Language, fundamentally, is a lossy form of communication. Executing it via a medium like email only makes it worse.
Figure: Communication speed in the digital brain era. Source: Wait But Why.
Sadly, until the Elon Musks of the world build a neurotech implantable device that can connect our brains with each other, human-to-human communication is the best we got. So it’s on us to ensure we, at the very least, use it in a way that serves our purpose best.
Email Writing Is An Art
If you learn it well, you can ensure that the person on the other side walks away with almost exactly what you wanted them to walk away with. But as someone who has read (and written) thousands of emails in her life, I can safely say the following,
We can do better.
This article is me doing my very small part to help us all write better (emails).
Three Steps To Better Emails
I’m going to walk you through the 3 steps with a practical example of an email I pulled from my archives. Disclaimer: This article is not meant to address all email use cases. The tips are most useful for emails with > 150 words that is trying to convey more than one point.
Step 1: Infuse Structure
Borrowing a quote from one of my favorite non-fiction authors, William Zinsser,
Writing is thinking on paper with clarity.
If someone’s email seems confusing, it’s because they never had a clarity of thought in the first place. The first step to a better email is infusing structure.
- Treat it like a story: A story is not a big blob of sentences strung together haphazardly. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an ending to it. An email is a story too. Treat it like one. Ensure that every line seamlessly leads into the next.
- Leave breathing room: A story is only as good if you visually make it look like one. And the way to do that is by leaving breathing room between the different parts of your story, i.e., leave a space between the passages. Oh, but also keep in mind to…
- Delineate intelligently: We tend to generally only read the first lines of a passage in an email containing multiple passages. So while delineating your story with spaces, do it intelligently such that skimming the first lines of each passage will let the reader know the gist of the passage.
Figure: Before vs After of Step 1.
Step 2: Decide Your Focal Points
The human eye tends to traverse a specific pattern while scanning a web page. The Z-Pattern.
Figure: The Z-Pattern while scanning web pages. Source: Tutplus
Any good UX designer is expected to advantage of this while building websites.
“Landing pages, like web pages, should always follow some sort of organized visual hierarchy. Chances are, you know this already, but it bears reiterating. Anything you can do to influence your viewers to focus on what you want them to notice is pretty much the name of the game.” – Instapage
That last sentence is gold, and it bears reiterating in the context of an email.
Anything you can do to influence your reader to focus on what you want them to notice is pretty much the name of the game.
The second step to a better email is deciding your focal points. All emails have a few key sentences, or words, that need greater focus than the rest of the content. What are the sentences and words that you want the reader to absolutely NOT miss in your email? Those are your focal points.
Step 3: Use Typographical Emphasis (Please)
Okay, great. You’ve decided upon your focal points. Now, what? Now, you need to actually guide them to those focal points. So, the third step to a better email is utilizing typographical emphasis. Which is just a fancy of saying, use the good old-fashioned bold, italics, highlights (sadly, WordPress doesn’t let me highlight texts!), and underlines.
Figure: Before vs After of Step 2 & 3.
I am too often underwhelmed seeing a 400-word email with absolutely no typographical emphasis. Does that mean all the 400 words are equally important? No. It just means the sender did not put enough thought into the email, and in turn, does not respect my time. When you’re sending an email, you’re indirectly asking for a few seconds (or minutes) of your reader’s time. You can be respectful (and smart) about it by writing an email that utilizes the time well. Following these three steps to write a better email is akin to waving a magic wand and ensuring that the reader walks away with almost exactly what you want them to walk away with. Only, it’s cooler (I think).
The Three S’s
Before you leave, there are three more components that deserve a special mention in an email:
- Subject: I may not judge a book by its cover, but I absolutely judge an email by its subject. Writing a good subject is the topic for another article, but just know that ~50% readers open an email based on its subject line.
- Summary: You know, the TL;DR. I like adding td;lrs while sending an email with > 200 words because (a) it’s another way to be respectful of my reader’s time and (b) it’s a fun way for me to test my ability to be concise. “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”, said Blaise Pascal.
- Signature: This is doubly important if you’re sending a cold email. The signature is your subtle response to the question of who are you? Ensure it has your full name, designation, and key links, formatted well. Maybe even throw in a quote over there.
Figure: Before vs After of The Three S’s
There you go. I hope that helped you some. If this article seemed too obvious to you, that’s good. It probably means you’re already following these steps and on your way to email mastery. But, just to be sure, open your last five sent emails and rate yourself.
You might just be surprised.