Email is an underestimated communication platform; I've even argued that it's more efficient than phone calls (in most situations, except for sales). It's certainly well-adopted by businesses as a communication medium though, with the vast majority of Americans using it as their primary business communication channel.
But email's effectiveness is limited by the effort put into each one by its sender. Instead of harnessing the value of the medium's unique advantages, too many people tend to haphazardly throw their thoughts into the body of an email and hit send. If the information isn't input clearly, it's obviously going to be much more susceptible to being incorrectly interpreted , causing a potentially lengthy back-and-forth chain that drives productivity to a halt.
For some people who have experienced this, it's why they insist phone calls and face-to-face conversations are more advantageous for business communication. There are times when phone and face-to-face conversations are more efficient and productive, but in most cases, email is a near-perfect medium for communication--as long as it's used correctly. Here are the seven qualities of a successful email.
1. Concise. Emails are not the place to ramble. Since emails can transmit virtually unlimited amounts of information, it's easy to go on tangents or try to include every bit of information you can in one single email. This is usually not the best approach. Instead, it's better to focus on making your emails as concise as possible; in other words, it's better to put as much information into as few words as possible.
You can do this by cutting out the fluff. Unlike phone calls, you don't have to spend time making small talk or introducing the problem. Instead, you can immediately begin by presenting the most relevant information. After you draft your email, go through and eliminate any sentences (or individual words) that are unnecessary.
2. Intention-focused. Speaking of goals, your email should have one. If your email doesn't have a central intention, such as "to summarize the meeting and recap next steps," you shouldn't be sending one. Everything in your email needs to feed that central intention, and that central intention should be clear to everyone reading it.
In order to make your central intention evident, you need an effective, direct subject line. Writing one can be difficult, especially for long emails that need to cover a lot of ground, but without an immediate and clear subject line, your email could be overlooked or hard to find after a certain amount of time passes. Include information such as the client, the topic, or the due date (for a specific action item). Never use a subject line to write body copy.
3. Summarizing. Your email should have some sort of summary to start things off, unless it's a response to an email thread already in progress. In this summary, you should capture all the items covered to date (whether those items were all covered in a recent meeting, or over the course of the last several weeks). This will get everybody reading the email up to speed on background information before you delve into the matter at hand.
Remember, there's a difference between summarizing and reiterating. You aren't necessarily aiming to repeat all the information that has been covered to date. Instead, you are trying to convey the most important elements of that information in as little space as possible.
4. Well-organized. Your email needs to be organized logically. There is no single format that applies to every email, but every email needs to be well thought-out. Start your email by addressing your audience and move into a subject. Your subject can be split in any number of ways. For example, you could separate your sections chronologically by starting with a recap of previous meetings, moving into a general summary, and ending with a list of action items. Or, you could opt to segment your email in terms of individual participants, calling out each individual's responsibilities in one group email.
No matter how you choose to organize your email, your organization should be instantly recognizable to anyone reading your email for the first time. Keep all relevant subject matter confined to its section in your email, with no spillover.
5. Visually scannable. This is especially important, with attention spans at all-time lows and inbox counts reaching all-time highs. Even if your intended audience needs to read your email in full the first time around, your email should be visually "scannable" for repeat reads. Don't make your paragraphs too long (creating the dreaded wall-of-text), and try to make certain sections of content pop out with different formatting. For example, bullet points are an extremely effective way to organize and present a dedicated list because they can be read quickly and easily. They stand out from the rest of the email and can be tackled one at a time.
You can also use formatting tricks like bolding to call out specific names or important dates, and if you want to get fancy, you can color-code your email to correspond with different relevant parties. The goal is to design your email to be referenced easily at a glance.
6. Polite and tone-appropriate. Emails do have one potential drawback. Because they are written, and not expressed with the wide range of vocal tones and body language gestures we're used to in interpersonal communication, they are prone to tonal misinterpretation. That means you have to be extra careful to make sure your words are taken correctly and appropriately by the receiving party.
First, make sure you're writing in a tone that's appropriate for your audience. If you are emailing a new client with conservative values, it's best to address them formally as Mr./Mrs./Ms. rather than with a "Hey Bob!" On the other hand, if you're emailing a coworker about a project you're collaborating on, don't come off too stiff by using short, unfriendly sentences.
Second, be cordial, but straightforward. Emails aren't the best place to make sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek jokes, even if the tone would allow it. Assume your reader is going to take everything literally.
7. Clear on action. The best emails have a clear action plan. If there isn't any action required by any of your readers, you probably didn't need to send an email in the first place. Especially in longer emails, it's easy for action items to get lost. Some email writers might casually mention them, buried in a sentence in the middle of the body, while others wouldn't call them out at all, assuming the action items are implied.
Instead, make all action items clear. Make a list of each action item, as well as the party responsible for carrying that action item out and an expected date of completion (where relevant). Your readers will instantly know what is expected of them, and better yet, you'll have a historical point you can reference in the future to hold those parties accountable.
If you can start writing emails with all seven of these important qualities, you'll improve the coherence and practicality of your emails. As a result, your coworkers and clients will be happier, your productivity will skyrocket, and you'll never again have to worry about that never-ending back-and-forth of questions and responses.
If you're interested in more examples of how emails are superior to traditional phone calls, check out my article: Emails Only, Please: 10 Reasons Phone Calls Are a Waste of Time.