Bryan A. Garner is a leading authority on writing, usage, grammar, and style. He is the author of many books on writing, including the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing and the best-selling reference work Garner’s Modern American Usage.
Your clients and colleagues don’t have time to engage fully with every e-mail they get. Some of them receive hundreds of messages per day. That’s why they start with the ones they can deal with quickly. They may never get around to answering — or even reading — the rest.
So how do you earn their attention? Try these tips:
Stick to standard capitalization and punctuation. Conventions of good writing may seem like a waste of time for e-mail, especially when you’re tapping out messages on a handheld device. But it’s a matter of getting things right — the little things. Even if people in your group don’t capitalize or punctuate in their messages, stand out as someone who does. Rushed e-mails that violate the basic norms of written language bespeak carelessness. And their abbreviated style can be confusing. It takes less time to write a clear message the first time around than it does to follow up to explain what you meant to say.
Get straight to the point (politely, of course). Be direct when making a request. Don’t butter up the recipient first — although a brief compliment may help (“Great interview. Thanks for sending it. May I ask a favor?”). Spell out deadlines and other details the recipient will need to get the job done right and on time.
Be brief — but not too brief. People find long e-mails irksome and energy-sapping. The more they have to scroll or swipe, the less receptive they’ll be to your message. They’ll probably just skim it and miss important details — or skip it altogether. So rarely compose more than a single screen of reading. Focus your content, and tighten your language.
But as you’re trimming the fat from your message, keep the meat intact. When giving a project update, for example, supply enough background information to orient your readers. Consider your message from their perspective. They aren’t as immersed in your project as you are, and they probably have many other things going on. So remind them where things stood when you last sent an update, and describe what’s happened since then.
Plot out what happened, and when. When a serious dispute arises at a company, the lawyers will typically ask their clients to produce a “chronology of relevant events,” detailing the most important incidents leading up to the dispute. This document helps everyone involved think more clearly about how things unfolded. Try taking a similar approach when writing your e-mails. It will help you organize your thoughts into a coherent narrative. A story with a clear beginning, middle, and end will hold your readers’ interest more effectively than jumbled facts interspersed with opinions.
Add a short but descriptive subject line. Before hitting “Send,” check your subject line. If it’s generic or blank, your message will get lost in your recipient’s overstuffed inbox. Are you asking someone to take action? Highlight that in the subject line. Make your request easy to find — and fulfill.
Copy people judiciously. Include only those who will immediately grasp why they’re on the thread; don’t automatically click on “Reply All.” Your correspondent may have been over inclusive with the “Copy” list, and if you repeat that mistake, you’ll continue to annoy the recipients who shouldn’t be there. And avoid using BCC unless you are quite sure it’s necessary. It could get you a bad reputation as being indiscreet.