Writing a Simple and Effective Email

The art of communication is the language of leadership.   – James Humes

You hear that ding. (Well, I am not sure if “ding” is the right sound, but you know what noise I mean.)

And at the same time, the message preview pops up on the bottom-right of your computer screen. Or perhaps it is in some weird place if you (most likely accidentally) moved it from its original position.

EMAIL!

I admit that I am distracted easily, so when I hear that ding, I have to look!

torn paper - KISS.jpg

We all get it email, and likely way too much of it. Sometimes a phone call is much more productive than an email chain that goes back and forth with multiple parties over a few days. But since email is part of our work culture, you must learn how to write clear, succinct emails that communicate to the reader whatever it is you intended. As the KISS principle says - keep it simple, stupid!

There are many different reasons to send an email, but I think it boils down to three main communication categories – you either want your readers to know something, feel something, or do something. The middle one is likely not as prevalent in the project management realm, aside from needing your team to feel a sense of urgency to get things done. But all three are important.

When I write emails that contain more than a few sentences, I keep the following seven tips to writing a simple and effective email in mind.

  • State the reason for the email – Just as people should know why they were invited to a meeting via the agenda, people should understand why they are receiving an email from you. It might be obvious because they are on the project team and you regularly send emails. But in cases where you might be emailing someone new or infrequently, you should share the reason for your email at the beginning so that they understand the context and can prioritize accordingly.
  • Include a clear call to action (or lack thereof) – Is the email just to inform the readers of something? Or are you requesting feedback, a decision, or another form of action? Adding your call to action to the subject line is a good tip to keep your readers on track. You can use words like “FYI,” “Feedback Requested,” or “Please respond by end of day” to help the reader know whether and when you expect them to take action.
  • Use words that everyone understands – This one sounds like a no-brainer, but use simple language and define all (or most) acronyms. If you are working with people from around the globe, where English may not be the first language, try to avoid using idioms that may not translate. I was also told the common American sign-off “Thanks” may be taken as short and curt in other countries, so I have started to sign off using “Thanks + Kind Regards” to show my good intentions, especially when making requests.
  • Be succinct – Keep it short, sweet, and to the point! As long as you do not lose the intent of the email, get rid of all of the excess words. If you are a grammar nerd like I am, this exercise will be a fun one! For longer emails and/or emails to executives, I typically scribe all of the information I want to communicate, and then cut it in half by eliminating unnecessary words and details.
  • Only include relevant information – This one is similar to being succinct, but note the slight difference. I recently worked with someone who included so many irrelevant details in her emails, I can only imagine that it left the large audience even more confused and wondering what she was trying to say and whether they needed to take action.
  • Highlight the most relevant information – Once you have all of the relevant information (and only the relevant information) in your email, you can continue to highlight the most important parts by using bolds, italics, or underlines. I also love using bullets because it breaks up text and directs people’s attention to key points. If your readers only spend a few seconds on your email, this tactic will help them know where to focus.
  • Know when to pick up the phone – In the end, if you find that you are going on and on, or if you fear your meaning or intent will be misunderstood, or if you frankly do not have time to wait for an email response – then pick up the phone! The person you are trying to reach may not answer the phone (or may even screen the call!), but leave a message and she will call you back… Or perhaps email you! But at least you will get a response.

These tips can be used not only in emails to project teams, but also for communications in general. If you are rolling out a project and sending an announcement email to your various groups of project stakeholders, or if you are reaching out to customers or clients – you should always keep these communication tips in mind.

Not only will following these tips make you look like an organized grammar and/or linguistic guru, but it will also help your team/stakeholders/customers know what they need to know, feel what they need to feel, and do what they need to do.