Email can be a wonderful communication tool when its used right. You can pound one out in just a few minutes, convey a meaningful and important message, and reach your audience almost instantly, allowing them to start getting things done.
But it can also be a huge time sink on your own productivity, create huge problems in the office and generally not be the wonder tool so many hope it could be. The smallest, innocent email can cause disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing, so learning how to craft an effective email is important.
Today, we’ll walk through five important aspects you want to make sure you get right when you craft that next email, and what could happen if you don’t.
Step 1: Who’s your audience?
The names or groups that go into the To, CC and BCC fields matter just as much as what you are about to write. Include too few, and you start leaving out important stakeholders who may have an interest in what you’re about to say. Include too many, like when reply-all chains get out of hand, and it could cause as innocent a problem as wasting some people’s time, or include people on information that they weren’t supposed to know.
So for each email you send, carefully consider who are the people who most need to act on what you’re about to say, and include them in the To field. Next, who needs to know that this email is going out, but may not necessarily have anything to action from it? They go in the CC field. Finally, do you have a boss who wants to see this email go out, but doesn’t want to be seen on it? They go in the BCC.
Drop everybody else from the email. Don’t waste their time. And for heaven’s sakes, don’t reply-all on an email to the whole company unless you’re the boss.
Step 2: Keep the Subject clear
When your email hits the recipient’s inbox, you want them to know exactly what they are getting right up front. That means your subject line has to be clear and to the point.
So ideally, your subject line should be as clear as a short, one sentence summary of what the email is about. If I were to email a colleague about this article, I might use the subject line “Article about Email Construction,” for example.
What should you not do? Where do I begin? Don’t leave the subject line blank, that’s lazy. Don’t use something generic and short like “Request for you” when you could just as easily summarize what that request is. And I promise, if you ever send me something that says “READ,” I will make an effort to ignore every email you send that doesn’t have Read in the subject line.
I mean honestly, what am I supposed to do with your email other than read it?
Step 3: Stick to the topic
This is specifically important when you are sending an email that deals with a project that has actionable items in it. You want to ensure you are keeping the email specific enough to the topic at hand that it can be completed and filed away quickly.
What you don’t want to do is start combining all the things you need to say into a single email. That creates a confusing mess for the person receiving the email, and they may not absorb the importance of any specific thing you’re trying to communicate. So if you have three things to say about three different tasks, send three emails. We’re not paying for stamps here.
Step 4: Keep it brief
Nobody checking their email over a morning coffee wants to hear your life story. You may have a lot to say in your email, but emails are not much different from news articles: if you don’t get to the point in the first couple of sentences, you’re going to lose their interest.
A pretty good format to follow for the body of an email is: Introduce the topic, provide the information or action items that come from it, and end with next steps, like if you expect to hear back from the recipient.
If you find that your email is taking more than a few minutes to write, or a few minutes to read, than you might be using the wrong communication medium. If you find you have a lot to say, maybe use resource that acts better for pull communications so they can access that information at their convenience. If the information is really important, maybe set up a meeting so you can present it in person or over Zoom.
Step 5: Mind your tone
Assuming you are emailing colleagues who you haven’t established a bunch of in-jokes with, they may not pick up on your wry sense of humor from a 100-word email. So it’s best to keep humor out of your email entirely. Besides, even if they are in on the jokes, if that email gets shared to someone who isn’t, you still have a problem.
Similarly, if you’re the type of person who easily gets fired up and says things, they may regret…. Don’t send those emails. I struggle with this problem, and I’ve learned that what works best for me is to take a couple of hours to respond to an email that got my goat. It makes me much less likely to say something that crosses a line.
What works best honestly is to keep emails to just the facts and tasks that need handled. If you find you’re working anything more than that into your email, its probably going to be much funnier or cathartic if you do it in person.
What if it shouldn’t be an email
As I’ve covered previously in the series, you may want to consider interactive or pull communications. You can check out those articles to see in what scenarios they work best, and how they tie in to emails, which belong to push communications.