E-MAIL

5 Easy Ways to Write Better Emails

Email has been around forever, yet few of us know how to send good messages. Here are the top five things you should think about before sending any important business email.
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Business email accounts aren't sexy. They've been in widespread use for decades, and even the services that so many of us use have been around forever. (Gmail turns 10 this month, and Hotmail is going on 18 years old.) Despite a remarkable lack of innovation, however, email is still by far the most popular electronic communications method for business.

If you're like me, you're probably inundated with new email messages every day, and despite your best intentions, you probably wind up ignoring a big portion of them. That human tendency can present a great opportunity for you, however--whether you're trying to sell products, connect with colleagues, or motivate a team. Since the standard of all the emails around yours is pretty low, writing just a bit better can give you a disproportionately positive impact.

It is a matter of both email etiquette and best practices.

Here are five key ways to improve your email etiquette, get your emails read, and spark action.

1. Keep it short.

I believe it was Mark Twain who said, "If I'd had more time, I would have written you a shorter email." Regardless, keep your word count low. Just as you keep your tweets under 140 characters, keep your best emails under 150 words. (For comparison's sake, this column runs about 700 words.)

Here's a master example. If you ever have a complaint about Amazon, you're welcome to email Jeff Bezos directly, at jeff@amazon.com. If he in turn thinks it merits a response, he'll forward it to relevant employees with a single addition--a question mark--which according to author Brad Stone, prompts recipients to "react as though they've discovered a ticking bomb."

2. Be direct.

Get to the point. Delete adjectives and adverbs. It's very unnecessary to add many additional words that make your most important emails seem overly lengthy. (See what I mean?) Otherwise, you risk "tl;dr."

If you can't follow rule No. 1 and keep your emails short, at least include a brief summary at the top, and indicate whatever action is required. (In the Army, we called this a "BLUF" statement--bottom line, upfront.

3. Reply quickly.

Last year, Snapchat CEO Even Spiegel tweeted some of the first emails he'd traded with Mark Zuckerberg before turning down a reported $3 billion takeover offer. Most interesting from these is how short and fast these introductory messages were.

Zuckerberg's first 46-word email came at 6:23 p.m.; Spiegel replied a half hour later with 19 words (plus an emoticon). Zuckerberg replied again with 14 words just three hours later. Even though the deal didn't come together in the end, there's a clear lesson: When something is important, reply fast.

4. Reread before sending. And do it twice.

Speaking of emails that weren't supposed to be public, when Steve Jobs died, one of Samsung's top sales executives emailed fellow company leaders to suggest seizing the moment to attack the iPhone. Within a month, they pounced with commercials mocking people who waited in lines for new Apple products.

While it was a smart strategy, it looks a little skeevy now, which is probably why these emails are marked "Highly Confidential--Attorneys' Eyes Only." You can read them here. The lesson: Reread your emails before sending them--a task that is much easier, of course, if you've kept them short to begin with.

5. Add the address last.

You may have noticed that I have a very common name. (I'll wait here while you scroll up and look at the byline on this article.) A few years ago, I was negotiating to buy a company, it turned out that one of the top executives of the target company actually had the same name, with only a middle initial separating us. As a result, some of the people on their side of the deal kept cc'ing me by mistake on confidential emails in which they talked about their negotiating position. (I let them know, but it kept happening.)

The deal didn't work out, but it led me to learn an important lesson: Make darn sure that you double-check the addressees on any important email you send. Even better, don't address an email until you've finished reading and editing it. There's nothing like accidentally hitting the "send" button too early, and firing off your unfinished thoughts to an important business contact.

Want to read more, make suggestions, or even be featured in a future column? Contact me and sign up for my weekly email.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Apr 23, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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