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Writing Better Business Emails | From Send to Done

Email Culture

Inboxes fill up each day with messages from bosses, coworkers, IT departments, SPAM, and other sources.  Crafting an email message that catches attention (so it bypasses the Trashcan), clearly conveys your message, entices others into action, and maintains relationships is tough business.

Think of the last time you opened your email inbox at work.  How many messages did you delete without opening?  How many of the remaining messages did you just skim?  Which messages sparked your “get it done” energy?  The answer to the first question is probably a high percentage, and your count for the latter question probably is close to zero!

Now, think about how many times you yelled (either out loud or silently in your imagination) at the sender, or you read a message in all-caps thinking you were being yelled at?  Interpreting tone–as well as attempting to convey tone when authoring written messages–is quite challenging and frequently leads to anger, frustration, confusion, [insert emotion here] when tone is miscommunicated.  Prepare to re-think how you view email, as well as how you use it as a communication tool for your business.

Basics of the Communication Process & Channel Richness

Despite popular practice, Email should not be the primary method of communication in business.  The reason relates to Shannon & Weaver’s (1949) Transmission Model, where there is a sender, a receiver, and a channel.  The sender is the one conveying the messages, the receiver is the one who receives the communication, and the channel is the medium of communication (email, phone, in-person, etc.).  The act of communication involves the sender “encoding” a message, sending it through the channel/medium, the receiver “decoding” the message, and the receiver providing feedback to the sender that the message was received.

With this model, there are three challenges to communication: (a) messages might not be transmitted accurately (a technical problem), (b) the message might be conveyed in a confusing manner (a semantics problem), or (c) how effectively the message imparts the desired behavior (an effectiveness problem).  Now comes the important factor: message richness in relation to the selected medium.  Compare the amount of information you can process in a 5-minute conversation to the amount of information you can glean from an email chain of message.  Relying on email as the main channel for communication (especially for complex messages) increases the risk of semantic errors–the message might not be conveyed with easy-to-understand wording.  It also increases the risk of semantics problems.  The benefit is that the channel itself (email servers) are fairly reliable, so technical problems generally are low-risk for email.

Without a strong (and fast) feedback mechanism, written communication suffers in richness when compared to in-person or phone calls.  The sender must wait for the receiver to read and attempt to understand the message.  Then they must craft a new email reply to (hopefully) relay their understanding or ask questions.  The process volleys until the message is understood (in the meantime, the sender probably is engaged in four other email conversation, is on the phone, or has stepped away for lunch).  With verbal or in-person communication, the entire process is nearly instantaneous.  The receiver can ask a clarifying question immediately after the message is delivered.  There is no waiting; there is no reply-all; there is only live dialogue.  Email also lacks  verbal cues: A confused look on the receivers face cannot be conveyed to the sender as the receiver reads a complex email.  Therefore, the sender assumes the receiver understands the message, unless the receiver speaks up.

When to Use Email

The low level of message “richness” shows that other forms, such as phone calls, video-conferences, and in-person meetings provide more suitable communications methods for complex messages or for the added human element for fostering relationships (Baldoni, 2003).  Email, however, is a great way to follow-up tasks, reiterate what was agreed in a previous meeting, or convey a quick message after hours or between meetings.  Electronic communications also allow virtual teams to stay connected when time zones are a factor, and they allow for broadcasting messages to a wider audience to reiterate corporate or team goals, mission, or values.  Consider which medium is best suited for the particular type of information relay that is needed.

Email is well suited, thus, for those low-priority information exchanges that do not require immediate attention, have a low level of complexity to comprehend and respond, and do not require an emotional exchange to occur.  If you find that you are becoming frustrated during an email exchange, take it as a cue to pick up the phone, open a video conference line, or visit the person live.  Writing effective emails, in addition, is important to reducing the risk of semantics problems and improving response rates when you need a reply, information, or a commitment from a group of recipients en masse.

How to Write Emails that Get Work Done

There are many ways to build a bridge, organize a closet, or write an email message.  Below are the steps that we at Corvis Group prefer to use.  Deciding when to be flexible with these steps ensures that we do what is best for our clients, our company, and the situation at hand.  While it might seem daunting reading the steps, they are quite simple in practice.  You will get the hang of them very quickly as you use this method a couple of times.

  • Start with the end message you want to convey.  What is it that you really want the reader to take away, contribute, do, etc.?  This is the core of the message–the raison d’être for your email.  Without knowing what the core message is, close your email program or webpage and find something else to do; the people you were about to email will be grateful to have one less confusing or unnecessary email in their already-full inbox!
  • Determine whether email is the best option.  Now, when you do have a core message (perhaps you want your coworker to send you a file), determine whether email is the best option.  If not, would it be faster, more useful, build a stronger relationship (or avert damaging an existing one!) if you picked up the phone, walked down the hall, or set up a quick Google Hangout or Webex session?
  • If you answered yes at Step 2, then you are ready to write down your core message.  I like to use this as the Subject Line.  It puts up front what I need, giving the reader the opportunity to prioritize my request with all the other questions they might have received from twenty others in the past few minutes.  Everything else about the email you are about to craft really should align with and relate to your core message.  If it does not, then it is clutter, and you should keep that as a personal thought–write it in a notepad.
  • Next, determine the audience.  There are different types of audiences to whom you would like to write this email.  Here are a few things to consider when completing this step:Who are the “doers” for your email–the people you want to actually do something after they read your message?
  • Who are the “informants” for the message–the people you want to become aware of the content of your message, but not necessarily take action?
  • Who is your “backup” for the action–the person/people who can fill in should you become sick tomorrow?
  • Who else are you thinking of sending this email to?  If you are unable to fit them into one or more of the above categories, consider omitting them from receiving the message.  It is possible that superfluous recipients will turn your message into a traffic jam of “reply all” clutter (that will be another topic) for everyone’s inbox, should they decide to “chime in,” as many like to call it.
  • Write down each of the people you have brainstormed for the above four categories.  Doing this step on paper will help you with step 8 below, avoiding that accidental click of the send button before auto-correct changed a random word to an expletive!
  • Write the message.  The hardest part is designing the message to do its purpose: inform people, recap/document a plan or agreement, ask for action, or do something else entirely.If your purpose is to inform people, then consider writing clearly what the main takeaway is.  Write that key point early in the message and include supporting evidence, speaking points, etc. that ensure the reader has the information you want them to glean.
  • A tip from us at Corvis is to clearly call each person by name (in bold print, sometimes in a different color) in the email, just as you would in a meeting, to state the agreed action item and include the details and due date for that item.  This way, if you are requesting or documenting action items, there will be little question who is responsible for what and when.  This step alleviates the tendency to drop an action item onto the group without an “owner,” and after hours of awaiting a response, wondering why no one wants to take ownership.
  • For emails with a completely different purpose, ensure that you clearly write what the intent of the message is, who is responsible which pieces, the agreed/proposed deadlines, and any other information you want readers to learn or action you want them to take.  Everything else is a distraction.  Keep your message concise, yet informative.
  • (Good) pictures speak louder than words.  If you have a diagram, flow chart, or table in your message or attachment that helps to convey the message, include it.  Visuals are great ways to convey the message you want to impart.  BUT–be sure that the picture, diagram, or other visual supports your message and is not distracting, confusing, or too complex for the reader to understand without you there in-person to describe.
  • Ensure your message and supportive documents, graphics, etc. speak to your intended audience.  Remember the categories of the audience you outlined on paper in Step 4?  Now is the time to double-check that your email makes sense to them.  Read your email as though you are the “doers.”  Is it clear to you that you have an action item assigned to you and a do date?  Could you complete the task with the information provided?  If you answered no, then your message needs revised until you can answer with an honest “yes.”
  • Proofread, edit, and proofread again.  I lost count of the number of employees in Fortune 500 companies who write “your” when they mean “you’re” (you + are) in an email over and over again.  Writing with solid spelling and grammar will take you far in life, especially if you interact with the public, stakeholders for your organization, or senior leaders.  Each person with whom you interact builds or refines their perception of you based on how you present yourself, and that includes your email-writing skills.  Want to set your best foot forward?  Take advantage of this step!  Pause–go get a coffee or tea–then come back to your draft message and read it.  For more important messages, have a coworker read it.  Make sure it is clear, concise, fits the audience, and shows off how smart and capable you are!
  • Add your audience.  Here at Corvis, the “To” line is for the “doers” in the message audience.  These are the main people we want to take action, so their emails go in the top line.  This helps you to check the message against responses in order to determine who has written back or completed their action–just look at the To line for your “doers.”  Anyone else we want to be informed goes in the “CC” line (unless there are no “doers” for the message, in which case, we typically use only the To line).  “BCC” is a rarely-used option for Corvis Group.  It is mis-aligned with our value for honesty and openness, and so we prefer not to use it.
  • Click Send!  Your message is on its way, and hopefully your message helps business to move forward in a positive way.

Example Email

To: Pat Doe
CC: Chris Smith
Subject: Action Request | Annual Report Needs 3 Donor Profiles by 6/7/2013
Hi Pat,
As we discussed yesterday during the weekly managers’ meeting, the Annual Report will now include a “Donor Profile” section.  We agreed that you will write three profiles by June 7, at which time the Editing Team will review the draft text. I CCd Chris from the Editing Team so we are all on the same page. Chris agreed to have the final edits to us by June 9, which will ensure we are on schedule to publish by mid-month.
Would you please keep me updated on your progress and let me know when you have time to meet with our spotlighted donors for an interview?  I am available between noon and 3:00 each day this week. 
This project is a very exciting addition to our Annual Report and will provide high value to our readers and our donors!

Baldoni, J. (2003).  Great communication secrets of great leaders.  New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Shannon, C. & Weaver, W. (1949).  The mathematical theory of communication.  Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Ross Grübel, MSM, MBA, MSOD

Principal Consultant & CEO at Corvis Group, Inc.
Ross Gruebel is Principal Consultant & CEO of Corvis Group, Inc., which offers consulting for organizations and leaders undergoing organization improvement or change initiatives.We also offer leadership development, meeting & retreat facilitation, and coaching to businesses, non-profits, government agencies, and leaders/managers.

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