Call it a boon, call it a bane, but emails have become an integral part of modern work life. Even so, I am often surprised at how little training one receives at the workplace on how to write an email. One cause for this neglect is perhaps the way that the email first came into our lives – as a medium for social connection. It did not start out as a replacement for formal letters.
I recall vividly the section on ‘letter writing’ at every language exam while in high school, where points/ marks would get added or deducted depending on whether certain elements of letter-writing were in place or not. Now that emails have largely replaced office mail, it behooves the question, ‘what should be the critical elements of an email?’ That’s the science…
Then there’s the question of what function an email must serve. What does one want as a result of an email? Communication, of course, but to what effect? If an email has not had a desired effect, it has essentially failed as a piece of communication. Writing an email must achieve the desired result. That’s the art…
The Science of Email Writing
To, CC, BCC
The first field, ‘To’, is a no-brainer, isn’t it? Not really…because it often overpowers the ‘CC’ field, when really the latter needs to be used. Add people to the ‘To’ list when they are the specific persons who need to respond to your email.
Anybody else that you might think of should be in the CC field because they probably fall into one of the following categories:
- to be kept informed because of common goals, such as a team member;
- to be kept informed because of hierarchical relevance to the subject, such as an immediate boss, yours and/ or the addressee’s; or
- to be kept in the loop because of the potential for influencing the outcome of the email, such as a super-boss or a critical senior executive. ‘Influence’ is a big catalyst in achieving the desired response to corporate email.
Learn to curb the temptation to add people to the CC list – not everybody needs to be in on each email. Similarly, don’t hit Reply All unless it is necessary.
The BCC field, unfortunately, is just a bad idea for corporate email because it has ‘sneaky’ written all over it. It is best reserved for social/ unofficial email or mass ‘forwards’ where it doesn’t matter to the addressees what the identity of the other addressees is.
Despite the number of times that each of us has probably had points deducted for not having included a subject for our letter-writing assignment while at school, many people don’t realize that they MUST have a subject line in an email. It makes it easier for the reader to read, prioritise and act upon your email if (s)he knows what the topic of discussion is. Use the Subject field to your advantage by making it as relevant to the communication as possible.
Choose your greeting based on the following criteria:
- The rapport/ relationship that you share with the addressee(s)
- The frequency of interaction with the addressee(s)
- Whether the interaction on the current subject is an ongoing one or an initial one
- Whether the email is likely to be sent forward to other persons, internal or external to the organisation
The Art of Email Writing
No, I didn’t forget to include the Body of the email. That is actually where the ‘art’ comes in.
Human beings tend to see the world in terms of calendars and clocks, i.e. in a chronological sequence. This is a great tool, psychologically, to keep track of things. However, it is rather antithetical to corporate prioritization (Is this email important?) and decision-making (How should I respond?) The email writer has a huge opportunity to make these two processes more efficient.
Conventional wisdom tells us to follow these steps:
- Provide the ‘Background’ for the email;
- List the steps that have already happened in the sequence of events since the background, often accompanied by the evidence to prove that they happened;
- Put forward the current situation and circumstances, and, finally,
- Raise the request/ question or state the directive, etc.
Very common sensical, isn’t it? But here’s the catch. Depending on the context, such an email could be four lines (at least) to one and a half pages (or more) long. Who wants to read page-long emails before they are told what is expected of them? For all the time-saving hacks that corporate productivity gurus talk about, shouldn’t shorter emails be on top of the list? I signed up to the email charter five years ago and it has saved me a lot of work and I’m sure it has saved the recipients of my emails a lot of time.
Alternative wisdom would use the same elements but in a different flow:
- State the main reason for writing the email – raising the request/ question or stating the directive, etc. This is the main response desired/ action you want taken as a result of the email.
- Provide the rationale (at most five points) for the reason above
- List the attachments, if any, that you’ve provided to be read for anybody who needs more details, with a short description of what’s in each attachment. These attachments could include the ‘Background’ and the sequence of relevant events, among other things.
- Plug in the attachments.
Voila! Your email is now two brief lines with, perhaps, a small set of bullet points for support. The best part about a short email that states the desired outcome at the top is that is it has a higher chance of actually being read and, hence, responded to.
Get more from less with your next email.