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Write Emails that Get Responses

pain points May 24, 2024

Do people respond to the emails you send? Do they do so in a timely manner? Do they answer all your questions?

While project managers need to be prepared to use many different communication tools, email remains important. It may be a central means of communication at your organization. Or if your teams work heavily in other software tools, email is still an important backup to flag urgent issues when you’re not getting attention via those other channels, or when you need to communicate with people outside your organization who don’t work in the same tools you do.

I’ve seen many, many emails that don’t elicit the intended information. But I don’t usually have that problem with my emails, and I credit the following elements of my approach. If you implement these elements in your own emails, they can become a much more effective communication tool for you and your projects.

1. Begin and end with a positive greeting and tone.

Much of our communication these days is digital; this is even more the case for those of us who work remotely. With fewer in-person interactions, chances to build goodwill with our coworkers are limited—so don’t overlook the opportunity to build goodwill in your emails.

I begin almost all my emails with “Hi [Name]!” or “Hi everyone!” and end almost all of them with “Thanks!” and then my name. I use exclamation points more liberally than most—they help express positivity which I believe contributes in a small way to team attitude and morale, and feeds good relationships with coworkers. You don’t have to use exclamation points, but find your own way of acknowledging your coworkers as people before asking something of them, and conveying a positive tone in written form.

Almost more importantly, opening and closing greetings are more conspicuous in their absence. They have a small positive impact if you use them, but if you don’t use them, the negative impact can be more pronounced. People can feel slighted if you don’t greet them, or they might perceive a gruff tone even if you weren’t trying to convey any tone. These negative micro-experiences can erode your work relationships over time—relationships that are so critical to leading effective projects.

Hi Kelly and LeAnn!

I just wanted to confirm for you that John and Marcos have started compiling the traffic data you requested from the old version of our website.

They expect they’ll be able to have it to you by the end of next week. Does that work for your timeline?

Thanks!

Megan

2. Use shorter paragraphs.

Inspired by internet writing practices and especially social media posts, I often use only one sentence per paragraph in an email, and rarely more than two. Breaking up your points into smaller points using extra space makes them easier to read and absorb.

In my anecdotal experience, people pay more attention to the beginning and end of a paragraph. If every sentence is a paragraph, the chances are better that almost everything you say will be absorbed.

Hi Melody,

Our developer is setting up our new content search functionality in such a way that whenever it is embedded in one of our French-language websites, the field labels will display in French.

He looked up French translations of the labels he needs but is not confident his French is publish-worthy.

I understand you have a good working knowledge of French. Would you be willing to check his translations before we go live with the new search functionality?

It will probably be next week or the week after before he’s confident he has all the needed labels identified, so let’s wait until then to have you look it over.

Let us know if you’re onboard with this. Thanks so much!

Megan

3. Bullet and number liberally.

Any of my emails that has more than 3 or 4 small paragraphs (as described above) is likely to include bullets or numbering. This is for much the same reason as small paragraphs—content in an outline structure is easier to absorb, especially when skimming.

Any time you find yourself writing a list within a paragraph or using lots of commas, stop and ask if the information works as a list. If it does, go with the list format. Your reader’s brain won’t have to work as hard to understand how the pieces of information relate to each other, which makes it more likely they’ll understand the information.

Hi Jennie,

I’m working on getting your invoice paid, and our finance department asked me if you’d like to get set up for direct deposit payments from us. If so, we’d need:

  • Routing number
  • Account number
  • Whether it's a checking or savings account

Let me know either way, thanks!

Megan

4. Make action items bold and orange.

Whether it’s within a paragraph, just part of a sentence, or on its own line, I tend to make anything I need people to do, or any specific question I need an answer to, bold and orange.

In this way I’m writing the email for two types of people: the ones who want all the context (they can read my full email) and the ones who will only skim and are looking for the point (they’ll see my bold/orange parts). I will make sure neither group misses what I need from them.

This is my main strategy to counteract people’s tendency to answer only one question in an email with multiple questions. If the reader can see at a glance before they even start reading that there are 3 distinct bold and orange phrases/sentences, they have an immediate awareness that I have 3 different important points and will have this in mind as they read or skim.

You don’t really have to use orange. You can pick your own color, or just do bold and skip the color. But I like orange because it stands out whether the user is reading in a light or a dark mode, and it is close to eye-catching red without creating the sense of alarm or failure that red text tends to create (at least in my culture).

Hi Don and Flavio!

Let’s meet next week about materials delivery so that we can keep the Springfield library expansion project on track. Would you each let me know your avaibility for an 8am meeting on Tuesday May 28th, Thursday May 30th, or Friday May 31st?

Thanks!

Megan

5. Color-code requests of different people.

However, I will deviate from orange if I am writing an email where I’m asking different questions or requesting different actions from different people. I will make each person’s name bold and a color, and then anything I need of that person will be bold and the same color—but of course each person’s color is different.

You could choose instead to email these people separately to reduce confusion, but if you’re sending an email to a group, it’s probably because you want everyone to understand the context and the situation, even if you only need a few people to take action. This color-coding approach is a good way to meet both needs.

Hello, audio team!

We’re getting close in terms of being ready to launch our new podcast. The graphics team will have some options for its visual identity ready for us to review in the next few days. In the meantime, I wanted to make sure we’re on track for some of the other final pieces:

  • Elena, did you get the script you needed to record the promo?
  • Steve, when do you expect to have a review-ready cut of our first 3 episodes for Abby to listen to?

Also, I’ll be gone for most of next week, so I’m copying Carter, who will follow up with you then if we don’t have things quite wrapped up.

Thanks everyone!

Megan

But please, don’t go crazy with multiple fonts, multiple font sizes, unnecessary extra colors, and mixing bold/italic/underline. Then your email will just look like a bad webpage from the ‘90s. And more importantly, if you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing. Be intentional with what you emphasize and how.

6. Be honest with yourself if it needs to be a meeting.

I push the typical boundaries of how much information can be communicated clearly, how many questions can get answered, or how many distinct actions can be prompted using an email.

But once I get past 3 distinct requests, I start asking myself if it should be a meeting. Even good structuring of information will only help to a point if the email is too long and the requests too complex. By the time I realize I have 5 or more requests, I am almost certainly going to set a meeting instead, so that I can verify each piece of information is absorbed before I present the next one.

A meeting is also a better tool when you need input at multiple points before determining next steps. If you find yourself outlining multiple layers of options depending on what decisions are made, this is probably too much, and you’ll achieve better communication by using a meeting to walk the group through each decision point one at a time.

One other note: if you’re using an email to share technical information with non-technical people, that might be okay, but just understand it will probably take them longer than average to respond because they will need to find extra time or mental energy to really absorb what you’re saying. Give them the time they need—or break it down for them in a meeting if you don’t have the time to wait.

That’s it! That’s what I do to get a high response rate on my emails and get my messages across. Get used to using these elements in your emails, and you can achieve the same rate of effectiveness with this ever-important project communication tool.

 

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