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Getting Your Emails Just Right

By Andrew Moore

Have you ever opened an email to realize you need to block out half your day to get through it? How many of us have opened one of these monsters and scrolled to the end before even beginning to read it, just to mentally prepare ourselves?

Email has revolutionized the workplace, but like all communication, it’s only effective if it gets and maintains our attention.  And in an information-fueled world, that can be hard to do.

Start by considering rule number one: The shorter, the better.  Emails that are too long are too easy to tune out.

However, that doesn’t mean you should be overly brief. A cryptic email has a better chance of confusing things rather than clearing them up.

Like Goldilocks in “The Three Bears,” you want your porridge, and your email, to be just right.

Clear Thinking

The key to writing emails that are just right is to ask yourself two questions:

  • What is the key point I want to make?
  • What do I want the reader to do?

Too often, we don’t take the time to consider these questions. Email is so convenient that we dash off the first things that come to mind and hit the Send button, all in a misguided sense of efficiency.  But that “stream-of-consciousness” mentality can lead to emails that wander or just don’t make sense.

Additionally, think about how you want to come across. Do you want to sound official, or would you prefer a conversational tone?

When you have your answers, start drafting. Re-read what you write, often. You’ll likely find yourself cutting things more than adding them.

Also, make sure you aren’t repeating yourself. Are you saying the same thing more than once, but differently, hoping that will drive home a point?

In the following examples, which makes the case?

  1. We need to cut costs in the third quarter to improve profitability. Paring costs will help the bottom line and help the company have a stronger third quarter. If we cut costs, our profits will grow.
  2. We need to cut costs in the third quarter to improve profitability.

The second example is sufficient. Think like drill sergeants: Say something forcefully once to get results.

When you think you are done drafting your email, re-read it again.

If you can pull off what you need to say in a few sentences, bravo.

If you need more than a few sentences to make an argument or to cite examples, fine.   But don’t go overboard. In such instances, a good rule of thumb is to keep your email to three to five paragraphs. Anything longer and you risk losing your reader’s attention.

If you find you have more to say, tell your readers you are happy to provide examples or more of your thoughts in a follow-up conversation should they express an interest.

Clear Formatting

To help readers grasp your points more easily, consider using headings to categorize ideas. Also, consider using lists to efficiently summarize items.

Lastly, before hitting Send, ask yourself if your email will produce the desired result. Will it prompt action? Or will the email sit in your reader’s inbox like a bowl of cold porridge?