Most of my career I considered myself an effective email communicator. That is until I had a conversation with one of the vice presidents within my company that made me rethink everything. She was the kind of person who was always on the go, so when I didn't get a response to an important email I stopped by her office and asked if she received my message. She explained she usually only reads the first 2-3 lines of any email. So if you need a response or anything else from her, you’d better put it in those first 2-3 lines.
I went back to my desk and started reviewing some of the emails I’d received from her over the past couple of years. I had plenty of them…and not a single message more than 3 lines. Yet I always knew exactly what she needed, or when we needed to meet in-person. So going forward I started composing 3-line emails to her and she became 100% responsive.
That experience made me think about how I could be effective not only writing to her, but to anyone. So here are 8 tips to get your emails read and responded to.
1. Keep it brief.
I’m not saying you need to limit yourself to 2-3 lines of text like my VP did, but no one wants to read an email that rambles on for several paragraphs. When it comes to email, hit “Compose,” hit your main point(s), and hit “Send.” If your message needs to be more than 6-8 lines, everyone might be better served if you attach a document or request a call/meeting to discuss in-person.
2. Say my name, say my name.
Brevity is important, but not so important that you should omit addressing an individual by name. In the age of CCs, BCCs, Reply Alls and straight up “Oops, I meant to send this email to Christine-not Chris,” your greeting captures your reader’s attention, and assures your message is actually for them.
3. Change the subject.
The subject line is the first thing your reader sees and uses to determine if your email is relevant, interesting or urgent. It should tell your reader exactly what to expect in your email. Specificity is a good thing here. Instead of using “Report,” use “2017 SW Region Sales Report.” Added Bonus: A good subject line makes it a million times easier to find that message in the future.
4. Prioritize your email.
By using a prefix phrase in your subject line, you let your recipient know if any action is necessary on their part. They can then immediately see if you need something, or have peace of mind about reading your message later in the day if you don’t. Some of the subject line prefixes I use are “Action Required,” “FYI,” “Response Requested” and of course, “Urgent.” Remember to use the “urgent” prefix sparingly. Overusing it even a little will make your recipient dismiss it in the future.
5. If you need something, say something.
If you need the recipient to actually do something make sure you have a clear call to action in your email. Two things are important here. First, separate the call to action from the rest of your message. You want the call to action to be highly visible—even to people who only scan your emails. Secondly, you want to be direct and avoid any vague or mitigating language that might diminish your request.
Instead of this . . .
“It would be really great if you could possibly get me a few ideas about the event we discussed during our last team meeting.”
Try this . . .
“Please email me two of your ideas for our upcoming customer appreciation event. I'll need them prior to 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, July 3rd.”
6. Provide the missing link.
If you want people to view something on the web, do yourself and them a favor by providing a hyperlink directly to it. Don't send a message recommending someone “check out that new Huffington Post article about open floor plans in the workplace.” Make it easier to get to the website, article, video or audio clip you want them to see. If you want to provide a shortened, customized and memorable hyperlink, you can create one for free using bitly.
7. Refer to the attachments.
Whenever you are including attachments in your email, be sure to reference them in the body of your message. There are dozens of times I’ve hit the “Send” button before actually attaching what I intended to send. Referring to your attachments lets your reader know exactly what's enclosed in your email. You want to give your attachments short, but descriptive names so the reader can tell what they are without actually opening them. Again, this will make them easier to find in the future.
8. Watch the clock.
Since emails are time stamped, don’t send them to people at 3:30 in the morning. That’s just creepy. And if you happen to be a manager, sending those odd hours emails could inadvertently imply to your direct reports that you expect them to be checking and responding to emails at those hours. If you need to capture some thoughts immediately, start composing your message now and save it as a draft. It will take you less than one minute to send all of your drafts the following workday. Tip: If you use Gmail, check out the Boomerang app. It allows you to write and schedule the delivery of emails.