The art of email: 5 steps to success

Santorini

Last month my husband and I went to Greece for two weeks while my mom stayed in Chicago with our kids. Considering our children are 2 and 4 years old, it was one of the nicest things she has ever done for me aside from giving me life.

While we were gone, the kids remained in daycare Monday through Friday, but my mom still had to supervise their morning and evening routines, an exercise in patience that’s not for the faint of heart. I can’t count the number of times I have to tell my 4-year-old son, Owen, to put his shoes on each morning before I look down and actually see them on his feet. It’s a parental reality brilliantly reenacted by comedian Michael McIntyre in this hilarious sketch.

While in Greece, we soaked in the sunshine, feta, wine, and sensation of having uninterrupted conversations. We also read actual books. The islands we visited – Santorini, Milos and Crete – were so beautiful it was like living in a postcard. Yet I also missed our kids. Whenever I’d email my mom asking how they were doing, I would receive responses like:

“Owen seems to like school.”
“Tess is such a happy baby.”
“We are all still alive.”

My mom is someone who will talk your ear off in person, but she writes emails like haikus. Short, to the point, nothing but the facts. Even though her method follows many of the tips I profess in my writing workshops, in this case I wanted more. Anecdotes. Details. A clearer picture of their daily existence woven together with more than five words.

Given the circumstances, I’ll give my mom a break. I mean really, she was busy taking care of our kids so we could relax on a white sand beach. The point is there’s an art to email: not too little information, not too much. How much detail you provide depends on your audience – their needs and wants.

In a professional setting, it’s particularly important to get this balance right because so many of our work interactions occur through email even when the recipient is sitting five feet from our desk. In this age of digital technology, information overload, and shrinking attention spans, my mom’s “less is more” approach has its merits. Like most things in life, however, moderation is best.

Here are five tips for crafting and formatting email to give the recipient what they need to know while leaving out the rest.

1. Put your question or request in the subject line.

The email subject line is essentially your headline, the first opportunity to get someone’s attention. So use it to your advantage. If you have a question, put it directly in the subject line rather than writing “Quick question” or the topic of your question, such as “Upcoming client event.”

For example, when I email a partner requesting an interview for a thought leadership project, I write, “Interview for thought leadership report?” in the subject line. People like questions, particularly ones they can answer quickly.

If the purpose of your email is to make a request, put that request in the subject line, such as, “Thought leadership report – please review by Friday.” I find that putting the action I am requesting with a deadline typically results in better response rates. By receiving clear direction and a deadline right up top, your recipient is more likely to think, I’ll just do this now.

2. Get to the point.

Many of our Firm’s emails are long and unfocused, making it difficult to decipher what the sender wants. Since most of us scan long email, your request (or “call to action” in marketing speak) should be in the first paragraph, if not the second paragraph following brief background information to set up your question or request.

To understand why getting to the point is so important, consider this email sent from BD staff to partners alerting them to an upcoming webinar series:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December. Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC. We encourage you to forward this invite to clients who might find this webinar of interest. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send. If you would like to know if certain clients already have received this invite to avoid duplication, please contact me.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned, which we are co-hosting with the NA IP practice group.

What’s the problem with this email? The requests are buried, making them difficult to identify at first glance. It’s not until towards the end of a long paragraph that we find out what the sender wants, which I’ve underlined in the paragraphs below:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December.  Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC.  We encourage you to forward this invite to clients who might find this webinar of interest. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send.  If you would like to know if certain clients already have received this invite to avoid duplication, please contact me.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned, which we are co-hosting with the NA IP practice group.

How could you do a better job of making these requests stand out? Start by shortening wordy phrases like “we are pleased to invite you” and “we encourage you” and deleting extraneous details. By limiting the first paragraph to the most important information about the webinars (who, what, where, when, why), you can get to the point more quickly, like this:

Dear Partners,

You’re invited to the fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series on the first Wednesday of October, November and December. Our Oct. 5 webinar, “China’s Antitrust Regime – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales & Distribution” will feature CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC.

Please forward this invite to clients who may be interested by Sept. 15. To facilitate, we have attached a draft email you can send to clients.

Also, save the dates for:

  • Nov. 2: “Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion”
  • Dec. 7: “Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned”

See how much easier this is to read? You’ve briefly established why you’re writing (I’m inviting you to a webinar series), what the webinars are about (doing business in China), when the webinars are (first Wednesday of October, November and December), and who will be presenting (CF Lui, Bing Ho, and Stephen Harris).

Then you immediately state your call to action with a clear deadline of Sept. 15 instead of leaving it open-ended (most people respond better to deadlines), followed by another call to action (save the dates).

3. Use bold and bullets to highlight your main points.

Strong writing requires not only choosing the right words but also presenting information in a way that is easy to digest. In my revision above, notice that I bolded the requests rather than the webinar titles like the writer did in the original message. That’s because those are the actions I want the partners to take – the most important part of my note. So I save my emphasis for that.

I also used bullet points to list the upcoming webinar dates to make it easy for partners to scan. In the original, those dates are grouped together in one paragraph, increasing the chances they will get lost in a sea of words.

When writing email, your primary tools for creating clarity and emphasis are bold, italics, bullet points, underlining, spacing and different colored fonts. (I’m purposely leaving out all caps BECAUSE YELLING IS IMPOLITE.)

But be sure to use these tools sparingly to highlight only your calls to action or most important points. Avoid getting creative with too many colors or using multiple styles at once. Keep it simple, otherwise you’ll end up with a dizzying mess like this:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December.  Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC. We encourage you to forward this invite to clients. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned.

4. Keep it short.

If your email is more than three or four short paragraphs, then please, pick up the phone. Having a five-minute conversation is more efficient than spending 30 minutes trying to explain your point in an email. This also applies to answering an email that requires a detailed response.

I know it’s scary to hear an actual human voice in this age of texting and instant messaging, but you’ll save so much time by calling the person who emailed you to say, “Hi, I got your email and thought it would be easier to have a quick chat.” Or you can put the ball in their court by responding, “Great question. Call me to discuss.”

Sometimes it’s not feasible to speak individually by phone. You may be sending a group email with details about an important project, firm initiative, or client event. In that case, make sure you leave out details and commentary that aren’t crucial to your main point, such as the extraneous information I’ve highlighted in red in the email below:

Dear EEG Partners,

Our next EEG Practice Group Meeting will take place in Warsaw on 20th and 21st January. As in previous years, we plan to run client conferences on the Thursday before the meeting begins. We have always received very positive feedback and in some cases, new instructions following past client conferences and I am sure you will agree, they provide an excellent opportunity for Partners from across the region to meet new and existing clients.

Although it still seems like a long way away, past experience suggests that it’s important to start planning early. Therefore I would like to ask you to nominate clients that you believe would benefit from a client conference with EEG Partners from across our region.

Does it matter that you’ve conducted client conferences in the past? Do you need to make a case for how beneficial they are to clients? Should you lecture your audience about the importance of early planning? Is there a shorter way to say “Therefore I would like to ask you”? (How about “please”?)

More importantly, what’s the call to action? And how will taking that action benefit your audience? What’s in it for them?

To provide that information more quickly and succinctly, try something like this instead:

Dear Partners:

Our next EEG Practice Group Meeting will take place in Warsaw on January 20-21. We plan to run client conferences on Thursday before the meeting, giving you and your colleagues the opportunity to meet new and existing clients from across the region.

Please take a moment to nominate clients you think would benefit from a client conference with EEG partners by filling out the form below and returning it to me by Friday, September 23.

Now you’ve got a short opening paragraph that explains why you’re writing (we’re hosting client conferences), what’s in it for them (they’ll meet new and existing clients), followed by your request (please nominate your clients for the conferences).

In this case, I bolded just the deadline because I thought bolding the entire request would be overpowering, as the sentence is pretty long. When you bold the deadline, the reader is more likely to see that date and think, Wait, what do I need to do by Sept. 23? then read the sentence preceding the date to find out.

5. Go to Greece.

Okay, this isn’t exactly a writing tip. But I had to say it. Talk about clarity. You could swim a mile in that ocean and still see the bottom. And it’s a nice break from your inbox.

One thought on “The art of email: 5 steps to success

  1. Pip August 3, 2016 / 3:35 pm

    What a great read. I can relate to it all. Thank you Laurie!

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