Lessons learned writing thousands of business emails to co-workers, clients and bosses (handy checklist provided at the end)
As a former management consultant, I estimate that I have written tens of thousands of emails throughout my projects. Email tends to be the communication of choice since it is widely accessible on phones. Having written emails of only a few words, and emails of large paragraphs (essays really), I have noticed which emails get responses or incite action and which ones seem to get archived or forgotten about. Although not an exact science because it also depends on the recipient and how they deal with emails, I have found the following:
1. Email or ?
The first thing to ask yourself, before drafting an email is whether or not this requires an email in the first place. Since there are so many different communication channels, identifying the right channel can help you get information or incite the receiver to take action much faster.
For example, if it is something simple that requires no more than a simple explanation or a one word response, instant messaging can be quicker. It does not require all of the formalities of email. Note that instant messaging does not necessarily mean instant response.
If you are trying to communicate something complex, and you foresee many questions and back and forth discussions, a phone call might be better. Since we (management consultants) so often default to emails, phone calls became scarce, but as I learned from a former partner, it is hard to ignore a phone call whereas it is much easier to ignore an email.
Sometimes, you have to document things at work, and you cannot just record phone calls without the other’s permission. The way around this is to have a phone call, take notes, and then send a summarized transcript highlighting key points to that person after the phone conversation.
2. Structure Emails for Understanding or Action
When I first started writing business emails, I would ramble a bit, provide some background, and then ask a question, then ramble on some more, ask another question, and then finally, ask for the receiver to take action.
Please don’t do that.
Ask yourself what you want the responder to do, before you type out your email. Is this email to provide information or an update? Does this email require a response? Do you want the receiver to do something after?
I’m sure this isn’t the only way to structure your email, but I found that when I structured the emails in a certain way, the receiver was more apt to take action.
- If the email is for the receiver’s information only, and no response or action is needed, I will either put FYI in the email subject line OR at the very start of the email after the greetings, note that this email is for information only and no response or action is needed. Putting this upfront means that the receiver(s) can safely archive this after reading.
- If the email requires a response or action, again, I will put RESPONSE REQUIRED in the email subject line and then place the response or action needed near the end, usually bold like:
RESPONSE REQUIRED BY SPECIFIC DATE:
- Depending on how close the recipient is to the subject, I may put the call to action at the beginning so that they can take action right away (and then put a ‘Background:’ section so they can read for additional context), or put the call to action at the end and explain the context first. If I want them to do something, I will put the call to action in bold:
3. Use Headings and Bullets to Break up Paragraphs
I used to joke with a former colleague that her emails were essays. As I was leaving work one day, I went to say bye and saw that she was working on a complex email. I asked her how long she had spent on it and she replied ‘hours’. I then asked why she was spending so long on the email. She said that it was important and that it was key for the receivers to understand the context and to take action by a specific deadline.
Although I did not read the body of her email, I could see that it was broken up by headings and bullets. Since I almost never write essays for emails, that day, I learned from my colleague to use headings, bullets and other formatting options to break up long walls of text.
Any time you have large paragraphs in your emails (and you will know if they are too big if you yourself take a look and do not want to read what you wrote), you can break these up. Find simple words to explain complex concepts. Only share one idea in one paragraph.
Any time you have any lists in your emails, use bullets. Even while writing on Medium, I like to find opportunities to use bullets because people enjoy reading lists.
Make it Easy on the Recipient
When I first started out in management consulting, I never realized or understood the value of time. As consultants, your hourly rate that is billed to the client is different depending on where you are in the company hierarchy. Partners charged the most, while analysts charged the least. The model can be thought of like a pyramid, where the ‘base’ or majority of the work is being performed by the consultants or senior consultants. As you move up the pyramid, less and less work (though likely more strategic) is being done by managers and senior managers.
I started out as a consultant, but whenever I drafted emails to coworkers above me or to my clients, I asked for significant amounts of time from them. “Please fill in the spreadsheet and then send it back to me” or “Please copy and paste the document into another document, format it, and then let me know the conclusion”.
But I learned that people are busy. People are often lazy. They would not respond to my emails. It got to the point where I was taken aside to receive coaching, and the advice has been something I applied to emails ever since.
Do recipients want emails so that they could do more work? I know I don’t want to. Make it easy for the recipient. What does this mean?
- If you want your boss to make a decision, provide them with all the facts and research needed in the email. Don’t ask them to click on links or read different attachments. Include it all in the email (in one place) so that they have everything they need to make the decision.
- If you want your client to approve a deliverable, provide them with a copy of the deliverable, a deadline for approval, and then information on the process that you used to create the deliverable. Did you conduct interviews? Do market research? Analyze all of their internal documents? A lot of this is anticipating the questions that they might have and proactively responding to those questions.
- If you want a colleague to help you do something that you cannot do, do everything you can up till the point where they need to take action, and then ask for their time. For example, if they have final say in the executive summary of your presentation, do not make them write the executive summary. It is much easier to write it and have them say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It is also a lot easier to work from something, however rough, then to work from nothing.
Review the Email with a Fresh Pair of Eyes
It may sound weird to you, but before sending even short (one to two sentence) emails, I would draft up the email, and then spend an extraordinary amount of time reviewing, cutting unnecessary words, and re-writing. Part of it is because I’m a perfectionist when it comes to work. The other part of it is because I never wanted to send emails that were in any way confusing or did not get the response I wanted.
Emails that do not help me get the outcome I want either warrant a follow-up in some way (which means more time spent on it) or may get passed along to others (again, spending more time explaining the email).
I saw the upfront work as a better investment of my time. If I got the e-mail close to perfect now, I would have less follow-up later.
Have you ever heard the advice that if you are angry with someone, write them a letter or email talking about all of the feelings, and how angry you are with them, and how you were hurt, and then never send it?
I take a similar approach, except I’m not angry with the people I work with. I draft up the email, and then I take a break, either go for a walk to get some water, or grab a snack. Then, with a fresh pair of eyes, I will take a look at the email again, being critical and trying to see it from the receiver’s eyes.
Checklist for Writing Better Emails
If you have made it this far, it means that you are quite interested in the subject or were interested in the checklist. Either way, here is a checklist that I created to make sure I’m writing better emails:
- Does this require an email or would another communication channel be better?
- Why am I writing this email? What do I want the receiver(s) to do?
- Is it clear what I want the receiver(s) to do? If they glanced at the email, would they know what to do and when to do it by?
- Have I done everything I possibly can to help the receiver(s) take action?
- Am I sending long walls of text or have I broken up the email into easy-to-read sections?
- Do I have informative headers describing the different sections of emails I have?
- Have I fixed all of my spelling and grammatical mistakes?
- Am I looking at the email from the receiver’s perspective?
- Have I looked at the email with a fresh pair of eyes?
- Are there conversation threads in the emails (i.e., past emails) that I need to delete before sending?
- Have I checked all the recipients to make sure that they are the right ones?
- If a new email, is the subject line clear and specific on what the email is about?