Four Keys To Writing Effective Emails

Email can be one of the most effective ways to transfer information in our work and personal life.

It can also create a whole series of problems related to misunderstanding, even in a professional setting.

Here are four keys to writing emails that communicate clearly and get you what you want.

Quick Ideas For Effective Email

1) Break up your message using spaces, headers, or bullet points.

When we open up an email that is a page long with no obvious breaks, our eyes glaze over as we search for keywords that will clue us in to what we are being asked to do.

A sub-header like the one I wrote above “Quick Ideas For Effective Email” can break up a message that has multiple parts into easy-to-read chunks.

2) Make sure your “ask” is clear.

The “ask” of an email is what you expect the reader to do.

There are several ways to make this clear starting in the subject header.

If all you care about is notifying the subject of the email about something then include “FYI” in your subject header (e.g. “FYI: Test Phase 4 Completed With No Errors”). Such a subject let’s the receiver know that they don’t really have to read the message unless they are surprised by this update.

Likewise, a subject like, “Action Required: Update your overdue case notes”, lets the receiver know that this is something they need to do.

Beyond the subject line, use bolding, underline, or bullet points to make sure the reader knows what you want.


a) Please review all of the cases opened this week.

b) Email me if any of the notes I made on those cases needs to be updated.

3) Re-read and remove cultural references and idioms

This is not a call to be randomly politically-correct, but a matter of clarity.

If you work in a global organization, it’s important to consider that while others may speak English for business purposes, there are many levels of language and experience that are extremely different from your own.  This can apply whether your email is business, personal, or some sort of religious outreach.

American metaphors and phrases are full of ideas about competition and being the best individual one can be, but these ideas are foreign (literally) to many cultures. They not only lose their power when conveyed to a reader whose experience is different, but they can confuse the more obvious message you are trying to send.

Before finishing your email, re-read it and see if there is anything that might confuse your message and re-word it to avoid the situation.

4) Write the email that you would want to receive.

This is a fairly new trick for me.

Prior to sending it, I imagine the following scenario:

I’m sitting at my desk and I’ve just received and been interrupted by the message that I just finished writing.

When I read it are all of the following true:

a) Easy to understand if I have any actions.

Can you see the ask clearly (bullet-ed, bold-ed, or highlighted)? If not, consider making modifications to the structure or formatting.

b) Appropriate tone in case the person is having a bad day.

Imagine you got the email from someone who rubs you the wrong way. Is the wording clearly professional, even while reading in that person’s voice?

c) Sent at the appropriate time of day and with the correct urgency.

If you need a response in three days then sending with high importance is like crying wolf, unless the consequences of not getting it in three days are very significant.

Also, if I am asking someone for something and it is close to the end of their work day, I will use the Delay Delivery option in Outlook (Options –> Delay Delivery) to delay sending it until an hour into the following morning work hours.  That way I’m not sending them out of the office thinking about a big job while they are at home.

What are your most effective ways to email?  Let us know in the comments.

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