By Tessa Matson

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Emails People Will Actually Read


If your emails aren’t getting any attention, then you probably aren’t either. Email is the most common form of communication in the workplace. In fact, research shows that the average person sends and receives 125 emails every day! With a full inbox, text messages, and social media notifications to compete with, it’s important to keep your […]

If your emails aren’t getting any attention, then you probably aren’t either.

Email is the most common form of communication in the workplace. In fact, research shows that the average person sends and receives 125 emails every day!

With a full inbox, text messages, and social media notifications to compete with, it’s important to keep your email relevant, clear and concise, and easy to read. Otherwise, you might as well not be sending any emails at all.

The best way to write an email that others would want to read is to put yourself in their shoes. As a reader, what are you most likely to open and respond to?

In this post, we want to share with you our steps for writing an email that will get you the replies that you are looking for. Email might feel like a small thing, but we all spend more time on email every day than we realize. Make sure you’re not wasting your time.

Know your audience

Understanding your target recipient and crafting a message that is appropriate and relevant will drastically increase the odds that your email is read. Plus, it’s just good manners.

The first questions to ask yourself:

  • What are your reader’s expectations of this email? Some people regard email as a quick and dirty way to say hello, while others write email like they would a formal letter. While it might be ok to use slang, emoticons, or other shortcuts when sending messages to family and close friends, when communicating with your boss, your professor, or a stranger, be respectful and err on the side of formality.
  • What assumptions does your reader hold? Is your reader familiar with the subject matter of your message? If you were to say, “Jennifer put me on the project,” would your reader understand? In this case, you’re making the assumption that your reader knows who Jennifer is and which project she assigned you to. To avoid confusion, opt for information-rich sentences.
  • Is this information important to your reader? While it is important to keep all team members in the loop about the going-ons of the business (this kind of transparency builds trust!), not everyone needs to know everything? Be selective about who you email to make sure you’re only reaching out to people who will benefit from your message.

Now put yourself in your reader’s shoes. How will your reader interpret the message you are sending? Virtual communication means we lose the ability to glean visual feedback from a person’s expression or body cues. This means that your message needs to be easy to interpret.

Consider:

  • Tone. Is it polite and respectful, or abrupt and offhand? (Don’t think about how YOU would read it; think about how this person you are writing to will read it. They might be more sensitive than you.) Are you using simple English? Messages with technical lingo may be difficult for some to understand and could come off as condescending.
  • Style. We all have preferences when it comes to sharing information. Awareness of your communication style is the first step to becoming a strong communicator. The next step is sensitivity to others who may prefer a different style of communication. This helps you (1) write in a tone your reader will understand and (2) prevent misinterpreting someone else’s email by mistake.
  • Punctuation. Although this may seem obvious, ALWAYS use proper punctuation. Even if you are writing an informal email filled with slang and acronyms, proper punctuation will help to prevent miscommunication. Let’s look at a humorous example of the same sentence with two very different meanings: “Let’s eat Grandpa!” or “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”. Without that comma, the meaning of this sentence becomes very different.

Finally, before writing an email, ask yourself if email is the best medium for communicating your message. The University of Carolina, Chapel Hill outlines some good tips on when and when not to use email:

When to use email:

  • When someone is hard to reach. You need to get in touch with someone who you do not see regularly, is hard to reach by telephone or lives in another country.
  • When you do not require a time-sensitive response. Remember, just because an email can be delivered instantaneously does not mean the recipient will be able to reply immediately.
  • When you need to send an electronic file.
  • When emailing a group. You need to distribute information quickly to a lot of people (like a memo or calendar of events). Email is great for keeping everyone in the loop.
  • You need a written record. Email can be used for storing important information contained in messages. It can be especially useful for referring back to what someone said in an earlier message.

When to not use email:

  • Your message is long and complicated. If you are asking for more than a simple response, try to schedule a phone or face-to-face meeting instead. Try to abide by the ‘3-email rule.’ This is a principle described by Phil Simmons, author of Message Not Received. To put it simply, if your email conversation runs over three emails, schedule a meeting to discuss this topic in greater depth. While I recognize that this isn’t always feasible, the ‘3-email rule’ is a good goal to aim for.
  • Information is highly confidential. Remember email is NEVER private. Your message could be forwarded on to other people without your knowledge. And a backup copy of your email is always stored on the server where it can be retrieved by interested parties, even when you have deleted the message and think it’s gone forever.
  • Your message is emotionally charged or the tone could be easily misconstrued. Remember, put yourself in your reader’s shoes.

Identify your desired outcome

Now that you have:

  • established that email is the best way of corresponding with your chosen recipient(s)
  • taken some time to reflect on how they will receive your message

it’s time to focus more closely on what it is you want to achieve by sending this email. Let’s take a look at 4 possible types of emails you could send:

Self-fulfilling email. You are simply passing on a message, a compliment, or a document. In this case no reply is necessary. Let your reader know this! Your reader will be grateful, and it will save you the trouble of reading an unnecessary thank you reply.

Inquiries. You need a reply. The reply might be an answer to your question or specific advice regarding your problem. Be specific about what you need. Please let me know the headcount for the donor banquet by June 5th” is much more clear than “When you get a chance, would you tell me how many people think they will make it to the donor banquet?” Bonus points if you can include the date by which you need a response!

If you find that you have unrelated questions, consider sending separate emails for each question. An email loaded with ten questions might seem daunting to the reader. These types of emails are read and often put aside to be dealt with later, only to be buried by new messages filing the inbox. You are much more likely to get a response if you limit your email to one question.

Open-ended dialog. You want to keep the communication lines open, for the purpose of some future result or benefit. These type of emails should be used few and far between in the workplace. If you have an open-ended question that has turned into a longer conversation, consider arranging a phone or face-to-face meeting to discuss this issue. This is particularly true if you are hashing out details with one or two people on a group message thread that includes other people.

Action emails. The goal is not the reply, but some sort of action on the part of the recipient. For example, if you need someone to set up a meeting or send you a document.

When asking for a favor, science suggests that you’ll be more successful if you provide a reason. In a study performed by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, people were more willing to comply with a request when the person making the request used the word ‘because’. Even when the request made little sense (i.e., “May I use the Xerox machine [first] because I need to make a copy?”), nearly all (93%) of people complied. In contrast, only 60% of people allowed the person making the request to skip in line when he simply asked, “May I use the Xerox machine?”

Bottom line: If you are going to ask a favor, be sure to use the work ‘because’ because it will give the person a reason to fulfill the favor. (See what I did there?)

Identify which type of email best suits your purpose and make sure your desired outcome is clear.

Keep your message clear and concise

Unlike telling a joke, you should always write your emails starting with the punchline. Get the most important part of your message out there first, as early as possible. It should fit in the first 2-3 lines of a mobile phone since 30% of email recipients now read exclusively on a mobile device.

If your reader only reads one thing, what do you want them to know? By getting to the most important part first, you practically guarantee that your message gets across.

Keep your message short and simple whenever possible. Research shows that shorter emails result in quicker response time, which means higher productivity!

To do this, use clear and concise language. Avoid inundating your readers with unnecessary data—they can always ask for clarifying details later. If you’re like me—someone with a technical background who likes knowing all the details—paring down your data to a simple take-home message can be tough. Read Email Tips for Developers (or other wordy people) for more help on this.

Personalize when appropriate

Now that you have crafted a clear and concise message, go ahead and personalize your email if sending it to an individual. Assuming you have a relationship with the recipient of this email, include personal remarks that remind the reader that you are an actual human being too.

For example, I might begin an email like this:

Hi Abby,

Glad to hear the developer conference went smoothly. Can’t wait to hear more about it at lunch!

I just wanted to… [stated purpose here]

Or I might finish an email like this:

… [action requested].

By the way, I loved meeting little Sarah when she visited you at the office yesterday. I can’t believe how big she is already!

All the best,

Tessa

Adding a personal touch to your email, like recounting details of the person’s life or including their name, triggers activation in parts of the brain responsible for long-term memory. A person is more likely to remember and focus selectively on your message.

Write an informative subject line

Subject lines are like headlines for your email. They need to grab the reader’s attention while conveying the main point of your message.

Nothing is worse than a carelessly written subject line. Imagine receiving an email titled, “Meeting” or “Info.” The subject line is generic. It tells you nothing about the content of the message. Worst-case scenario? The reader deletes this email because it looks like an automated mass email that may not apply to them.

In order to ensure that people read my emails, I break the subject line into 3 pieces:  the action, the topic, and the deadline (if any). So for example, “Reply needed: Lunch orders for tomorrow before 5 PM today.” By adding a date or deadline, I am helping the reader understand the urgency to reply. This gives my reader the information they need to prioritize my email correctly.

Another tool you can use to make sure your emails aren’t overlooked is to add keywords. Use a preface like, “Urgent:”, “Action required:” or “Response needed:”. Added to the front of a subject line, it will make your email stand out.

Disclaimer: use these only when appropriate. Don’t title a subject line, “URGENT” when the content of the message is about meeting up for happy hour after work. While you might think it’s hilarious, you risk ticking others off or de-valuing future urgent messages.

Design the message to be skimmed

No one wants to read a huge block of text. After staring at a screen all day, your eyes are tired. Make your emails are easy on the eyes by chunking text, using bullet points and adding color.

Chunking. You may not be an artist, but you can learn to use white space like one. When I say white space, I’m referring to the unoccupied space that surrounds the text. It directs your eye to readable components in a narrative-like sequence. By chunking important material into manageable pieces, you are inevitably creating white space. This makes it super easy for your reader to skim the message quickly.

A reader easily digests small chunks of information. The more monotonous text looks, the less likely it will hold a reader’s attention. Try using one-line “chunks” to really bring attention to an important piece of information.

Bullets. Lists are your new best friend. Lists are easy to scan, allowing readers to process lots of information quickly. If your idea can be put into list form, do it!

Color, bold, italics, etc. Emphasize keywords using color, underlining, italics, or bold font. Use these tools to attract attention to critical information such as due dates. But be careful not to overuse them. Writing your whole message in bold font might suggest that you are shouting at the reader. Too much color can make it hard for the reader to discern important information. And avoid using bright colors, like yellow, that might be hard to read.

If you are not used to formatting as you write, draft your message as you normally would. Then go back and add paragraphs, move things into lists, or add bold headings. If you’re writing a particularly important email, try outlining it first. Outlining can help you thoroughly think through the way you want to communicate your message.

One last thing to keep in mind when you’re formatting your email is that three is the magic number.

That is to say that our brains processes information grouped in threes particularly well (i.e., three paragraphs, three options for meeting times, or three describing adjectives). Grouping items in three is particularly important when presenting someone with choices. More than three choices can lead confusion and disinterest.

Avoid sloppy emailing

Messy, misspelled emails make you look foolish (at best) or unprofessional (at worst). Always re-read messages before you send them. Use proper grammar, spelling, capitalization and punctuation. Try reading your draft out loud to help you catch mistakes or awkward phrasing.

Other elements to double-check:

Greetings and sign-offs

Don’t start your email with the body of your message. Give some thought as to who you’re writing to and address it appropriately.

“Dear,” “Hello,” and “Hi” are all appropriate greetings.

Don’t know the person well? Opt for a more traditional greeting, using a title and his or her full or last name (i.e., “Dear Dr. Young”). Make sure you spell the name correctly!

Don’t know the person at all? Do your homework. If you are applying for a job, you can usually figure out the name of the hiring manager with some sleuthing online. Still stumped? Address the message to their position title (i.e., “Dear Hiring Manager”), or use something generic (i.e. “To whom it may concern”).

When addressing a group of people you don’t know well, go formal (i.e., “Dear members of the selection committee”). If you are sending an email to close co-workers, a casual greeting will work (i.e., “Hello everyone”).

For closing, something brief but friendly is best: “Thank you,” “Best,” “Regards,”

In a very formal message, use the kind of closing you might see in a business letter: “Sincerely,” “Respectfully yours,”

Your signature

Your signature does not have to be fancy. In fact, a full signature can lead to long email trails if you include it with every reply (Tip: You can customize a ‘full’ and ‘reply’ signature to prevent this). However, it’s good practice to include three pieces of information in your first email to someone.

  • Your name
  • Your title
  • How to contact you. This could be your address if you have a brick-and-mortar office, your cell number if you take business calls, or your website.

You can combine all of these into your signature if it seems appropriate to do so, but remember, you don’t want to distract your reader from the content of your message.

Attachments

I avoid sending attachments when possible. Readers are sometimes wary to open attachments because they could contain viruses or they could not be compatible with programs installed on their computer. Instead, I opt to include as much information as possible in the body of my email or in a hyperlink. This practice usually results in cleaner looking emails.

If I do need to send an attachment (i.e., a longer letter or spreadsheet), I always convert my documents to the .PDF format. This format is compatible on almost all computers and on every mobile device. That way, my reader can open the attachment on his or her phone without having to download a strange piece of software.

A better idea? Try using an online sharing program like Google Drive or Dropbox. This is especially useful with large documents.

Addressing the email

For most of us, this is the first thing we do when writing an email. I challenge you to refrain from entering in anyone’s email address until after you have finished drafting and proofreading your message. Why? Let me give you a scenario:

You are writing an email to your co-worker, Kathy. As you start typing the first few letters of her name into the address line, your address book conveniently populates her address into the box. While you’re typing the content of your message, you accidentally hit the send key! Then, you realize that your unfinished, error-ridden email didn’t even make it to it’s intended recipient. Instead, it was sent to your boss, who also happens to be named Kathy. Oops!

In our tech-savvy world, we’ve become so accustomed to sending virtual messages, that we often hit the send key without thinking. Avoid embarrassment by waiting until the last minute to address it. Then double-check the address you’ve entered to make sure it is correct.

On a similar note, use prudence when sending an email to more than one person. Remember:

    • CC (carbon copy) – This can be a convenient way of conveying the same message to multiple people. It can also be used effectively when you want to hold individuals accountable. Your reader may feel more pressure to respond quickly if he or she knows that others will do the same. Just remember the recipient of a Cc’ed email can see the addresses of everyone who has been addressed.
    • BCC (blind carbon copy) – Blind copying emails can be used to send a message to a group of people while keeping each recipient’s address hidden. Your reader will only see his or her own address in the ‘To:’ field. Note that this method does not always guarantee confidentiality.  If a reader hits ‘reply all’ he may expose himself to the rest of the email recipients.

Don’t assume privacy

This brings us to our obligatory disclaimer that no email is never completely private. Think about all the virtual communication scandals involving political and celebrity figures that occurred in just the last year. It’s not hard to do.

Do yourself a favor and NEVER send an email with information you wouldn’t want to be made public. A private message can easily be forwarded to unintended recipients. What’s more, even deleted email can be retrieved from the server.

Be a good recipient

You can’t expect other people to value your time if you don’t value theirs. How do you become a good recipient of email? Start by becoming diligent responder when an email response is warranted. This is what you would want, and it’s the best way to let people know you hear them loud and clear.

Next, be forgiving of mistakes. Clearly, there is a lot to take into consideration when writing an awesome email. Not everyone will adhere to these rules. And even the best of us make mistakes from time to time. Instead of getting annoyed when you get a bad email, focus on sending a reply that is extra clear and valuable.

Finally, keep practicing! We all send a lot of email, so you have lots of opportunity to make your communication great.

Communication is one of the biggest keys to success, and like it or not, email is one of the biggest ways we communicate today. When you become great at it, you won’t be able to help but feel the rewards of being a looped-in, outstanding communicator.