3 Rules for Perfect Email

Your career success hinges on writing easy to understand emails. Now more than ever, teams co-create via the written word versus in-person meetings. Mastering the art of writing great emails will improve personal and group communication thus spurring professional growth.

There have been many posts on the subject “getting to inbox zero,” which means various organizing strategies and productivity tools for managing an overflowing inbox.

This post is about a different angle to email management: shining a spotlight on the sender’s responsibility, not the recipient’s, for effective email communication.

Let’s face it, an email exchange becomes a TODO for the recipient. They have to read the message, and then, in many cases, respond to questions or clarify assertions. The sender needs the message to be remarkable in some way to get a faster reply. This means the sender must put some thought into how the message will be read and acted upon.

3 Common Sense Rules for Perfect Email Communication

  1. Subjects Matter
  2. Use Generous White Space
  3. Format the Message for Easy Replies

 Rule 1. Subjects Matter

Start with a specific, compelling subject line. Use three to five descriptive words to help your reader understand context without having to read the message. This will help them prioritize your update. Sometimes it takes more time to craft the message subject then the actual content.

Bad subject lines:

  • Our company meeting
  • Follow-up
  • Introduction
  • Our meeting

Great subject lines:

  • 3 Tasks for Dec 5 2012 Company Meeting
  • Follow-up to Nov 12 2012 Meeting and 3 Questions
  • Mutual Introduction: Sean Smith / AcmeCo meet Ben Bove / MegaCo
  • I’m running late for our Mon Nov 19 3pm meeting

Rule 2. Use Generous White Space, and
Rule 3. Format the Message for Easy Replies

The second and third rules are combined because they relate to formatting and thought organization.

Don’t write an email like you are having an informal verbal conversation. Instead use brief statements with visually compelling horizontal separation. Proper formatting is guaranteed to get a faster, more accurate response.

Don’t write 100+ word monolithic paragraphs, and don’t bury important statements or questions in the prose. An email with multiple buried questions may only get one question answered, thus adding more friction with more back-and-forth replies until all the questions are answered.

Compare the two messages below. Which version is easier to read and more likely to get a complete reply?

Version 1 

Version 1 is a typical “email follow-up” to an in person meeting. (1) The subject is “non-specific,” (2) the message body contains a meeting request, (3) 3 specific questions and and a (4) folksy comment about a miscellaneous mutual connection. These are all buried in the above sample. It’s hard to read and decipher the questions and respond to the meeting request.

Furthermore, the meeting request puts the onus on the recipient to figure out dates for “next week” and will result in several back and forth volleys to get an actual date and time for the meeting.

And finally, the reference to the mutual connection is out of context to the 3 questions, and breaks the flow.

Version 2 – Using the “3 Rules Method”  

Version 2 allows the recipient to hit reply and answer the questions “in-line” to the original, preserving the context and also functioning as a visual TODO list for the 3 questions and the request for the next meeting. The subject text is also very specific and will be easier to respond to the email

The meeting request suggests specific dates and times and a method of contact. This is more efficient and the recipient can easily reply or suggest alternatives.

Extras:

Beyond the 3 rules above, consider these additional suggestions toward “more perfect emailing.”

  • Don’t mix too many different subject matters in the same email, instead use separate messages. Keep one main theme to a message for faster replies. If your reader has to consider disjointed concepts you may not get any response at all. By posing too many topics in one message you can paralyze the recipient from responding.
  • Suggest absolute times and a method of contact when requesting a meeting. Don’t write “tomorrow” or “next week.” Instead state “Mon Nov 19” or “week of Dec 10.” Using relative dates puts the onus on the reader to decode the real intent. The recipient should not have to perform complicated date calculations to know what “next week” means relative to the date the original message was composed.
  • And finally… Create a  new message instead of replying to an old message. The new message’s topic may not even be related to the old message. It always amazes me when I receive a message from a distant contact that is a reply to an email exchange from the previous year.