Delete or Not to Delete? Effective Business Email Writing is an Art

Posted by Bill Rosenthal on Mon, Feb 11, 2013 @ 10:00 AM

written communicationPart I: How to Craft a Strong Subject Line

Ah, the business letter.  You remember (if you’re over the half-century mark) those handwritten or typewritten thoughts on paper that arrived in an envelope… with a stamp… from the post office!

We certainly have come a long way from the days when the business man dictated his thoughts to the secretary, who furiously scribbled dictation into a steno pad and then dutifully typed the letter and mailed it.

Then we had the business memo, typed between sheets of carbon paper (later mimeographed) and distributed on the desks of the recipients.

Although those times are light years from the state of written communication today, the basic rules of the business letter and business memo apply to today’s email messages.

And oddly enough, nobody seems to be teaching young professionals the components of an effective email, despite its crucial importance in business communications.  Knowing how to craft a good email – one that will get a response – can make a huge difference in your success, whether it’s getting your boss to take you seriously or convincing the board of directors to increase your budget.

Think of every email you write as a pitch. Even if you’re not literally selling anything in your email, you are selling the idea that your email is worth reading and responding to. That’s no small feat, given the large quantities of email that most professionals receive each day. You have to craft your message in such a way that your email not only does not end up in the Delete folder, but that it gets opened, read and responded to.

What determines whether your email gets opened or nixed depends upon whether you signal one the recipient’s internal alert mechanisms. When we look at our email Inbox, we look for subtle clues as to the probable value of each email message.  The clues you give as to the value of your email will illicit which mechanism goes off in the recipient’s brain when they view your subject line and email preview pane.

Picture your Inbox. At the very least you can probably see the sender’s name, and subject line; as well as possibly their email address and the date sent. If the recipient can preview their emails they can read the first few lines of each one as well, so your subject line and opening sentence are critical to determining whether that rest of your email gets read at all.

Your email subject line is important to get the recipient interested enough to read your email, yet some email headers just about scream "please delete me!" or "I’m irrelevant!" Here’s how to write a subject line that gets your email opened and responded to:

  1. Focus on the reader. Know what will grab your reader's attention and include those words in the subject line. Think about the most important part of your email message to the reader. Including the words that convey that message in the subject will focus the reader's attention on your email. Example: Mandatory intranet training session for staffers this Friday, May 1.
  2. Include your requested action. If your email requests the reader take action be sure to include that in the email header. If your email is informing the reader of a meeting, party, or function include the date in the header. Example: Intranet training session for staffers Friday, May 1: RSVP by April 30.
  3.  Present a benefit. This tells the reader “what’s in it for them”. Example: Five things you’ll learn at Friday’s intranet training session.
  4. Be as specific as possible. Get to the point. Think about what words or phrases really get your point across and use only those in your header. Example: Mandatory intranet training Friday May 1: important info.

Now that you’ve mastered your email subject line, in our next post we’ll talk about the all-important first paragraph.

Want to master the art of email communications? Communispond’s Writing for the Web course teaches you how. Check our website for details.                                                                      

Tags: Writing Skills, nonverbal communication