State clearly; ask clearly

If you can’t make your email easy to understand and act on, don’t send it.

Most of work email is about one of three things:

Any questions?
  • Informing people of something important,
  • Asking someone to do something for you, or
  • Amusing your closest friends with clever snark.

If your email isn’t one of those, don’t send it. If it must be sent, then respect the recipients’ time by doing these three things.

Be clear and concise

Most people who think they are great communicators are, in fact, terrible writers. My wife (an experienced teacher of writing) and I were lamenting yesterday that school teaches kids that good writing requires more words–add description, adjectives, DETAILS! Dead wrong, especially in business writing. More on this in future posts, but about work emails I want to say just these two points today:

  • Stick to the central point(s). Eliminate backstory. Eliminate details that are already known to the recipients. Eliminate distractions. The longer your email, the less attention your main point will get.
  • Use clear, direct language and sentence structure. Your reader should understand your point on the first reading. This isn’t always possible for complex topics, but it should be your goal. Don’t strive to make your email understandable; strive to make it impossible to be misunderstood.
No “quick question” email has EVER had a quick answer.

Set up the right response

Before you send your email, know what you want, and who you want it from. Don’t send your email until you are clear on those two points and have made it obvious in the text. Bad emails fail this in two main ways:

  • Pussyfooting around the question, or burying it in the middle. Don’t make the recipient work to find your question, or to figure out what you need from them. If I have to dredge your question from a bog of muddy text, I’m going to think you don’t really know what you’re asking, or I’m going to suspect you’re trying to hide something. Make your question or request clear, and set it apart where I’ll see it.
  • Not asking anyone in particular. When your question goes to a group, often no one will respond because they hope someone else will. Perhaps you’re sending it to the group because it’s a complicated issue that needs input from multiple people and you don’t know where to start. I’ve found that either asking a pointed question of one individual on the list, or stating outright that I need help and don’t know where to start, gets things rolling.

Reread and rewrite

If you don’t take time to make your email easy for me to read and respond to, I am going to set it aside for later.

Did that sound arrogant and dismissive to you? Did you think, “That’s really rude. I would hate to be his coworker”?

When I get a wordy, rambling, ambiguous, or difficult email, I know the sender prioritized their own time over mine. They decided it was easier to make me decipher their word maze than to take a few extra minutes and clarify their message. They may have saved a few of their own minutes, but they cost me extra time and effort, which delays their answer.

Now imagine that multiplied by everyone on the distribution list. If six people get your email, that’s six times the deciphering effort. It’s far more efficient to the group for you to spend a couple extra minutes editing.

In other words

State clearly; ask clearly. Get to the point. Eliminate distractions. Guide the reader to your request, and make it obvious who needs to respond.

If you can’t do those things, you’ve got either lazy editing skills, or lazy thought. Either way, you’ll end up frustrated that no one is responding. If no one responds, reread what you sent before blaming them. Over time, your effort will be rewarded when your coworkers pay more attention to your emails than other people’s, without even realizing it.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a new blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

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