Estimated reading time: 8 mins
The Internet has brought unprecedented access to information, and to each other. Using email, we are now able to contact friends, family and colleagues worldwide at the same time and from the same place, at low cost and effort. The trouble is, (for the same reasons) other people can contact us, often unsolicited. Spam is at the extreme of this, but many of us in our profession may receive emails from unknown colleagues, prospecting suppliers, and generally irrelevant sources.
For most people, sorting out what is relevant or not takes up a lot of time and patience. This has become such a problem for some that they have hidden their email addresses, or employed such stringent rules on email filters that only very specific messages get through – the rest goes into the trash. The estimated global productivity loss created by errant email communication is $120Bn USD per annum (at 2006) and is growing.
It’s important to consider what criteria most people apply to their inbox when their finger is poised over the trash-can. For example:
- Lewd or inappropriate content
- Consideration of status (e.g. grade, rank, etc)
- Lengthy messages which will require a lot of time to read
- Technical content and jargon
- Badly formatted text that lacks aestheticism
So what can we do to make sure that our emails are considered relevant and opened?
Based on research and consultation with senior managers, I have compiled some guidelines to apply to your messages to boost your chances of it being read and responded to.
At the highest level, and perhaps obviously (but you’d be surprised how often broken) the rule of thumb is to be respectful, clear, concise and direct. This should apply to all messages, regardless of who will receive it and what subject the message is about.
Bringing in Quality:
The pervasiveness of email means it is used for a variety of purposes, and is commonly used for both business and personal communication. It is because of this, perhaps, that the formality of messages has dropped when conveyed by email. In days before email, most messages (commonly ‘memos’) were well structured and followed the rules of thumb as above with added professionalism. The quality of the memo was generally higher than its modern counterparts.
The first of our guidelines is to think of your email message as a memo. Consider your email as a communication that can be shared to a wide audience, and outside of your organization. Would you put it in a letter-headed envelope and post to the recipient(s)? If not, then you should really think again about the content. In most cases, the email breaks the rules of thumb (i.e. its too long or is written in ‘code’ rather than being to the point). Ideally, the message should be brief and constrained to a couple of sentences or paragraphs.
Your entry point – The Subject Line:
The subject line is typically the point of entry for your email. Unless a preview pane is being used, most messages are selected for reading or discarding with the information presented here. You should write a succinct, descriptive subject line that has the best chance of enticing the recipient to read on, and also you want to ensure the message isn’t filtered out by an automated program such as a spam filter. A tip that research has shown to be successful is to provide a prefix category to the subject line, informing the recipient of your intended response, or perhaps is relevant to a particular subject or domain. For example, prefixing ‘For Approval:’ to your subject line shows the recipient you wish them to consider the subject as something they need to consider and approve. Repetitive use of categorized prefixes (if used appropriately) will generate trust that your messages are relevant to the recipient.
The subject line should be also succinct and if at all possible personalized and specific to the recipient. The message should be instantly registered by the recipient as deliberately intended for them. For example, rather than writing ‘Can we discuss?’ you might instead write ‘Can we discuss your ideas for cost reduction?’
The Email Body:
The email body is the content of your message. It should be structured so that it flows logically and helps the recipient understand the point of your message.
You should start by addressing the person politely and respectfully, using their name and title if appropriate. A person’s title can be important to them (such as those relating to academic status or religious salutation), so you should use it in caution, particularly if this is your first contact with the person. Only later may it be appropriate to relax your address if given permission.
It is inappropriate to use only a short address such as ‘Hi.’ This can be perceived as a show of disrespect, and it would be a shame to risk your message being discarded at this point!
You should then be clear and to the point why you have contacted the recipient. If your message is rich in content then you should summarize it first in as few sentences as possible. This will ensure that the reader can understand the scope of the message and register interest without them having to trawl the entire message.
You may choose at this point to say who you are and how you obtained the recipients name and email address. If you obtained it though a mutual contact, mention them at this point; this is more likely to add credibility to your message. Similarly, if you share a common affiliation (e.g. membership to a professional society) or common interest (e.g. literature) then make a brief note of it.
Now an important point in the message. If you are asking the recipient for help, advice or information, you should state your current status on the subject matter. The recipient does not want to feel lumped with a problem they may feel you can adequately solve yourself. For example, if you are asking a superior for help in supporting an initiative outside of their sphere of influence, tell them what you have done so far to garner support, and why you feel the recipient’s support will result in success. Be cautious though not to elaborate too much on the background.
At the end of the message and if necessary, restate what you are requesting of the recipient. There are some don’ts to consider here. You should help the recipient put as little effort in as possible to fully meet your request – doing the opposite is likely going to consign the message to the trashcan:
Ask the recipient open-ended questions to specific requests, e.g. ‘Any comments?’ Instead write ‘Do you accept this point?’
Conversely, don’t ask the recipient a closed-ended question if you require a full answer, e.g. ‘Can I get this information?’ Instead write ‘Please tell me where I can get this information.’
Don’t ask multiple questions when one will do.
You should conclude your message by politely saying thank you to the recipient for considering your message. A formal signature should state your full name and salutation, the organization you are representing, your telephone number (in case that is your recipients preferred channel of communication), and a website address (if you have one) with a working link.
Now before you hit the send button, you should check your message. Read it through. This sounds obvious and possibly unnecessary, but you’d be surprised how many people have been glad they did. You should read the email as if you are the recipient. Put yourself in their shoes. Is the message a) readable? b) clear and concise? c) answerable? d) personalized? If you answer ‘No’ to any of these questions, then you should revise your message.
If you receive no response after a week, then send a follow-up message. This is OK! Send a shorter email enquiring if the original message was received, and offer to resend it if it hadn’t. (Don’t just resend the original message – it could have been filtered out as spam, so your second attempt it likely to be subjected to the same treatment!) Quite often, people receive emails but are too busy or distracted so not to respond to messages, so your follow-up is likely to be welcomed as a prompt.
Some final warnings:
- If your message requires urgent attention, you should consider using a ‘priority flag’ (if available). You can also mention at the top of your email the urgency of the message and why it is urgent, and be apologetic. Be cautious. Send messages as high priority only if the urgency is relevant to both you and your recipient.
- Another important consideration is that email messages can be forwarded very easily, and without trace. Never write anything that you would not want anyone else to read! People who use email to discipline or personally criticize others are making a big mistake. Avoid this, and instead request of your recipient a more personal exchange of information.
- Use a spell-checker on all messages you send if it is available. If not, check your spelling yourself. It’s surprising how many people leave typos in their messages! Badly spelt emails can be perceived as sloppy and written without due care and attention.
- Use email forwarding sparingly. Most busy people don’t want to read through whole threads of messages. If possible, include the original message as an attachment and summarize the thread yourself to pick out the relevant information.
Being heard by email is not an art. It’s mostly common sense, and the application of some simple rules: be respectful, clear, concise and direct. Although the advice in this report won’t guarantee that your messages will be read, it will give you the best chance possible.