Press. Process. Repeat. Email is the modern work processor.
Sending and reading email are essential parts of every professional’s workday. It’s expected that there will be 320 billion emails sent daily by 2021.
Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of written communication has a real impact on your company’s bottom line—so it pays large productivity dividends when people learn how to stop wasting other people’s time with messaging.
That doesn’t mean abandoning it; it means getting smarter about email.
First, before you click another reply, consider picking up the phone. Often a minute of conversation will be more expedient than another round of email; plus, live conversations are relationship builders.
Notice how different channels are consumed, and realize that an all-in-one approach doesn’t match reality. An intranet is great for centralized publishing of content, but the majority is never read. Social chat is great for real-time collaboration, but constant real-time interruptions and having multiple inboxes to manage quickly saps productivity.
When you are sending or replying to an email message, you are demanding the time and attention of your recipients. Here are seven ways not to waste it:
1. Use more white space.
White space is the blank page, the areas on the page where there is no content.
It’s difficult to walk through a room with little to no space between furniture and clutter. Likewise, it’s more difficult to read when paragraphs are dense and there is little space between blocks of pictures and text.
We tend to speed-read email; we scan it and process it, preferably quickly.
This is why the easiest, most effective adjustment you can make today to improve email readership is to break up paragraphs and provide more white space.
- Isolate important sentences, with space above and below.
- Send shorter paragraphs, keeping them to an average of three sentences.
- Asking for or explaining multiple items? Use bullet points.
- Have multiple topics? Use subheads in a larger font to organize sections.
- Keep your design and layout simple, use images where appropriate, and keep the main message or action at the top, inside the preview window
Ultimately, making email easier to scan, helping recipients to read it quickly, provides a companywide productivity boost.
2. Remember that less is more.
The optimal email takes less than one minute to read.
Most people read digital content at a rate of 225–250 words per minute.
To respect your recipients’ time, limit your words. Avoid excessive explanations, elaborate prose and meandering sentences. Choose simple words; it’s better to be clear and understood than attempt to articulate smart sounding but confusing.
Ideally keep your subject lines, headlines and calls to action to seven words or fewer. Email subjects and preview lines get cut off at 32 characters on mobile and 42 on the desktop, so that tends to be all that people will read to decide whether to pay attention.
Edit ruthlessly. Once you have your message down to 250 words, try to say the same thing in 125.
3. Get straight to the point.
Place your most important information right at the top. Social courtesy is nice, but leave the chitchat for the signature area at the bottom.
Email often involves a request, so elevate and isolate your requests, and make sure they are visible within the email preview pane window.
When you include deadlines or due dates, make them boldface.
If you have bad news, lead with it. Research shows that people feel more positively about an interaction when they receive bad news right away. End on an upbeat note or a positive view of the future.
When you receive a request but won’t have time to complete it within a couple of hours, send a quick two-sentence reply indicating what you have to do before you can answer, and when they can expect an answer. That is way more professional than not replying. Then, immediately right-click to set yourself a calendar reminder to beat the time expectation you just set.
Replies are often answers. If you were asked more than one question, it’s easy to miss answering them all. We’ve all received replies in which the last question gets answered but the first two are never addressed.
When replying with answers to multiple questions, copy each question into the reply, then separate each as bullets or numbered paragraphs, and answer each in a different font or color. This way, the question and answer are together yet distinct from each other.
4. Ask for just one thing.
Avoid putting more than one request in any email, especially if the requests cover different topics. Stay on the same thread; if you are going off-topic, start a new message.
Every email should have a clear objective. If you want someone to do something, ask specifically for that single action and nothing else. This guides the conversation toward the objective, saving time and focusing the reader’s attention. When you send multiple links or things to do in one message, you increase the likelihood that none of it will get done.
When scheduling meetings, provide your availability options right upfront to eliminate back-and-forth calendar alignment. Tools like Microsoft’s FindTime and Calendly are helpful for this, but simply providing two or three open dates and times allows the recipient to choose one and call it done.
When you must have multiple topics or calls to action within a single email, clearly separate them into separate or numbered paragraphs for convenience.
5. Respond mindfully.
It’s all too easy to misinterpret the intent and emotions behind the words, so be careful what you say and how you say it.
Start with why.
When you are the sender making a request of someone, take a sentence to explain why. When you are answering, use a sentence to explain the rationale behind your response. If you are the recipient and have any uncertainty, ask for clarity by repeating (in your own words) what you think they are asking for and why you think they need it.
Avoid the hard “no.” Offer suggestions, present alternatives or workarounds, or ask for clarity. When there is no alternative to “no,” make a phone call.
When you apologize or say thanks, mean it. Insincerity and rote responses work against you. Again, add your reasoning to the apology or gratitude, or don’t send it.
Finally, avoid jargon, or at least spell it out. Businesspeople are unlikely to know the buzzwords and acronyms of engineers, and vice versa. A web application firewall is more understandable than a WAF. A quarterly financial report is more understandable than a 10-Q. Align your word choices to your audience.
6. Be polite and professional.
Email is not a personal text message. Maintain your professional image by limiting the use of slang, emoji and other too-casual elements.
A professional email tone is conversational and authentic, so it’s best to write the way you would speak. You can also use body language techniques to build rapport in email, by mirroring. If your sender writes “Hello,” respond with “Hello” even if your default greeting is “Hi.”
Limit the CC. Unless you know the additional recipients are relevant to the conversation, leave them out. The sender’s inclusion of them doesn’t require you to respond to anyone but the sender.
Want to put more cheer and positivity into your message? Try smiling as you write.
7. Read it back to yourself.
Autocorrect is great; reading aloud to yourself is even better.
Proof listening will help you catch and correct any confusing sentences that autocorrect never will. Tools like Grammarly will help with specific language constructions, such as the use of “had been” versus “was.”
Email personalization is nice, but double-check that the recipient’s name is spelled correctly.
One final read-through never hurts. Certainly there are superfluous redundant words you could remove before you press send.
When it comes to email, sending less content—with more clarity and ample white space—will help your entire organization improve communication and boost productivity.
This article is in partnership with PoliteMail.