It’s largely because everyone gets more emails than they really want. And even they ones they want to or need to read can be hard work. Because it’s really easy to do email badly.
Get the tone wrong, or make it hard to make sense of because of slapdash spelling and syntax, and it’s easy to leave a poor impression on the recipient. And if your email puts them in a bad mood, are they likely to fully absorb what you’re trying to get across?
I’ve been working with a group of executives in London recently on how to write better email, so here are my 4 rules of thumbs for using email in a way that is accessible, clear and most importantly, less of a chore! Ultimately, we all want to write emails that are hard to hate…
1. Keep it brief
Avoid going into detail, or making complex points. Look at it statistically: the less you write, the less potential there is for making errors!
Even if your written English is flawless, this is a good habit to develop: if you ever see senior executives’ emails, they are often a couple of lines, maximum. They’re busy people, so they have to get straight to the point.
Assume the person reading the email is busy too – they’ll appreciate it if you keep it brief.
Perhaps instead of trying to explain complicated issues in several paragraphs, ask if the other person is available for a phone conversation?
As you get better and more confident expressing yourself in speech, try to wean yourself off using email for anything other than short, routine communications.
2. Having said ‘keep it brief’, be careful about ‘bullet-pointing’ your sentences
I’m not saying don’t use bullet points in the structure of an email: just be careful to avoid using bullet-point style when writing full sentences, especially to someone you don’t know well, or someone you have a more formal relationship with, like a new client.
You might use a bullet-point structure like this:
‘I agree with you about scheduling another meeting for Friday. There are a couple of issues that need exploring:
- benefits of consolidation between SMC and SBA
- likelihood of meeting targets given the new corporate structure
- possibility of further restructurings after the merger takes place
If there’s anything else I think we need to discuss, I’ll let you know before the meeting.’
Bullet-points are basically just lists. They’re a form of note-taking. There’s a certain economy people use when writing lists or making notes: leaving out ‘non-essential’ words and using abbreviations. But sometimes people get into the habit of using this bullet-point style phrasing in conventional sentences:
‘Agree re Friday meeting, need to discuss issues inc. pros/cons consolidation SMC/SBA, chance of hitting targets given new structure, possible further restructuring post-merger. Anything to add, will share before meeting’.
Sure, the second version is brief and snappy, but it’s almost ’text-speak’ – it feels impersonal.
If that second version was addressed to you, how would you feel reading it? Like you were being spoken to respectfully, or like you were being snapped at by someone who’s far too busy to let you take up their valuable time?
By all means be brief, but try to write in complete sentences. Think about the tone you strike: email works best in a conversational tone, and in actual spoken conversation, you don’t miss out words, or abbreviate: no-one says ‘inc.’ when they mean ‘including’, or misses out words like ‘i’ and ’the’, saying ‘will monitor situation’ instead of ‘I’ll monitor the situation’.
3. Massage the reader
Getting the right tone in emails is important, especially when you’re asking for something or have a demand that needs to be met, or want to offer criticism or disagree with what has been said.
Most people have an instinctive sense of tone: the difference between an email to a well-known colleague and one to a client is well understood. Occasionally, and especially if English is not your first language, there are phrasings which are a little awkward or abrupt.
The Brits are a sensitive race: ‘being direct’ can often come across as being rude, especially in writing. So if you’re going to ask someone to do something, or stop what they’re doing and pay you some attention – and definitely if you’re going to criticise or contradict them – you need to massage them a little bit!
Try to put your request in terms of whether it’s possible: can they do this rather than will they do it.
And use the conditional tense, ‘could you…?’ or ‘would you be able to…’ rather than ‘can you..?’ or ‘Will you…?’
Would you be able to help me with this?’
is less abrupt than
‘Can you help me with this?’
‘Will you help me with this?’
if you’re reminding people about something they’re supposed to have done, always give them the benefit of the doubt; they might not have had time to do it. It’s subtler than asking straight out.
‘Did you do that research for Aviva?’
- ‘Did you get my email about that research for Aviva? ’
- ‘Did you get a chance to do that bit of research for Aviva?’
- Or ‘Is there any news on that research you were doing for Aviva?’
Or use the passive tense. Instead of:
‘Have you finished that report?’
‘Did that report get done?
‘Has that report been done?’
4. Don’t rely on spellcheck – proofread carefully
‘Were is the meeting?’ (CORRECTION: ‘Where is the meeting?’)
will not get picked up by spellcheck or auto-correct, because the misspelling forms an actual word.
Look out for incorrect verb forms:
‘Have you send it?’
CORRECTION: ‘Have you sent it?’
‘There are other situation where this occurs’
CORRECTION: ‘there are other situations where this occurs’
Above all, it’s important to make time to proofread emails, especially ones with more detailed content. Think of it as saving time for the reader: the more unnecessary errors there are, the more time they will have to spend re-reading and making sure they’ve understood what you meant. Subconsciously they’ll be grateful to you for the extra time you’ve invested in writing clearly.
SOME USEFUL PHRASES
I hope you had a good break/holiday/weekend.
I hope all’s well with you.
Sorry for not replying sooner…
Apologies for the delay in replying…
ASKING FOR SOMETHING:
It would be great if you could…
If you get a chance, would you be able to…
Any thoughts or guidance you could offer on this would be much appreciated.
Many thanks for your time and attention.
I really appreciate your help with this.
Do let me know if you have any concerns or questions
If there’s anything you’d like to discuss, don’t hesitate to get in touch.