Today we are going to talk about one simple but fundamental skill that will set you apart from your peers. Sending emails.
As an intern or analyst, you will be tempted to tell the whole story in one email. You think this is what people need. But from my experience, people need only the information that they need. Nothing more and nothing less. So, how do you do write concise, precise, and pointed emails? Try the following 5 steps.
Step 1. Understand the purpose of your email
Before you send an email, think about what is being asked in the email if your are replying. Or, why are you initiating an email conservation. What do you need from the recipient? Your email should be clear and not make the recipient wonder: Why are you sending me this? Asking me a question? Informing me of something? Asking me to take an action? Explaining why something won’t work? What is it?
Step 2. Be direct and clear about the purpose of your email
a) Use your email title effectively.
Even if you are just replying or forwarding. There is no excuse for not trying to state what is the email about in the email title. This is what differentiate a professional.
One of the tips that you can use is to state the purpose in the email title, e.g. FYI, Action, Approval, Follow-up, Thank you note, Request for XXX).
b) Be direct about what you want in the email. State the reason you are sending them the email in the first sentence or right after the greetings. Tell them why you are writing them an email / what they need to do. The principle is it should take them less than 3 seconds to know what they need to do.
Step 3. Structure your communication
There is one format I think to use: What / so what / now what. Or the What / Why / So what. Depends on the occasion, more often than not, the pyramid method (conclusion first) or the BLUFF (bottom-line upfront first) is helpful. I might need to write some examples using pyramid method and BLUFF separately.
Consider two styles of communication below:
The bottoms-up approach = Situation + Supporting + Action
The house is on fire. There is no fire extinguisher here. The fire is too strong to be put off now. There is too much smoke to take exit A. We will die if we don’t act now. We need to get out of here now.
The top-down approach (aka pyramid method) = Situation + Action + Supporting
The house is on fire. We need to get out of here now. We will die if we don’t act now. There is no fire extinguisher here. The fire is too strong to be put off now. There is too much smoke to take exit A.
Honestly, in this case you may think that bottoms-up is not that bad because it’s quite short and clear about what is happening and why we need to act. But the truth is most people spend too much time explaining what is going on without tell them what we need to do. So, forcing yourself to use the top-down approach helps you clarify your thought about what action is needed.
Business executives have short attention span, too and they prefer actions more than thinking , analyzing or explaining.
So, if you know and speak their language then they will love you more.
Step 4. Keep it short and simple
Ideally, your email message should be limited to what is necessary for the recipients to know to make a decision, ask a question, confirm something as long as you are clear on why you are sending that email. (See step 1). That’s what Managing Directors or Partners do. Their emails usually are extremely short. But there are times they write longer emails with friendlier tones. (See step 5).
Step 5. Double check your email
Proofread and check the usual suspects: typo, grammar, periods, remove the exclamation mark (!) unless you are sure what you are doing. Kids today love to use exclamation mark to everything they say! It’s just annoying! And unprofessional! See old people like me can’t stand this much excitement to something so unexcited.
Step 6. Add the email address last
Don’t ever type your message with your recipient’s email address on. You may accidentally discover a hotkey for sending the email as-is. Or some superpower may just hit the send button for you when you are not ready. I don’t know. Also, think about what you want to cc or bcc. If you add someone new in the loop (by cc’ing), then you may want to explain when some is cc’d, e.g. Adam will be able to help (cc’d), or copying Adam here to keep him in the loop.
Step 7. (Super Star Option) Check your tone, style, and response time
Some business schools, e.g. University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, begin to teach email writing etiquette, e.g. reply no later than 2 days, avoid short forms, include a polite greeting, use simple terms. All these “rules” are good references. People generally appreciate quick responses to emails and easy to understand languages.
But if your colleagues are sending emails to ask you to join them for happy hours, don’t be so uptight as to say “rules say we should only talk about business in company emails”. If they use lol, then may be it’s okay to lol them back. As long as you know why you are doing what you are doing, then you can start break a few rules.
The key is to be strategic, i.e. knowing why you are doing what you are doing. One simple rule is to ask yourself what you want the recipient to feel. Is it friendly? Or business-formal? Also, there are nuances to personal style, e.g. cool vs. friendly vs. polite. As a rule of thumb, being polite and helpful are the default option for professionals.
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