Our brains love stories. When you use storytelling to share information and ideas, they often stand out and are more memorable to the listener. Stories also engage visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners because they often include graphics, the spoken word, and experiences or feelings.
You may think storytelling would come in handy if you’re preparing for a presentation, but Lee Lazarus and Janine Kurnoff, founders of The Presentation Company and co-authors of the book Everyday Business Storytelling, say it can also help your email get answered.
“Storytelling sounds fluffy,” says Lazarus. “The average engineer doesn’t wake up and think ‘I’m a storyteller.’ But this is not about telling personal stories. Instead, we can all use story structure to organize our thoughts to better present them to our coworkers and bosses.”
This is especially true with email, where the challenge is to cut through the noise and stand out in someone’s inbox.”You often have one shot to connect and influence someone,” says Kurnoff. “You don’t want to miss that opportunity.”
Lazarus and Kurnoff say every great story includes four signposts:
- Setting: This includes data, trends and insights that provide context.
- Characters: These are the participants that are part of your message, including the recipient and sender (you), as well as any other stakeholders
- Conflict: This is the problem you’re hoping to solve and the reason for your email
- Resolution: And this is how you ask for the conflict to be solved
By crafting your email with these important parts, you can improve your chances of breaking through. Here’s how:
Start with the subject line
The first step to getting your email read and answered is to get your email opened. “Your email subject line is the gatekeeper,” says Lazarus. “It can make or break your chances of being read, and it should convey your big idea.”
Too often, emails have vague or passive subject lines, such as “meeting follow up.” This doesn’t tell the receiver which meeting or who will need to do any of the work. Instead, a subject line should be specific, such as “I need these additional resources on project X.” It should answer the question, “What?”
“When you leave it vague, you’re leaving the receiver to decode what you want them to do,” says Kurnoff. “The subject line should tell the recipient what they are being asked to click on. It should be a choreographed roadmap that helps the reader know where they’re headed.”
Fill out the email body
A lot has been written about keeping emails brief, however, Kurnoff says “less is more” is a myth.
“When it comes to email, people need context,” she says. “When you are fixated on being short and sweet, it may not be clear to the reader what action you want them to take.”
The body of the email should answer the question “Why?” This is where you include the setting, the characters and the conflict.
“Why are you writing the email?” asks Lazarus. “Good storytelling is being in your audience’s shoes. Make it easy for them to help you. Instead of starting with your ask, take them back to scene, remind them who the important characters are, and spell out the problem that needs to be solved.”
An email doesn’t need to be long; often the setting, characters, and conflict can be stated in a few sentences. But don’t be afraid to write a long email if providing enough context requires it, the authors say.
End with a call to action
Once you provide all of the necessary information, get to the resolution part of the email, which answers the question, “How?”
“This is the specific details of your ask,” says Lazarus. “Offer a deadline or a true call to action for your request. You can also repeat or reframe your big idea subject line to make it stand out.”
For example, you could end your email with, “To ensure we hit our target dates, I will need these additional resources on project X by Friday.” Then bullet point your action list.
“By bringing in the four signposts of storytelling, and spelling out ‘What,’ ‘Why,’ and ‘How,’ you have a better chance of pushing your message ahead of the daily blizzard and get your ideas the response and attention they deserve,” says Kurnoff.