Back when I had a job, I mentioned to my boss that I rewrote my emails two or three times before I sent them to him. He said that he was surprised because he thought I wrote the “best emails he got.” I said the reason he thought that was because I rewrote the emails two or three times before I sent them to him. I’m going to tell you the truth here: That wasn’t the real reason my boss liked my emails. The real reason he liked my emails was because he didn’t have to read them.
You might think that, when you write an email at work, you have at least one goal: To ensure your email gets read. On the other hand, when you’re on the receiving end of an email you often resent getting it. And with good reason: You know that every email that you get is just preventing you from finishing whatever you’re working on right now. You may not have over seven thousand emails pending in your mailbox…but you’ve probably got more than you want. The reality is, of course, that everyone else is just as busy as you are (maybe even busier). Like you, your email’s recipients just don’t have time to read your email.
As we discuss in Learning Tree’s Business Writing course, you’re just two steps away from an email your recipients will appreciate (rather than resent) getting.
It might be tempting to ensure that you get read by creating something as enticing as the clickbait on Facebook. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, that’s probably not going to work out well. The right answer is to create emails that the recipient doesn’t have to read…or, at least, doesn’t have to read all of.
The most important step in writing an email is to create a subject line that tells your recipient if they care about your email. If your recipient gets an email with a subject line of “Status report,” they have no idea if they have to read it. On the other hand, if they get an email with a subject line of “Status report: On track to hit our deadlines,” then they know they don’t have to read it — it’s one less thing for them to do. And, if they get an email with a subject line of “Status report: Plans to make up lost time,” they can make an intelligent decision about when to read your email.
While writing a subject line that lets the recipient know what to do with your email is the most important step, it may not be your first step. You probably won’t fully know what you’re writing about about until you finish your email. That being the case, feel free to bang in a dummy subject line when you start writing your email…but always go back and revise that subject line when you’re done.
The second step is to write a body that tells the recipient what they need and then lets your recipients go on with their lives. This, by the way, is the real reason my boss liked my emails: I put the part he was interested in at the start and the part he didn’t care about further down. For my boss, the part he was interested in was what I needed from him or what action I wanted him to take. If he didn’t have an objection to my request, my boss would just go ahead and do it — he wouldn’t bother with the rest of my email; if my boss had an objection then he’d start to read the rest of my email (and, I bet, he ever read one of my emails all the way to the end).
There’s no reason why you can’t do the same: Figure out what your recipient wants to know and put it where the recipient can find it.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Your email may be going to multiple recipients who have different interests. For example, your recipients might be interested in different levels of detail (e.g. management just wants a high-level overview, other members of your team want to know all the ugly details). Your email may also be about more than one topic with each recipient interested in only some of those topics. You don’t want to create a separate email for each recipient (after all, you’re busy too).
The critical issue is making sure that each of your recipients can find what they want. There are two tactics you can use here: the triangle principal and headings.
The triangle principle says that you begin your email with the material that virtually all of your recipients are interested in. In each subsequent paragraph, you focus on material that fewer recipients are interested in. This is the same principle used in a newspaper story where the first paragraph tells the whole story but without much detail; each subsequent paragraph adds more detail. As a reader, you stop reading when you get to a level of detail where you lose interest — your recipients will do the same with your email (and that’s OK!). You divide up your paragraphs on the basis of “If anyone is interested in the first sentence of this paragraph, they’ll be interested in the whole paragraph.”
The triangle principle works best when you have to describe something in depth, but know only some of your readers care about all of the details.
And, by the way, in a newspaper story often the whole story isn’t in the first paragraph — it’s in the equivalent of your subject line: The story’s headline. The headline for the story about yesterday’s baseball game was, after all, “Cubs Win: 7-3”.
But, often, you have several different topics to discuss and your various recipients are only interested in some of them. Headings allow you to label those topics so that your recipients can find the topics they’re interested in and (more importantly) skip the topics they don’t care about. You divide up your headings on the basis of “If someone found this heading interesting, they’ll want to read all of the paragraphs after it and before the next heading.” Putting your headings in boldface (as we do in this blog) will help your recipients find the sections that matter to them (if you’re willing to do more with fonts, I’ve written about the only four things you need to do with fonts, also).
In real life, you’ll use a combination of these two tactics. You’ll put the topic that’s valuable to the most recipients at the start of your email (along with that topic’s heading, of course); within each topic, you’ll begin with the material that most recipients will find valuable and finish with the material that the fewest recipients will be interested in.
If you do these two things (write a subject line that lets recipients know what to do with your email; write a body that lets recipients find what they want) then, who knows, your boss may think that you write the best emails of all.
Of course, rewriting it once or twice before hitting the Send button wouldn’t do any harm, either. Just sayin’.