the myriad ways we humans give context to communications from other people.

Your recipient might not get the joke. She might be offended by that cavalier expression. He may not be from your country, and find your idiom culturally offensive.

Any of these things will severely and negatively impact the quality of your communication with this person.

So, for all but the simplest, shortest emails, get in the habit of re-reading your words, and trying to step into the shoes of the person who will be receiving it. Look critically at your word choice, the emotional undertones that the words might conjure up for the reader-who-didn’t-write-them, and how well the email actually achieves its purpose.

Summing Up the Rules: Pay Attention

In two words, then, simply pay attention to what you send out, and try wherever possible to make it immune to misinterpretation, glossing-over, and cursory read-throughs.

Did I miss a crucial rule? Have you experimented with shorter emails? Share your experiences in the comments!

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