Frustrating Colleagues? Here’s How to Write Better E-mails

Why should you have to write ten e-mails to Sharlene from the Accounts Department, when you can get the information you need with two?

The reason is simple. Sharlene never reads e-mails thoroughly.

So although you asked her what time Accounts closes off cheque distribution on Fridays, she’ll respond with, “Yes, cheque distribution closes on Fridays.”

But you asked her what time!

Your e-mail made it clear that you knew that Friday was ‘the day’. You just needed THE TIME… And to think that your e-mail was clear, concise, well formatted, AND only three sentences long.

This type of e-mail back and forth happens frequently. And frankly, it irritates colleagues and customers.

Effective business writing requires strategic thinking, empathy, and psychology.


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Think about how readers feel when they see your name in their inbox. Do they tense up?

How can you avoid contributing to their stress?

How can you make them open to collaboration?

How can you persuade them?

It doesn’t take long to start communicating efficiently and persuasively, if you start thinking about the issues that impact your situation and your audience. It’s a psychology thing.

This takes me back to a business writing workshop I facilitated in Guyana for Neal & Massy Limited (now Massy Group).

One of their junior managers was called back to the office, during training. His team was having difficulty clearing an important shipment at the port.

When he returned for the afternoon session, he told me that he had applied some of the techniques we’d discussed about meeting readers’ needs, and structuring your thoughts.

Usually, there would have been lots of e-mail back and forth, drawing out the situation, he said. But because he had assessed the issues, and had figured out how to structure his e-mail for maximum impact and understanding, in a matter of two e-mails, he and the supplier were able to get things back on track to ensure that the shipment made it in on time.

Writing clear e-mails that address your reader’s context creates clear benefits.

  1. You and your colleagues/clients understand each other better.
  2. You make decisions quickly.
  3. You demonstrate efficiency, and improve your reputation.

Here are some quick tips you can use to write better e-mails. The great thing is that you can apply this to a range of business documents – letters, proposals, reports, and more.


Quick tips

1. Don’t leave information gaps.

Avoid information overload though.


2. Be proactive. Consider the questions your reader will ask.

Answer them in your first e-mail.


3. If you’re the one doing the asking

…ask all of your questions one time. Trim your questions down to the essentials. Don’t send 20 questions. If it’s a sales e-mail, your approach may be different, based on where you’re at in building a relationship with your prospective client.


4. Use lists.

If you have more than three questions/points, number them. People are more likely to read numbers than bullets.


5. If you’re responding to an e-mail, read it thoroughly before you respond.

That way, you’re sure of sending the right response.


6. Address objections.

It increases persuasion, and decreases back and forth.


7. Be concise.

Self explanatory, right?


8. However, ensure you’ve included sufficient information for the person to mull over your request.


9. Be direct.

Have a clear call to action. If you downplay it, so will your readers.


10. Watch your tone.

Upset with the person you’re emailing? Vent first. Write an e-mail saying what you really want to say… in Microsoft Word. Then delete it. Then you can open your inbox, and start typing in a more appropriate tone, because you’ve gotten it out of your system.


11. Be specific.

Want a meeting? Propose a day and time. Otherwise, your e-mail thread will look like this:

You: Let’s meet. How’s Monday?

Colleague: Can’t make Monday.

You: Ok. Tuesday?

Colleague: Have meetings all day that day.

You: Ok. Thursday then?

Colleague: Yes.

You: What time?

Colleague: I’m free in the afternoon?

You: 2 p.m.?

And then you write at least three more e-mails to confirm the time. Being specific from the get-go decreases this.


12. Pick up the phone.

We’ve gotten so caught up with writing e-mails that we sometimes forget that a three-minute conversation can be much more effective.

Remember – effective business writing requires strategic thinking, empathy, and psychology. Write e-mails the way you want other people to write to you. Your ultimate goal should be to be considerate, convincing, and clear.

Which one of these tips are you already practising, and which ones do you plan to use?


Want to improve your business writing?

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Photo credit: Istockphoto; buchachon