Improve Your Productivity by Writing Better Emails

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(Sanya P.) — If you’re like me, you probably receive more than hundred emails to your work email daily and countless more to your personal email. The hardest thing is organizing your email and ensuring you’ve taken necessary action to relevant emails as required. In addition, we’re all guilty of sending an email without clearly outlining the expected action items thus causing for significant back and forth between the involved stakeholders. So it seems we can all use a reminder of several best practices for writing better emails that will help us get the point across and will minimize the countless back and forth communication, all contributing to ever increasing number of emails to everyone’s inbox.

When it comes to writing better emails, my absolute favourite reference is the following article written by Kabir Sehgal for Harvard Business Review named “How to Write Email with Military Precision“. Kabir mentions three key and very simple principles to improve the effectiveness of your emails. Here’s a summary of his recommendations that I use daily, especially when communicating with multiple stakeholders in the same email:

RULE #1: Use action keywords in your subject line

This simple step will immediately tell your recipient what is expected from them with this email. Here are few examples stated by Kabir (as quoted in his article):

  • ACTION – Compulsory for the recipient to take some action
  • SIGN – Requires the signature of the recipient
  • INFO – For informational purposes only, and there is no response or action required
  • DECISION – Requires a decision by the recipient
  • REQUEST – Seeks permission or approval by the recipient
  • COORD – Coordination by or with the recipient is needed

Once you start using this, your email will definitely stand out in the recipient’s email inbox and it will less likely get omitted or ignored. This is especially effective when dealing with senior stakeholders that require precision and such email effectiveness.

RULE #2: Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)

What could be more effective than starting your email with the key message and action item required? Honestly, nothing else. Instead of giving an introduction, keep all the fluff for later in the email and start with the purpose and action required FIRST. As Kabir states “The BLUF should quickly answer the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. An effective BLUF distills the most important information for the reader.”. You may get some neat military reference examples in the HBR article itself.

RULE #3: Be Economical

This is the simplest one and easiest to follow. In short, please remember the following key suggestions:

  • Short emails are more effective. If detailed information needs to be reviewed, consider providing it into a separate document.
  • If background information needs to be provided in the email, use bullet points as an easy way to communicate your facts.
  • Last but not least, to prevent clogging people’s inboxes, consider sending a link to download the document from SharePoint rather than attaching it to your email. This is especially relevant when sharing documents of larger size.

BONUS Suggestion:

When sending a longer email addressed to multiple stakeholders, consider colour coding your text. Here are some of my most used colour coding tactics:

  • Use different font colour for portions of a sentence that carry important message. This will draw the reader’s attention to this message and ensure its not ignored while reading.
  • When you assign a responsibility or have a question for one recipient, make sure you highlight their name, I usually use yellow highlight. This way, if they are quickly scanning through the email they will definitely catch any action items required from them.

These are just few of the many useful principles and rules for writing effective emails. If you have any other suggestion, please leave a comment and share them with everyone else.

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