How to Get People to Read Your E-mails

Aug 8, 2011
8 Min Read

If you see an e-mail with four paragraphs, do you read it?  My automatic response is to either skim it really quickly or close the message immediately.  Here are some thoughts from Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta on why writing long e-mails is a fruitless exercise:

Why Long E-mails Are Irritating

They take too long to read: I don’t have a lot of time to read, and by sending me an essay you are saying your e-mail is more important than the other things I have to read.

They don’t respect my time: When you send me an e-mail, you’re making a request on my time (to read, process, respond). If you send a long e-mail, you haven’t edited. You haven’t decided what’s most important. You are saying, in effect, that I have to do that instead. You’re sending a message that your time is more important than mine.

You don’t get to the point: What’s the main point you’re trying to make? What’s your main question?  Spit it out, or it will get buried.

You ask too many questions: I won’t be able to answer all of them without half an hour of my valuable day. So don’t ask so many.

I won’t respond: If you’re looking for me to read the e-mail right away, or worse yet, do something for you, good luck with that. I’m not a diva, but I also have things to do and can’t get to every long e-mail. And there are many of them, not just yours.

Guidelines for Effective E-mails

Again courtesy of Leo Baubata:

Keep it to five sentences: No more. I stole this from of course, but I’ve used it for years and it works.

Figure out your main point: If you think you need more than five sentences, you haven’t figured out the key thing you want to say.  Take a second to figure it out, and stick to just that.

Ask one thing: Don’t ask 10 questions, just ask one. Or two at the most.  You’re much more likely to get an answer quickly.

Edit: If you stretched it to eight sentences, cut out three.

Link: If you need to refer to information, include a link to it on the web.

Post it: If the information you need to share isn’t on the web, put it there.  Create a long answer or long background document (then edit it to the essential info) and post it online. Use your blog, or one of the many available free tools.  Create an FAQ if it’s useful, and link to it in your e-mail.

I especially like this last tip, which comes in handy for teams with wikis, project management engines, or other collaboration tools.

Additional Reminders for Smart E-mail Communication

Here is some follow-on advice from me based on years of personal and witnessed blunders:

Realize that e-mail is not private: Not only can most people in the IT department access it, but you never know who your messages might be forwarded to – accidentally or intentionally. Avoid discussing sensitive information or writing anything negative unless it’s specifically requested by your boss and/or supported by fact.  Be careful.  Be very, very careful.

Maintain a consistent professional persona: You can achieve this by crafting friendly, polite, and grammatically correct messages. Because you can’t rely on voice or nonverbal cues, always reread your e-mails to make sure the message you are sending is idiot-proof.

Use e-mail to reinforce in-person conversations: Impart helpful information or respond appropriately to an important issue via e-mail to reinforce face-to-face discussions you have with colleagues.

Don’t use e-mail as a forum to express displeasure or criticize: Do these things in person rather than taking the easy way out. If you must highlight a problem in e-mail, be positive and solution-oriented.

Use e-mail sparingly: CC your manager or senior executives only on messages that clearly demonstrate that you are doing your job. Avoid sending thousands of e-mails unless you want people to stop reading them.

Use flags and read receipts: When sending an important message to someone who you know is unreliable, increase your chances of a response by flagging the message or attaching a read receipt.

Be courteous: As a general rule it’s considered rude to e-mail a question to anyone sitting within 10 feet of you. Make an effort to speak to these people face to face.

Know what you are sending before you send it: Before hitting reply, carefully read an e-mail in its entirety. If it’s preceded by a series of messages, make sure to read and understand the whole string first.

Keep personal e-mails personal: If you want to send personal e-mails at work, set up a separate account. Don’t send cute forwards or fundraising pleas to your work friends unless they also qualify as friends outside the office.

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