You may have received training on giving a good presentation or writing a successful business proposal, but few of us spend as much time learning how to craft a good email. It’s quick and easy, but few of us give much thought to shooting off an email, so that makes it ripe for misuse.
“Email is simultaneously messy, imperfect, overwhelming, and impoverished,” says Nick Morgan, author of Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World. “Email is so easy to send that it’s become a deluge.”
As communication tools like instant messaging are added to the workplace, the purpose and strength of email has started to shift, says Morgan. “Slack or similar platforms are for quick, conversational responses,” he says. “Text is immediate and the most informal, requiring a word or two, or an emoji. Email is now the most time consuming and formal. It requires a more elaborate response and often takes the place of face-to-face communication.”
So before you send your next email, make sure you do these three things:
Wait at least 60 seconds and read it over before you hit send
Because email is a quick tool to use, it’s tempting to shoot one off on the fly, but that often leads to misunderstandings or incomplete information, requiring a few more emails to clear up.
“The issue is we feel we never have enough time because we’re buried in email,” says Morgan. “We’re in email hell, and we try to get out by erasing and deleting and responding briefly to those we have to. Ideally you should take more time.”
Write your email and then wait at least 60 seconds before hitting send, says Morgan. “Go back and reread it, edit it, and make sure it is clear,” he says. “Look particularly for emotional clarity. Remember, it is the emotions that are too often lacking in our virtual life, and they are hard to get right in an email.”
Take out fillers and qualifiers
No one likes a long, rambling email, but one that’s too short has issues, too. “You can forget to explain stuff and as a result create misunderstandings,” says Morgan. “Trying to keep it as short as possible can be a trap and make you feel overwhelmed. Brevity is not a virtue in and of itself, and writing should go as long as necessary.”
While the content may be long, there are tricks to keeping it concise. Take out fillers, qualifiers, adverbs, and adjectives, suggests Morgan. Keep the prose matter-of-fact and clear, and write conversationally, revising as needed.
“Start an email, a paragraph, and your sentences with the familiar, the old, the agreed-upon,” he says. “Then move to the unfamiliar, the new, the debatable. We only crave a little extra knowledge.”
You are conveying the right tone
The most important step of crafting a good email is being clear on your intent. “The single most important question to ask is, ‘How does what I just said make you feel?'” says Morgan. “When you talk face to face, the person gets more information from your eyes or body language. In the virtual world, all that is lost.”
We tend to overestimate both our ability to convey the tone we want to convey in an email, and our ability to judge other people’s tones, says Morgan. “We think we know exactly what other people are trying to say—but we’re wrong,” he says.
Research from New York University and the University of Chicago found that people are stuck in their own perspectives, grasping a writer’s intent only 56% of the time.
“The researchers found this solution: Read your emails out loud a few times in different tones, including offended, sarcastic, or angry, before you send it,” says Morgan. “Reading a message in a way you didn’t intend makes it easier for you to step outside your own perspective and appreciate that you might be misinterpreted. That’s the first step toward better communication.”