A well-written email can greatly simplify a complex problem. Which is not to say that email is simple to write. Through trial and error, I’ve developed a set of guidelines I rely on to help me address more complex issues through email. Using these guidelines in conjunction with tips on email etiquette and form has helped me to improve the overall effectiveness of my correspondences.
- Open with the punchline. Figure out exactly what you need from your reader and address it at the top of the email. In the next line, provide a high-level explanation about why the decision is potentially a complicated one. This helps the reader understand exactly what is required and indicates that a carefully considered response is expected (a critical message to help the reader break out of rapid-fire emailing to which we are all prone.).
- Organize the details. Provide pertinent information such as background, contingencies, follow-up questions, and assumptions after you’ve set up the problem. Think about the problem as a story that the reader hasn’t heard yet; what is the order of information that will make the most sense? What is the right level of detail to include? Use section headlines with clear formatting (ie. bold, underline, spaces) and bulleted lists to create visual order and help the reader more easily consume the information.
- Communicate your next step. Tell the reader what and when you are going to do next, and how you would like for her to be involved. You may want to provide a couple of options from which she may choose, but make sure you state your timeframe for action so you’re not “waiting by the phone” wondering what your next step should be.
Email seems like it should be easy and quick to compose. Sometimes it is neither, and that’s okay. Because when it’s handled well, it has the potential to dramatically improve communications and simplify your overall work.
Have you discovered your own tried-and-true email tricks? We’d love to hear them!