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Writing effective emails

Original article by Graham Jones  |  Adapted by David V. Appleyard

Email messages have a tendency to become way too long, especially when you feel the need to give a comprehensive overview of some complex business situation and quote much of the material sent back and forth in previous exchanges.

Clifftop laptopMost people find that letters and emails which are short and to the point are the ones they respond to most positively. Lengthier written communications are generally only given a positive rating if we share a close and warm relationship to the sender. We rarely feel positive about people we don't know sending us long messages, and this has important implications for those using email in business. The vast majority of your emails at work are going to be sent to people whom you don't know or only have the slimmest of relationships with. Because anything other than a short email is likely to generate negative vibes in your reader, play it safe — keep it short!

This is all very well in theory, of course, but in practice, particularly at work, you often need to be precise and cover a lot of ground. The answer is to treat the actual email as though it were a cover letter and then attach the main body of your text as a separate word processor document. Virtually all email programs allow file attachments, yet the vast majority of emails are sent without using this facility. The advantage of confining the nitty-gritty details to an attachment file is that your recipient immediately sees your email in a more positive light The attachment contents will have been neatly summarized in a few lines that enable your reader to grasp your key points. If later on an in-depth explanation is required, then you have provided it.

Never rush off important communications. After composing the detailed version of your message in your word processing software, it is always a good idea to take a break, do something different and then return later in the day to read it through. Only then should you create that short summary for your covering email. Attempting to summarize something you have only just written is difficult because all the fine details will still be in your head. Taking a break helps unclutter your mind and makes summarization a whole lot easier.

One of the benefits of the "reply" button on email programs is that you can quote previous email. In this way the recipient can easily see what you are responding to. However, since many business emails end up going back and forth between various individuals in various departments, messages can quickly become very long indeed, with much of the material emanating from previous exchanges. The solution is to only quote enough to make your reply comprehensible. By all means, press the "reply" button to quote the original email, but then go through the quoted text and delete anything that is irrelevant to the current situation. Doing so is seeing the message from your reader’s perspective — they do not want to have to wade through vast swathes of text (often their very own words!) just to identify the point you are commenting on. In other words, use selective quoting rather than the wholesale quoting of emails so commonly practiced.

An additional reason why some emails are overly long is because their authors attempt to cover too many topics at one time. They are almost "brain dumping" everything they can think of that might be of interest to the reader. The unfortunate recipient is then left to figure out what actually is of relevance. Good communication, particularly when dealing with people we don’t know, is focused communication. That means, in essence, that each email should be about one topic and one topic only. A hint to this effect is given by the email program itself when it prompts you to type in a "subject" for your email.

So if your emails are about more than one subject — stop! Your recipient will react far more positively if you send four shorter emails about four separate subjects rather than trying to cram all you have to say into one single message. And if these separate emails receive a reply, which they are more likely to, the volume of quoted material is slso going to be considerably reduced.