Statistics show that the average office worker spends 2.5 hours a day reading and responding to an average of 200 emails, of which nearly three-fourths -- mostly copies and blind copies -- aren't relevant to their jobs.
The result? No matter how hard people may try to reach inbox zero, the average person suffers from a cluttered inbox, even though the average person only spends 15 to 20 seconds reading any particular email.
How can you make sure your emails get read -- and more important, help get things done?
Here are some ways to write emails that quickly get to the point, save time, avoid misunderstandings, and make it easy for recipients to find the important bits when they (inevitably) revisit certain emails in the future.
1. Use keywords in the subject line.
Say you tend to have 50 or more opened emails in your inbox. And you store opened emails in a variety of folders. And you save all your sent mail.
That's a lot of email to sift through when you need to find something.
Keywords make the search process easier. Instead of using a subject line like "Materials for Next Meeting," be more specific. "December Product Development Meeting Materials" makes it easier for people to find that specific email.
People are accustomed using keywords for web searches; simply extend the premise to email subject lines, especially if you have a relationship with the recipient. A catchy subject line may entice someone you don't know to open your email.
With direct reports, though, the subject line should clearly identify -- yep -- the subject of the email.
2. Use dates, not just days.
If I open an email on Thursday that says, "We'll go live with the database update on Tuesday," I know when the switch gets flipped.
But if I need to go back and reference that, I may need to check the date/time stamp to determine which Tuesday.
Or I may get confused. A friend always assumes that "next Tuesday" refers to the Tuesday after the upcoming Tuesday; to him, the upcoming Tuesday is this Tuesday and the following one is next Tuesday.
So while it might feel redundant, take a couple seconds to add specific dates and specific times for the sake of clarity and ease of future reference.
And while you're at it...
3. Use bold font for the important stuff.
People are unlikely to re-read entire emails. But they may later need to refer to specific dates, action items, etc.
Make it easy: Put the important stuff in bold-face type. Target dates. Implementation dates. Project names, product names, key constituents, etc.
Then people can quickly scan for what matters while gaining context from the rest.
And don't worry that emphasizing with a bold font is like shouting with all-caps. Recipients will soon realize you're just making their lives easier -- and will likely start to return the favor.
4. Use headlines and sections.
Writing a long email? Break it up into sections.
If you're floating a project, break the proposal down into sections: Current Condition, Problems, Potential Solutions, Advantages/Disadvantages, Potential Outcomes.
That not only gives the email a logical flow, but makes it a lot easier to scan as well.
Generally speaking, if an email will be more than four or five paragraphs long, consider breaking it down into sections or a list.
If nothing else, readers will be much more likely to read to the end.
5. Insert key items from forwards or replies into the main body.
How many times have you needed to scroll back and forth from the main body of a new email to older messages in the chain?
Make it easier for recipients. When you reference something from an earlier email in the chain, copy/paste the critical bits into the body of your email. (Then reference the sender and date of that older email.)
That way recipients won't have to sift through the old stuff unless they wish to. The context will remain embedded in the chain, but what matters will be front, center, and at the top.
6. Specify who, what, and when.
Fuzzy authority, fuzzy expectations, and fuzzy timelines are like orphans -- they become someone else's responsibility.
Which means they become no one's responsibility.
Say who is in charge, what should be accomplished, and when.
And if multiple people are involved, make it a section. Like:
- Mark: Let everyone copied on this email know by 10. a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 3 if the pitch meeting with ACME Inc. is confirmed for Friday, Nov. 6 at 2 p.m.
- Janice: If the meeting is a go, please conduct a dry run with your team by end of day Wednesday, Nov. 4.
- Rachel: Plan to address any bugs or issues with the demo on Thursday, Nov. 5.
7. Channel your inner Oprah.
Oprah starts every meeting with the same three sentences:
"What is our intention for this meeting? What's important? What matters?"
Use the same approach for emails.
What is your intention? State it in the subject line.
What's important? Make it bold.
What matters? Make sure people know who will take care of it, and when.
If an email doesn't answer those questions, you probably shouldn't be writing the email in the first place.