Emails in the workplace can be irritating. They are either too long or too abrupt.
Blaise Pascal, the mathematician, once said, “I made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.” I think today you can easily substitute the word “email” for “letter.” Too many writers have a knee jerk reaction when it comes to writing emails. They reply without thinking, often pouring out details without distilling them for the reader – causing the reader to have to sort and to interpret information and next steps. Alternatively, they write so quickly that the tone of the message appears dictatorial and irritates the reader.
Emails are now a recognized part of the business world, and they can bless or burn your professional image. Although it may take you a minute or two longer to send a message, here’s what I recommend to ensure your messages get the results you want:
1. Begin at the end. What do you want your reader to do once he or she has finished reading your message? That is your opening line. Remember emails should never be organized the same way as letters. Why? Readers tend to read the first paragraph of a print document to see if it interests them. Next they skip to the last paragraph to check if there is an action request. Then they read the middle paragraphs if they are interested. But that’s not how they read emails.
With emails, receivers read the first paragraph (often in preview mode) and then keep reading until they are bored or think they understand the message. You cannot be sure your reader will even get to the last paragraph. Ideally, the last line of a letter – assuming you are not using that useless cliché — if you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me – should be the opening line of an email. In other words, begin with your action request. Then follow with the reasons why you have made the request.
2. Don’t start with a bedtime story. When you start an email with a date, you are setting the stage. You’re not getting to the point. Which opening do you prefer? Opening 1: “Last week, I attended a workshop on business writing.” Opening 2: “I’d like to get your input on the following suggestions I have come up with to improve our organization’s emails. The suggestions come from a workshop I attended last week.”
Most people prefer the 2nd opening. It tells them why they need to read your message. Use the word “so” to check your opening lines. If the reader can say “so” after reading your first sentence, you probably need to do a rewrite.
3. Don’t dictate. Too many email writers believe that if they add the word “please” their readers will consider them polite. For example, they might write: “Please send me the figures by Friday.” However, they forget that the inner voice they use when writing the message may not be the same inner voice the receiver uses when reading the message. The voice inflection is not there. Your request may seem polite to you but to a reader having a bad day, it may come across as demanding and condescending.
I suggest you take an extra minute and precede your request with an explanation such as, “I am working on the annual report. Therefore, can you please send me the figures by Friday?” I know this may seem tedious but I guarantee you will get greater buy-in by treating your reader as a team player instead of as someone you have the right to order about.
Note: The more personal pronouns and active voice sentences you use, the warmer the tone. And the more reader buy-in you get.
4. Don’t intimidate your reader with lengthy paragraphs. It is 25 per cent harder to read from a computer screen than from paper. Make it easy on your readers. Keep paragraphs less than five lines long and leave a blank space between paragraphs. First paragraphs should be shorter. Do not indent paragraphs or justify the lines. The best font is a sans serif one such as Arial, Verdana or Calibri.
Last year, through my company, J. Watson Training, I surveyed 200 people across Canada about their pet peeves with regard to emails. Here are the top ten complaints:
- Emails without phone numbers (or extension numbers)
- People who “reply to all” when they don’t need to
- Emails with long, unnecessary threads.
- Receiving emails that just say thank you
- Emails containing short hand words and smileys
- Subject lines that are vague or confusing
- Paragraphs that run together
- Buried requests
- Grammar and spelling errors
- Coloured fonts or backgrounds on messages
Jane Watson is a trainer, author, and consultant in the field of written business communications at Ontario Training Network. Emails@Work is one of her highly popular workshops.