I edit a variety of internal emails on behalf of my employer. I actually enjoy this work, more than you might expect, because I love helping people create concise and direct communications.
Here are some tips for writing effective emails that (1) get read and (2) get the job done:
- Ask yourself what results you want to achieve
People tend to start their emails by asking themselves, “What do I want to say?” instead of “What do I want people to do?” (alternately: What do I want people to hear?). All of us suffer from ego when it comes to writing, myself included. But unless you are writing in a personal journal, your audience should never be yourself.
Write for your readers.
I recently received an email from a colleague asking for some edits. The email was long, and although I knew exactly what its purpose was, it missed the mark entirely. Here’s what I knew:
Some employees weren’t following safety precautions in the company gym. The letter writer wanted these employees to follow safety procedures. Logically, it would follow that the email would say something along the lines of:
“It’s come to our attention that some employees are violating safety procedures in the gym. Any further violations will lead to a suspension of gym privileges and the possibility of disciplinary action.”
Right? I mean, you could soften the tone a bit, but that’s the gist, right? Some people are breaking the rules. Stop it, or you’ll be in trouble.
What the letter did, instead, was launch into lenghty prose about why certain safetfy guidelines were in place, how they helped keep everyone safe, how much the company valued safety, what the exact guidelines were, and why employees should follow them. It was five paragraphs of information that literally everyone already knew.
The letter didn’t address the problem (rule-breaking) and it didn’t give clear instructions (stop it with the rule-breaking). It was the kind of email that an employee would open and then delete without getting farther than a few words in.
We re-wrote the email to address the rule-breaking and potential consequences.
- Pick your target audience
Who is the email aimed at? Don’t blitz everyone when only a few people/departments need to get the message.
If it had been up to me, the Stop Breaking the Gym’s Rules email would have been sent only to employees who use the gym. It wasn’t up to me, so it went to the entire campus. That said, one could argue that there was a secondary audience: employees who knew that others were breaking the rules, and were angry about it. The email served as a kind of reassurance to the good guys that flaunting rules did have some repercussions.
- Keep it simple
I mean, duh. We’re all busy.
- Hone your tone
I love humor. Trust me, I wish every one of my pieces of writing was just a Dave Barry column circa 1991. Humor has its place in corporate communications.
Some emails you send are going to be serious. Some are going to be about a new espresso machine being installed on the second floor. It’s OK for the espresso emails to be a little goofy or flamboyant; feel free to espresso yourself because sometimes the silly puns draw people in.
- Use formatting to your advantage
Let’s be honest, most people are probably going to skim your email. That’s why you use headlines, subheads, images, numbered lists, or other formatting to break up longer emails into easily parsed sections, especially if you have to include several different topics/announcements in a single email.
Using bold text and quote blocks can help call out critical information that might otherwise get buried in words (skimmers use formatting to help glean the most important information). If you’re limited to plain text, you can still use special characters to create formatting, bulleted lists, and even images, if needed.
Some emails may require a call-to-action (“Register here” or “Be sure to file your report before Tuesday”) and others may not have a specific task to ask the reader to complete. If you do have a CTA in your email, make sure it is VERY clear, both visually and semantically.
- Include a specific subject heading
How many emails do you ignore based on the subject heading?
While keeping email body copy as concise as possible, I’ve found that having a longer email subject heading isn’t a bad thing. How many emails have you received that say something like “Need your help” or “PowerPoint deck” or “COVID guidelines”? Dozens?
Years ago, I took a brief course on effective emailing (not announcements, just coworker-to-coworker emails) and what stuck with me the most was the rules about subject headings: make them longer, make them specific, maybe even add a call-to-action.
Consider the subject heading PowerPoint deck versus 2021 PowerPoint Template for Marcomm Presentations. Which is more informative? Which one stands out? Which one will be easier to find when you have to scroll back through hundreds of emails? Even if you locate things via Search “powerpoint template” is going to bring you much more specific options.
How about these? Need edits versus Needed by Friday: Edits to President’s Letter to Board. They both communicate that edits are needed, but only one gives you a deadline before you even open the email.