This is a great article on rewriting your emails so that they cut through the thousands of demands and information people receive every week. – Reeve
by Katie Smith Milway | 10:00 AM July 26, 2013 | HBR blog
Virginia was ready to pull out her hair. Why wasn’t anyone responding to her email?
As the director of training for a global professional services firm, she’d recently sent out a note explaining important changes to the summer training schedule and asking office directors to respond with their preferred locations. But only a few had done so. Training was a huge priority for her firm, so why were they ignoring her request?
Corporate employees receive and send more than 100 emails a day on average, according to tracking sites like Pingdom and Radicati. Competition for attention is fierce. So, no matter your title or department, you need to master electronic messaging to get your job done.
Luckily, crafting emails in a way that encourages people to read and act on them is relatively easy. You just have to apply some age-old techniques of persuasion.
Before you start typing, consider:
The objective. What do you want to achieve with this email? Is your purpose to inform? Request input? Ask for help?
What-who-when. Your objective will inform the message, including what to write, who should receive it and when to send it. Also think about whether it should come from you, or someone with more seniority.
Visual logic. Clear structure and typographical signalling will boost the odds that your reader will get your message quickly and respond in ways that meet your goal.
Let’s look at Virginia’s original, unrequited email.
To: Blue Corp Office Directors
From: Virginia Brown, Training Director
Date: Friday, May 30, 2013
Time: 5 p.m.
Subject: New Hire Training
I’m writing to let you know about significant changes to our new hire training schedule. Instead of running training from August 15 – 20th at our New York location, we’ll be hosting regional trainings in New York, San Francisco and Cincinnati on three different dates. And we’ll be bringing our best trainers to every location. For those office directors with new hires, we’d like to hear which training location you prefer and how many new hires you’ll be sending. If for some reason the timing, which will be August 10-14th in NYC, 15-19th in SF and 20-24th in Cincinnati, doesn’t work, please contact my assistant, Francine Nordell at x2345, and we’ll see if there is enough demand for a make-up session. We need to put the calendar for training together by June 30th, so please get back to me by June 15th. I think you’ll be pleased with our new approach and your new hires will benefit tremendously from getting to know a smaller group of colleagues as they participate in the training.
Virginia’s message isn’t long, but it’s a muddle of mixed signals. Her opening line sounds like her goal is to inform office directors of a new approach to training. But in reality she’s requesting input: preferred training locations. That’s hard to quickly recognize, and the urgency isn’t clear.
There are several things she can do to better telegraph her intent, thereby prompting a better response:
- Put the subject line to work. Most of us already use our subject line to predict the “what,” e.g. “Re monthly financials.” But it’s also the place to build a personal bridge: “Re monthly financials, per Peter’s request,” and to indicate urgency: “Re monthly financials, per Peter’s request. Need feedback by Tuesday.“
- Visually highlight the key message. Structure your email so the most important request or information is at the top, then put it in bold. This may seem like a, “duh,” but people often “bury the lede”, as journalists like to say, several paragraphs down. If you are sending to multiple readers, also bold the names of anyone you address directly, so they immediately connect to content that’s relevant to them. If you’re making multiple points, use indentations and numbers or bullets.
- Use links to go deep; voting buttons to get answers. If you want someone to act on your email then make it concise and jargon-free. Use links to let readers go deeper or access forms, and voting buttons to get folks to sign up.
- Time the delivery for maximum impact. Never send an email at the end of the day or the start of a weekend. Make sure people are opening it at a time when they’re at their desks and have time to read it.
- Add clout by having a superior co-sign. We may be moving into a less hierarchical work world, but the boss’s name still gets attention. If you need help, ask for it.
- Leave the ball in the reader’s court. If you want people to get back to you or take action, make sure you put the request in bold as well. Make clear what you need from them.
Let’s apply this to Virginia’s email.
To: Blue Corp Office Directors
From: Gordon Boss, SVP Human Resources and Virginia Brown, Training Director
Date: Thursday, May 29, 2013
Time: 9 a.m.
Subject: Need Your Site Registration for New Hire Training by June 15th
We are converting from national to regional sites for our new-hire training and offering three dates. We need you to register your trainees for a venue by June 15th to accommodate all. Please click on one of the following sites to register and enter the number of trainees.
New York: August 10-14
San Francisco: August 15-19
Cincinnati: August 20-24
If the timing doesn’t work, please contact my assistant, Francine Nordell at x2345, who will gauge demand for a make-up session.
We’ll be sending our best trainers to all locations. We anticipate that getting to know a smaller group of colleagues will strengthen relationships and spark collaboration.
Thanks in advance for registering.
What are your challenges in email communication? And what tactics have you found to be irresistible?