Bad email behavior is the one thing besides personal hygiene that can ruin your office reputation. Billions of emails are sent per day. And despite the rise of workplace chat apps, email is the most common form of business communication. So it’s wise to treat email like any other skill that you work to improve.
Here are proven tactics for better writing that apply directly to email.
Our Email Culture
Writing better emails is a useful and practical goal. But let’s acknowledge the real problem with email today. Email has become overwhelming. People are forced to spend way too much time just clearing out their inbox. This continues despite the rise of software tools focused on reducing email loads. Chat and product management tools can increase the notification anxiety they were designed to alleviate.
The email problem goes much deeper than just writing. With that said, these tips are evergreen and useful on multiple levels.
If your emails haven’t been effective, it’s likely they haven’t been getting read because they’re too long and rambly (sic). Brevity is an open secret for great writing.
Stephen King said, “Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” (Extreme example… but it’s hard to delete our own words).
Re-read & revise - There’s no sense in trying to cut words on the fly. Finish a draft then re-read and look for unnecessary words or bulky sentences.
Scannable - People don’t read giant blocks of text when surfing the net or when they get a “text novel” from their ex, so don’t expect them to read an email without the necessary line breaks, bullet points, bolded words, etc.
Show, don’t tell - Insert a screenshot or screencast whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Put emails through your very own QA process. The first step is obvious, but can’t be overstated - proof your email. All great writing is edited, yet some people tend to send emails without re-reading them first.
Here are some additional steps for your QA checklist.
Use “If-Then” statements: Using conditional sentences such as, “if ___ happens, then ____” is a great way to clarify your message.
Avoid open ended questions: Open ended questions are better served for a chat tool or an in-person meeting. Reply-all storms are office nightmares, and ineffective for collecting information. The same goes for repetitive questions or a confusing question sequence.
Subject line: Titles are highly scrutinized in the content marketing world. Even though you’re dealing with coworkers or clients instead of customers, apply this thinking to email subject lines. As more and more emails are opened on mobile devices, it’s important that readers get the purpose of the message (and if it’s urgent or not) from glancing at the notification.
The big idea: We live in a TL;DR world. Even the most seasoned workers have a tendency to scan emails. Make sure you begin and end every email with the main point, the main request or the key takeaway.
Delegate check: Most emails are written to ask for something or assign a task. For both of these, make sure you include the who, what and when.
Automate - Something that can help with brevity and proofing is using light automation with emails. Create templates for emails that are sent regularly. You’ll save time and you don’t need to type out acronyms, time zones and other small details that add to your time spent without contributing to the meat of the email.
Automation Risks - Conversely, too much automation creates more problems than it solves. Avoid creating “alarm fatigue” where triggered email alerts lose their importance because they’re overdone. Also, repetitive email templates can irk team members, which leads into the next point.
Humanity - Don’t lose track of your personality when sending emails. Mix in compliments when making requests. University of Tokyo researchers found that praise triggers the same region of the brain that is activated when we receive cash money.
Rules/Standards - Lousy email culture might not have anything to do with writing, but instead the failure to establish protocol. Guidelines for when to use reply all, whether to reply in-line and how to deem emails urgent are a few standards that should be documented.
DocOps in Action: Create an email guide with guidance on quality writing, formatting and expectations. This will squash any internal debates and helps new team members assimilate faster. Get more ideas for documents here.