How To Write Good E-mails

A few months ago, I wrote on Can people learn to write good e-mails?.

I believe communicating via e-mail (I mean good and efficient communication) is something people can learn. It is like learning to practice a sport or like learning to write software. In all cases, it takes practice, and some people are better than others at first.

In distributed teams and in (especially) startups, e-mail is a very common communication channel. Your business can benefit a lot by taking the time to teach how to write good e-mails and showing the right example. Here are a few (obvious) tips to help you getting started.

6 tips to write better e-mails

  1. Go straight to the essential.
    When people read their e-mails, they take a limited amount of time to do so. They are often taking a few minutes right in the middle of a complex task only to get distracted and they don’t wan’t to enter a 6 pages long e-mail. Go straight to the essential, removing everything that does not need to be written there. Some teams even skip the usual “hi, how are you” line to keep it shorter (this one mostly depends on your business culture). In all cases, keep in mind who you are writing to and adapt your e-mail to your recipient.
  2. Keep it simple.
    If people do not take the time to read long e-mails, neither do they take to the time to read complex e-mails. Keep it simple. If you absolutely need to write about something complex, maybe the e-mail is not the right communication channel to use. A short e-mail does not provide much context, and a complex problem can sound much more complex to the recipient without that context.
  3. Write about facts.
    Emotions and feelings are not easy to describe in an e-mail without breaking the two above rules. Keep e-mails for facts and short questions. Again, everything that would require a long or a complex e-mail might be a lot easier to communicate over the phone or in person.
  4. Avoid everything that could be misinterpreted.
    One thing about written communication (e-mails, letters, etc.) is that they only communicate the message itself. It says nothing about the relational aspect of the communication. In fact, 7% of the communication is about the message. The other 93% is about para verbal (how you say what you say) and non verbal messages (your body language). Most e-mails are misinterpreted because there were no body language to explain the things that are not said.
  5. Avoid everything that could not be read in public.
    In today’s organizations, most communications (phone, email, etc.) are recorded for audit. This is very useful for mangers when it comes to improving the processes, but for users, it means that not every message can go over these channels. Whining about your boss over e-mail is not a very good way to keep a good relation with him.
  6. Review before hitting the send button.
    Reviewing is useful for fixing typos, forgotten words and such. It is also a very good idea to review it as if you were the recipient himself. Putting yourself in the skin of your contact and changing the wording accordingly to his personality might get you better results.

These are pretty obvious but always useful tips to keep in mind when writing an e-mail. Feel free to add yours to the comments.

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