7 Tips to Writing an Effective Email


Students must be able to communicate effectively and professionally. In today’s time, that means email especially. Below are seven fixes that I have had to frequently correct when my student leaders send emails. This advice does not go into detail on the obvious. Instead I have focused these pages on the errors and fixes that I have most experienced in well meaning senior leaders. As such, I have written the following paragraphs as if I were talking to my students.


  1. Include a specific subject

There is nothing more obnoxious for a busy person than to receive an email with (no subject). Equally annoying is when the subject line is vague like “Can I ask you a question?” or “URGENT! PLEASE READ!!!!” 


What do you think is going on in my mind when I read that title? These vague or absent subject lines are the equivalent of being called to the principal’s office without being told why. Did I accidentally break some policy? Has funding for our program been cut? Is a student injured?! Only after clicking on the e-mail do I discover the benign announcement in the body: “cookie dough fundraiser for science club ends today!” It creates unnecessary emotional angst.


Bad subjects:

  • (no subject)

  • READ NOW!

  • You won’t believe it


Okay subject:

  • Response to question

  • Meeting recap from today

  • Plan B

  • Thank you


Good subjects:

  • Meeting Request for Tuesday (5/13)

  • Cookie Dough Fundraiser Details

  • Quote for Theater Rental

  • Permission for Gym Use


Odds are that you are sending an email because you want something. Let’s make sure that request is honored by not putting a psychological burden on your email recipient. Always include a specific subject.


  1. Be intentional: Reply vs. Reply All

Sometimes you need to hit “reply” and sometimes you need to hit “reply all.” As a rule of thumb, “reply all” should be your default assumption. If I chose to CC (carbon copy, for those interested that kind of trivia) someone on an email to you, it is because I wanted to include them in the conversation. If I did not want those people in the conversation, I would have BCC’d (blind carbon copied) those people. When you hit “reply” instead of “reply all” you are excluding -- intentionally or not -- those who are CC’d. Here is a quick reference to when you should use each method.


Hit “reply” when:

  • there is only one person on the email to begin with.

  • your comments are meant privately for the sender.

  • the sender asked for a private reply.

  • the sender sent the original email to a large number of people and your reply is only for the sender.


Hit “reply all” when:

  • you or the sender needs the copied person’s input on the outcome.

  • you or the sender needs to keep the copied person “in the loop.”

  • you don’t know what to do.


While you will always be intentional about your replying, you cannot assume the same thoughtfulness in the people to whom you write. Especially on mobile, people accidentally hit reply instead of reply all. Keep an eye out for that so that you can re-include those accidentally left off back into the conversation.


P.S. Use the BCC (blind carbon copy) only when your primary recipients are the ones BCCd. An example of that would be sending an email to event guests where you don’t want each guest to have the other’s email addresses. Don’t use the BCC when you are trying to let someone know you sent an email. If you want them to know, CC them on the email itself or forward the sent email afterward. It is quite awkward when a BCC’d recipient accidentally hits “reply all” and suddenly someone who was never in the conversation is commenting on whatever you were talking about. #awkward


  1. Make the “ask” the first sentence

People are busy. The more “important” the person you are emailing, the more emails they likely get a day. Having the very first sentence be your request makes your email easy to read and more likely to get a response. Consider the following two emails:


----

Dear Mr. Ewry,


The marching band has had a trying season. Mikey jumped too high and bruised his tailbone on the jazz split in the first show. The entire sousaphone section on a dare, swapped shoes and got blisters. It rained every day of band camp. Carley developed a metal allergy to her mouthpiece. On the way to our first playoff game, our bus tried to go under a bridge that was too low and we got stuck! Would you be willing to come to class sometime this week to talk with rookies about the impact the marching band has had on the school? It would really mean a lot to us. After all, we did play at every football game this season.


Thank you,


Sallie Mae 

----

Dear Mr. Ewry,


Would you be willing to come to class sometime this week to talk with rookies about the impact the marching band has had on the school?


The marching band has had a trying season. Mikey jumped too high and bruised his tailbone on the jazz split in the first show. The entire sousaphone section on a dare, swapped shoes and got blisters. It rained every day of band camp. Carley developed a metal allergy to her mouthpiece. On the way to our first playoff game, our bus tried to go under a bridge that was too low and we got stuck! It would really mean a lot to us. After all, we did play at every football game this season.


Thank you,


Sallie Mae 

----


Do you see why the second email is more likely to get a response? Mr. Ewry knows right up front what you are asking; he does not have to “hunt” through the email to find your ask.


By cutting past the fluff and stating your request up front, the recipient is put at ease. I cannot tell you how many long emails I get where the request is at the bottom or worse, buried in the middle! Bring clarity and transparency to your email by making your “ask” the first sentence.


P.S. One large caveat is on “cold” emails to people who do not know you already. A one sentence introduction may be appropriate.


  1. Bold the important details

This technique is as effective as making the “ask” your first sentence. Bold the important details such as due dates, key take-aways, or ownership of a task. The eyes easily jump to the bold words in a quick scan for busy people who receive over a hundred emails a day.


Do not write in all caps. Do not underline and bold. If you highlight, you are limited to only one highlighted word or sentence. Paraphrasing Syndrome from The Incredibles, “When everyone is bold, no one is bold.” As a rule of thumb, you can have one bolded item for every three or four lines of text.


  1. Include a date with any printed day of the week

I keep a great practice that I hope you adopt: keeping a calendar. Every time I am sent details on an event, I immediately put it in my calendar with all of the details. As a result, my calendar looks like Buddy the Elf just discovered Microsoft Paint for the first time, but I avoid double booking myself and am mostly aware of my students’ activities. The people to whom you are writing, most likely, also keep a calendar like this. As such, please, please, please, include dates any time you write a day of the week.


When you send an email, especially on a Friday, that email is not getting read until the following Monday. In that context, what does “next Saturday” mean? “Next Saturday” could mean the Saturday coming up, because when you wrote that email that would be two Saturdays away. Or “next Saturday” could mean the week after that because that is what it would mean to the reader who is reading it on Monday!


I would love to say that every reader of an email takes enough time to consider when the message was written, but that is not the case. Remove the confusion before it even gets that far by including a date any time you print a day of the week.


  1. Short paragraphs

I was taught in 8th grade that it was not a paragraph unless it had five sentences. Let me tell you now, that was a lie. It is incredibly difficult to read block text in an email. When writing an email, break. It. Up.


Paragraphs can be one sentence.


When in doubt, just add a new paragraph. That is entirely acceptable. Your primary motive for structural decisions should be clarity and not necessarily academic integrity. If it is “against the rules,” but helps your point come across more effectively, do it. The most common rule I suggest you “break,” in an email is to write short paragraphs.


P.S. When you write paragraphs in emails, you use two "enters" and not a new line and an indent. 


  1. Should this be an email?

My final piece of advice for sending an email is to ask yourself: should this be an email? There are four main modes of communication we will use: face-to-face, phone, email, text. Each mode of communication communicates a different amount of information. Consider the following chart:


What is Communicated


Face-to-Face

Phone Call

Email

Text Message

Words

yes

yes

yes

kinda

Tone of Voice

yes

mostly



Body Language

yes




Facial Expression

yes





Every time you move to the right, you lose out on more opportunities to convey meaning. Now, that additional meaning isn’t always necessary - that’s why emails, texts, and phone calls are still effective and used. When asking a simple question, confirming a date, sending out information, soliciting feedback, or setting up a meeting, the farther right options are completely acceptable. However, the email should not be the only tool in your tool chest. Know when to switch modes of communication.


When tensions start to run high; when an argument starts to shape; when clarity is becoming obscured, it is time to get off the email and either pick up the phone or have a face-to-face meeting. Do not attempt to mitigate conflict over written-word. Pick up the phone. You can send a recap email after the phone call to summarize the resolution.


---


Obviously I didn’t include here to use capital letters, punctuation, and correct spellings. I would hope that those are self evident. Instead, this was intended as “quick fixes” to issues I commonly see with my own student leaders in their email communications.


Have an additional tip? Care to make a clarification on one of my pieces of advice above? Drop a comment below. I would love to hear from you.


NT


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Comments

  1. Comment from Facebook:

    "Except for that reply vs reply all advice this is spot on. I have seen plenty of professionals embarrassed because they replied all and didn’t need to. It may be true for teen leaders, bug hit necessary in adulting: I am pretty sure you have seen that in emails too. 02 addressing the recipient as Mr Ms Mrs is always good until the adult gives different directions: never just my last name - that is like nails on a chalkboard."
    ~BC

    ReplyDelete
  2. How would you classify video conferencing and US Mail as categories or types of communication in your grid above? Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For the purposes of this article, I would equate video conferencing with face-to-face communication and paper mail with e-mail. Of course, there are also so many mitigating factors: internet speed, microphone quality, hand writing (in the case of written post), and how many other people are on the video call to name a few.

      Delete

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