Email has to change.
It’s an outdated system with a terrible track record of effectiveness. It’s difficult to share documents, the system is built around individuals (not projects), and the knowledge buried within inboxes can be impossible to recover. Some companies have eliminated email from their work structure.
Yet email often seems to define our days, taking up as much as 25 percent of the workday. We’re stuck with it as long as we have to communicate with other people who use email (i.e., pretty much everyone).
Plenty of tricks can make email more efficient. You can limit your emailing to certain hours, chase the dream of inbox zero with apps like Mailbox, and use email hacks to ensure no message slips through the cracks.
But the best way to wrangle email starts with you.
In today’s world of fractured digital communication, strong writing is an essential skill, no matter your job title. By writing better emails, you can improve your bottom line, whether it’s for your employer or your own personal gain.
By following these 10 tips, you can avoid common email mistakes and learn to write effectively.
1. Send emails when you don’t need something.
The best time to build any relationship is before you need something. A friend sends five notes each Sunday night to check in with people he likes, admires, or thinks of. One of his emails might look like this:
Hey, saw some great news about you—just wanted to say congratulations! I love watching what you’re up to through my various news feeds, and I wanted to send a note to say I hope you’re doing well.
Email doesn’t have to be a reflexive tool; use it to start conversations. It’s great for reaching out to folks and for expressing gratitude.
2. Remember there’s a person receiving your email.
You wouldn’t walk into a friend’s house for dinner and bark out a command. The same is true for email. Niceties can go a long way.
Pleasantries aren’t dated constructs; they’re valuable warm-up phrases for effective communication. Start your messages warmly, comment on your recipients’ latest achievements, and wish them well:
Hope all is well in your corner of the world! If Facebook’s telling me the scoop, it looks like you had an eventful month…
3. Send at the right time.
Consider the timing of the message, and whether the recipient must receive the email immediately. Just because you’ve written your message doesn’t mean you have to send it right away. Now might not be the best time (especially if it’s the middle of the night.)
Evaluate whether the message is urgent. Fire off the messages that need immediate replies, and consider holding off on others until morning.
Unless it’s truly an emergency or crunch time (like weekend launches, for example), it’s unlikely someone has to see your email the moment you finish writing it. Plus, sending emails on weekends or late at night shows co-workers you’re available to work during off hours.
Why not protect your own time and space and set up healthy boundaries?
4. Delete people from the “to” field.
Sending to more recipients doesn’t mean you’ll receive more replies.
It’s like the boy who cried wolf. The more emails you send, the less seriously your co-workers will take you. By developing a reputation for blasting messages to everyone in the office, whether the message is relevant to them or not, you erode your chances that anyone will actually open your emails.
The best email is one sent to a specific target with a desired outcome.
5. Remember to send updates and interim messages.
Waiting for delivery on a project can seem interminable. If there’s a long delay in sending a highly anticipated item or you’ve experienced a few hiccups, send a one-line email to update people on the project’s status.
6. Don’t forget to ask for what you want.
It’s surprising how many emails are difficult to decipher because the sender has omitted the most important part: their call to action, or what they want from you.
Before writing your message, think about the action or outcome that you want from people. What will they do upon receipt of your message? Write your desired outcome first—the question you want answered or the action you want taken—then elaborate.
7. Write less, not more.
As a rule, the shorter, the better. Get to your point and your request. Include only those details that provide context and understanding. By writing less, you say more.
After you’ve written your post or essay, delete the first and last paragraph. Many writers ramble in introductions and conclusions. Try deleting entire sentences and paragraphs to make your email punchy.
8. Take email breaks.
You could probably spend your whole day in Outlook or Gmail simply pushing emails around. Shut down it down for a bit. Take breaks, dive into bigger projects, and give space to your team and clients to take their own action.
9. Listen to the voice of the sender.
In person, we modify our behavior based on whom we’re talking to. You can do the same for email. Match your email-writing style to that of the recipient, if you can.
10. Study the pros.
I save essays from my favorite writers and print them, then highlight them to study how people write effectively. The words you enjoy the most have patterns and clues to great writing.
Keep in mind that email is an important vehicle for getting things done. A well-written email can get you fast answers, motivate people to take action, or clarify something that’s standing in the way of your project’s success.
Here are a few exercises to help you become more conscious of what does and doesn’t work in emails:
Examine the subject lines in your inbox
Which five emails did you open first today? What did the headlines say? Jot those down. Circle words that felt great. Were they long or short? What made you want to click? Take one you like and find a way to do something similar for your business.
Start with a bang
Use powerful intros. Skim five opening paragraphs of The New York Times with a highlighter and see what you like about each one. Convert it to your own style.
End with a boom
Wrap up emails with a punchy statement, a leading question, or a call to action. If you’ve deleted your first and last paragraphs, perhaps there was a sticky statement you wanted to keep. Distilling that idea into one sentence could do the trick.
Instead of allowing email to manage your day, figure out better ways to take charge. By writing clearly and articulating what you want, thinking through when you’ll send it and considering who will get your messages, you can make your life easier and workday more efficient.
Sarah Kathleen Peck is a writer, designer/entrepreneur and teacher who runs workshops and online courses on creating powerful communication for yourself, your brand or your company. A version of this article originally appeared on Brazen Careerist.
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