How to Write Emails That Will Get Read

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 5:08 PM EDT

In a comment on my post about skills for remote managers (and we love us some comments -- keep 'em coming), one BNET reader called email his "trusty rifle." I'm not going to belabor the weaponry metaphor, but it got me thinking about email, how reliant we are on it, and the problems many of us encounter with it. It's a great tool, but we all complain about the volume of it, the amount of useless information we have to sort through, and the lack of clear writing. Here's a three-step plan for creating emails that will make it through the clutter. The best way to think about your email (and by the way this works for voicemail and just about any communication tool you can think of) is to think of it like a news article that you'd find on the front page of the paper or the home page of a news site.

write your email like a news article These contain three elements:

  1. The subject line is the headline. When you read news -- either in print or online -- how do you decide what's worth reading, what you'll save til later and what you don't care about? You look at the headline. In an email that's the subject line. There's nothing more frustrating than looking for an email about the Johnson Project under the heading "re: great seeing you Thursday." The subject line should tell the reader what the email is about and whether it's worth reading. If the content changes, don't just hit REPLY-- take the time to change the subject line.
  2. The first paragraph is the "lead." In a news article, the first paragraph contains the "who, what, when, where, why" -- all the important information. You can quickly scan it and figure out if it's worth further investigation. This doesn't mean you leave out the details, it just means you don't put them before the action item -- or before telling the reader why this message is important to them. The critical information should be at the beginning of your email -- preferably in the first paragraph, so people can read it in their preview pane.
  3. The article is edited before it's published. Every news article goes past at least two or more sets of eyes before it's committed to paper or the web. Why, then, do we trust that we can rattle off critical business information without even rereading it ourselves, let alone have someone else take a look at it before we hit "send"? You don't save any time by creating an email in seconds -- and then spending days apologizing for misinformation or the tone of your email. Just because you can send things at the speed of light, doesn't mean you should. Pause and reread your email before sending it. If it's really critical have someone else take a look at it first.
Email might be your trusty rifle, but it's supposed to inform your audience, not take down a moose. Treat it more like an information platform than a weapon.