How to Write Better Emails

Get tips on how to write more efficient emails and learn how to cut out the back and forth that slows down a project.

Stever Robbins,
April 27, 2010
Episode #130

Back before email, it took time to communicate. "Instant" messaging wasn't so instant. It required people on horseback to ride for a very long time. If you were commanding a battle, you'd send a rider to your Lieutenant. "Hey, s'up?" They'd write back, "Bored." You'd write back, "Wanna try a sneak attack?" They'd write back, "Nah." It took four horses and two riders for that exchange. Battles got lost a *lot* back then, but Milly the Horse Breeder made a fortune. She was the 1800s equivalent of Lockheed Martin.

Email Isn’t Always Efficient

Coordinating things via email isn't much better. Because there are no horses involved, we mentally treat it as a conversation. You're trying to organize a meeting of the Tofu-as-Building-Material Study Group. You send an email:

"Shall we meet (no pun intended)?"
They write back "Sure. When?"
You write, "How about Friday."
They write, "Can't do Friday. Next week sometime?"
You write, "Tuesday."
They write, "No."
You write, "Wednesday?"
 They write, "Sure. What time?"

You know you've done this, and you've been on both sides of the exchange.

Emailing is Different than a Conversation

That exchange might make a reasonable conversation, but conversations weren't meant to be efficient. If they were, we would beam thoughts to each other. If you've ever been to a high school dance, you know that doesn't work. No matter how hard you beam your thoughts, the guy, girl, or transgendered person of your dreams will not figure out you're interested until you compare notes over coffee decades later.

Word-at-a-time conversation—like the aforementioned email exchange—also risks one of you getting distracted. If someone gets distracted and doesn't reply, you can end up stuck waiting for them and you'll eventually forget, too. After all, it was SO stimulating.

You Need to Write More Efficient Emails

Think about all the information you'll need to finish the conversation and then put as much of it into your next message to ensure the conversation moves forward.

You're probably smarter than an old fashioned military commander. If you had to send horses back and forth sentence by sentence, you'd be highly motivated to find a better way. The problem is that you both have information in your brain that you're thinking, but it's only coming out a word or two at a time in your conversation. Even if you want to speed things up by kidnapping them and eating their brain, that won't leave them in any condition to help with your problem.

You can, however, bypass the horses by putting as much into each message as you can; get what's in your brain out. Think for a moment about what you need to communicate. Think about the next sentence, as you do now, but keep going. Think about all the information you'll need to finish the conversation. Then put as much of it into your next message as you can, to ensure the conversation moves forward.  I discussed these same principles in my episode on avoiding phone tag, so revisit it if you want more advice.

How to Write Better Emails

You would write to your Tofu group:

"Hey, let's meet to discuss the Tofu resolution we'll present at City Council. Let's meet Friday at 8 in the meatpacking district. If that doesn't work, Tuesday at 4 in the vegetable packing district. Let me know what works for you, or suggest an alternative." 

You know that to plan any appointment, you'll eventually need to state the agenda, when, and where it is. By sharing it all at once, your Tofu minions just need to say "Yes" or suggest an alternative.

Include Default Actions in Your Emails

You still run the risk of your Tofu minions not responding. Maybe they've passed out from malnutrition, or maybe they're just too busy and forgot they needed to get back to you. Then you're left holding the bag. You can't keep the project moving until you hear from them. By including a default action, however, you can keep going, even if they're busy receiving a glucose drip. It's easy.

"If I don't hear from you, I'll assume you're OK with the Friday at 8 p.m. time." Once you include that in your message, you're golden. If they respond, you'll have their alternative suggestion. If they don't respond, you still have a plan.

It's not just for planning a meeting. You can use it for decision-making, too. "Honey, I'm planning entertainment for little Casey's 5th birthday party. I don't know whether to rent Bambi, Cinderella, or Evil Dead: The Musical. Unless you suggest an alternative by Saturday, I'll pick up Evil Dead." Notice that we gave a default movie AND a default time limit. That way, the decision can only stay in limbo until Saturday.

Use This Tip to Write Better Cover Letters

The whole goal here is to keep things moving forward by anticipating their questions, making it easy for them to respond, and having defaults in place in case they don't respond.

In addition to using this tactic for writing better emails, you can also apply it to writing better cover letters when you're job hunting. Never end a cover letter saying "Call me if you're interested." They won't call, but they will have a party where they cackle gleefully and dance around a bonfire of all the resumes of people they're rejecting. Instead, say, "I'll call you Thursday at 2 p.m. to follow up. If that time isn't convenient, contact me at 555-5555 and suggest another time." That way, you can take charge and keep things moving forward.

Think ahead. Anticipate the information they may need. Give them as much as possible to take the next step. And put defaults in place in case they don't take action.

I know you're about to ask where you can see cast photos from Evil Dead: The Musical, in which I finally realized my lifelong ambition of playing a dancing tree. This episode's transcript has a link to the pictures.

This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com or leave voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS.

Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter. Visit my Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/GetItDoneGuy You can find this episode’s transcript at getitdone.quickanddirtytips.com. 

Conquer your email with my audio program You Are Not Your Inbox: Overcoming Email overload at YouAreNotYourInbox.com.

For information about keynote speeches, workshops, or other appearances, visit SteverRobbins.com for details.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

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