10 Tips to Better Emails
Even without distributed teams that extend across time zones and functional areas, email has become a staple of our professional existence. As a project manager, I’ve learned that there’s a process for drafting emails. How do I get what I need? How do I get you to do what I need you to do? And doing that in a way that maintains the relationship, that is trusting and respectful. It’s not easy. Here are ten tips to drafting an effective professional email.
Tip #1 Redirect the conversation
Sometimes, email is not the best method of communication. Tactically, email is good for one-to-one conversations, however, when addressing issues that affect a group of stakeholders, consider pushing that conversation to an open forum.
I often use a community message boards to answer questions. If one person asks for resources, four others also have that question, and maybe five other people have answers. Everyone is involved in the conversation and the information disseminates quickly.
Emails also fall short for complex issues due to the risk of misunderstandings. With one group, I use Calendly, an app that allows individuals to schedule themselves into my calendar for a phone conversation. You have to be careful not to overuse Calendly, though, and come off as pretentious, like your schedule is the most important.
Tip #2 Formatting matters
In this day and age, people don’t want to read unless they have to. We’ve all become scanners, so make your emails scannable. Emails with extended content, like lists or instructions, should be broken up into sections. Use boldface and headings. Make it really clear which section tells you what. If I share information about a work trip, there should be a section about booking travel, another that explains re-imbursement, and so on. Only the simplest of email content doesn’t benefit from formatting awareness. Even without subject shifts, use white space between paragraphs.
Tip #3 Strip the padding
I used to feel a need to set the tone in an email. Emails, though, work best when they are short and sweet. People get so many @%$#! emails! When you know you need someone to do something, just get to the point as fast as you can. Kill the pleasantries. Kill the padding. Just say what you need to say.
And, that is where you need to get it really right because the less you have in there, the more content you need to pack in. It’s not easy. There’s an art to the professional email. Choose your words, be succinct, and edit down your email before you shoot it off.
Tip #4 Spend the time to get it right
Edit your emails with a critical eye. The review process is similar to doing a line-read in a literature or poetry class: analyze the email segment by segment and pull meaning from the text as if you’re not the author. Think about what you want your email to accomplish and about what it might actually do. And spend the time to get it right.
Maybe you feel strongly about something and write that recriminating sentence out of anger, but stop. Save that as a draft and come back later. More often than not, you are going to wish that you never put that sentence in there. I can never remember a time when I took a deep breath and DIDN’T delete that snarky line.
Tip #5 Pass it through a co-worker
Emails with complex instructions have an increased chance of being misunderstood, and highly sensitive subject matter comes with its own risks. So, pass your email to a co-worker or even to your boss for feedback. Ask, “How are you reading this?”
You can always get input from other people to improve your communications. Just be respectful of your co-worker’s time and reciprocate with alacrity!
Tip #6 Be flexible
Make your emails flexible. More often than not, you’ll want to be able to negotiate the way things play out after the email’s sent. In addition, leaving your reader options to respond supports a respectful relationship. So, leave some wiggle room for negotiation. Offer more discussion, more time, and/or other modes of communication, like a meeting or a phone call. When you must be firm, offer boundaries. For instance, if there is a sense of urgency, give a time frame.
Tip #7 Always offer solutions
Management is about getting people to do what they should do, and 99% of the time, they want to do it! But life happens and people have challenges of all types. Expectations aren’t met for any number of reasons. As a project manager, a lot of my communication is just to help people understand that support is available to them to meet those expectations. Always offer resources and opportunities to succeed.
Tip#8 Stop saying sorry unless you actually screwed up
When I first started, I found myself writing ‘I’m sorry,’ or apologizing in emails because it seemed like the appropriate tone. Then, at some point I realized, “No. People don’t respect it.” They read the email differently if that’s in there. An apologetic tone may seem like it softens the blow of a difficult request or shows sympathy for a regretful circumstance, but it’s seldom taken that way. More often, it’s perceived as insecure or remorseful for fault. Don’t ever type ‘I’m sorry’ unless you are actually issuing an apology. I apologize readily and often when I have screwed something up.
Tip #9 Lose the emoji :)
Emails preclude the use of body language, and some people try smiley faces and emojis to express acceptance, compassion, or a cheerful mood. I have no idea if this is okay in any particular professional setting---sometimes I see it, and sometimes I don’t. But unless you’re the one at the top and the most important person in the room all the time, you’re always going to wonder. So, just ditch the emoji and put your affectation in some other way.
Keep in mind that no one wants to read a long email and that you likely have overestimated its necessity anyway. Restrain yourself to a single sentence at the end of the email.
Tip #10 Say thank you!
Speaking of affectations, I often give thanks. It’s genuine, not something I just read it in an advice column somewhere. I say thanks for what I appreciate: Thank you for you for your attention to this partnership. Thank you for your time. Thank you for working through this with me; I know it’s challenging or I know it is unpleasant. Thank you! There’s always something to be thankful for, so say it!
Plus, it not only meets the criteria of being short and an earnest affectation of sympathy, it’s also an excellent exit strategy for the email. In fact, thanks for reading!
Drew Pizzolato has managed projects in higher education and non-profits for seven years. He’s an accidental project manager, no PMP or Scrum Master certificates here, who learned his trade through on-the-job mentorship and plenty of trial and error. Drew attributes his successful leadership to thoughtful communication, and says that one of the ways people fall flat is in email writing.