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Five Ways to Send a Better Email Message

We all know that person who constantly sends emails that lack a subject line. Or who sends rambling, lengthy emails that don’t seem to have a point. And there are those who send emails with open ended questions that require a game of email ping pong. You would never do any of those things – would you?

Sending a clear, concise and actionable email is the best way to get a proper response. Here are five ways to make sure your recipients open, read, and respond to your messages.

1.) Make the Subject Count

In Barbara Mento’s book Pyramid Principle she suggests that business writing should be broken down like this:

  • Situation – describe the current situation
  • Complication – describe the tension / issue in the situation
  • Question – describe the question in response to the issue / tension
  • Answer – suggest an answer to ease out or mitigate the issue / tension

Apply Minto’s principles to email messages. The first step is to craft a short, effective subject line that suggests what action the reader should take, or what information they should anticipate. Many people are reading e-mails on handheld devices, where they can only see five to eight words in the subject line—so make each word count! Use the subject line to help the reader understand why she needs to open the e-mail and what type of action or response is required of her.

2.) Get to the Point

The body of an e-mail should contain the main point of communication at the top of the missive. There is no reason to build a story at the beginning, and if there is, then e-mail may not be the right form of communication for the message. Start with the main points and action items at the beginning of the e-mail, after your greeting. Use bullet points and lists when possible to further help communicate succinctly. Follow these points with any background materials. Whenever possible send hyperlinks to supplemental or explanatory information, rather than copying and pasting information that is already available in full online.

Formatting is your friend. Bullets, numbers, underlining, bold, and italics all can help visually separate and emphasize what you want the recipient to focus on in the message. Although using all caps has long been considered “shouting” and rude in an email, judicious and careful use of all caps in a limited fashion can help call attention to very important items.

3.) Ask the Right Questions

If you are in need of answers to specific questions the easiest way to ensure you get them is to set up a survey for the email recipients. Not only will this standardize the response, but if an email is sent to multiple people then survey tools will significantly reduce administrative time compiling the information received. Free tools like Survey Monkey and Zoomerang have been around for years and make quick work of setting up and sending a survey. Another option is Google Forms (part of Google Drive f/k/a Google Docs suite – look under “create” – Forms), which is great if you primarily need to capture responses in a spreadsheet tool.

If a survey seems like overkill make sure to format your email to highlight the questions you are asking, preferably with number lists or bullets to emphasize their importance.

4.) Close the Loops

One of the most inefficient practices in e-mail communication is what Chris Brogan calls “the loop.” The loop begins when one party e-mails the other with a series of questions that require individual responses. The loop continues as the sender and his message recipients resolve their issues. For instance:

“Do you want to get together with some of the stakeholders to discuss finalizing the contract? When and where would you like to meet? Who should else should be involved?”

A more effective message would be: “I would like to call you and Ray Jones tomorrow at 1:00 to finalize the language for the attached contract. Will that work for you two?”

By supplying answers in this way, there are fewer items to negotiate in an e-mail exchange.

Similarly, email ping pong is often started when requesting a mutual meeting time from a number of attendees. If the attendees are all using Microsoft Outlook at the same firm, there are several meeting request tools built in that can help to limit the number of e-mail exchanges. Similarly, Google Apps for Business users have shared calendars and can see free/busy times to suggest a time that appears to work for everyone.

However, to schedule a meeting with multiple outside parties, consider free online tools like MeetingWizard or GatherGrid to poll attendees about their availability. These tools allow the organizer to suggest several dates and times to her e-mail invitees, who respond by clicking on the dates they are free. The tools tally the responses and notify everyone when a meeting is scheduled. They also have features that allow the organizer to query those who have not responded, and to follow-up with additional items.

5.) Size Matters

Sending attachments with e-mail is common, but unfortunately, large attachments are often rejected by recipients’ ISPs due to size constraints, and the entire e-mail is not delivered. Services like YouSendIt host attachments, so users can send a link to a supporting document, rather than sending the document itself. The basic service is free, but for a fee, the company also provides users with premium features including security, larger file size capacity, delivery receipts and more. There is a free plugin for MS Outlook that lets you configure it to automatically engage when you attach a file of a specified size to an outgoing email. Adobe has a similar feature called “Send Now”. From an open Acrobat document go to File – Attach to Email and choose “Use Adobe SendNow Online”. This requires a (free) account with the service.

Alternatively, if you are confident the recipient is fairly tech savvy, you can link to a shared file on DropBox, Google Drive, Box or other online file storage/sharing site.

Conclusion

In some cases email may not be the best method to deliver information. If there are multiple topics that need to be discussed, if there is a need to convey unpleasant and difficult news, or if you need to gauge the reaction of the other parties then send an email to set up a time to discuss the matter via phone, web conference, or other synchronous means of communication.

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Comments

  1. One of my biggest Pet Peeves is people who REPLY rather than FORWARD when attachments are within an email string. I’m not sure if this is a universal problem with email programs or just OUTLOOK. Having to piece together lost attachments takes time and you know the rest!

    Also, unless the topic has drastically changed, it is critical for those in a string to keep all emails together rather than start a new string.

    Basic grammar matters.

    In incorrectly placed comma can change the entire meaning of what is probably an already confusing email.
    “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!”

  2. That presumes the writer is familiar with the existence of grammar (except as a dialectical pronunciation of “Grandma”), let alone punctuation marks.

  3. Susan Anderson Behn

    Interesting that you are still using Outlook.
    It was disabled on our system in 2006 at the request of our IT specialist, since it was considered to make our whole system more vulnerable.

    Currently we have everyone using Office 2010, the version that DOES NOT HAVE OUTLOOK….at a saving of about $60 per unit.

    It is impossible to use if some of your contacts dont have it…although they get a first email from the Outlook program, if the initiator then sends a change, or a document through Outlook to a group, it only goes to those using the Outlook program, not to others who received the first message.