Most of us want to come across as gracious and empathetic when we write to people, which is lovely- after all, the more kindness we share (in our written communication and generally) the better, right? The trick is learning how to write great emails that are both warm, concise, and confident and that get to the point, are clear, and ensure you sound strong and relevant.
You can write great emails and achieve the perfect balance by implementing the following four rules. Do this with the next email you write, and you will see how your reader responds in kind!
Keep your tone warm, engaging, and respectful
Assert your confidence
1. Keep your tone warm, engaging, and respectful
Many people struggle with sounding like … people in their emails. There’s a false pervading belief, perpetuated in jargon-heavy work environments, that to come across as professional in writing, one needs to sound like an erudite machine.
In fact, the most effect communicators are those who eschew those artificial expectations and simply converse with their reader as if they were indeed two human beings talking.
The best way to do this is to visualize the person to whom you’re writing. See their face, imagine them laughing at something you said. Then write to them from that feeling.
(Even if they aren’t your favorite person, or you’ve never met them, imagine a person on the other side of your words. It helps humanize and warm your tone measurably).
2) Keep your language concise
a. Cut your adverbs
Adverbs are words that modify verbs (quickly, efficiently), adjectives (really great, totally interesting) or other adverbs (very quickly).
Most of the time, we throw these words in to act as “softeners,” in our sentences. The problem is while we think we’re sounding a little less direct which should translate to kinder, in fact, it makes your sentences (and you!) seem weak.
Where you may be enjoying a perfectly fine interpersonal relationship with this person, one softener too many can upset that power balance. And too many too many can obfuscate the reason you’re writing, which burdens your reader for having to wade through and decipher what you want between the words.
Where your goal had been to come across as generous and respectful, the outcome of using too many adverbs is you’re burdening your reader by making them wade through your language and intention, adding to their mental load and potentially slowing down the conversation chain.
The most common filler-type adverbs that can be removed are:
- And every young person’s favorite tic, “literally” (which needs to stop it already).
Strike these from your sentences, and they will instantly seem taller and more confident (and by extension, so will you as the writer).
James Parsons calls “just” a “pre-emptive apology for your needs.”
Dropping the word “just” makes your writing more confident. You put forward your needs or requests, and they’re answered, without the implied self-deprecation and self-minimization. That kind of professional confidence bolsters your communications dramatically.
This Washington Post article from Benjamin Dreyer (of Dreyer’s English) drives home the point of how very un-very this word can be; in fact, he illustrates how using “very” to modify another adjective can be downright condescending.
b. Remove phrases that make it seem like your shoulders are up around your ears
- I wanted to ask
- I hope you don’t mind, but
- I was just hoping to find out
- I was just wanting to know
- Would you mind very much
You’re running late for the train and are hoofing it to the station.
Someone comes up to you and asks, “I’m very sorry to bother you, but if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to ask whether you might have the time?”
You would likely consider (mentally) strangling this person. Out with it, man!
You can be pleasant, polite, and warm in your language and tone without feeling like you have to soften the “blow” of asking for information or clarity on a point by adding cushioning phrases such as these.
*Note, more important than asserting brevity is knowing your audience (for example, being culturally sensitive). If you feel a cushioner is the better way to go, and around that you can still maintain a good email balance of being warm, clear, confident, and direct, then use your judgement.
3. Assert your confidence
Unless you’ve done something you should apologize for, why are you apologizing again?
Front loading a request with an “I’m sorry,” or apologizing for a late reply weakens you in your reader’s eyes and again upsets the power dynamic.
It’s the equivalent of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist looking up with big needy eyes, holding out his empty bowl for what he hopes will be more gruel, saying, “Please, sir, I want some more?” (at which, “The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle”).
Unless that image is one you’re comfortable with embodying as a colleague or equal to the person to whom you’re writing, operate from gratitude instead and thank them for their patience and or say how you appreciate their time.
This way everyone maintains their standing, the mutual respect continues, unfettered, and there’s enough gruel for everyone.
4. Go for the jugular (but do it while smiling!)
People are busy and receive many emails. Most people scan the first few sentences of an email to find out what’s wanted/needed, the timeline (whether it’s urgent), and what their action should be: respond, forward, or take action first then reply with a solution.
If you are slow to speak up or meander to the point, your reader may feel annoyed that they can’t quickly determine what you want and move away from the email to deal with it later.
Knowing they have an unwieldy email hanging over them adds to their mental load, which may cause your reader to feel frustrated with you.
Instead, the acronym BLUF, or Bottom Line Up Front, is a terrific reminder to go in for the jugular (but with a smile!)
Right away after a congenial greeting (which may include a line of nicety: asking after their well-being, thank them for writing, etc.), state the reason for your email (Bam!) similar to the way a journalist will start an article with the “lede” (the item of business).
After this, you can fill in the details (or again borrow from a journalist and answer the 5 WH questions: who, what, where, when, why, (and how)).
By stating the purpose of the email immediately, you’re accomplishing several positive things: you’re showing you value your reader’s time, arresting the reader’s attention, and since you were clear with what you wanted/needed/had to say, there won’t be any misunderstanding, and you’ll get the right response.
No need to go overboard and sound hasty or harsh. Avoid using the imperative (Give me) or being demanding (I need). Ick!
Again, you can still be empathetic and warm with your greeting, and being polite goes a long way!
“Please let me know” as opposed to “Let me know” does add words, but brief good manners are always welcome and show you value your reader as a human being– and one you respect.
This also isn’t to say you shouldn’t honor your relationships (or your humanity) by engaging at a personal level in your emails. People aren’t robots, and it’s always lovely to hear someone’s personality shine through in their writing even if they’re only nudging you to RSVP for a staff meeting.
But by striking that perfect balance in your emails of being warm, concise, confident, and direct, you’ll ultimately maintain a healthy power relationship, show you respect your reader’s time and attention, and not only help you write great emails but help you become a stronger and more effective writer with all the writing you do.