We’ve all received the long, wandering email that seems as purposeless as a parka in the Sahara. Sometimes, it seems like the main point of an email is buried in pleasantries or has to be deciphered by the reader. Other times, ideas in emails can seem too complex for such a bare-bones style of communication.
The last thing you want is to send emails that make your reader feel like they’re missing something. This wastes time, causes confusion, and can even end up costing you sales down the line.
But, have no fear: writing clean, easy-to-read emails isn’t as difficult as it seems, no matter how comfortable you are as a writer.
What’s Your Goal?
This can seem like a big question, especially when it comes to complicated work processes or big ideas. But, more often than not, we’re sending an email with a fairly direct and specific purpose.
Remember how you used to have to put together a thesis statement for all of those papers you wrote way back when in your high school English classes? Those were centered around isolating a main idea or purpose for the writing that followed. The principle for pretty much anything you write remains the same: figure out what action you want your reader to take, and then build from there.
Sorry if I just gave you flashbacks to having acne and being stressed about midterms, but those basic principles of rhetoric and writing that we learned in high school still apply, and it’s so much easier to lean on skills you already have rather than learning completely new ones.
So, how do you figure out the main purpose of the email you’re drafting? Take a minute–and the more you practice this, the faster it will get–to think about what you need from the person you’re emailing.
Is it a quick sign-off on some work you’ve completed? Do you need their feedback or input? If so, how would you like to receive it? Are you hoping to make a sale? Or invite collaboration? Or to simply inform your reader(s)?
What Do You Need?
Once you have a solid idea–and, this may sound a little over the top, but bear with me–I encourage you to write what you need from your email recipient(s) right there at the top of your email in a need statement, like this:
Keep this need statement actionable and brief.
This means that your need should be straightforward and specific–something that the recipient of your email can easily understand and act on. This leads to faster replies and simpler, more streamlined communication.
Highlight verbs and action words in your need statement, especially when it comes to what you’re hoping the recipient will do. Rather than saying “I need to know when Jessie can meet,” try to get your language as close to your desired action as possible. In this case, you’re looking for a direct reply with times your colleague is available, so frame your need statement that way.
And, try to keep it short. If it seems like you need a lot from your email recipient or that your ideas are complicated, then it might be a good idea to use your email to set up a phone call or meeting to open up further discussion, rather than relying entirely on what you can get done from behind your keyboard.
Build It Out
Once you have a need statement, you can build the rest of your email around it. Much of the time, your need statement will translate into a direct request, like this:
The one-sentence email above can work wonders for workplace efficiency and can save you lots of time when it comes to juggling multiple tasks. Brevity and clarity are easy ways to make your emails actionable, which is the key to getting real forward motion on your asks.
Notice that our writer has still used a greeting and a sign-off. It may seem like a waste of time to include these elements, and we’re aiming for overall efficiency here, but saying a simple hello and goodbye to your reader shows that you value their time and appreciate their effort.
Note: writing brief and actionable emails shouldn’t be confused with writing demanding or curt emails. Always frame your need as a request, rather than as a command. And, of course, remain polite. “Please” and “Thank you” both show gratitude without requiring much time or space.
Before You Hit Send
A couple quick tips to streamline your email-sending workflow.
Did you attach anything?
Make sure that you take a moment to explain the purpose of the items you’ve attached, again, quickly and directly.
Name or describe what you’ve attached. Rather than just saying “the attachment,” tell your reader what it is specifically. Is it a report? A memo? An image? Let them know before they open it.
Something as simple as, “Please see the attached graphs of our progress this quarter” can be so much more effective for easy communication than “See attached.”
What’s Your Subject Line?
Again, be simple and direct here. A good subject line should let the reader know what the email is about before they open it.
No need to be cryptic or enticing; demonstrate that this email needs attention simply by using a down-to-business subject line.
It’s usually easier to write your subject line after you’ve written the body of the email, because you’ve already put together your need statement and you know what you’re trying to get your recipient to do.
So, stay specific and keep it simple. Short subject lines like “Rogers Account Meeting Availability” or “Weekly Sales Summary” can never go wrong.
With the pace of today’s workplaces, little mistakes and errors happen all the time, which is why, when you put out error-free work, you can really stand out among your peers.
Use your email composer’s spellcheck and grammar check features to make sure your message will be received without confusion.
And, of course, double-check any details you included about dates and times. Having to clarify this later on can waste time and cause frustration for everyone.
Emails may seem like a small part of your overall workflow, but when you take a step back, you can see how much gets decided and completed via email.
Keeping your emails brief and actionable is the easiest way to streamline this part of your workday, and it’s something just about anyone can do.
A few small tweaks in your email composition process can have such a huge impact on your workplace efficiency, giving you more time to innovate and impress your boss with your next big idea.