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Taking care of business

8 Tips for Writing Emails That Get Results

Mar 25 2016

Email is an indispensable communication tool for business people, from administration and sales to C-suite executives. They're less intrusive than phone calls, and are easier than arranging face-to-face meetings.

Of course, email represents work. One recent survey found that the average business person handles 122 emails per day, receiving 88 messages and sending 34.

While the vast majority of us seem to like email, we sometimes bemoan its existence. Carelessly written emails can kill relationships, breed confusion, and lead to frustration. A survey from Sendmail found that 64% of business people blame email as a cause of workplace anger and confusion. But rather than complain about email, we should be working to take advantage of its benefits while minimizing its drawbacks.

Below are 8 tips for writing more effective business emails:

1. Make sure email is the most appropriate communication channel

While email is great for updating, requesting action, and sending reminders, it's not necessarily ideal for relationship-building or expressing deep emotion.

Email lacks non-verbal cues like vocal tone of voice or facial expression, so it shouldn't be a medium for negotiating a complex agreement, apologizing when you mess up with an important client, or delivering bad news to an employee. Use the phone or go face-to-face for emotionally complex situations.

2. Choose the right tone to achieve your goals

One potential risk of email is that it leaves a paper trail. Your worst moments could be stored, retrieved, printed out and potentially used against you.

Before you write that angry email, you should assume that anything you say can and will be used against you. If you're angry, give yourself a "cooling off" period before sitting down to write.

3. Have a goal and choose the right tone to achieve it

Like any form of business communication, you need to start with a goal. Are you simply sharing information with a colleague? Trying to arrange a meeting with a sales prospect? Complaining to a parts supplier about a late delivery?

With a sales prospect, you'll want to open the door to communication, so a friendly, inviting tone makes sense. With the parts supplier, you may need to convey dissatisfaction, so the tone should be firm and lay out consequences.

4. Make the subject line count

Use the subject line to highlight the content of your message — be as specific as possible. Never forget that busy business people scan subject lines to decide which messages to open first.

Vague subject lines like "Next Week's Meeting" or "Hello and a Question" only create confusion and irritation. Instead, write "Agenda for March 15 Project X Meeting." 

5. Organize your message for easy reading

Like all good writing, email should be well-structured. If you want to share four options or make three major points, use numbers or bullet points for clarity.

Have a beginning, middle and end. Put the important information at the beginning, and then provide more details below. Clutter is an attention-killer, so keep paragraphs brief. Use boldface for key phrases. For complex emails, ask a colleague to review and provide feedback.

6. Clearly explain the action you expect

It's a classic email mistake for the sender to assume that the recipient will understand what to do after reading. Countless email recipients have read messages and found themselves asking, "So what do you want ME to do?"

What's the best and only way to get the recipient to understand what you want? Tell them what you want.

7. Proofread before hitting "send"

This is a fail-safe step that can protect you from embarrassing yourself in any number of ways.

Proofreading also lets you answer some big questions. Does my tone fit my goal? Will the recipient be able to understand me? Have I asked for the action I want taken? How's my organization, spelling and grammar? Have I said something I may later regret? Did I attach the file I mentioned? 

8. If you need more time, confirm receipt and explain next steps

This is just good etiquette. If you've opened a message and decided you'll need a few days to write a response, don't just file the message away. Email the recipient that you've received the message and will be sending a full response later.

Confirmation of receipt might take thirty seconds, but it's an email best practice that wins friends.

Like it or not, email isn't going away. By following the eight steps listed above, you'll be writing better emails. Better to take control of it rather than have it take control of you.


Boston-based Chuck Leddy has been producing engaging content since 1995. He's been a business writer and digital content provider for big-name clients like General Electric, ADP, the National Center for the Middle Market, smartShift, and many more. He's also been published in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle.


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