Email. For some it is the bane of their workplace existence. It’s a distraction, dropping in at alarming rates throughout the day and the constant aspect of it (feeling never caught up) is what makes us think email management a futile endeavor.
A former client of mine acknowledged the volume was challenging but what was worse was reading the poorly written and long-winded messages. If an email didn’t get to the point quickly enough, she often closed it and moved on to the next, leaving a trail of half read and half understood notes that clogged her inbox and derailed her productivity.
She was frustrated by ineffective subject lines too. Those that had vague language like “heads-up” and “project update”. While those subject lines indeed represented a sentiment in the email, it wasn’t language that conveyed why she was being sent the information in the first place. It also made for difficult email management and sorting by subject line. She would have multiple emails strings with the subject “project update”, though each reflected a different project.
We spend an inordinate amount of time writing and reading email. It can be upwards of 28% of the work week. That’s over 11 hours a week or about the equivalent of 14 weeks out of the year, reading and writing email.
Why not maximize that time, even reduce the time, by writing better emails?
If you already have a handle on effective email writing, then take the tips below to your team and colleagues. Teach it to others. Everyone will benefit by improving upon this skill.
And, honestly, the only thing better than writing better emails is reading better emails, am I right?
BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front)
Many of us were either taught or we developed through experience a basic structure to email. It generally follows this format: a quick greeting, an introduction to a problem, an explanation of the context, a description of the impact or why it matters, a request for action, and then a closing.
This is an adequate approach and one that I have used frequently. However, not anymore. This is because it results in an email that gets to the point at the end of the message. In fast paced work environments with high email traffic, busy professionals (who check email on smartphones) end up spending more time scanning and scrolling through very long messages searching for the point of the note. This is not only a waste of the reader’s time but also a waste of the author’s time because the reader isn’t actually absorbing much of the content.
Write a tighter and more effective message by stating your purpose up front. Here’s the format:
Ask or action requested
Concise description of context and impact
This approach is also called BLUF or Bottom Line Up Front. It informs the reader straight away what the purpose of the email is and what they are to do. Also, it serves to entice the reader to keep reading since they understand from the beginning the purpose of the note.
Before sending your next email, pause and ask yourself “What are you asking the recipient to do as a result of reading your email?” The answer to this question is the BLUF. Here are a few examples of what a BLUF may sound like:
“Dear Jim, I am writing to inform you of our staffing issue and would like your guidance on who from the finance office needs to attend our next team meeting.”
“Hi Monique, I am writing to request your decision on how we should format next week’s presentation to the Board. Below you will see three options for your consideration.”
“Greetings Team, We need to identify three solutions to the integration error (with corresponding resource and budget requirements) during Thursday’s project meeting. Review the context below and arrive to the meeting prepared to discuss.”
Once you have a clear BLUF, then you can proceed with a concise description of the context and impact of the situation.
A quick note on concise writing: It means to use fewer words. While it may sound nice to include lots of description with adjectives and adverbs, it isn’t efficient. Business or professional writing for emails needs to use as few words as possible to convey the message.
Ask a colleague to review your emails and ask “Am I conveying the message in a succinct way?” Concise writing takes practice and working with a partner, especially one who excels at it, will help.
Specific Subject Lines
Having the BLUF makes writing a descriptive subject line much easier. Subject lines need to alert the reader to the point (or bottom-line) of the email. More specifically, what action do you want the reader to take? Is the email merely informative or are you asking them to read, generate an opinion, and act? Whatever it may be, state it in the subject heading.
Here is what the subject headings might look like for the email examples described above:
Email volume will not lighten any time soon. It is here to stay, a consistent aspect of navigating many work environments. If we’re going to be spending over a quarter of our time on it, then let’s all write them more effectively and show others how to as well.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.