There’s a fair few things I’ve learned over the years out in the rough real world. Nobody seems to have a working knowledge of basic traffic laws the moment they have a license in hand. After a certain age, going without specific foods can be considered a hobby. And, generally speaking, people are really bad at writing emails. Like, painfully bad. Over the years, I’ve witnessed some doozies. From over zealous “Reply All” users to simple task management turning into a tome rivaling Moby Dick. Not to mention the spelling errors, grammatical nightmares, and misinformation. Thinking this would be a fairly easy way to stand out at any job, I took it upon myself a few years back to take email writing seriously. Here’s the method to my madness…
1. Make the subject line work for the reader. I would wager a guess that most email recipients treat their inboxes pretty similarly. After receiving an email you either deal with it’s contents immediately OR you read/skim and let it hang out in your inbox until the stars align and you feel like responding and/or performing the tasks requested therein. I would say most of us treat our incoming messages as a sort of “To Do” list. So, keep this in mind when typing that dreaded subject line. If an email titled Hey there is hanging out in your boss’ inbox, chances are every time they glance over the days messages they won’t associate a response or action with this item. However, a message called Mockups needed for next step will alert them to what you are after AND that it’s time sensitive.
These more specific subject lines will also come in handy if the reader sorts their messages into folders after responding/completing. They will be super easy to locate after the fact!
There may be instances where you need to send a cold email. Subject lines are still important for these first impression correspondences! Here are a few possibilities I’ve found successful…
a. Question concerning [name of their company/business/blog/etc]
b. Trying to connect
c. Quick request
d. Introduction: [Your Name and Company]
2. Keep the message organized, concise, and free from errors. One of the first things we learn about writing is that any good piece should have a beginning, middle, and end. So, why does this go out the window when we log in to Gmail? There are certainly instances where it’s appropriate to shoot off a quick sentence but the majority of the time, your emails should consist of three parts…
Beginning – This is where you provide a greeting and offer some pleasantries. I know you may think this step is a waste of your time but offering a quick “It was so good to see you at the softball game last weekend,” is a great reminder to your reader that you’re a human and not just an annoying pop-up that’s going to add a bullet to their “To do” list. We’re way more likely to extend favors gladly to a friendly, ACTUAL person. This is also where you can set up the nature of your email and provide some context.
Middle – The real point to your message comes here. Make sure, no matter the nature, that you’re providing your recipient with all the information they are going to need to respond, carry out a task, or follow through with a favor. If the message is just a decision provide ample reasoning, if it’s informational provide plenty of context.
End – Here’s where you can clarify next steps and any action items. Provide any important dates or deadlines. Finish everything off with a bit of thanks and, of course, a signature.
Now, don’t get it twisted. Just because your email has three parts doesn’t mean it needs to be super long. As with subject lines, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Have you ever opened a particularly lengthy email and felt immediately annoyed, even before you started reading? Don’t be that guy. Just get to the point. And then, before you hit send, for the love of GOD read what you’ve written. It will only take a few seconds and you’ll save yourself the embarrassment of any errors.
3. Be conspicuous. Beating around the bush is annoying. Don’t leave it to the person opening up your email to figure out what it is you want or why you need their help. If you’re sending a cold email because you want to pick the brain’s of someone successful in your dream field, tell them why you admire them! Don’t be shy with flattery. They won’t know why the meeting is important to you unless you tell them!! If you’re sending a request for a favor or asking for anything at ALL….just come right out and ask for it. Of course there are times when asking for someone’s help (or money or expertise) can be nerve wracking. But the VERY worst that can happen is they’ll say no. (And then you can move on. And ask the next person.)
4. Include a clear timeline. Dates, times, deadlines, and time-frames are important pieces of info. Your hope is that they’ll get added to the reader’s diary, planner or Google calendar. Double check for accuracy and set them apart where need be. Safeguard yourself against email skimmers and BOLD if you feel it necessary. There’s no shame in the bold game, my friends. We’re visual people. And it’s definitely no more obnoxious than your co-worker who includes smiley emojis after every sentence.
5. Know when to respond. Finally, for the sanity of all you work with, think twice before responding. If you find yourself in the midst of a mass email which turns into an email THREAD, ask yourself who needs to actually READ your response. Let’s turn to an example. If you, and your entire company, receive an email from a co-worker about an upcoming meeting, and you want to respond–
“Thanks for organizing this meeting!”
Only the original sender needs to read that message. If you want to respond–
“I’ll be administering a short survey at this meeting so please come prepared to answer a few questions on staff communication practices.”
Go ahead…you can hit REPLY ALL! BUT if you want to write the following to your beloved work bestie–
“These meetings are the literal worst!!!! What a waste of time!!!! I HATE THIS JOB!”
You better TRIPLE check that “Send To” box.
Now, enjoy this hilarious video about what our workplace emails would look like if they were, in fact, real life. Let’s try to do better, shall we?
What tips do YOU have for professional emails? What irks you the most? Would you be more likely to respond to or help a person who followed the guidelines above? Let me know in the comments below!