“Sounds good,” I wrote to a colleague, then hit send.
She had been updating me on the roll-out of a new app at JotForm and I wanted to quickly reply before hopping on another Zoom call. It wasn’t until later that day when the colleague and I spoke on the phone, I realized my brief email had created more questions than answers. It left her wondering whether I was less than satisfied with some aspect of her team’s progress. Our call quickly cleared the air, but it left me rethinking how I approach my emails.
Email writing has always been a balancing act, from striking the right tone to hitting the sweet spot in terms of length. But these days, crafting good emails demands more attention than ever. For many of us, the usual in-person interactions with colleagues are either gone or drastically less frequent, creating more potential for confusion and misinterpretation. As Erica Dhawan, author of “Digital Body Language,” has written, “reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy.”
Here, some tips to keep in mind as you’re writing emails in the new normal.
1. Express empathy
In the before times, it wasn’t unusual to read a formal work email with no hint of human emotion. But nowadays, the need to give and receive a little empathy is crucial for connecting via email. To pretend that things are humming along, as usual, might come off as callous or tone-deaf.
According to Ken Tann, a lecturer in communications management at the University of Queensland, the language we use is critical to signal a sympathetic tone and to establish a rapport. That requires putting extra thought into emails to everyone from bosses and colleagues to customers and partners. A line of honest vulnerability can go a long way toward strengthening all of those relationships.
How personal you want to get in each email, of course, depends on your relationship with the recipient. But even something so minor as acknowledging a difficult or stressful situation can go a long way toward assuring the recipient that there’s a caring human on the other end of an email.
2. Be brief — but not too brief
Today, it’s common knowledge that no one wants to receive a novel of an email. Messages that are too wordy run the risk of the reader skimming over them or worse, failing to read them at all. What’s more, around 47% percent of all emails are now opened on mobile devices, which makes brevity even more critical. According to one study, emails that are short, but not too short (75–100 words) had the highest rate of response. A good rule of thumb is to limit your emails to 150 words or less, and if that’s not feasible, consider breaking the message up into separate emails by topic.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s also such a thing as being too brief — you know it, the quick, “OK,” or a terse, “Got it.” Writes Erica Dhawan for Harvard Business Review, “Brevity can make a person appear important, but it can also hurt your team and your business. Getting a slapdash email means that the recipient has to spend time deciphering what it means, causing delays and potentially leading to costly mistakes.”
Before you fire off an email, take a moment to re-read and consider whether your email could cause misinterpretation or if it fails to transmit any actual information. If you’re in a hurry and need time to prepare a proper response but want to say something, you can acknowledge your receipt and indicate a more fleshed-out reply is coming soon.
Again, in a world where email is an increasingly essential form of communication, no message should be sent haphazardly.
3. Don’t bury the takeaways
Nothing frustrates a busy entrepreneur more than taking the time to read an email and having no idea what to do with it. To preemptively eliminate any doubts over the goal of your email, spell it out explicitly.
In my email writing, I take a page from the book of bestselling author and military veteran Kabir Sehgal. Using techniques from his military experience, where clear messages can literally be lifesaving, Sehgal recommends using subject line keywords that characterize the nature of the message in ALL CAPS, so a recipient immediately recognizes the purpose of your email. For example, ACTION, SIGN, or DECISION.
Then, at the end of the message, I apply a technique that’s standard practice for marketing pros: including a bold CTA or “call to action.” It’s the part that describes exactly what you’d like the recipient to do — preparing a memo, researching a point, etc. If there are multiple recipients, use a simple @ to indicate which instruction is for whom.
In the new normal, where entrepreneurs are relying on emails more than ever, a clear takeaway is like a gift to your recipient’s tired eyes.
4. Take care with the sign-off
I think every professional has had a moment when unsure how to sign off, they type a quick “Best,” and hit send. While that may have sufficed in the past, more successful communicators take the extra few moments to dig a little deeper.
As Ken Tann tells the BBC, “By adjusting our greetings and sign-offs, we effectively adjust our social relationships.” The way we start and end emails has become “a way to establish how we want to relate to the person we’re writing to, in terms of formality, status, and familiarity.”
There’s no hard and fast rule for how to sign off. According to one marketing pro, some good options include “May the odds be in your favor” and “Stay safe and sane” — sentiments with a touch of originality and a sense of goodwill and optimism. While humor may be appreciated, especially if you’re close with the recipient, tread carefully. As Candace Smith, founder of an etiquette school in California advises. “Stay away from humor unless you know someone very well. [You] don’t know how things will land.”
If all else fails, a kind and genuine sentiment, like “Hope you’re hanging in there,” might do the trick.
While there are no write and wrong answers, a touch of extra effort will go a long way toward improving both your emails and your relationship with the recipients.