Email is a necessary part of our work lives, but it takes up a lot of our time and our readers’ time. Here are some hints to make your emails more effective. Your readers will appreciate your efforts.
- First, should you be using email at all? If you are communicating something sensitive or confidential, should you pick up the phone or (when possible) walk down the hall?
If you are writing an email while angry, delete the recipient’s address from the “TO” line before you start writing. (I paste it at the top of the email’s body so I don’t have to search for the address later.) After you’ve finished writing, put the email aside for a few hours, or a day. Then decide whether you should send it out. Email is usually not the best way to deal with disagreements.
- Subject line: Make it substantive. Your reader will use the subject line to decide what to read, what to delete without reading, and what to read later (and we all know what happens to many of those emails that get put aside). If your email is time-sensitive, or there’s a deadline, put that in the subject line. If you need the reader to do something, put that action in the subject line, when possible.
If your email is a reply and the topic has changed, change the subject line. If you’ve found the recipient’s email address by searching old emails, don’t just hit “Reply”. Change the subject line to reflect your current topic. If you don’t, your reader may delete your email, thinking it’s an old email that just popped up for some reason. (And delete the old email language at the bottom of the email.)
When you are sending an email to someone outside of your firm, don’t use the other firm’s name as part of your subject line. That doesn’t provide any useful information to your reader.
- The body of your email: Put the most important information in the first screen. Many readers won’t scroll down to read more, especially if they are reading on a mobile device. Get to the point.
If you need the reader to take some action, put that right at the top. If you’re asking three questions, start by saying that you’ve got three questions. Otherwise, your reader may read the first question and hit reply—and never get to the next two questions.
When replying to an email, copy enough of the original email for the reader to be able to understand the context of your answer.
If you’re asking questions, use bullets to make it easy for your recipient to reply.
- Good formatting can help. Keep paragraphs short, use white space (skipping lines between paragraphs), and, where appropriate, use bulleted lists. If a longer email is necessary, use headings.
- Use a signature block including at a minimum your full name, firm name, phone number and email address. Make it easy for your reader (and anyone the email is forwarded to) to contact you.
- Don’t hit “Reply All” unless there’s a good reason to send the email to each person in the “To” or “CC” line.
- Attachments: First, make sure you actually attach any promised attachments. As soon as you start writing “Attached is . . .”, stop and attach the document. That way you won’t forget.
And make your attachments easy for your reader to use. We’ve all had to deal with an email with several attachments (“Scan1.pdf”, “Scan2.pdf”, etc.). We’re in a rush and need one of the documents. Which one is it? No way to know without opening each.
Rename your attachments to help your reader out (“Revised Schedule” instead of “2012_02_22_20_20_01”) It will make your reader’s job easier.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Marilyn Bush LeLeiko works with lawyers, accountants, and other professionals to help them improve their writing skills. Through LawWriting.com, she conducts CLE workshops, workshops for law firm summer associates, “Lunch & Learn” sessions for law office staff, and webinars. Marilyn also provides one-‐on-‐one coaching, in person and by telephone.
For more hints on effective email, download Marilyn’s free article “Before Hitting Send: Ten Tips for More Effective Email”. You can reach Marilyn at marilyn@LawWriting.com. Follow her on Twitter, @LawWriting, and connect with her on LinkedIn.