Work Culture

Shorter is better: The guide to writing an email that gets results


Published on August 21, 2017

Ever feel like you spend most of your day writing and responding to emails rather than doing your actual work? You’re far from alone. Most people feel overwhelmed by the volume and intensity of email. Worldwide, workers sent and received an average of 122 messages daily in 2015, and the McKinsey Global Institute found that the average U.S. employee spends 28% of their workweek managing this daily email deluge. Not surprisingly, all these messages are stressing us out. When it comes to effective email communication, it’s high time we became the change we want to see and start leading by example. With that in mind, we collected six of the best tips for how to write an email that gets results and reduces everyone’s inbox anxiety.

1. Craft clear subject lines

Get to the point from the get-go. Make sure your subject heading succinctly conveys the email’s purpose, what is expected of the recipient, and the level of urgency. Composing a concise subject line also forces you to think through why you’re sending a message before you add to someone’s inbox pileup. You may want to begin the subject line with a keyword that telegraphs the objective, such as “Request,” “Sign,” or “Decision.” Then follow that keyword with a brief description of the reason behind this action. If you need feedback by a certain date, say so, e.g., “July cover images. Need input by Thursday.” If the email requires no action, label it as an FYI. But again, be sure to indicate how this information pertains to the recipient. And, of course, only send an FYI if the reader really needs to know the information. If it’s just something you found interesting, then you’re only contributing to their email clutter.

2. Keep it brief

When you write an email, channel your inner newspaper reporter, not the budding novelist within you. The average adult’s attention span is a mere eight seconds—one second less than that of a goldfish—so it’s important to immediately answer the five W’s (who, what, when, where, and why), preferably in the first sentence. In other words, don’t bury the lede. This may sound obvious, but people often spend a few paragraphs warming up to their main point. Similarly, if you have a big ask, don’t hem and haw or try to butter up the recipient. Be polite, but direct. Your reader shouldn’t have to sift through sentences to discern your meaning. Stating what you need upfront also ensures that your audience will at least see your request in the preview pane. Effective email writing also means avoiding anything that requires your readers to scroll. The more recipients have to scroll, the less likely they are to read the entire message. Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy, is even more ruthless. He suggests limiting emails to three sentences or less. “If an email needs to be substantially longer than three sentences, it might be a conversation that’s better had over the phone,” he told Fast Company.

3. Revise your emails before sending

Concision often requires revision. Don’t just do a brain dump and hit send. Take a step back and read over your email. Make sure it follows a clear narrative structure, and excise any unnecessary words, phrases, and background information. Your readers may need some context, but they don’t need to know everything you know. On the other end of the word-count spectrum, don’t just toss off a response that you haven’t fully thought through. Terse one-liners can elicit just as many clarifying questions as rambling streams of consciousness. Consider your readers’ perspective. Do they know whether or not your pithy message is a sign of frustration? Have you shared enough context to ground them in the conversation that you’ve been having in your head? If you’re giving a project update, for example, “ remind them where things stood when you last sent an update, and describe what’s happened since then,” recommends Bryan A. Garner, the author of HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. If you need them to take further action, make sure all deadlines and expectations are spelled out. Keeping your prose tight and specific may take more time in the beginning, but it pays off in the end. Your colleagues will understand you the first time around, which will reduce follow-up emails asking for clarification.

4. Break up the text

For emails that require more than a few sentences, avoid monolithic blocks of text. Instead, visually break up the information into short paragraphs of just two to three sentences. Use numbers or bullets for lists of questions, action items, or background information. If you’re sending the email to several people, bold the name of anyone you address directly or assign a task to, so they can quickly grasp what’s pertinent to them.

5. Be human

Brevity is key to effective email communication, but that doesn’t mean you should sound like a robot. Since emails don’t include vocal intonations, facial expressions, and body language, they’re susceptible to misinterpretation. To avoid coming off as unintentionally cold or critical, don’t skip the niceties. Otherwise, you may have to send additional emails to mitigate hurt feelings and correct any miscommunication. Similarly, it’s also a good idea to let a bit of your personality shine through. As a Harvard Business Review article on business email etiquette points out, “Studies that have examined email negotiations show that simply having people engage in a brief ‘getting to know each other’ interaction prior to negotiating can significantly improve negotiation outcomes.” Peppering your emails with exclamation points and emojis might not be the best way to convey emotion in a professional exchange. However, depending on the context, they can be helpful tools in moderation. To be safe, let the other person make the first move. If they sprinkle in exclamation marks, return them in kind. If they refrain, do the same. This strategy of behavioral mimicry has been found to improve outcomes in text-based chat negotiations by 30%.

6. Timing is everything

If you want to increase your chance of getting a response, send your message first thing in the morning or during lunch. According to a user analysis by email scheduler Boomerang, emails sent at these times had the highest response rates because people typically check their messages as soon as they get to their desks. Another study on email-open rates found that emails sent on the weekends are more likely to be opened due to lack of competition. But if you want to alleviate your colleagues email stress rather than compound it, swear off hitting send on Saturday or Sunday—or at 2:00 am for that matter. People need time to disconnect and refresh. Resist contributing to an always-on culture that can leave co-workers depleted and ultimately less productive. If you want to cross an email off your to-do list during off-hours, consider using a scheduling app to send the message during a more reasonable hour. Most of us rely on email every day to communicate with colleagues. And even with the spread of alternative communication and collaboration tools, email isn’t going away anytime soon—nor does anyone really want it to. If we all keep these simple tips in mind, together we can decrease the volume of unnecessary messages and increase the effectiveness of the ones we send.