The Six Keys to Effective Emails

Effective Emails: Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Hit “Send”

As the majority of your business writing is through email, you need to ensure that your emails communicate both your message and your “personal brand” effectively.  This may seem simple, but here are a few tips to help maintain your professional persona.

1) Do I really need to send this message by email?

Email is a quick and easy way to send or respond to a message, but it is not always the most effective.  Consider picking up the phone, when you and your listener will both have the benefit of hearing each other’s tones of voice.  What about communicating in person?  Consider a quick meeting, with everyone in the same room or at least on the same conference call or webcast.  Use email strategically, not automatically.  Is it the best way to reach your audience and get the results you want?

Often, it is not.

2)  Is it clear what I want the reader(s) to do?

By the end of your first few sentences, readers should have absolutely no doubt about what you want, whether it’s a specific action or simply a piece of information to digest. “I am writing to . . .“ is not a bad way to begin; what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in clarity. Never bury your call to action (or key point) somewhere deep in the text.  How you end your email also helps clarify what you want: next steps, for example, or a recap, or a specific call to action.

3) Is my subject line effective? Is it concise and meaningful?

The subject line is often the most important part of an email.  It’s the first thing readers will see, and it invites them to do one of two things: open your email and actually read it, or delete it unread.  Make sure the subject line sums up your email in a few well-chosen words and gives the reader a good reason to bother opening it.  “Agenda for Tomorrow’s Team Meeting” is better than “Meeting” or “Tomorrow.”  Beware of email-chain subject lines that grow more meaningless as the chain grows longer; revise them to reflect the current subject matter (perhaps keeping the “FW: . . .” to signal that your email is still part of a chain).  Finally, consider that, in the future, your reader may want to find your email by searching his or her inbox or folders.  Is your subject line easily “searchable”?  A subject line like “Feedback” is not.

4) Am I annoyed – or worse?

Email is a terrible way to handle emotion or conflict.  Your reader cannot hear your tone of voice, view your body language or respond directly to anything you say.  “Flaming emails” prompt readers to respond in kind. Email wars and debates are unproductive and unprofessional. Talk face to face or at least on the phone.  Be careful of humor as well. What you find funny may offend others.

5) Is my text easy on the eye?

Creating a visual structure generally means short, single-spaced paragraphs separated by double spaces; bulleted or numbered lists; or a bold subheading or two to break up lengthy text.

6) Is this email mistake-free?

Carless miss steaks brand you as a careless righter, or worst.  (According to spell-check, by the way, that previous sentence is 100 percent correct.)  The reader may jump to unflattering conclusions about your work ethic, your thinking or your value to the organization. One approach is to write, edit, and proofread before you fill in the “To. . .” box.  When you do that, you’ll never accidentally send something before it’s ready to be sent.


rick-schell-candid_edited_blogRick Schell, Ph.D.,teaches leadership communication and consultative selling in the MBA program at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. In addition, he is director of the Undergraduate Business Program, where he teaches business communications. This semester, Schell is the instructor for Business Writing at the Glasscock School. Prior to joining the Jones School, he spent 30 years in the information technology industry, with executive assignments in field sales, strategic and industry marketing, media and analyst relations, sales education, and global business development. He also served as chief of staff to his company’s President and CEO, where he developed and delivered strategic communications to all internal and external audiences. Schell has a Ph.D. in English literature from Rice University.

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