How to Write Emails From Your Readers' Point of View
Make your email work for the reader, and you’ll quickly become the most popular person around. Then once others acknowledge you as an email sensei, start asking them to do the same for you.
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Listener Generosa writes in: How can I teach people to write organized, professional, and to-the-point emails? I continually receive emails from students, colleagues, and family members that are unintelligible.
We all love email! No, we don’t. We hate it. We hate getting it. But we love to give it. And if we’re going to give it, let’s learn how to give it right. Because thoughtless email can make a bad impression, and even leave your recipients with more work, just to get to the email in the first place. But you’ll be above all that—you’ll be the Amazing Person Everyone Wants to Hear Form—if you compose your email from the reader’s point of view.
Europa is secretly the supreme overlord of the Eastern Bloc, a very demanding job to fit in between her day job working in disguise as a cashier at the Green Growing Things plant store. So she’s decided to take a well-deserved vacation. She’s appointed her son Thomas as Chief Minion to take over her work email account while she’s away. It’s daunting! Europa receives thousands of emails per day, and they all seem to require an immediate response. And they’re all so poorly written. Thomas is about to get a crash course in writing good emails, by swimming through an avalanche of bad ones. (“Swimming through an avalanche.” I like that. I’m mixing my metaphors like a sleeping cat in a downhill ski competition.)
Use Strong Subject Lines
When Thomas opens up his email client, he sees only the subject lines of incoming emails. Thousands of subject lines. And they all say one thing: “Meeting?”
“Meeting for what?” cries Thomas. “Meeting for coffee or meeting for world domination? Or worse, maybe, just maybe, it’s… ” (he shudders) “a status meeting.” This subject line gives him no way of organizing the incoming mail.
A strong subject line, however, will help. Writing a strong subject line is different from titling your self-punished autobiography or naming your new tech start-up that you assure investors is “like Uber for aquatic birds.” Bad subject lines are ambiguous, raise more questions than they answer, or they introduce a new subject without depth. Good subject lines, on the other hand, are clear and to the point. They summarize the body of the email instead of just introducing it. They make you look like a star, since your reader knows what the message is about and can organize it where it goes in their workflow.
Never assume the reader of your email has any context for your message. In many cases they really don’t. And even if they were supposed to, they might have forgotten it entirely. The subject line, along with your name, is the first thing someone sees when you send them an email, and that alone will decide when (or if) they open it. It’s your responsibility as an email master to tell them exactly why you’re clogging up their inbox.
Make sure you let the recipient of each email knows what the email is about by using more than a single word. Instead of “Coffee rations,” Europa’s subjects would make a far better impression with a subject line of “Increase coffee rations now!” Instead of saying “Outrage!” if they took the time to write “Outraged at new manifesto font choice!” Thomas would immediately know that stopping coffee riots takes precedence over font choices and could deploy the Capitol Police accordingly.
Make Your Most Important Sentence Stand Out
Even if they open your email, many people scan your carefully crafted prose, rather than reading carefully. If that’s what they’re going to do, make it work for them.
When you take the time out of your day to sit down and write an email to someone, there’s usually a good reason for it. You have a burning question to ask, or some relevant information to pass on. Don’t bury your point in a sea of unimportant text. Instead, modify the text formatting to make your most important point stand out.
Europa gets hundreds of messages asking her to intervene in her subjects’ squabbles. One says, “Dear Europa, I hope this salutation finds you well. I am writing to you today to ask for your assistance with a personal grievance I have with my neighbor, Xorbak. Last week, Xorbak and I agreed to a fair trade in which I swapped two of my pigs for one of Xorbak’s cows. Xorbak has already used one of the pigs for a Lu’au. He says the pig was too fatty and the trade wasn’t kosher. Now, he wants his cow back. Please help.”
Even if they open your email, many people scan your carefully crafted prose, rather than reading carefully.
Thomas is ferklempt! After opening a hundred petitions in the last hour alone, he doesn’t know where to start. Should he ask why Xorbak of the Eastern Bloc is holding a Lu’au? Should he be addressing the finer points of Pareve? There’s a little too much going on in this message for him to skim it.
You should always be able to boil an email down to one statement or question that sums up why you’re sending it. Put that sentence in all-caps and bold type. If you’re feeling creative and have no sense of aesthetics, you can even knock the font size up a few notches and change the color of the text to something that will get the reader’s attention. Plus, add sparkles. Everybody loves sparkles!
No matter where this sentence is in the body of text, bold or all-caps draws the eye. It will likely be the first sentence someone reads when they open the email. Even if they’re just skimming, they’ll get the point immediately. Then, if they really want the context, they can go back and read your message from the beginning.
The farmer’s email could have been simply boiled down to an all-caps, bold sentence that says: “Hi Europa. PLEASE CONFIRM THAT TWO PIGS ARE, IN FACT, EQUAL TO ONE COW.”