10 Tough-Love Rules For Writing Compelling Email

Crazy, isn’t it, how much of our work revolves around email these days. As the sheer volume has increased, the cumulative effect of unnecessary back-and-forth is keeping us chained to our inboxes.

Time to step up your email game

Not only is tightening up your email communications a surefire way to increase your productivity, becoming known as someone who writes clear and concise email is a quick way to stand out from the crowd which means people will be more likely to read and respond to them. Win-win.

1. Get clear.

As Stephen Covey says, “Start with the end in mind.” So before you start writing, ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish — what result do I want? Especially with more strategic emails where I’m trying to develop a relationship, I find it helpful to sketch out a plan of action and bullet point what I want to cover.

Yes, this means you have to think. But taking time to do it up front will save you exponentially in time and energy down the road.

2. Provide context.

Like you, most people get dozens, if not hundreds, of emails every day. So keep in mind the recipient has not been sitting inside your head, mulling over the topic of this particular email.

Start off with one or two sentences to set the stage and help the person get on the same page as you: “As we discussed, I will be leading the morning meeting on Thursday.”

3. Bare the essence.

People tend to write in a veritable stream of consciousness, providing extraneous information (that too often reveals their inner insecurities) and not the important details needed to gain the best response. Go ahead, dump it all out on the page but be sure to go back and pare it down. Be ruthless.

4. Be specific.

Again, the recipient is not inside your head so avoid vague or ambiguous terms. It’s rare that people have the exact same interpretation of any particular word. Yes, you’re focused on your looming deadline so you know what “almost here” means but your recipient may not. Whenever possible use specific times, dates, amounts, etc.

5. Keep it short.

Sentences, especially the first one, should be brief, 10-12 words max. (Here’s where you need to channel Ernest Hemingway who wrote this famous short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”)

Paragraphs, two to three sentences. And the email itself – ideally – should fit within one or two screens; don’t make me scroll!

Use bullet points to break up paragraphs and highlight lists.

6. Tell them what’s in it for them.

The last thing you want someone to think when they read your email is, “Who cares?” Like I said in this post, you’ll get better results (in anything) if you present your case from the other person’s point of view.

Example: If you’re asking a colleague if it’s possible to do a global edit of the data, don’t say it’s because it’d be tedious to do it manually and would take a long time (no-one cares!). Frame it as a request for a solution that will allow the whole department to get quicker access to the efficiency of a finished database.

To develop a relationship with someone who’s an expert or well-known in your industry, you need to go even further and be a giver. Master networker Serena Soo explains how to get the attention of your favorite expert.

7. Stick to one topic.

If you write about multiple things, with multiple requests, you do two things: 1) make it likely that your email actually won’t be read or acted on; and 2) make it likely that even if it is acted on or responded to, the recipient will only do one of those things.

In sales, we say “a confused mind never buys.” It’s the same with email: a confused reader doesn’t take action.

8. Show appreciation (not apologies).

Whenever possible, say thank you – for their understanding, their cooperation, the quick turnaround. Say it before they do it. However, there’s no need — ladies, I’m talking to you! — to apologize for things that are out of your control (like the weather) or if you’re simply doing your job (“I’m sorry to bother you for this report.”).

9. Write a compelling subject.

That subject line is valuable real estate, you know –  like a newspaper headline, it’s your chance to entice people to read further. If it’s vague or generic (“have a question”), they won’t. If you leave it blank (“     “), you’ll look lazy. If you don’t change the subject line (“great Christmas party!”) when writing about a different topic, you’ll create confusion.

Check out examples of smart subject lines like “super short, time sensitive request” from Mark Suster, start-up-entrepreneur-turned-investor, in his post on getting busy people to take action when you send an email.

10. Include a call to action.

How often have you gotten an email where you wondered: “Okay, now what am I supposed to do?”

At the end of the email in a separate paragraph, give a call to action: state clearly what you want the person to do. When you’re asking for information, the clearer you make your question, the better.

When possible, let the recipient know their options – the further along the thought process you take them, the quicker you are likely to get a response. Multiple choice is good. For example: “Is the reason this project is taking so long due to lack of client input, technical difficulties, or something else?”

“If…then” statements are also helpful: e.g. “Have you received a response from Client X yet? If so, please finish the report by Tuesday and email it to me. If not, can you follow up by 5:00 pm today and let me know the response?”

What are other tips you’ve found useful in writing effective email? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Kathy Kirk March 7, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks Renita! Don’t want my knuckles rapped. Great photo to make the point. And good info- always good to be reminded. kk

    1. Renita March 7, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Rapping knuckles — there should be an app for that! Thanks for stopping by… 😉

  2. Scout Wilkins March 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Renita –
    Great, great reminder to me, and I hope that a lot of people I receive email from read it as well. 😉
    Thanks – and the image really pulled me in, laughing all the way.

    Yes, I think you’re on to a money maker – a knuckle rapping ap and Skype emoticon…


    1. Renita March 7, 2012 at 8:36 pm

      Yes, Scout, I definitely had an ulterior motive in writing this. 😉 Let’s hope the people who think it doesn’t apply to them realize it does!

  3. Susan Shapiro March 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    So true. Now repeat 1-5 for voice mail messages.

    1. Renita March 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      Absolutely. All communication in general, really…!


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