How to write the perfect email

Healthy disdain for email is widespread, but it remains an ubiquitous communication tool. I think there’s good reason for that, beyond the fact that it’s hard to change habits: it’s the easiest way to asynchronously exchange clear, structured, if necessarily complex information and, as long as we’re willing to use it for what it is, it works great.

(related article in Romanian: 5 reguli și 3 exemple de mailuri bine scrie)

Email is not good for making decisions, it’s terrible for debate and it’s horrible for emotional conversation. People get silly when they argue through email and everyone turns into a keyboard warrior, unwilling to see sense, ranting, grandstanding and losing perspective. The best thing to do when you see this, the only thing to do, is stop the email chain and move the conversation to face to face or, at least, voice.

This is what usually happens when you move angry conversations from email to face to face

What email is great for is sending clear, precise and actionable requests, for documenting things, such as meeting notes, or for disseminating large quantities of information, such an on-boarding handbook or a product manual let’s say.

When you’re writing these kinds of emails, you have to keep one question in mind and make sure that your email answers that question and that question alone, without unnecessary flourish, excessive detail or off topic information. The question is:

Who wants what from whom by when?

  • Who: who is the intention behind the email. Are you triggering the action? Say it clearly. Are you forwarding a request coming from a client? Then clearly say that, and explain how you came to doing that and what is your part in it.

  • What: be as precise as you can about what you want. Don’t hint, don’t let them figure it out, don’t be too general, don’t be shy, don’t soften or embellish what needs to be said. Say it clearly, directly and specifically. Make it clear if answer is required, if action is required, if approval is needed, if maybe it’s just a consultation or an information email. What is the type of action you need and what are the specifics?

  • from Whom: nominate the person (or, if that is impossible, the team/function) you need action from. Don’t address groups in the hope that they will figure it out among themselves who will pick it up. Diffusion of responsibility makes it less likely that you will get action if you ask it from a group than if you ask it from an individual, by nominating that individual. It’s better to nominate the wrong person and have them correct you (It’s not me, it’s Jane that can help you), than to not nominate anyone. If you’re unsure, ask who you need to speak to and start with this. “Someone do something” emails are what I call people asking for something to be done without nominating anyone to do it, and they’re mostly ineffective.

  • When: always give deadlines. Don’t ask for something without saying by when you need it and, also, by when you need an initial confirmation so you know they can do it and you can rely on them. Give deadlines to everyone, to your team, to your clients, to your bosses. They may not be bound to them, but you need to politely and clearly tell them when you need it, so they know. They can tell you they can’t do it and then you’re at least talking, but don’t leave it open ended.

In terms of style & tone, I almost always recommend what I call a light and clean business tone, which is great with people you don’t yet know very well. Once you get to know someone, you can get more personal, but before that, you need to be professional without being too formal. Start your emails with Hi or Hello, don’t spend time with extended greetings or with asking them how the weekend was, go straight to your point. End them with Thanks, be brief, be lean. Your language should be invisible language, it should not attract attention to itself, it should clearly convey the message. No flourishes, no fancy words, sparingly used figures of speech, no humour (or very little, very carefully used, but better not).

Last but not least, make it easy for them to help you. Cut everything that doesn’t have to do with the core of who/what/whom/when question. Be brief. Be clear. Remember, your email is just one more thing sitting between you and their kids or their night out. Help them help you.