How To Write Emails That Get Read

September 2, 2014


statue of man reading a newspaper

Are your emails getting the attention they deserve? Between email, text messages, instant messages and social media, we are inundated with more information than we can possibly absorb. Yet, every day we ask the people around us, “Did you read my email?” and are dismayed when we find out it was overlooked or, worse, deleted. The principles of writing a concise, attention-grabbing message haven’t changed since the days when newspapers and magazines ruled the media. Here are some tips for writing emails that get read… and remembered.

Who Is Your Audience?

The best emails are the ones written with a specific audience in mind. Who needs to know this information? Who is affected by the decision or needs to make a decision? The more you write and direct your message to a specific audience, the easier it is to craft a message they will care about and act on, if needed. If you need a specific person to do something, address the email to them or use their name in the request.

Write A Killer Subject Line

In our social media world, killer headlines get the clicks. Our inboxes are no different. If action is required, include what you need to have done in the subject line. If your email contains an important deadline or decision, include that in your subject line. Even if your email is just sharing information, include a hint of why that information is important. At the same time, keep your subject line short. Seem impossible? Here are two examples:

  • Due Friday: Need Approval to buy Software X
  • Major Changes Needed for Feature X. Note: New Deadlines

Put Your Key Point At The Top

For both specific and wide audiences, consider:

  • What is your key message?
  • Why should your audience care?

Write the answers to both these questions in the first two sentences so they will be the first thing read. If your audience wants more information, they will continue reading the rest of the email. On that note…

Keep It Short

The beauty of Twitter is that it forces us to express ideas in 140 characters. While not everything can be expressed as a tweet, avoid the temptation to cram every small bit of information into one email. When met with a wall of text, most readers will close the email to read later… and never get back to it. Keep the body of your email to the key point and put additional details in an attachment or link.

Keep It Simple and Active

Which of these two sentences do you prefer to read?

  • The team decided to change Feature X.
  • After extensive discussion, it was decided by the key stakeholders in the team that the feature requests needed to be addressed.

The first sentence uses simple language with an active voice. It gets the point across with the fewest words. The second sentence is written in passive voice and uses unnecessary and long words. When read quickly, you could easily miss the point.

Make It Scannable

We all do it. We scan each email for the key points and quickly decide if we need to respond to, file or delete it. If your email is longer than 3 lines, make it easy for your audience to scan it.  Use bullet points, numbered lists or put your key points in bold, like this blog post.

Use Images

If your email is explaining something, can you do it with a diagram or infographic instead of a long explanation? Emails with a relevant image are more likely to get read and more likely to be remembered. Just remember to keep the images lightweight. No one likes their inboxes being bogged down with huge attachments.

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

View all posts by Liza Wood

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2 Comments on “How To Write Emails That Get Read”

  1. David Kanigan Says:

    Liza, great post. You captured it. Snappy subject line. Get to the point quickly. What is your ask or key message. Keep it short. And you are off and running.


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