Writing Effective Emails
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
In all my years of reading about, working with, listening to, and interviewing business leaders, it won’t come as a surprise that not one has ever suggested they chose their line of work because they love email. However, almost all of them acknowledge email is a big part of how work gets done in their organization and sending/receiving email accounts for a significant portion of their work day.
Since email continues to be how work gets done in most organizations, we all need strategies that increase the chances that our emails will be opened, read, and responded to in a timely fashion.
At the most basic level, when sending an effective email, the sender has three goals. You want the recipient to:
Open the email.
Read the email.
Respond to the email.
To increase the likelihood your audience will open your emails, take the time to craft a relevant subject line. The best email subject lines have the following characteristics:
Clear: Describe the message's purpose, and when possible, include a word or phrase in brackets to help the recipient(s) know how to read the message.
Concise: Remember that only the first 30-35 characters of your subject will display on most mobile devices. Place the most important words first.
Searchable: Imagine the person you are sending the message to will need to search for the message later; use the keywords they will likely use to find it.
Avoid vague subject lines. The following subject lines are concise, but they are not clear or searchable.
You can also increase the chances your email will be opened by including a word or two within brackets at the beginning of the subject that give your reader additional cues about the message. Let's look at some examples below.
FYI: Use this abbreviation of “For Your Information” when you don’t expect or need a response.
[FYI] Server will be offline until 9pm EST
Request: Use this word to politely ask for something.
[Request] Encourage staff to attend Strategic Marketing Meetings
Action Required: This phrase let’s your audience know they need to take action on your message.
[Action Required] 9/12 at 4pm: Send Qthos deck
URGENT: Use urgent in a subject only if the message is really time sensitive, and use ALL CAPS sparingly. Moreover, if the message is really important, consider calling the person instead of sending an email.
[URGENT] Approval needed by 5pm today - Qthos Contract
These are just four examples of words you can use in brackets. You will want to adjust your approach based on the context and your relationship with the message recipient.
When your audience opens an email from you, before they read a word, they subconsciously make assumptions about the effort it will take to read it. These perceptions can impact their willingness to engage with your message.
To overcome this potential obstacle, design your email to appear as though it will not take much effort to read and respond to.
Beyond the basics of a legible typeface and appropriate font size, improve the readability of your emails by using:
These design choices increase the white space in a message, and when applied well, improve the skim value of your message. As you read the two example email messages below, consider how the design choices makes one message easier to read than the other.
Effective workplace emails surface the main point early and often include a clear call to action. Imagine you are the intended reader for Message A and observe how long it takes you to understand why you are reading.
Subject: Management Communication
I hope all is going well since we last spoke in June. I’m teaching HADM 6640: Management Communication this semester. The class consists of 20 students in the Cornell Baker Program in Real Estate. They are in their first semester of a two-year multidisciplinary program, and they have a diverse set of interests including international real estate, real estate consulting, portfolio management, private equity, and development and sustainability.
Are you interested and available to be a guest speaker for the class on Wednesday, September 8 between 1:00 PM and 2:15 PM EST via Zoom? You and I would have a 20 to 30 minute conversation about informational interviews and it would include some questions from the class.
I could ask you three or four possible questions such as: Can you tell us what you have been up to since graduating from Cornell, how did you use informational interviews during your time at Cornell, how have you used informational interviews since graduating, and can you tell us about any other skills you learned about in Management Comm that you use on your job?
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Next, read Message B. If you were the intended reader, how quickly would you know the point of the email?
Subject: Invitation to be a guest speaker on Sept. 8
I hope all is going well since we last spoke in June. Are you interested and available to be a guest speaker in one of my classes this semester? I’ve included the relevant details below.
Date: Wednesday, September 8 Time: Between 1:00 PM and 2:15 PM EST How long: 20 to 30 minutes Location: Zoom (I’ll send you a link) Topic: Informational Interviews Possible Questions
Can you tell us what you have been up to since graduating from Cornell?
How did you use informational interviews during your time at Cornell?
How have you used informational interviews since graduating?
Can you tell us about any other skills you learned about in Management Comm that you use on your job?
About the Class: HADM 6640: Management Communication consists of 20 students in the Cornell Baker Program in Real Estate. They are in their first semester of a two-year multidisciplinary program. They have a diverse set of interests including international real estate, real estate consulting, portfolio management, private equity, and development and sustainability.
Please let me know if you can help, and I’d be happy to jump on a quick call to answer any questions you have or discuss details.
Included below are a summary of features that highlight the strengths of Message B:
A clear, concise, and searchable subject line
The main idea is surfaced in the first paragraph of the email
Important details are emphasized with call out headings
A bulleted list improves the skim value of the message
Background details are included after important information is shared
The end of the message includes a clear call to action
* * * * *
If you follow the advice presented above and still don’t get a timely response, consider reading my advice about what to do when you don’t get a response to an email.