Seven Things I Know About Improving Email Effectiveness
Written by
Cynthia Hartwig
August 2011
Written by
Cynthia Hartwig
August 2011

Consider the "end" in Send

Email still rules as the communication of choice in business. Learn how to write effective emails and watch your performance review take a bump up.

1. “Lick” it or not, email speaks volumes about you. Recently, my brilliant and multitasking business partner at Two Pens, Emily, sent out a simple email asking friends to “like” our new Facebook page. Except somehow the word “like” magically retyped itself into “lick.” Oh man, did we get response. I won’t comment on what was going on in Emily’s subconscious that spilled into her typing, but clearly, the difference between “licking” Two Pens and “liking” us is the stuff of office lore.

2. Email reveals your personality, work habits, and ability to think about the big picture—even when it’s about the smallest details. Typos, grammatical errors, “fuzzy logic,” and lack of clarity telegraph questions you really don’t want the recipient asking: “What is this email about?” “What do they want me to do?” And such missteps may provoke the response you most want to avoid: “Are they wasting my time?” There are always two parts of an effective email communication: what’s said and what isn’t said but is intuited by the recipient. Would you like to be thought of as a strong, clear decision-maker or a ding-dong?

3. “Send” is the most dangerous part of an email. Many people respond to emails instantaneously, creating a kind of knee-jerk culture. Being accessible at all times is not doing the receiver a favor: you wouldn’t run to the door in your ratty underwear, would you? Then why would you fail to check the decimal placement on a financial report that the chief exec asked you for? If your index finger is magnetically attracted to the “Send” button, compose your email offline in Word. The act of composing, printing, and questioning your facts will slow you down enough to save yourself from looking stupid or unprepared. Remember: there’s a parallel relationship between speed and screwing up.

4. Email gives you unprecedented access to upper management. Access to the CFO or even your boss is a double-edged sword. An ineffective, wandering email exposes your weaknesses, especially if you accidentally went into autopilot. Because email is a written, archivable document, consider it to have the longevity of a radioisotope. Unlike a simple walk down the hall to ask a question or clarify an issue, a mistake in email says, for all the world to see, “(Your Name Here) has poor judgment.”

5. Indicate what the email is about in the subject line. Effective email responders constantly scan their in-boxes for “important” emails versus ones that can be automatically trashed or left till later. An email subject line receives 2.3 seconds of attention to determine if the email is worth opening. Use the subject line to clearly tell the recipient what your mail contains. Don’t try to be clever. “First-quarter financials thrill analysts” will outperform “Whoopee!” And later, when your email gets archived, the recipient won’t hate you because she can’t find it.

6. One topic per email is more effective. Sure, people can handle more than one task if you lump them together. But multitaskers will often miss tasks that are buried in the middle of a list. If you split your “to-dos” into separate emails, you’re more likely to get the action you need.

7. Last in, first out. The old LIFO accounting principle really improves email effectiveness. Sum up what should be done in the last line. “Please pick option A or option B today.” “Provide the sales team with a feature-benefit list by Thursday.” “All PPT slides are due 3/15!” If you include the “date needed by” with a clearly stated “action required,” it’s impossible for the recipient to claim they didn’t know what was expected. Why? You’ve got the email to prove it.

I’ll write more about composing effective email to people who don’t know you (for prospecting and lead generation) another day. For now, email onward. (Just think before you send.)

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