13 May 2021 Five Strategies for Writing Effective Emails
In a recent article titled Slow Down and Write Better Emails, Erica Dhawan encourages us to spend more time crafting conscientious emails. I couldn’t agree more: in our recent migration to the as-brief-as-possible written word, we seem to have left common sense out of our communication.
While we may agree on these points, it can be daunting to know how to change your email habits. In this context, I wanted to build on Dhawan’s suggestions by sharing five simple strategies for making your email communications more personalized, humane, and effective.
1. Give your email greetings a little TLC (tender, love, and care).
When I moved to Madrid from Florida three years ago, I was struck by how insulated I’d become. I’d gotten so used to living an accelerated pace of life that I’d reduced non-essential conversation to a minimum. I’d walk by someone on the street and not even see them, or run into a store and launch right into a question about what I needed. In Madrid, this kind of behavior simply doesn’t fly. I was often met with confused looks and a general unwillingness to comply. Here in Spain, verbal communication still begins with a “Buenas” followed by some notes on the weather, a detailed description of the delicious pincho you had for lunch, and a lengthy conversation about how your kids are doing at school.
I have to admit that at first, these long exchanges made me feel nervous and even more pressed for time. As I slowly adjusted, however, a strange thing happened: I began to enjoy the small talk. Having always been a “put-my-headphones-on-the-plane-to-avoid-conversation” type of person, I was surprised to realize how much joy I could get from a simple exchange. Now, I understand that my everyday interactions with the grocer, baker, and occasional parent at school pick-up are actually the fabric that makes up my everyday life.
We can apply a similar philosophy to emails. Start your email on a personalized and positive note. Address people by their name. Before launching into business, add a sentence thanking them for a task they’ve completed, congratulating them on a recent accomplishment, or simply offering good wishes. If you’re engaged in an active email conversation, there’s obviously no need to keep saying hello. But if a few days have passed since the last exchange, take the time to greet your recipient again, the same way you’d say hello to someone you haven’t seen in a couple of days.
The same goes for endings. Emails today tend to end abruptly with the automated signature at the bottom. If “Regards” seems too formal try “Best,” “Warmly,” or “With gratitude.”
At the beginning, these changes will take a few extra seconds of your time. Pretty soon, they’ll become an integral part of your life, just like intricate food descriptions have become part of mine.
2. Use clear and detailed language.
When we write, we have a tendency to think that the recipient knows exactly what we’re trying to say. I see this over and over again when students craft college essays: they assume the admissions person knows absolutely everything about them. The reality is, the person reading your college essay has probably spent all morning reading dozens of other personal stories. You have to assume they know very little about you.
The same goes for email. The fact that you’ve been toiling over a specific project doesn’t mean your email recipient is in the same mental state as you. They’re likely working on an entirely different task. The more clear and detailed your language, the easier it will be for them to understand your message.
How do you write clear and effective emails? In writing, it often takes several drafts to get to the heart of your story. The same approach should be used when writing an email. Write a first draft and read it over. Are you getting your point across clearly? Have you told the whole story? If the answer is no, then keep writing.
Once you’ve made your point, spend some time editing. Read your email again. Is there content that’s no longer essential? If it took a bit of writing to get to your central argument, the answer to this question is most likely yes. Tangents and superfluous information are generally not good qualities in an email. The idea is to get to the point clearly and precisely.
Finally, if the purpose of your email is to ask your recipient to do something, make sure you’re specific about your needs. Otherwise, you’ll both spend valuable time sending emails back and forth trying to clarify what you’re looking for.
3. When replying to an email, summarize the content you’re responding to in one or two lines.
As Dhawan mentions in her article, we have a tendency to skim-read emails. We read what we want to read, often missing vital information or misinterpreting what’s on the page.
One way to prevent yourself from doing this is to spend the first half of your email response summarizing the content you’re replying to. This method will allow you to see whether you’ve captured the key information. Writing a summary also helps you come up with a more tailored response. It shows the recipient that you’ve taken some time to understand what they’re communicating. While time-consuming at first, this method will improve your comprehension skills and ultimately make your exchanges more efficient.
If you’re unable to quickly summarize what’s being communicated, then a phone call is the best way to proceed.
4. Try the sandwich method.
I first learned this approach in therapy, as I was learning to voice my needs. People are much more willing to work with you if you show some gratitude for who they are and what they’ve done for you. After your personalized greeting, say something positive about a recent thing they’ve done for you (this is the bottom part of the bun). Next, make your clear and specific request (the meat). Finally, thank them in advance for their help and continued support (top bun).
You’ll be surprised how responsive people are when you spend a little bit of time showing appreciation for their help and talent.
5. Go out of your way to sound friendly.
There’s a funny thing that happens when we communicate through the written word.
When we write, we assume people know how we’re feeling. We don’t go out of our way to sound friendly because we assume people know we have good intentions. And then, when we read, we impose our feelings upon what we’re reading. We interpret other people’s words through the filter of our own circumstances and mood.
Here’s my advice: don’t leave your tone up to interpretation. With a few positive words, you can shift the entire dynamic of an email conversation, a project, even a relationship.
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