Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Writing effective emails

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The faster and more easily a document can be read and understood, the more likely it is to be read and understood.

Convey messages with as few words as possible and ruthlessly deleting unnecessary information without cutting essential background information.

Open your first email to a new contact with a concise introduction that quickly conveys context. For example: “Dear Joe: Lily Whiteman here from Federal Times. X suggested that I contact you as part of my search for information about Y.”

Get to the point quickly: Explain what needs to be done, by whom and when within the first few sentences of each email.

Preface a mile-long email string that you are forwarding to another recipient with a quick explanation of the string’s importance and necessary actions.

Use headings to break up text and emphasize your logic in emails that are more than several paragraphs long.

Highlight deadlines and other essential points with bold, underlining or headings. (Color won’t be visible in black-and-white printouts.)

Use numbered lists to convey the sequence of necessary steps or the relative priority of included items, and using bullets to describe related items that are of equal importance.

Eliminate or explaining acronyms that may stump anyone who will receive the email directly or via forwarding.

Include your contact information and title in every email, even if recipients already have this information.

Repeatedly spell-check and proofread.

Not only is an email’s content important, so too is its tone. The more collegial and positive its tone is, the more likely it will be to generate interest and cooperation from its recipients.

Unfortunately, communicating through email is sometimes like talking through a filter that strips words and messages of softening messages and magnifies negativity. It does so because:

Emails are devoid of facial expressions, physical gestures and vocal tone that may otherwise neutralize the sting of criticism or even mild suggestions from superiors.

 

It’s easier to “flame” a faceless computer than a person in a face-to-face or telephone interaction. This is partly because participants in email conversations are deprived of immediate feedback to their comments that may compel them to suppress their anger and rudeness and modulate their tone, and thereby maintain civility and prevent disagreements from escalating into arguments.

Time lags in strained email conversations may magnify tensions. Indeed, emailing criticism without providing quick opportunities for a recipient to respond via phone or face-to-face discussions is the cyber equivalent of lobbing a grenade over a wall and then fleeing. Promote goodwill and avoid generating misunderstandings and inflaming tensions via email by:

Writing emails with a humane tone, even when delivering instructions to subordinates. Remember: There is a person with human emotions on the other side of your computer.

Use everyday conversational language, even when delivering bureaucratic information.

Deliver bad news, significant criticisms or denials of requests, in person or by phone, if possible, even if your decision or criticism is in response to an email.

lf you must deliver criticism or bad news or respond to a negative email via email, craft your email to calmly stick to the facts without sounding angry, offensive or defensive; stay polite. Don’t send your email impulsively; let it go cold, and then edit it with fresh eyes and an open mind. Seek a second opinion.

When you must email feedback, such as a document containing your redline/strikeout edits, preface your suggestions or edits with a word of thanks and praise of the recipient’s work.

 

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