10 tips for writing emails that get read

In these difficult times, we’re all using a range of tech tools to communicate at the moment – which can only be a good thing. Video meetings, chat channels and instant messages all help. And yet for most of us, email is still our default communication tool. So I thought it might help to offer a reminder about how to write emails that get read and get responses.

“Didn’t you read my email?”

If you find yourself asking this question, you probably already know the answer: no, they didn’t read your email. Or if they did, they didn’t get to the end of it, or couldn’t make sense of it.

You’re not alone.

Or maybe you’ve been asked the question by a colleague or supplier, or – oops – a client. How do you feel? Annoyed? Guilty? What do you think when someone asks you if you’ve read their email? “Well actually you could have just spoken to me – I’m over here”, or, “Why didn’t you say this in the meeting?”

We’re all getting too much email and most of us are sending too much email. It’s a major hijacker of our time at work and beyond. Help your recipients deal with the deluge and read what you have to say.

1. Stop and ask yourself if email is the right medium for the message

Too often we default to email. We often overuse it at the expense of more appropriate media. For example, you may get better results by making a call, scheduling a video conference, hosting a webinar, or talking face to face away from the office.

2. Use the subject line to specify what’s needed

Make it attention-grabbing and action-led, e.g. ‘Your input needed on Blogg’s proposal by Friday please’.

3. Edit your recipient list

Copying everyone leads to overload and overwhelm. Agree with people upfront how and when they will be kept informed. Ask more senior stakeholders if they want to be copied on everything – many will thank you for asking and decline.

4. Start with your main point

Don’t use the build-up approach, keeping people in suspense; this isn’t the movies. Nor are you writing an essay. Explain what’s needed when, and the reasons why, in a sentence.

5. Use the system’s tools to be clear

Numbers, bullets, bold, italic, underscore, colours – they’re all there, how much are you using them to make your email easier to comprehend?

6. Spell out the actions

Clearly state the action/s required and use people’s names. Be courteous and don’t bark orders, but be specific about who does what. Don’t use ‘we’ as everyone will assume someone else is doing it.

7. Be cautious with content

Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to your recipient’s face (you do know that email is admissible as evidence in court, don’t you). Once you’ve hit ‘send’ you can’t control where and with whom your email might end up. Use emoticons and exclamation marks sparingly (if at all, depending on the prevailing organisational culture).

8. Don’t waffle

Email isn’t the right medium for building a case, hypothesising, assessing and finally recommending. Anything that complex needs more time than most people will give to an email. If it’s a draft doc for input then send it as an attachment and in the covering email be specific about what input you need by when.

9. If in doubt, save to draft

Before you send that brilliant idea / gossip / rant, save it to draft and step away. Cool off and check it later before you hit ‘send’. Use the final tip to guide you.

10. Put yourself in your recipient’s shoes

Think hard about how your recipient will respond to your message. What’s going on for them? How do they typically respond? What works when communicating with them?


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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