How bad emails stop you from getting things done
How many emails do you send per day? Have a quick guess, without scanning down the page.
On average, we send 40 emails on a daily basis. And an average of 121 emails drop into our work inboxes (get more stats here). That’s not even considering our personal accounts. The offers, newsletters, order confirmations, updates from friends. This all adds up to a staggering 300 billion emails sent every day. 128.8 billion of which are business emails.
And these statistics were gathered pre-COVID-19, before remote working became a normality for most employees. We’ve lost our casual conversations by the water cooler. Wandering over to a colleague’s desk to quickly check something. Face to face meetings. Email has replaced many of these interactions, likely pushing the number of work emails even higher.
We hosted a virtual session with Shelly Davies, business writer, trainer, keynote speaker and an advocate for rockstar communications. She shared some valuable tips to make your emails more effective.
The power of an effective email
During the lockdown, we saw an increase in all communication tools. Shares in web conferencing facilities (such as Zoom) shot up. Messaging tools like Slack saw a huge spike in users. Is there even still a place for email?
Yes, as Shelly says, “email is not going anywhere any time soon.”
There are huge benefits to sending a well-worded email. It’s often the best way to communicate updates. You can group different pieces of information together around one subject, and send it to specific colleagues. It keeps a lasting record of itself, which is something that no other tool can do so easily.
The problem is, emails are rarely effective. A bad email sends the reader into a back and forth conversation with the sender. A game of email table tennis. We’ve all been there.
At their worst, emails cause confusion. They fail to get the point across. They offend. They steal your time. They stop you from doing the work you need to, because you’re constantly going back to clarify points.
Effective email writing 101
Here’s the good news. There are some fairly easy tricks to help get this right. Shelly shared her 8 tips on our virtual session. Follow these and you can be sure your emails will cut through.
#1 – BLUF.
What do you want to achieve with your email? This is your bottom line. Shelly recommends putting this upfront, at the top of your email. So Bottom Line UpFront – BLUF.
Let’s say your bottom line is that the office is closed on Tuesday for deep cleaning, so everyone must work from home. You should put the clear message that “everyone must work from home on Tuesday” at the top of your email. Then you can go on to explain why this is happening, and add any extra context.
This approach makes it super easy for readers to scan your email, and extract its purpose within a couple of seconds. If they then choose to read the full details, they can.
Shelly’s bonus tip: Think carefully about the outcome you really want to achieve. Often it’s not the first one that springs to mind. In the example above, you could confuse the outcome as being “let people know that the office is getting cleaned on Tuesday.” The real message is actually – “do not come to the office on Tuesday.” That’s your bottom line.
#2 – Use plain language.
Remove all complex language and jargon from your emails. We often fall into the trap of using formal “writer words” when we write emails. Words we would never use in conversation. Acquire, when we mean “get”. Provide, when we could say “give”. Endeavour, when we should say “try”. Opt for words with as few syllables as possible.
#3 – Write like a human.
Just because we can’t see each other on email, it doesn’t mean we should talk like robots, or overly formal. Use a conversational tone. Be yourself. In person, you might make a short comment about the weekend before launching into your project update. Do this on email as well.
Also, put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Ask yourself, in what context will she read my email? Adjust your tone depending on how you expect her to receive your message. Empathy is your friend here.
#4 – One thought, one sentence.
Keep your sentences as short as you can. Otherwise, people lose your train of thought, and won’t retain it from the beginning of the sentence to the end. Wherever possible, express no more than one thought in each sentence. It gives your reader the chance to fully take in what you’ve said. If you want to dive a little deeper into how to avoid long sentences, check out this blog post.
#5 – Be concise.
On a similar note, communicate as concisely as possible. It’s true that “When you write more, people understand less”. However, do ask yourself what questions your reader might have about your email. Address these in advance. It will save a future game of email table tennis.
#6 – Create a visual structure.
Use headers and bullets, so readers can skim your email. It’s important to leave lots of white space so the text can “breathe”. It will make your email easier to read.
#7 – Consider your subject line.
Your subject line is prime real estate. A good subject could make the difference as to whether your reader opens your email, or not. Or, certainly, which email he opens first. Don’t be mysterious. Include spoilers.
Shelly’s bonus tip: People engage more when they are directly addressed. Show your reader that your email is highly relevant by using “you” in your subject line. Of course, only when this is appropriate.
#8 – Edit, edit, edit
We all want to be able to write effective emails on autopilot. The truth is it’s a skill you need to learn, like any other. You’ll need to train yourself, and fight the urge to fall back into your usual habits. Start re-reading your emails, and work to make sure you’re following the points above.
Why this can feel uncomfortable
At first, you might find it difficult to change your email style. Do any of the following objections sound familiar?
“Bottom line upfront seems too blunt”
This is a question of tone. You can still be polite, while also getting your point across. Look at the difference between:
Send me those files
Jim, I know you’re really busy. Please could you send me those files?
Both are written in plain language. The first is authoritative and borderline rude. The second is respectful, and empathetic.
“Use simple words? But I want to impress my CEO”
We’ve written before about the fallacy of the sophisticated reader. You might think smart people need complex language. Actually, the opposite is true. The more educated someone is, the more they prefer plain language.
Write in a reader-centered way
Writing in a reader-centered way is mindful of your reader’s time. It promotes trust and makes you appear more confident. Your CEO will appreciate it. Your team members will more easily understand your messages. You eliminate the back and forth of follow up emails. This saves even your own time! Everyone benefits from better emails. Try the 8 tips today and let us know how you get on.