Posted On June 29, 2016

person having a cup of coffee while writing emails on mac computer

Let’s be frank: email bothers people.

When email is sent can be an issue. Out-of-hours email has recently been banned in France under a labour agreement – even on smartphones – to allow workers to properly disengage when they leave the office.

How email is written can cause a problem. In the UK, a judge recently ordered a father to stop sending emails to his children using ALL CAPITALS because doing so implied he was shouting at them. Tone can be misinterpreted, sarcasm inferred, and problems result.

Wanted: More email love

Email deserves more love. It’s an integral form of communication in modern business, yet we often send it frivolously – perhaps as a stream-of-consciousness with no structure (or point), or after-hours without thinking about our tone.

Email seems to be in a communications twilight zone, where manners and writing conventions don’t always apply. We often write using part proper English, part conversational speech. For example, I’m an exclamation mark addict via email (and when speaking), something which I would seldom use in more formal writing such as a paper or a proposal.

When it comes to email, where is the line between formal and conversational, professional and unprofessional?

Top tips for writing better email

Advice on what makes emails great varies widely. On the one hand, we are advised to get to the point and make it punchy. Yet we’re also told to be polite and not overly direct – here’s a great example of that from Wharton professor Adam Grant.

With different advice is taking us in circles, email and its problems aren’t going anywhere. What can we do to write better emails – emails that inform, engage and trigger action?

Here are my top tips:

  1. Ask: ‘Should this be an email?’

Often we email because it is convenient; we’re thinking about the issue after work, so we send a quick email to capture our thoughts. Before you write, check that an email will be more effective than a phone call or meeting.

  1. Plan the content

Once you know email is the best way to correspond, take a moment to plan the email’s content. Think about the people who will receive it, what else they might need to know and how they might feel about and react to the message. Clarify the purpose and objective of the message. Write a few bullet points to crystalise your thinking and play with the order of your content.

I use a model called 4Mat when planning communications. Although it’s a model for designing learning, it works well for planning communications and helps me to consider the sorts of information that different people like to hear and ensure that I include that information in my writing. Here at MCI Solutions, we include a simplified version of the model in our Business Writing courses.

  1. Formatting matters

An email’s layout is crucial to whether it gets read and acted upon, as do basics like proper paragraph construction (rather than the stream-of-consciousness single giant block of text). Paragraphs, headings, and bullet points enable your busier readers to scan the email, know what you want, and decide whether to commit to reading the whole thing.

  1. Ask (politely) for the action you want

Most emails ask for something, so don’t be afraid to clearly state what you’re asking for. Of course, use an appropriately assertive tone – there’s no need to be rude or aggressive. Include a timeframe or deadline, and suggest to your readers what they should do if they can’t meet the deadline or have feedback or concerns.

Email is a formal communication just like a letter, phone call or presentation. Give it planning, thinking time, some structure, and a clear call to action and you will increase the impact of your emails. Happy emailing!

Build your email skills with MCI Solutions

You can learn more about writing great emails with MCI Solutions’ new seminar, Writing Effective Email. Click here to read the seminar outline.

Recommended reading

If you want email advice from the internet, these articles are a great start: