Today, effective email communication is essential to any business and provides the most immediate method of communication for many professionals. Most of us write emails at work every day, but when was the last time you took a moment to think about your email communication skills and how you could improve them?
In this guide, we explore how to communicate effectively via email. As you'll soon learn, effective email communication in the workplace or with clients is a skill that can be learned – and thus improved. We'll run you through common email problems that you might find familiar and then introduce you to actionable tips for effective email writing.
The importance of effective email communication in the workplace
It's almost impossible to imagine a time before email. The first email was sent in 1971, and since then, these electronic letters have taken over the world. A staggering 300 billion emails are sent every day – and the figure is set to continue to grow. Today, almost 4 billion people in the world have an email account – that's over half of the global population.
More email accounts mean more emails. The average worker receives 121 emails per day, which means yours needs to stand out, or it's likely to be ignored.
But writing an effective email is simple, right? Wrong. Researchers studying email comprehension have found that there are several serious – and common – issues that can affect email communications.
They have helpfully classified common email problems into the following categories:
- Not knowing one another
- Difficulties in connecting
- Lack of trust
- Lack of interpersonal clues
- Reduction in communication quality
- Emotional and psychological discomfort
The findings highlight how critical it is to get the message right. But it's not just the words. It's the structure too.
In another study into how to use email effectively in business, researchers found that the way your email is structured, written, and presented impacts how the information is conveyed, processed, and understood.
The crucial takeaway from the research and our real-world experience is: writing an effective email is an essential skill in the modern workplace.
1. Understand your audience
The key to developing effective email communication skills is understanding your audience and tailoring your correspondence to them. Before writing your email, spend some time thinking about the recipient. In a professional context, the person could be an existing customer, potential client, colleague, or boss.
Their role and relationship to you will define the approach you take. It will also affect the tone of your email, including how formal or informal it is.
You wouldn't expect an informal email from a Government department, for example. Nor would a colleague and friend find a highly formal email appropriate if you're inviting them out for a drink.
If you're unsure how to phrase an email, it's typically better to be more formal than informal. The very first and last lines of your email are crucial for striking the right tone, so if you want some tips on how to start a professional email and how to end one, check out our recent blog posts. You can also learn more about appropriate email etiquette for different types of emails in our detailed blog.
2. Use active voice
When writing emails for business, there's a tendency to adopt the passive voice. Writing this way may appear formal and professional but can easily lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings.
Let's look at an example. Here's a statement in the active voice.
It's clear that the sender is asking the recipient to call Simon at 10:00 AM on Thursday.
Compare that with one written in the passive voice.
Will Simon get a call? If so, from whom?
At its most basic level, using the active voice is about being clear and unequivocal. If you write an email, it should be clear what you are requesting. The recipient should be in no doubt what you want them to do and when.
The active voice can appear a little rude or impersonal, but it's actually a more professional way to communicate. A bonus is that writing in the active voice can make your message shorter and thus your email communication efficient. For all of us who are wading through hundreds a day, it's likely to be appreciated.
3. Be emotionally intelligent
Emotional intelligence is about creating a connection with someone's deeper feelings. It's a powerful marketing tool, as Harvard Business Review has concluded – and it helps you in creating effective emails, too.
An emotionally intelligent email is written with a recognition of the feelings of the recipient. They're written in a way that elicits a positive response, using language to tap into our primal emotions.
Instead of writing.
Why not use.
The first is instruction. The second is an invitation. Both are written in an active voice, but only one is emotionally intelligent. Put simply, emotional intelligence is about understanding, reflecting, and respecting a person's emotions.
You don't need to go overboard here, but take some time to reflect on how the email you are writing could make someone feel.
An emotionally intelligent approach can also help you shape effective email communication with clients too. It's vital when dealing with complaints. By recognizing and acknowledging any frustrations, disruptions, and disappointments, you're demonstrating empathy that can go a long way to defusing a situation.
4. Select a catchy email subject line
The email subject line is the title of your story. The most effective email subject lines are captivating enough to capture somebody's attention, creating a desire to open an almost irresistible email.
If your subject line isn't compelling, your email won't get opened. That's the lesson we can take from the world of email marketing, where statistics show that fewer than 20% of recipients open unsolicited emails.
Even if you're writing to a valued client, colleague, or friend, we can take some lessons from professional email marketers on constructing a subject line.
It should be clear, simple, and straightforward. It should tell the recipient exactly what the email is about and encourage them to open it.
If you're writing a meeting request, say so.
When your email is urgent and you need a response, ask for it.
Need something agreed, be clear.
It's sadly still pretty easy for a recipient to ignore an email, but a good subject line can dramatically reduce this happening.
5. Set a goal for the email
In a professional context, every message you send should have a purpose. When identifying your email goals, ask yourself these three questions:
- What are you asking the recipient to do?
- How do you want them to feel?
- How should they respond?
Let's take the example of a leave request to a manager.
- What you are asking the recipient to do: Review my leave request
- How you want them to feel: That I'm reasonable and professional
- How you want them to respond: By granting my leave request
Using a goal-oriented approach can help you when writing effective emails at work, providing an outline structure and influencing your tone of voice – whether to be formal or informal, for example.
We won't go into details here, but you can learn more on how to structure professional emails with our in-depth guide.
6. Organise your thoughts
The Pyramid Principle is a well-established approach to effective email communication. In the 80s, McKinsey executives created the principle to provide an efficient way to structure thoughts and improve business communication. If you want to know how to write effective business emails, think about the pyramid.
Explaining it could take a while, but the basic principle is that you make the most important point (or answer) at the beginning and structure your email accordingly.
Say, for example, your boss sends you an email asking whether you should extend a colleague's contract.
Here is a typical business response that answers the question at the end.
Using the pyramid principle, we can restructure this.
This approach is quite formal and won't work in every situation. But if you're dealing with an explicit request from a colleague or superior, it will save everyone's time and will ensure that there will be no misunderstanding.
7. Think mobile
In December 2019, almost 50% of all emails were opened on a mobile device. That figure is likely to increase as more and more of us enjoy the freedom and flexibility of remote or hybrid working.
We all know that, when reading emails on the phone, we scroll through them quickly. It's difficult to read long passages of text, and evidence shows that most of us won't bother.
If an email isn't formatted correctly, there's a 70% chance a person will delete it within three seconds, researchers have found.
Some of the common mistakes people make when writing emails include:
- Oversized or out-of-place images
- Too much text without enough breaks
- Multiple column layouts (without a responsive template)
When writing effective emails for mobile, keep things short, sweet, and simple.
We'll assume you're already writing in the active voice, which will keep the word count down. Here are some tips for creating compelling mobile emails.
- Keep paragraphs to one or two sentences
- Use the pyramid principle to structure your emails, with the essential information at the top
- Use a clear and legible font
- Never add images
- Use bullet points to break up text
- Don't use tables
- Include all vital information in the body of the email instead of attachments
8. Provide clear instructions
If you're asking someone to do something, provide clear instructions. If it's a meeting request, say so. If you want a response, ask for it. If you need someone to provide something for you, tell them.
Here are some tips to help you.
- Provide dates and details
- Use single sentence paragraphs
- Break things down into steps
- Consider using bullet points or a numbered list to make information clear
- Don't be frightened to use bold to make important information stand-out
9. Understand the difference between a recipient, CC, and BCC
How many emails do you receive that are irrelevant? The answer is probably quite a lot. Effective email communication is about sending emails only to those who need to read them and respond.
When sending an email, you have three choices. You can send it directly to a person, CC, or BCC them in. Here's what these terms mean.
- Send to: The person you are sending the email to. They're called the recipient.
- CC: A carbon copy of the email will be sent to the person. They are not the direct recipient of the email, but the information may be relevant to them. The recipient and others CC-ed in can see who has received the message.
- BCC: A 'blind carbon copy of the email is sent to a recipient. They're not the direct respondent, and the recipient (or those CC-ed in) cannot see that this person has received the email.
In most cases, it's clear who the email is for, but choosing who to CC can be trickier. There's a tendency to CC in many people, but ask yourself whether it's essential that they receive the email. If it isn't, then don't.
10. Choose the best time to send your email
It's critical that you get your email content right, but sending your message at the wrong time can affect how many people open and read it. HubSpot analyzed over 4 billion emails to find the best time to send.
They found the highest click-to-open rates were at:
- 10 AM
- 1 PM
- 6 PM
They conclude that these times are when most people start or end their working day and have the time to check their emails.
It's not an exact science, but logic tells us that sending an important email at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon before a bank holiday weekend is probably a bad idea.
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