As a management consultant, I have written and received likely close to a hundred thousand emails. Because I have to communicate with clients, I read all of them. When I first started working and using email, I gave no thought to an email. My boss had a question? I would answer it. Did I need some information or an attachment from a coworker? My email would have the request and that’s it. I sent out (likely) terrible emails and my coworkers and bosses were forced to read through them.

The benefits of writing clear, action-oriented emails

Writing clear, action-oriented emails has a lot of benefits:

  • You save the other person time and effort to understand what the email is about (even a few minutes adds up over thousands of emails)
  • People are more likely to respond to you if your email is clearly laid out
  • Respondents are more likely to take action
  • It shows you have thought about your request and considered what the experience looks like for the respondent

Write a descriptive subject line

Given that the subject line is the first thing that respondents see, it makes sense to create more descriptive subject lines to let them know immediately what the email is about. Subject lines such as “XYZ Project” or “ABC Task” don’t tell you what it is the sender wants. Is the sender sending you an email for information? For you to do something?

Instead, use the subject line to tell people right away what you need:

  • Action needed by Friday: XYZ Project deliverable
  • For information only: ABC Task for JKL Project
  • Information requested: HIJ Project schedule

Another tip I have seen and have used on occasion is using “EOM”, which stands for End of Message. If you want to thank someone for an email or acknowledge you have taken action, but don’t want to send a full email, you can respond in the subject line and then use EOM, that way, the respondent is not opening up an email, expecting an essay. For example: ‘Thank you EOM Re: For information only: ABC Task for JKL Project’ or ‘Completed EOM Re: Action needed by Friday: XYZ Project deliverable’.

The three-paragraph rule

Darius Foroux, in his Effective Writing course, talks about how he follows a three-paragraph rule when writing anything. Anything longer than three paragraphs, he will link to a separate document or attachment for additional information.

It’s a great rule to follow: it limits the amount of space you have to get your message across and forces you to think about what you have to say, and how you say it. It’s also not as intimidating to receive a three paragraph email, than say an email with a wall of text (and I know some coworkers who like to send walls of text).

If you follow the three-paragraph rule, use the following structure: First paragraph: introduction and action needed. Second paragraph: background and context. Third paragraph: a description of additional information/links needed or attached and a clear call to action.

Use headings and formatting if appropriate

When emails get lengthy (I’m talking about emails that you need to scroll down to read), that’s when I double down on my efforts to make the email clear. And when I can’t do that, I break up the paragraphs with headings or formatting. Just like how you wouldn’t read a word report that is a wall of text, I have found people less likely to read or respond to emails that aren’t nicely formatted.

My go-to format is writing emails with lists to break up the text. When you have a list of items, bullets make it easier to see there is a list and to see what items are in the list.

Make it clear what the respondent needs to do, and by when

Although I write dozens of emails every day with clear next steps, the one thing I seem to forget is providing a deadline for when the respondent needs to take action. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as when you send information for pre-read before a meeting (i.e., read the information before the meeting starts). But with questions or work needed, the deadline could be that afternoon, a few days later, or months out.

Don’t make the respondent guess when you need something by, tell them when you need it by, and also let them know if there’s any flexibility in the deadline (a good way of being reasonable about how long a task will take, and in consideration of the respondent’s other priorities).

Make it easy for the respondent to take action

The one lesson I learned as a management consultant sending hundreds of thousands of emails over my career is that people are more likely to respond or take action when you make it easy for them to do so. When you send an email asking them to review a document, don’t just attach the document or add a link to where the document is, tell them what to review and what specific feedback you want or better yet, include the text (if it’s not a lot) inside the email itself so the respondent can review it inside the email.

Remember that just because you send an email from your desktop doesn’t mean that people are receiving emails on their desktop. They could be seeing it on their personal phone (and therefore not have access to sensitive company documents). They could be seeing it on their iPad or tablet (and so it’s not easy to type a detailed response).

Sometimes, I’ll need a form signed because I don’t have the authority to sign a document. Rather than getting a busy executive to fill out the form, I’ll fill in the fields I can (or at least to the best of my knowledge) and simply ask for a signature at the end.


Summary

Before you send that email, ask yourself the following questions:

  • If I didn’t know anything about the email, and received this email and only read the subject line, is it clear what I have to do? (If not, re-write the subject line).
  • Upon opening the email, does the email look formatted with clear headings and neatly organized paragraphs? (If not, re-write the email)
  • After reading the email, is it clear what the respondent has to do and by when? (If not, re-write the call to action)
  • After knowing what to do, have I made it as easy as possible for the respondent to take action (If not, take the step(s) for the respondent until you can’t).