Each day, the average person sends and receives a total of 122 business emails, according to a 2015 report by The Radicati Group. Given this volume, few emails are literary masterpieces. The fact that we can read, write, and send emails from nearly anywhere—more than half of emails are opened on mobile devices—contributes to the rush to respond immediately and whittle your inbox down to just a few unread messages.
But let’s face it: the eternal quest for inbox zero is futile. And the downside of immediacy is clear—busy emailers stray from the conventions of good writing and treat email as an informal communication that doesn’t require review or iteration.
While a quick “OK” is sometimes sufficient, in many cases—especially when working with remote teams and external vendors—an email is a critical piece of communication that, as with any piece of important writing, takes time to create and revise. But articulating your objective, formulating your thoughts, providing the necessary content, and structuring your email well can pay off. You’ve likely encountered emails that required multiple reads to get to the meat of the idea and what’s being asked of you—and, attention sapped, decided to save it for later, only to get the polite follow-up message a few days afterward.
While it may take a few extra minutes at the outset, editing your important emails will make them more effective, save time in follow-up questions, and help you achieve the objective of your message.
Here are four pointers that will help your e-mails stand out among the many messages coming and going every day:
- Start with your objective. As my colleague Heather Ploog has observed, make sure the objective of your email is clear and stated at the beginning of your message, so readers know what is being asked of them and can then read the rest of the content with the end goal in mind. Structuring your email not as a train of thought but as a well-packaged inquiry will ensure better-quality responses and make the time you spend on email more productive.
- Provide enough context. Brevity is important—no one likes an endless scroll, particularly on a mobile device. But it’s also key to include enough information and background that your reader doesn’t have to chase something down in another email or outside their inbox. Such a pursuit only increases the likelihood that they’ll get distracted and neglect your email. Usually a few sentences will do, and if necessary, a supplementary attachment. If you find your email is adding up in length, consider whether one email (or email at all) is the best way to communicate your message.
- Follow a solid writing framework. While brief, your email should have a beginning, middle, and end, just like any piece of good writing. The beginning will clearly state your objective, the middle will provide relevant context, and the end will close with what’s to come—and a good-natured repetition of the specific action you’re requesting from the reader. Good writing, and business writing in particular, often follows the situation-complication-resolution framework, which my colleagues have written about in the past. The framework is designed to hold your reader’s attention, set up the story, and give enough airtime to the key points. When you knit your objective, context, and closing together using this outline, you’re more likely to engage the reader, provide necessary clarity, and get what you need.
- Don’t apologize. When we’re expected to respond to emails immediately, particularly on a mobile device with a tiny keyboard, proofreading your emails for proper grammar and syntax can seem unnecessary. To forestall embarrassment, many use a signature line that asks for forgiveness: “Sent from my iPhone. Please excuse any typos.” Sorry to be the bearer of bad news—but typos still make you look careless, as if the recipient isn’t worth the time it takes to reread your email even once. Beyond that, emails can easily get forwarded and reach a wider audience than you may have intended. Solid grammar and good writing bespeak credibility and integrity, so suck it up, delete the apology, and proofread your emails.
By treating email the same way you treat other business content—as an important piece of communication—you’ll undoubtedly find that you have more productive online communication and that your readers appreciate the clarity you’re providing. As more and more of us adopt these email practices, the time we spend reading and responding to them should slim down—allowing you to focus on other priorities and redirect attention from the inbox to higher-value activities and projects.