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This is the second post in my Write to Get Results blog series about professional writing.
On average, office workers receive about 120 emails per day, and the volume can skyrocket depending on role or level of responsibility. With that much email to process, it’s well worth it to have strategies and techniques in place for writing messages that get the job done.
Email is the preferred method of communication by the majority (63%) of business professionals, but it can be counterproductive. Before you write an email, take a moment to consider if it’s the most efficient (and appropriate) approach.
Email is an obvious choice for relaying information, sending attachments, or creating a written record. However, it may not be the best route if the content is extremely time sensitive, or if you are inviting discourse (especially with multiple recipients), possibly avoiding a difficult conversation, or taking excessive time wordsmithing to convey a specific tone that would be effortlessly expressed in-person or on a call. You can always follow up with an email after a conversation or meeting to document key information or action items.
It’s also a good practice to keep in mind that once you hit send, your message may be shared or forwarded without context. You can’t control that, but if you aim to always be as professional, diplomatic, and objective as possible—and trust your gut—you’ll have much less to be concerned about. If confidentiality is important, send the email securely and include a disclaimer.
I once received an email titled “Buttons.” I was busy, did not recognize the sender, and so did not read the message right away. Only when I received a more specific follow-up was it clear that the original message was an inquiry from an arts and crafts publisher about an editing project. I would have responded immediately if the subject line was “Request for editing: 70,000-word book project.” “Buttons” conveyed only a vague idea of the content (it could have been about sewing, a clown, or a cat!) and nothing about the urgency or purpose.
The point is, use the subject line to make your pitch and give your reader a clear snapshot of the message’s content so they can quickly assess whether or not action needs to be taken and assign priority. Be detailed (within reason); you don’t have to limit yourself to just a few words if more are needed to provide necessary context.
Example of Two Different Subject Lines for the Same Request
Vague: Question about Smith project
Specific: Specs missing for Smith project; please review & return attached doc
Busy professionals will thank you for stating your purpose in a BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) statement, which is often associated with military communication. Of course, you’ll want to soften it with a lead-in so it doesn’t seem like you’re barking out orders, but the concept is basically the same.
Example: I enjoyed your presentation at the conference on Friday. I’d love to have a conversation with you to share some of my ideas on the topic. Are you available to meet for coffee next Wednesday morning?
If more detail, information, instructions, and/or context will follow the bottom line statement, you can also include a quick summary so your recipient knows why they should keep reading.
If you want your reader to take an action, don’t bury that information. Place the call to action (CTA) at the beginning of the message, with or close to your bottom line statement (the reader may only initially scan the top portion, especially if the message is not brief). Be as specific as possible with timeframes, deadlines, and meeting dates and times to expedite scheduling; offer suggestions versus asking open-ended questions (“Would it be possible for you to have this back to me by Wednesday the 10th?” versus “When can you get this back to me?”).
Example: I’ve attached the revised report. I’ve highlighted items that need your attention and added comments in the file with my questions. Can you please return your feedback to me by noon EST on Friday, May 15?
The tone and strategy you use for your CTA should always depend on your audience and your relationship. When you need to be persuasive, appeal to what you think or know will motivate the person. Think of what prompts you to respond to requests: no doubt you’d prefer a concise, courteous question or directive, not vagueness or demands.
Here’s how you could write a CTA to compel a person who doesn’t report to you—such as a client—to take action by indicating the implications of a late response without issuing a command.
Example: To avoid production delays, please return your final revisions to me by 5 p.m. EST Friday, February 22. Please let me know in advance if there are any issues with that date. If I don’t receive your response by then, the project may be delayed by a week.
Before sending, do a final read of your message for typos, logic, and readability. Cut any fluff, repetition, or wordy phrases. Break up long paragraphs to incorporate white space and add formatting such as bold, numbered and bulleted lists, and headings to draw attention to key elements.
When in doubt, close with a simple thank-you—gratitude motivates people. If you are a small business owner, use your signature to provide all the ways the reader can be in touch with you or learn more about your business: in addition to your name, consider including your title, phone number, physical address, website, and social media links (if you are an employee of a company, the contents of your signature may be determined for you).
Remember that email is merely a means of communication; its effectiveness depends entirely on the strategies you use. By implementing these best practices to communicate clearly right out of the gate, you’ll compel your reader to take action so you get the results you want.