Office Hours: Email 101: 8 Rules for Writing Effective Work Emails
This post originally appeared on Medium
Effective communication is key to being successful at work, not to mention almost everything in life. And given how much communication happens electronically these days, it should come as no surprise that writing effective emails is crucial to your professional success. This is particularly true at startups, where you may receive considerable responsibility early on and be tasked with emailing external stakeholders (clients, funders, suppliers) as well as senior colleagues (your CEO) from the get-go.
So what’s an “effective” email? Simply put, an effective email is one that accomplishes what you set out to do in writing it. At the very least, it should get a response. Beyond that, it should encourage the recipient to do or earnestly consider what you’re asking them to do — whether it’s implementing your product marketing plan, engaging your company’s services, or even sitting down with you for coffee to discuss an idea. An effective email also makes a good impression on the recipient, leaving them more willing to engage with the writer and take her seriously going forward. In contrast, an ineffective email is one that is left unread or merely skimmed, elicits no response or action, and, at worst, leaves the reader with a bad impression of you.
So how do you write an effective email? Here are some guidelines.
Keep it short, simple, and sweet
I’ve heard professional communications should be written at a third-grade level. While I wouldn’t recommend that anyone write the way they did when they were 8 years old, the point of that guideline is this: keep it simple, and be direct. Don’t waste your readers’ time with extraneous information or fancy diction. Unless your manager is asking you for a detailed response about something — which should probably be communicated via a document or deck, not the body of an email (but you should ask what they prefer!) — your emails should really be only a 1–3 paragraphs long, with each paragraph no more than 2–3 lines each. The sentences themselves should be fairly short, with clear, easy-to-understand language. The longer your email is and the more esoteric your words, the less likely your message is to be read at all.
Don’t bury the lead
Don’t hide the ball, or bury the lead, as they say in the newsroom. Think about what the main purpose of your email is, and get to it within the first or second line. If it’s absolutely crucial to provide context, or if you have more than one point you’re trying to make, consider putting your main ask(s) in bold so it doesn’t get lost.
Here’s a real-world example: I was writing a major funder of VFA to (1) announce that I was moving to a new city; (2) invite him to an event; and (3) request a meeting during a week that I was planning to be in town. To make sure he got all of that info, I started off being pretty explicit in the opening.
Today I’m writing to share three things with you — an announcement (I’m moving), an invitation (to XYZ event) and a request (can we meet when I’m in town on the 20th?). I know that was a lot upfront, so more details on each are below –
Formatting is your friend
In most cases, your emails will be short and to the point. But in situations that call for more content — e.g., the weekly email I send to Fellows about what’s going on in Miami; a meeting recap for your manager or an external stakeholder; an explanation of VFA’s hiring guidelines for a prospective company partner — you should use bullet points, bold, and italics. This makes reading your message much easier, and ensures that your main points and arguments don’t get lost.
In my earlier example of the email to one of our funders, I made sure to put the key information in bold. I also included a link to the event, so when he opened the email, the three points I wanted him to notice and know popped out to him immediately.
If you’re attaching a report or deck, include some bullets in the body of the email highlighting the most important points. This will ensure that the recipient doesn’t miss the key takeaways, and may even make it more likely that she will open the actual attachment and read it.
Check your spelling and grammar
Most email platforms have built-in spelling and grammar checks. Use them. An email ridden with mistakes makes you look sloppy and may lead the reader to doubt your overall abilities. If the recipient is your boss, she may assume that you’re just as careless in other areas of your work. If the recipient is a potential client or mentor, she may be put off by your lack of attention to detail and be less likely to spend time considering your ideas or services. So spend the extra time checking your text; it’s worth it.
Master the art of the forwardable email
If I had a penny for every time I’ve explained the concept of a forwardable email to a Fellow, I’d need a new piggy bank. Building a strong network is crucial to starting and growing a company, and a key way to build a network is to leverage existing connections to build new ones. Any connection request is premised on the double opt-in: both parties being introduced should explicitly approve of the connection before the introduction is made. How do you do that? Cue in the forwardable email.
A forwardable email is an introduction request written in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the recipient to follow through. If you’re writing to person A to request an intro to person B, you should write a message to A containing the necessary context for your request. While the message is directed to A, it should be written in such a way that A can simply forward the email on to B.
I’d really appreciate if you could pass on this message to B.
B, I’m the co-founder of a food tech company and would love to discuss a potential partnership. I think your business could benefit from this partnership because of XYZ. I look forward to discussing further.
Person A will be grateful that you saved her the work of actually writing an intro request, and B will be able to immediately decide whether or not he wants to be connected.
Use common sense
Some startups have a much more casual culture than larger corporations. That doesn’t mean you should write to colleagues or managers the way that you might speak to your friends over drinks. Work emails should always have a professional, polished tone. Don’t use expletives; steer clear of comments that may be interpreted as discriminatory towards any person or group; don’t trade petty gossip or write anything that you wouldn’t want forwarded widely. Even a so-called “causal” email to a colleague should be clear, direct, respectful, and free of errors.
The Close-off: Gratitude is key
A recent study showed that closing an email with a variation of “thank you” resulted in a nearly 40% higher response rate. “Thanks in advance” was the most effective, with a 65.7% response rate, followed closely by “thanks” and “thank you” (63% and 57.9%, respectively). Compare to the average response rate among all messages (47.5%), and the response rate for “Best” (51.2%), which was the least effective among all generic sign-offs. Turns out being thankful is an effective strategy for both personal well-being and professional success.
Do unto others…
Finally, bear in mind that the effectiveness of your emails isn’t just about the message itself, but also about the kind of person and professional you are. If you speak up in meetings, take the time to build a rapport with your colleagues and clients, and follow through when others ask you for favors or introduction requests, people will be more willing to respond when you ask something of them. At work as in life, always follow the Golden Rule.