Write Office Emails That Get Answered

7 tips for keeping things clear and simple

As a copywriter, I do a lot of thinking about being clear and persuading people to do things. When you email colleagues, clients, and other associates, it’s often because you need them to do something for you. But it’s a given that all of them get too much email. If they read your email at all, will they read it to the end? Will they act on it?

You can increase the odds by making your emails as direct, simple, and clear as possible. Here are seven ways to do that.

1. Work the subject line

Spend a few moments writing a good subject line. Your readers will be able to prioritize their inbox at a glance, and it will be easier for them to find your email later if they want to refer to it while they’re doing what you need them to do.

> Summarize the contents and, if possible, what you want. For example, “Edits for your approval.”

> If you’re replying, change the subject line—especially if the topic has changed during the course of the conversation. It’s quite discouraging to go looking for a specific email and realize that it might (or might not) be among a dozen with the subject line “Re: Fwd: budget.” And it’s not even about the budget.

2. One topic, one email

I can’t be the only one who finds that some people do not read to the end of even medium-length emails. If you’ve got two topics to cover, send two emails. Each will be shorter, obviously, but you’ll also be able to write helpful subject lines specific to each topic.

3. Format some visual cues

I apply the same thinking I bring to web pages to emails. Visual cues go a long way toward making copy easy to grasp.

Use short paragraphs, subheads, bold type, color, and bullets or numbers (not all at a once, mind you) to organize what you have to say. This will help your readers focus on and digest the details of the email. And if they go back to the email later to answer or act on it, they’ll be able to scan it and quickly find the needed passage.

4. Trash or edit history

When you have a series of exchanges, delete the earlier ones from the bottom of the email if they’re not helpful. Or include only the parts that you reference in the latest one—delete the rest.

5. Call out attachments

If you’re sending one or more attachments, they’re probably the main reason for the email. I usually list attachments right at the top. For example:

Attached:

1. First draft for your review (Word doc)

2. Revised site map (PDF)

And of course I indicate the attachments in the subject line: “Web copy: draft docs attached for review.”

6. Get rid of your logo

Speaking of attachments, isn’t it annoying to see in the header that there’s an attachment, go looking for it, and then realize it’s just a logo? That’s five or seven or eight seconds your reader could have spent doing something else! Like acting on your email.

7. Put a face on it

This is not about writing, but it’s worth mentioning. If you work for a very large organization, you may regularly email people whom you’ve never actually met. Alas, you’re that busy. But, assuming they’re just floors away, not miles, make the effort to meet them in person.

I don’t have any data on this, just an anecdote: A client of mine who works in a big organization tells me that he makes a point of dropping by the offices of everyone he deals with. He’s found that once he exists for them as a person and not just as an email address or a voice, they respond to his emails much faster. One visit is all it takes. That’s time well spent.