4 email practices to significantly improve your communication

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Email is the bane of my existence. I get too many emails, emails that don’t pertain to my work (much) and emails that I spend way too much time trying to figure out what the person is asking for. It’s time consuming, wasteful, and the result is miscommunication, configuring an incorrect task, or missing that the item was for you when the email didn’t say so.

That’s on the receiving end. On the giving end, people don’t read your emails. If they do read emails, the don’t read all of the email. And they honestly have poor comprehension of what is being asked for.

Some of this is understandable — we work in open cubicle farms, there are all sorts of people talking around us, we get pinged on Skype, Teams, Slack, another email pops into the box while we’re reading the email at hand pulling us away from what we’re doing. And the phone / drive-by / questions from across the aisle interruptions. Plus — if you’re not careful — a continuous flow of notifications sliding into view on your screen.

It’s amazing we get anything done.

We’re also not going to solve email problems by making them go away. Nor are we going to have other people magically change how they approach email so that you’ll get 100% of your point(s) across.

There are some email practices, however, that can significantly improve your chances of getting your point across or getting the right task in place for a person. Let’s take a look.

Put your request as the first line of the email

This matches how you should be talking to upper management where you are making requests. When you state your request up front, it tells the other person what you want or want to tell them. Then the balance of the email is all about context – why you want them to do something, how you want them to do something, or what the context is that prompted the request.

By putting the request as the first line, it allows the reader to know where you are going with the rest of the email.

It does you no good to summarize what you want at the end (I was very guilty of this) — by then, the reader is confused, even with short emails, about where you are going and by the time you tell them, they don’t remember the reasons why.

Check it out yourself — take the next five emails sent to you and figure out where the “ask” is in the email. If it’s not in the first line, you’ll fumble your way around the email and then have to connect all the dots — and misinterpret the dots — to figure out why the person is asking for what they are asking for.

Pro Tip: Have a subject line that states the request or question you have for the recipient. Take a look at the subject lines of your received email and see if you can figure out the request from the subject line. Without that in the subject line, aren’t you less likely to be read that email?

Only ask for one thing or ask one question per email

Apparently, we’ve become highly transactional and can really only handle one thing at a time (while claiming we can multi-task all day long).

If you put two requests or two questions in an email, I can predict you’ll only get a response to one of them.

Even if you NUMBER them:

  1. Request number one
  2. Request number two

The response will come back with the answer to one. Or the other. Not both. Drives me crazy.

I don’t know if it is because people are answering one of them and by the time they’re done they’ve forgotten there were two requests. Or the didn’t want to answer the second request / question because “reasons” or what.

So write two emails. One question / request in each. Yes, it’s more emails getting thrown around. But you’ll more likely get your answer or your request handled.

Limit your email to 3 (small) paragraphs

Small. Not like having only one glass of wine and the glass is the size of the bottle. Not three paragraphs with each paragraph taking half a page.

More like the first paragraph in this article — three sentences. People don’t read long emails unless you give them a very good reason to do so — and even then, it’s better to attach a file and use the three paragraphs to explain what you want and what is in the attached file.

And if you’ve been following this along, you’ll note that the first paragraph is really just one sentence: your ask or question. That gives you two paragraphs to explain the rest – unless you put the request in the Subject line.

Pro tip: if more than 3 paragraphs are needed for whatever reason (perhaps a status report), bold section headings with no more than 3 paragraphs in a bolded section. This way, just like this article, your reader can skim the headings and focus on what they are interested in reading. (you are reading everything I’m writing, right?)

Just remember: your ask or question, regardless of sections, still needs to be the first sentence of the email.

Give the first time reader the summary – not expect them to read 10 emails down

I had a request come to me where I was added as a recipient – after about ten emails in the chain – that really was just three paragraphs. It was a request to include some certificates into the budget for my project. My response was that I was happy to do so — please send me the cost of the certificates so I could include the dollars.

The response? See the email ~5 emails down and the costs are shown there.

There are problems with this:

  • You didn’t tell me the cost of the certificates  the first time around. You assumed I’d read 5 emails down to see if it was there (see: Limit your email to 3 small paragraphs — because people won’t read the rest)
  • When you responded back, you STILL didn’t give me the cost of the certificates; I now had to scroll down 5-7 emails to discover the table where the certificate costs were.

Thus, three emails when one would do. A total waste of time searching for something — essentially, not giving you the answer, but expecting you to go find it when that person is the one that was requesting something of me! “Here. Go look it up in chapter 27 of War and Peace. It’s right there.”


Much easier to give the particulars right there when adding someone new to the distribution:

Scot – can you add the cost of certificates to your budget? We didn’t realize we’d need to get the certificates as part of the build out. The quote five emails down is for $2,000 per certificate and we need 2o certificates. Thanks…

There’s the request. There’s the context. There’s the cost. One email, one response.

Putting it all together for better communications

Following these practices significantly increases the probability (that’s all it is – a probability) that your email will get read, you’ll get a proper response to your question / request, and you’ll do it with minimal back and forth.

And it will save a bit of your sanity.

Look — open your business email. Look at the first ten emails you get. See how many of the ten emails follow these practices. Then take a little bit of time looking at each email and determine how you would have restructured it following these points presented. No more than 15-minutes – just enough to see how much better the communication could have been if that person would have done the principles expressed here.

Then go do them yourself and see how much your emails stand out compared to the (hundreds of) emails most people get a day. It makes a difference.

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