How To Write Emails People Will Actually Read
I recently had an interesting conversation with a co-worker about the differences between email in America and email in Europe. My colleague, who had spent several years working abroad, was explaining that Americans seem to treat email as a stream-of-consciousness, rambling, instantaneous conversation that just happens to take place online instead of face-to-face. Whereas Europeans treat email as just another type of formal business correspondence. They take the time to think about what they’re writing, use formal salutations and allow more time to respond.
I found an interesting article in Slate Magazine that speaks more in-depth about the differences between Euromail vs. Amerimail:
“We Americans are reluctant to dive into the meat of an e-mail; we feel compelled to first inform hapless recipients about our vacation on the Cape which was really excellent except the jellyfish were biting and the kids caught this nasty bug so we had to skip the whale watching trip but about that investors’ meeting in New York. … Amerimail is a bundle of contradictions: rambling and yet direct; deferential, yet arrogant. In other words, Amerimail is America.”
“Euromail is stiff and cold, often beginning with a formal “Dear Mr. X” and ending with a brusque “Sincerely.” You won’t find any mention of kids or the weather or jellyfish in Euromail. It’s all business. It’s also slow. Your correspondent might take days, even weeks, to answer a message.”
It seems that email is taking over as one of the main forms of business correspondence in the American workplace. Americans spend roughly 2 hours a day checking email, or a quarter of the normal workday. That’s a lot. Not to mention the time spent checking personal email accounts at home.
As the amount of email in our inboxes keeps rising, I’ve begun to notice a backlash toward email and other types of technological accessibility, such as blackberries or cell phones. Thousands of people are taking “email diets” or foregoing email accounts altogether.
I think email is too valuable to the modern business to just give-up on. However, I do think we can be smarter about how, what and to whom we write emails. I think we learn from Europeans and start spending more time “crafting” each email as if it were a true business correspondence rather than an instantaneous record of our immediate thoughts.
Working for a company whose main method of customer interaction occurs through email and spending most of my time formatting text to be the most readable and effective on the web, I have come up with a formula for writing effective emails that people will actually read and respond to.
Descriptive Subject Lines
Emails with subject lines like “hey!” or “wazzup?” might be ok for personal emails between friends, but when you’re competing for email time from the CEO of your company or an important customer you want to make sure it’s your subject line that grabs their attention. Be descriptive about your email, making sure to include important points while staying within 1 line of text.
Email paragraphs should be no more than 3 – 5 lines of text. Studies have shown that reading text on screen is a lot harder on the eyes than reading printed text on a page, which is why making paragraphs short is the key to getting people to read everything in your email.
Put the most important points first
Emails should also be written in a journalistic style: most important, “newsworthy” and current information first, followed by action items and any necessary background information last. People tend to skim or even just skip the body of emails, so make sure you have the important stuff right at the top.
People like to scan things on a computer screen rather than read through heavy blocks of text. This is why bulleted lists are a great way to present information, especially if you are addressing an email to multiple recipients with multiple action items or questions in need of answering. Include a recipient’s name next to the action item and you have an even better chance of getting that person to respond quickly, since people are drawn to their own names.
Set clear expectations for response time
If you need a response by a certain date, be sure to say so in your email. With so many emails flooding inboxes per day, it’s easy for emails to get lost in the shuffle and forgotten. However, by putting a clear response time in the email, people will assume the matter is urgent and be more willing to respond right away.