Prepared by Helen Palmer (May 2011)
Writing better emails can improve the chances of an email message being read, understood and actioned. This resource describes tips I use to write more effective email messages.
You want your message:
- noticed in a timely manner even if there are many messages in your recipient's Inbox
- read and understood when the reader has competing priorities and
- actioned despite your reader's limited time or attention to make
decisions and act productively
Help the reader of your email to help you!
Imagine your reader has 10 minutes to look at the 30 new emails in their inbox. This means they have about 20 seconds to look at your email. The first look is the most important look - will they act, mark it for action, and leave it alone with the risk that they won't look at it again because in the future they will be looking at new emails?
No. 1 consideration -
is email the best method to convey your message
or request? It might be easier for all involved, for you
to pick up the phone
and have a conversation.
- Compose a separate email per topic or request. In doing so,
you reduce the content per message and increase the chance that the
stuff will be read and actioned. Separate emails means you can
have meaningful subject lines that get noticed; and it's easier for
the recipient to meaningfully manage (e.g. tag, delete, forward) their
- Only CC recipients when you want to include those people in an
ongoing exchange of correspondence.
- Consider sending the email without
CC recipients in the first
instance, then forwarding the Sent email to those who need a copy but
don't need to be part of an ongoing exchange.
- CC implies that a CC recipient is getting a copy, and is not
required to act in response to the message. If you require action
from a recipient, put their address in 'To' box and make it clear what
action you seek.
- Use ‘For
info' or 'For action’
to signal what kind of email it is and what attention is needed
- State actions from reader’s
perspective; verb first, e.g. "Documents to review" compared to "Review
- Include deadline details for actions
Here are examples of some 'Before' and 'After' subject line treatments:
For action: Comment on business documents by Fri 6 May
For info/action: Details requested at last week's team meeting
For action: Propose time/place for next catchup
For info: Confirming our meeting for next Wed (11 May)
For action: Process tax invoice (pymt due by Fri 13 May)
For action: Consider invite to present at ACE team meeting in
For info: Details for PA recruitment interview
- Compose an introduction of 2-3 lines
that has the most important content of the message. Imagine this
is the only part of the message that will be read properly, i.e.
not scanned. A good introduction lets the recipient quickly judge
whether your email is worthy of their attention and action. A
good introduction also quickly clarifies the purpose of the email.
- Clearly state the action
you seek (plus deadlines and deliverables) so your reader can make an
easy quick decision to act as you request. Present this as a
separate paragraph with the heading 'ACTION'; consider formatting the
text to stand out, e.g. bold + orange.
- State the deadline as an absolute measure of time rather than a relative measure, i.e.'Friday 6 May' cf. 'end of the week'.
- If the time of day is important for
the deadline, state
this as part of the deadline. e.g. Fri 6 May, 5pm.
- Use numbers and/or headings to identify different significant pieces of information. This is useful way to signal the number of different topics.
- Use paragraph breaks/white space to
avoid a perception of dense bulky content. Paragraph breaks are helpful
in providing unformatted space for your recipient to use if they wish
to put their reply comments next to the relevant text within the email.
- Write short sentences, using active
(rather than passive) voice. Don't
write like you talk in conversation. Avoid unnecessary words that add to your word count, e.g.
"I know I have already been asking
too much and you are probably busy, so it is okay if you don't have
time, but if you have a chance could you ..." vs. "If you have time I would appreciate ..."
- Consider using footnote technique if
there is optional text you want to include that may detract from the
main focus of your message. e.g. "" within the text, then "
The background to this is ..." at the end of the message after
- Include your contact details at the
end of the message (default = email signature) so your recipient has
more than one option in responding to you.
examples of good and bad email messages.
Imagine you got the following 4 emails in your inbox. With
only a quick glance, which email appeals to you most? Which email
is the easiest to 'process' (i.e. decide 'what it is' and 'what to do
NB: The majority of the text in the email is incomprehensible on purpose, to illustrate the effect form alone can have on the readability of a message.
Read below each email to learn what is different about each email: Good (+) and Bad (-) features
RATING = Not easy to read
Email Sample 2
RATING = Somewhat easy to read
Email Sample 3
RATING = Somewhat easy to read
Email Sample 4
RATING = Easier to read