Nine Steps to More Effective Business Emails
Email communication is a key part of nearly every project, client relationship, and business development effort. In fact, according to a study by the Radicati Group, this year the average corporate employee will dedicate 28 percent of each workday to email, sending and receiving more than 115 messages.
Unfortunately, all too often the email messages we create are structured and sent in ways that confuse co-workers, annoy clients, and frustrate prospects. That’s why this week we’re discussing nine easy steps to make your emails simpler and more powerful. On to step one!
1. Back Away from the “Send” Button If you’re like us, every day you receive lots of emails that barely apply to you. It’s frustrating, right? Don’t be the one to send these time-wasting, inbox-clogging messages. Before you send or reply to an email, ask yourself whether your recipients should or must know what you’re about to communicate. If the answer is “no,” back away from the “Send” button. Your recipients will thank you.
Group emails are common violators of this guideline, particularly when people “reply all” to them. Just this morning, one of our writers fell victim to a 27-message group email “reply all” marathon, with not one response having information that applied to them. Yikes. Our point: Limit your use of the “reply all” button, and only “CC” people if they need to have the information. As for the “To” line, reserve that for recipients whom your message’s call to action is aimed at.
2. Don’t Neglect Your Subject Line You’ve got the right recipients, but before you dive into your email message, insert a short, specific subject in the subject line. As email marketers know, the subject line is a major factor in getting recipients to notice, open, and read an email. So avoid the generic subject line (or worse yet, no subject line at all!); it inevitably results in people deleting or glossing over your email. Also, generic subject lines like “Help” and “Call Now” are commonly marked as spam by corporate email systems, dropping them into the great email abyss. Not good.
The key to a good subject line is finding the balance between detail and brevity. First, always include a specific name (e.g., project, proposal, prospect) up front, followed by the topic or call to action covered in the email. The more detail, the better. For instance, “XYZ Project Action Items: Due 11/30” is likely more effective than “Project Action Items.” Second, use as few characters as possible. We recommend staying under 50; otherwise, the subject line may be truncated by the Internet service provider.
3. Get to the Point Now for the email body. One of the most common missteps when writing an email is taking the slow build approach. It goes like this: You provide background and general information, then give details, and conclude with the key result or call to action. Sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, this approach ensures that most readers never make it to your key points. Bummer.
Much like a proposal, letter, or other business communication, your structure should be akin to a "V", with the most important information on top, then the next important, and so on. So start with your key result or call to action. And while you’re at it, be specific. Use names, not pronouns, when addressing calls to action. That way your recipients will immediately know exactly what is happening and who is doing what.
4. Chunk It Speaking of structure, make sure that recipients can easily access information, process it, and get out. The best way to do that, in addition to having your main point up front, is by chunking your content. Headings, bullets, and short paragraphs (three lines or less) all let readers quickly scan an email and locate what they need. And if you’re finding that your content is too complex or extensive to chunk, chances are that another form of communication is warranted (like a phone call).
One other note of caution: In your efforts to chunk information, resist the urge to include graphics in your email body. Different email clients handle graphics differently, with some not showing them at all. We’ve seen several emails to clients, prospects, or external project partners cause serious confusion due to graphics disappearing or being inadvertently cropped or skewed. If a graphic is critical to your message, include it as an attachment or hyperlink (we’ll address hyperlinks below).
5. Strike the Right Tone Two great things about email are that it’s simple and straightforward. Unfortunately, those same qualities often lead to misunderstandings. The problem is a matter of context. Unlike face-to-face communication, email doesn’t provide the cues, facial expressions, or body language we typically use to decipher messages. As a result, a simple exclamation point intended to mean excitement may be construed as anger or surprise. Nobody wants that.
The best way to avoid misinterpretations is to, quite simply, be polite. Be aware that a message you see as clear and direct may come off as rude, arrogant, or demanding. Use positive affirmations, say “please” and “thank you,” and lay off the sarcasm. Empathize with your recipients, and never assume that your meaning is obvious. Spell things out, and if ever in doubt, have a colleague read your message before clicking the “Send” button.
6. Limit the Baggage Our growing volume of corporate email has given rise to another problem: storage. If you’re like many of our colleagues and clients, the battle to keep your email box in check can be a challenging one. Add in the individual email size limits of most corporate email servers (most we see are 10MB or less), and the issue of attachments can get touchy.
Sometimes attachments are unavoidable. However, most times there are better alternatives. For instance, if your recipient has access to the same network drive, simply include a hyperlink to the document(s). If they don’t have access, consider including a hyperlink to the document(s) on an external document sharing/collaboration site, such as SharePoint, Google Docs, or DropBox. Finally, if the document(s) are related to a scheduled meeting or event, consider attaching them to the calendar appointment rather than an email.
7. Consider the Mobiles Attachments, among other issues, are particularly important to the portion of people reading your email on a smartphone. And the portion is growing. In fact, according to a 2013 study conducted by IDC, 49 percent of the U.S. population now uses a smartphone to access email, and of those people, 79 percent have their phone on or near them for all but two hours of their waking day.
Be conscious that a smartphone’s speed and size amplifies many of the issues above. Email subject lines may be truncated further, so keep them brief with key words at the beginning. Line breaks are typically at about 20 characters (compared to about 60 on computer monitors), so be sure to use small chunks of information. Attachments and graphics are often more difficult to view and download, so again, limit them whenever possible.
8. Edit, Edit, and Edit Again Sloppy email writing has become a bizarre epidemic, even among senior corporate leaders. We’ve seen seasoned businesspeople spend days crafting and assembling detailed, error-free client proposals or reports, meanwhile sending that same client emails riddled with bad grammar, half-sentences, and poor spelling. There’s no excuse, and people often underestimate the impression sloppy emails make, much less the errors and misunderstandings they cause. Don’t do it.
Like any business communication, always review, edit, and spell check (including grammar) your emails. Read them aloud to yourself, and as we mentioned above, have a colleague peer edit any important emails. Double check your subject line, and make sure any documents mentioned are correctly hyperlinked or attached. If you’re concerned about formatting, send the email to yourself first as a trial run. Whatever your process, make a simple checklist, stick it to the side of your monitor, and use it. Works like a charm.
9. Watch the Clock Your email is finally ready to go, but before you click the "Send" button, consider the time and day. That’s right, when you send your email can affect whether it’s opened and read or buried and deleted. According to a 2013 Email Analytics Study by IBM, noon to 1 p.m. EST is the optimum time of day for sending an email, and morning hours are the worst. Other recent studies have found that between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., known as the “post work peak,” is also a good time. As far days of the week, the IBM study found that Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the best, and Mondays are the worst.
Most business emails need to be sent immediately, and there’s no changing that. But for some, such as weekly updates, monthly status reports, and meeting invites, a scheduled email delivery can be quite useful. In Microsoft Outlook, click the “Options” tab in your message, then “More Options,” “Delay Delivery,” and “Message Options.” Under “Delivery Options,” select the “Do not Deliver Before” check box and insert your delivery date and time. Done. Now after you click the “Send” button, the message will remain in your Outbox folder until the delivery date.
Get Chatty: There are a million more email tips out there, so leave a comment and share your favorites!
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