Writing effective emails is a superpower in the workplace. An effective email can make the difference in getting your proposal accepted, key question answered, or idea to stick.
After writing thousands of emails, I have learned how to distill a work email to the essentials. While I think of myself as an effective email writer today, I struggled to adjust to the format for years.
My first work-related email was a pitch to an entrepreneur — I asked if I could intern at their startup. So far so good. I went wrong by writing a thesis-length email. At the time, I was proud of the email’s level of detail and even forwarded it to my parents!
While I eventually landed the internship, it was in spite of my writing. I received feedback from the entrepreneur to be more succinct, which started me on my email efficacy journey.
Over the years, I developed a five step checklist for improving the efficacy of emails that I write at work. By sharing this checklist, I hope to make the process of writing emails at work less daunting and more effective.
To write an effective work email:
- Write for your primary and secondary audiences
- Be concise
- Assume that the email will be forwarded
- For longer emails, add a one-sentence summary at the beginning
- Write the subject line last
1. Write for your primary and secondary audiences
The first question you need to think through is who you are writing to — the main recipient is the primary audience. The primary audience needs to understand what you are writing about including what, if any, action they need to take as a result of the email.
If the primary recipient is a senior leader, it is reasonable to assume that they may be reading emails as they ferry between meetings all day, so brevity and clear next steps are even more important. If the recipient is a colleague that you are collaborating on a project with, going into more detail may be appropriate.
I typically send email to one recipient in the
To field, using the
Cc field to add in additional individuals or teams. These additional recipients are the secondary audience. The secondary audience needs to have visibility on what is going on, so add any context they will need to understand the nature of the ask or update.
When writing emails that require decisions or input, make clear asks that are directed at one specific person. This is the primary recipient and they should be addressed by name with the question.
I like to bold the name and add an
@ sign to make this ask even more clear:
@First Name, can I move forward with the proposal as outlined?
@First Name, could you please reach out to Team X to see if they can support this request?
2. Be concise
Include only the level of detail that is needed — no more, no less. After writing your first draft of the email, rewrite it with fewer sentences.
Considering using bulleted lists, including nesting content in sub-bullets:
- Bulleted lists are easier to skim than sentences, when used in moderation
- The writer should focus on the ideas and can use sentence fragments
- Avoid filler words and prose-like sentence structure
As an example, here’s a paragraph from a sample email first draft making a recommendation to use customer testimonials in the sales process:
The attached report contains supporting evidence for the recommendation. There was a 32% increase in sales productivity during the pilot period when we used customer testimonials during calls, so I think including the testimonials for all calls will be an effective way to increase sales by as much as $100 in incremental sales per rep per day. If you look at the annual impact, it could be as much as $425,000.”
This paragraph could be distilled into this sentence:
The team could increase weekly incremental sales by $100 per rep — a $425k annualized impact — by implementing customer testimonials during outbound calls (pilot results here1).
The recommendation’s predicted impact and supporting evidence are clear, with more detail available to reference, if needed, through the included link or attachment.
3. Assume that the email will be forwarded
It is important to make sure your spelling and grammar are correct, because your email could get forwarded to a senior leader at your company or even a customer.
More crucially, make sure that your email is professional. You should be comfortable defending anything you write to anyone inside or outside of your company if they were to somehow read the email.
4. For longer emails, add a one-sentence summary at the beginning
While being concise is important, there are cases where detail cannot be omitted in order to provide the necessary context for the primary recipient to make a decision or understand a decision someone else made.
In these cases, make sure the first sentence is a summary of the email with the key question or takeaway for your primary recipient.
As an example:
A dozen companies have signed letters of intent and will move forward with a formal partnership if we can build Feature X by the end of Q1 — can we meet to discuss the tradeoffs of building Feature X instead of continuing with our current roadmap?
If this is just an update email, consider providing the high-level takeaways and migrating the more nuanced details into a separate document that you can include a link or attachment to.
5. Write the subject line last
Subject lines should make the contents of the email obvious to the primary recipient and provide a hint at the requested next steps. I find it is easier to write the subject line after writing the email, because I can review the content of the email when summarizing the main point.
Any required action can be called out using brackets at the beginning of the subject line separate from the summarized contents of the email. Adding in the due date (end of week, end of day, a specific date) helps the primary recipient better understand the timeliness of the request and prioritize accordingly.
As an example, let’s say that you are writing an email to a leader of a team that you work with infrequently with an ask for them to participate in a company-wide leadership panel you’re organizing.
A possible subject line could be:
[Participation Requested EOW] Company-Wide Leadership Panel Opportunity
This level of detailed formatting in the subject line could be overkill for an email to a teammate or colleague you work with often, so make sure to filter the subject through the lens of the first step — write for your primary and secondary audiences.
These rules of thumb will provide a foundation for effective email writing at work. That said, do not be afraid to break these rules! Over time, you’ll find what works best for you and your writing style, as well as what your company’s norms are.
If you have any specific email questions I didn’t address, let me know via Twitter or email.
Include a link to supporting materials, or include those materials as attachments and reference them in the body of the email. ↩