Three simple rules for more effective work emails

Admit it. You abhor receiving work emails that waste your time. If you need to spend more than 15 seconds figuring out exactly what the sender wants from you, that’s already 5 seconds too many. So it’s time to ask yourself: how do your own emails measure up? Are you wasting your colleagues’ time just as blatantly as they’re wasting yours?

For most members of the 21st-century workforce, dealing with email takes up a rather extravagant portion of our time. In my most recent role at EY, I estimate I spent 75% of the average workday on email. Very few people genuinely want phone calls or voicemails; such charming antiquity means they must themselves write down the key points you shared. Thus, daily I was charged to use measly email to get the attention of – and elicit a response from – insanely busy partners and other executives. And while I don’t claim to have perfect work email technique in every instance, I established three rules that help me waste others’ time less – and get the responses I need much more quickly.  

  1. Say what you need in the very first sentence of your email. What’s your question, request, or message? Get it over with immediately. That way, if they only read one line of your email, they already know what you need from them. This doesn’t mean pleasantries aren’t allowed (e.g., “hope you’re well” or “it was nice seeing you yesterday” or “your presentation last week went great”). It simply means that pleasantries should be deposited where they belong: toward the end of your email, alongside any other more decorative and less pressing information.
  2. Use your email subject line to help recipients quickly understand what you need and when. No busy professional wants an email with an annoyingly non-specific subject line that doesn’t give them any real clue as to what’s inside. Is it urgent? Or is it something that can be dealt with later? Is it something that can be taken care of quickly? Or will the response take time and consideration? Subject lines such as “Quick question on presentation date/time” and “URGENT: need your review of fees ASAP” are much more likely to elicit a prompt response than “Presentation timing,” “Fees” or (GASP) the resoundingly annoying and woefully imprecise “Hello.” Similarly, your colleagues will experience fond feelings toward you when you use your subject lines to help them prioritize what’s inside. For example, if you send an email on 5/15 that is headed “Strategic planning framework – your response required by 5pm 6/15,” they can easily flag it for later review and move on with their day.
  3. Turn on the automatic spellcheck function for your email application. Though spelling is important, this isn’t really about checking spelling. It’s about giving you a second chance to make sure you said/included everything you intended. How often have you hit “send” only to realize you forgot to include your attachment, add all the right recipients, or make all the crucial points? We all have times when we hit “send” before we are truly ready to hit “send.” The spellcheck pop-up – which jauntily emerges just after you hit send – gives you a second chance to get it right. It also has the charming side effect of making you look like less of an idiot for having again disappointingly misspelled “dissapoint.”

As a bonus recommendation, I’ll add that one should never underestimate the value of a well-organized bullet-pointed list. Your average too-busy professional balks at being presented with giant blocks of uninterrupted text. It’s intimidating; it’s not clearly prioritized; it’s not helpful. Next time, challenge yourself to transform your paragraphs into bullet points. Your text will become magically shorter, since you’ll see that much of your original language was in fact extraneous to making your actual points. Having broken everything into bite-sized pieces, you’ll more easily judge which points are the most important. You can then move those points to the top of your list, where they have a better chance of being read. You can also use sub-bullets to help your reader easily see what connects to what.

In summary, following these simple rules for more effective work emails will leave you feeling smarter. You can think to yourself, “Look how efficient and focused I am capable of being,” or “Aren’t those bullet points smart,” or “Wow, I’m a really excellent speller.” And isn’t the ability to feel highly capable (and maybe even a little superior) something we’d all welcome on a daily basis?

You’re welcome.