Writing Effective Emails

Getting People to Read and Act on Your Messages

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Find out how to improve your emails.

Email is a widely used tool for business communications, but a 2013 survey by Sendmail, Inc., found that it has caused tension, confusion, or other negative consequences for 64 percent of working professionals.

So, how can you avoid your emails doing this? And how can you write emails that get the results you want? This article looks at strategies you can use to ensure that your use of email is clear, effective, and successful.

Writing Effective Emails

The average office worker receives around 80 emails each day. With that volume of mail, individual messages can easily get overlooked. Follow these simple rules to get your emails noticed and acted upon.

  1. Don't overcommunicate by email.
  2. Make good use of subject lines.
  3. Keep messages clear and brief.
  4. Be polite.
  5. Check your tone.
  6. Proofread.

1. Don't Overcommunicate by Email

One of the biggest sources of stress at work is the sheer volume of emails that people receive. So, before you begin writing an email, ask yourself: "Is this really necessary?"

As part of this, you should use the phone or IM to deal with questions that are likely to need some back-and-forth discussion. Use our Communications Planning Tool   to identify the channels that are best for different types of message.

Also, email is not as secure as you might want it to be, particularly as people may forward emails without thinking to delete the conversation history. So avoid sharing sensitive or personal information in an email, and don't write about anything that you, or the subject of your email, wouldn't like to see plastered on a billboard by your office.

Whenever possible, deliver bad news   in person. This helps you to communicate with empathy, compassion, and understanding, and to make amends   if your message has been taken the wrong way.

2. Make Good Use of Subject Lines

A newspaper headline has two functions: it grabs your attention, and it summarizes the article, so that you can decide whether to read it or not. The subject line of your email message should do the same thing.

A blank subject line is more likely to be overlooked or rejected as "spam," so always use a few well-chosen words to tell the recipient what the email is about.

You may want to include the date in the subject line if your message is one of a regular series of emails, such as a weekly project report. For a message that needs a response, you might also want to include a call to action, such as "Please reply by November 7."

A well-written subject line like the one below delivers the most important information, without the recipient even having to open the email. This serves as a prompt that reminds recipients about your meeting every time they glance at their inbox.

Bad Example Good Example
Subject: Meeting Subject: PASS Process Meeting - 10 a.m. February 25, 2014

If you have a very short message to convey, and you can fit the whole thing into the subject line, use "EOM" (End of Message) to let recipients know that they don't need to open the email to get all the information that they need.

Example
Subject: Could you please send the February sales report? Thanks! EOM

(Of course, this is only useful if recipients know what "EOM" means.)

3. Keep Messages Clear and Brief

Emails, like traditional business letters, need to be clear and concise. Keep your sentences short and to the point. The body of the email should be direct and informative, and it should contain all pertinent information. See our article on writing skills   for guidance on communicating clearly in writing.

Unlike traditional letters, however, it costs no more to send several emails than it does to send just one. So, if you need to communicate with someone about a number of different topics, consider writing a separate email for each one. This makes your message clearer, and it allows your correspondent to reply to one topic at a time.

Bad Example Good Example

Subject: Revisions For Sales Report

Hi Jackie,

Thanks for sending that report last week. I read it yesterday, and I feel that Chapter 2 needs more specific information about our sales figures. I also felt that the tone could be more formal.

Also, I wanted to let you know that I've scheduled a meeting with the PR department for this Friday regarding the new ad campaign. It's at 11:00 a.m. and will be in the small conference room.

Please let me know if you can make that time.

Thanks!

Monica

Subject: Revisions For Sales Report

Hi Jackie,

Thanks for sending that report last week. I read it yesterday, and I feel that Chapter 2 needs more specific information about our sales figures.

I also felt that the tone could be more formal.

Could you amend it with these comments in mind?

Thanks for your hard work on this!

Monica

(Monica then follows this up with a separate email about the PR department meeting.)

It's important to find balance here. You don't want to bombard someone with emails, and it makes sense to combine several, related, points into one email. When this happens, keep things simple   with numbered paragraphs or bullet points, and consider "chunking"   information into small, well-organized units to make it easier to digest.

Notice, too, that in the good example above, Monica specified what she wanted Jackie to do (in this case, amend the report). If you make it easy for people to see what you want, there's a better chance that they will give you this.

4. Be Polite

People often think that emails can be less formal than traditional letters. But the messages you send are a reflection of your own professionalism  , values, and attention to detail, so a certain level of formality is needed.

Unless you're on good terms with someone, avoid informal language, slang, jargon  , and inappropriate abbreviations. Emoticons can be useful for clarifying your intent, but it's best to use them only with people you know well.

Close your message with "Regards," "Yours sincerely," or "All the best," depending on the situation.

Recipients may decide to print emails and share them with others, so always be polite.

5. Check the Tone

When we meet people face-to-face, we use the other person's body language  , vocal tone, and facial expressions to assess how they feel. Email robs us of this information, and this means that we can't tell when people have misunderstood our messages.

Your choice of words, sentence length, punctuation, and capitalization can easily be misinterpreted without visual and auditory cues. In the first example below, Emma might think that Harry is frustrated or angry, but, in reality, he feels fine.

Bad Example Good Example

Emma,

I need your report by 5 p.m. today or I'll miss my deadline.

Harry

Hi Emma,

Thanks for all your hard work on that report. Could you please get your version over to me by 5 p.m., so I don't miss my deadline?

Thanks so much!

Harry

Think about how your email "feels" emotionally. If your intentions or emotions could be misunderstood, find a less ambiguous way to phrase your words.

6. Proofreading

Finally, before you hit "send," take a moment to review your email for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. Your email messages are as much a part of your professional image as the clothes you wear, so it looks bad to send out a message that contains typos.

As you proofread, pay careful attention to the length of your email. People are more likely to read short, concise emails than long, rambling ones, so make sure that your emails are as short as possible, without excluding necessary information.

Our article on writing skills   has tips and strategies that you can use when proofreading your emails.

Key Points

Most of us spend a significant portion of our day reading and composing emails. But the messages we send can be confusing to others.

To write effective emails, first ask yourself if you should be using email at all. Sometimes, it might be better to pick up the phone.

Make your emails concise and to the point. Only send them to the people who really need to see them, and be clear about what you would like the recipient to do next.

Remember that your emails are a reflection of your professionalism, values, and attention to detail. Try to imagine how others might interpret the tone of your message. Be polite, and always proofread what you have written before you click "send."

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Comments (12)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    You're welcome, sanjaypurohit
  • sanjaypurohit wrote Over a month ago
    good work really helpful
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Everyone

    We’ve given this popular article a review, and the updated version is now at
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/EmailCommunication.php

    Discuss the article by replying to this post!

    Thanks

    James
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone

    Just letting your know that we’ve just published a new video for this topic.

    Click here to watch the video:
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/main/videos.php#email

    James
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi sanmicro - it's a great tip isn't it!! Welcome to the forums!!

    My email is downright unruly so small time savers like this help so much.

    And the best part is that when you start using a technique like this, people you send emails to often copy the idea and it spreads through the organization. Have you seen that happening yet?


    Dianna
  • sanmicro wrote Over a month ago
    oh !

    That EOM concept is really good & i am using this its working really good.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Auli - thanks for the sign of approval!

    It's great to "see" you on the forums. If I can direct you toward specific resources or otherwise help you around the club, please let me know.

    Enjoy!

    Dianna
  • guilland wrote Over a month ago
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Colin

    You make a very good point! We didn’t actually intend a contradiction and we will make things a bit clearer in the two articles.

    By "regular" we meant at appropriate (rather than frequent) intervals. And this depends on the work someone is doing. I tend to check my emails in a similar way to you, between tasks and meetings say 3-4 times per day, and that works for the work I do.

    The key thing is to find the right balance between being responsive and being productive and focused with your time. And we'll make this clearer in both articles!

    Rachel
  • colinscowen wrote Over a month ago
    An interesting dilemma though.
    In this article it says:
    "Internal email should be checked regularly throughout the working day and acted upon without delay, as it often involves time-sensitive projects, immediate updates, meeting notes, and so on."

    And in the article on overcoming information overload it says:
    "Schedule email times – Set a schedule to check or download your email at certain times of day. Many experts say that two to three times per day is enough. Turn off your email pop-up reminders, and follow this schedule just as you would for meetings or appointments."

    My personal strategy is to check emails at the same time I am switching between one task and another, what was referred to as switch time in the Expert Interview with Dave Crenshaw. As meeting reminders go off, they are pulling me out of a particular task. Since the reminders go off 5 min before the meeting, I give my email a quick skim, and can then send any longer replies after the meeting. A similar thing happens at lunch, and at teh end of a particular task.

    That being said, I am one of those people who will log in from home to check mails. There is a solid reason for this though.

    Regards,
Show all comments

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