The Surprising Secret To Getting Your Emails Read

Do you feel like you send your emails into a black hole? Let's get to the point: You need to start with the conclusion.

"Vagueness is the opposite of useful," Geoffrey James writes for Inc. "The clearer the goal, the more convincing your e-mail will be."

That's why, James says, you need to ask yourself what exactly it is you're asking before you let your hands touch the keyboard. You're writing the email to elicit a decision from the recipient--so what's the point of your prompt? Where is the co-investment? And what is a conclusion anyway?

James has an idea:

Your conclusion is a statement of the decision that you want the recipient to make, based upon the contents of your e-mail.

Once you find out what your conclusion is, James says, then you can begin writing--though this may not be the best advice for everyone (for instance, if you're as neurotic as this writer). But fear not: as Pixar reminds us, once you get your idea out of your head, you can start fixing it. So let's amend that advice for a process that's a bit less anxiety-inducing:

  1. Start by writing what you think you are trying to say
  2. Discover that the first few lines are wholehearted hogwash
  3. Rejoice in your determination to write something well
  4. Keep your hands on the keyboard, look for the conclusion when it appears
  5. THEN move that conclusion to the top of the message
Sketching like this is a little more kind to your unconscious than forcing yourself into a stroke of summary-lede genius. In this way, you can develop your idea as you type--like Joan Didion tells us too--without having to subject your reader to your mental meanderings.

Write your thoughts out, find the actionable nugget within them, and lead with that. Your reader will thank you for it. And may even write back.

But that's just one part of writing awesome emails--James gives us a bevy of other tips.

Do you have any advice on writing effective emails--and eliciting the response you were hoping for? Tell us about it in the comments.

How to Write a Convincing E-mail

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Saxon]

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  • KellyECrawford

    I learned the technique of being concise in a few college-level writing courses I have taken. It is a skill that takes lots of practice. As I read email messages, I get impatient when I have to wade through sentences that fail to "cut to the chase," or if I find it necessary to perform "mental gymnastics" in an attempt to discern the true meaning of the message if the writing is ambiguous or unclear. I also loathe back-and-forth messages asking for clarification -- very time consuming.

  • J. Marston

    In my industry I connect those who are in a business role and sitting at their computers all day sending emails to people who work outside of an office and who check email maybe once in the morning, once at lunch and once before they leave. The business people cannot figure out how I get high response rates from the non-business portion of the company.

    The trick--I challenge myself to use the first 10 words (or less) to identfy the "ask." I make sure the entire message can be read at a glance. This means short-to-the-point sentences, usually 14 pt font or higher and no scrolling involved.

    I'm a writer, so doing this is sometimes painful as I want to paint a beautiful picture for my readers. But the fact is, my audience does not care about how artfully I say something, just as long as they get the WHAT; so they can move on to their next thing.

  • Peter Creutzfeldt

     My colleague Nigel Greenwood - currently on a plane - says draft your email then put it aside for any amount of time, even 5 minutes, and read it again before sending. You will see it from a fresh perspective and almost always find it worth editing for increased effectiveness. 

  • Fred Schenkelberg

    For emails that are a request use a complete request

    1. Who wants something, often "I want "
    2. Who is receiving the request, often, " you " or persons name if more than one on message
    3. Do do what, be specific, like " to send me the Labor report from last month "
    4. Criteria of success - what is considered fully fulfilling the request - "include the pdf and spreadsheet documents as attachments "
    5. When - again be specific " before close of business this Tuesday"

    That becomes your first paragraph in an email making a request.

    I want you, Bill, to send me the Labor report from last month including the pdf and spreadsheet as attachments before the close of business this Tuesday.

    Direct, clear, to the point.

    You can then add why, justification, is this a reminder, hwo you are going to use the material, etc.

    Or with a bit of skill this can be softened yet must, must, include all five elements.


    Fred Schenkelberg
    FMS Reliability

  • Drew DePriest

    Consider your opening line as your best chance to grab your reader's attention, and make sure you make it 100% about them. 

    You can quantify it rather easily: for your next email, count the number of instances you use self-focused pronouns like "I, me, my" versus reader-focused ones like "You, your, you are." The more you weight your email with reader-focused words - especially in your opening sentence - the better chance you have of a favorable response. That's persuasion.

  • Employer

     Sorry, but you're wrong.  I could give you 5 reasons why, but that would be "[u]seless information" for you.

  • karenticktin

    Great strategy Drake.  I have also found that demonstrating that you've done your homework and shared what you can do for the recipient vs. what you are 'selling' goes a long way.  And, at the end of the day, a compelling subject head increases success.

  • ognixdorf

    All (including the comments) good  advice.I'll add my 2 cents on "getting your emails read:"


  • Charles Knight

    "actionable nugget" is one of the high scoring words in many versions of Bullshit bingo I've played - is the OP maybe trolling us? 
    More seriously - regardless of subject line, I delete every email I receive unread - anything important gets sent again, everything else you never hear about - saves a lot of time.

  • Propel Businessworks

    Great advice. People don't have time in the day to read a novel of an email, no matter how well-crafted it is. If the first sentence contains the gist of the whole thing, then at least your message is being heard, even if the finer details are being ignored.