Updated: Dec 21, 2022
Writing emails. We all spend what seems like an inordinate amount of time reading them and writing them. Many of us have also been involved in email chains that often seem to go on…and on…and on about subjects ranging from the mundane to the substantive. So, the real question here is how can we draft emails more effectively in an effort to make more productive and efficient use of our limited time each day? Please allow me to propose a few suggestions.
Don’t overlook the importance of the subject line
Most, if not all of us, are incredibly busy these days. We receive a lot of emails each day. It is important to keep in mind that your message, as important as you think that it is, is far from being the only one in the mailbox of the person that you are sending your message to. One way to distinguish your email from others and, better yet, to help the recipient better determine what your message is about, is to craft an effective subject line. Yet, too many overlook what is an essential part of your email. Before getting to how to write an effective subject line, let me spend a little time writing about what NOT to do in terms of the subject line. First, do not leave the subject line blank. Your recipient may know who you are, but do not assume that just because of the recipient knowing who you are your message will be a priority for the other person. Second, do not use phrases like “quick question” or “Important” in the subject line without being more specific. If your question is indeed quick, why not simply ask it in the subject line of the email if you can? In terms of what to do when writing a subject line, you should be specific about the purpose of the email. For example, if the email is about an upcoming meeting, perhaps write something referencing that fact: “Suggestions for agenda for 11/15 meeting.” If the email will be asking for something specific from the other person, reference that in the subject line: “For Review: Draft of XG Agreement.” Now, you may be asking yourself, okay, these are fine suggestions, but what if the email you will be sending is part of an email chain that was started prior to you being involved? Don’t be afraid to change the subject line! Do not make the mistake of allowing an email chain to go on and on when the subject of the chain may have change since it was first started!
Keep the message of the email focused
When writing your email, ask yourself why you are writing. Are you responding to an inquiry, making an inquiry yourself, asking for the other party to do something for you? The answer to this question should inform not only what you write, but how you write as well. If you are asking for something or for the other party to do something for you, be direct, be clear, and be concise. It is safe to assume that the other party will read through your note and then respond as soon as they see something they need to respond to. Therefore, put your request at the forefront of your message; don’t bury it at the end of your email.
Make your email readable
Making your email readable will help your reader focus on your message. To do so, try to eliminate distractions. The most common such distraction comes in the form of a grammatical error, typo, or some combination of the two. If you are asking someone to do something for you, don’t distract them by making them point out typos in your message or by making grammatical errors. In addition, don’t use all-caps or informal emoticons. Unless you are writing to a friend, all-caps may come off as you shouting and use of emoticons may come off as unprofessional and/or disrespectful. Write in short paragraphs. Each paragraph should focus on a single issue. Doing so will not only help make your email more readable, but will allow your reader to more easily digest your message. Avoid unusual or overly ornate typefaces. The point of your email is likely not your typeface creativity or artistic skill, but what you are asking your recipient to do for you or what you are telling your recipient. Therefore your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for your reader to discern what your message is and how they should react/respond to what you are telling them.
Try the if/then approach for scheduling emails
Finally, let spend a little time addressing those pesky scheduling emails. If you want to avoid a long chain of emails covering commonplace matters like where to meet and when to meet, try the if/then approach. The if/then approach adopts a logical and structured process consisting of doing the following. First, suggest a few days and times for the other party, then instead of ending the message there, say something along the lines of “If those days/times don’t work, then suggest a few alternatives.” This if/then approach will not entirely preclude a chain of scheduling emails, but it should help make any such chain significantly shorter since you are attempting to expedite scheduling time with the other party by directly asking them for other days/times instead of simply letting the other person say “No” or “Those days/times won’t work.” Once both parties have agreed upon day/time, confirm with a short email confirming, perhaps even in the subject line, the day, time, and place of the meeting or the call. Try applying these tips and let me know what you think! Hopefully you will find them to be useful in helping to make your email exchanges exchanges shorter, more efficient, and more productive.