E-MAILS: HOW TO CONVINCE
PEOPLE YOU CAN'T SEE
Marya Holcombe, Strategic Communications
Note: Strategic Communications offers one and two-day courses in effective business writing, including one that focuses specifically on e-mails.
What has to be true for people to do what you want them to do?
They must pay attention to your message
…understand your message
…agree with your message
…remember your message long enough to take action on it
In the next four articles, we’ll apply these principles to e-mails, starting with the first one.
Get the reader’s attention – no one will act on your e-mail if they don’t read it first
- Address just one reader, if possible.
People don’t pay attention to form letters (listen up: customer service people) and they don’t pay much attention to e-mails addressed to a long list of people. Readers tend to assume someone else on the list will take care of your request, and they will shirk responsibility. If you can, direct the e-mail to just one person at a time and paste your message on each e-mail individually. This is especially important when providing the agenda for a meeting. If you need to keep everyone in the loop, you can send your e-mail to a number of people, but pay close attention to the next point.
- Use a salutation.
People love their names – hearing them, reading them. Most business e-mails don’t start with “Dear” any more, but you should always use the reader’s name in a salutation at the beginning the e-mail. Choose a first name or a Mr., Ms., or Mrs. (yup, some people still prefer Mrs.) depending on your relationship with the reader. Check the spelling of the name. Check it again. This rule applies even in e-mails addressed to several people.
- Never leave the subject line blank
Even when you know the person well, fill in the subject line. Leaving the subject line blank signals that you believe your name alone should stimulate the recipient to pore over your e-mail. That assumption may well be incorrect. Take the time to get the reader’s interest with a specific subject line, like “Vacation days increased to 22.”
- Use verbs to create interest.
What’s your reaction to a bland subject line like “Sales Meeting”? Are you asking yourself questions like these: “When is the meeting? What will be covered? Has there been a change in location?” The subject line is the headline. If possible, use a verb. A subject line like “5/17 Meeting Site Changed” will be read, since no one wants to be sitting in an empty room.
- Revise the subject line on forwarded e-mails.
You must have a reason you forwarded the e-mail, or you are a menace who deals with e-mails by simply forwarding them to someone else. You need to signal that reason in the subject line. If Joe’s e-mail was a request for authorization of a purchase, and you’re sending it to the person responsible, change the subject line to “Action needed on Joe’s request.”
- Mark it “urgent” only if the reader will agree that it’s urgent
If everything you write is urgent, then nothing is—and the reader will start ignoring you. The same goes for using “important” in the subject line. Do you really mean to suggest that all your other e-mails aren’t important?
Similarly, don’t overuse the “high priority” option.
- Keep the actual e-mail to one screen in length
Because of the glut of e-mail messages, readers swiftly make decisions about what they will deal with and what they will delete. Condense your main message to the length one screen displays, even though that will take you longer than simply running on and on. Your reward will be that people will read what you write.
- No jokes, not even forwarded jokes, ever
Although jokes do attract attention, humor is so often misunderstood that it’s just not worth the risk. And you’ll be just as responsible as the original sender if you forward them.
Coming soon: How to make sure the reader understands your e-mails.
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