THURSDAY THOUGHTS! - E-Mail - How to craft effective messages - Lesson 3

Posted by | August 02, 2012 | Thursday Thoughts | No Comments

Week 3 is a big week in our “How do you control your e-mail” series.  So far so good, everything is working for those taking part.  We’ve done the housekeeping and now the personal behaviour change needs to kick in, so here goes …..

This week, we turn to:

Empty your in box – everything should have its own place, and the inbox is not it!

Decreasing  your response time – The One Minute Rule

  • Crafting effective messages
  • Highlight Messages sent directly to you
  • Use disposable e-mail addresses
  • Master message search
  • Future-proof your e-mail address
  • Consolidate multiple e-mail addresses
  • Script and automate repetitive replies
  • Filter low priority messages

This week we look at clarity, and its true to say that the clearer your e-mail messages are, the more likely it is that you will get the result you want, and more quickly too.  Making things easy to read and understand is a simple exam technique.  We’ve all been there.  The easier it is for the marker to find what they are after, the easier it is for them to give you the marks you crave.  So, its easy to illustrate the opposite, ie what an INEFFECTIVE, e-mail message looks like.  We’ve all had them and groaned.  They usually don’t illustrate what the senders expectations are, they hide the most important information, and the body of the message is far too long and difficult to read.  Sound familiar?

I have a habit of opening long e-mails, reading the first 2 and last 2 sentences and if I have no idea what its about – it goes to the bottom of my list immediately.  I don’t let the sender transfer their muddled thoughts to become my instant problem.

Here’s a simple 10-step strategy to help you craft effective messages :

1. Purpose – every single mail should have a specific purpose.  Either to convey information or requesting action.  So know what you expect to get out of it.  If you are the sort who needs to flesh out your thinking by writing, then send the e-mail to yourself!  If you don’t have a clear purpose, don’t write it and definitely don’t send it!

2. Subject Line – This is a critical element.  Its the first thing the recipient sees.  It needs to have impact and grip. The use of prefixes help.  If you require action capitalise FOR ACTION. If its merely for information, capitalise FOR INFORMATION. Then follow it with a very specific title.  For example:

FOR ACTION: Friday’s Presentation

This tells the receiver they have to act on the content before Friday – pretty gripping (also see 6 below)!

3. Be Succinct – e-mails are not about hearing yourself think, they are about producing the desired response from the recipient.  The shorter it is, the more likely it is to be read and fulfilled.  They are electronic sticky notes to colleagues after all!  You wouldn’t leave a 5 page letter on someones desk if they weren’t there when you popped by would you? (please say no!!)  So respect the recipient’s time, it is as precious as your own.

4. Place your messages on a diet – external e-mailing shouldn’t assume every organisation uses the same platforms.  Not everyone has HTML activated (can cut down on marketing info and long messaging downloading); your message might look a bit different when it is received (avoid activating stationery); and use shortened URL links if you can (use services like TinyURL or

5. Enable a complete response – use line breaks or bullet points to make your message easy to read and respond to. Delineate questions if you can and this will attract specific answers in return.

6. TO and CC – Make it crystal clear why others have been included and/or copied in.  Otherwise accountability will be spread too thinly.  AVOID AT ALL COSTs any opportunity for recipients to transfer the responsibility to act to anyone else – or nobody will do whatever it is you are requiring!  If more than one person is involved, it should be because they each have an action to undertake and this should be clearly referred to, e.g.:


Title: FOR ACTION: Friday’s Presentation

Message:  I have reserved a room for the above on Friday and attach the draft presentation.  AA: could you please review slides 1-3 and see if I’ve reflected what we discussed?  BB: could you please insert the graphic we discussed last week on slide 5?  CC: could you please attend on Friday and take a formal note of proceedings?

7. Attachments – Attach it first, not last.  This will save your bacon in having to send an inevitable follow up message saying “this time with attachment” and it will also relieve your in-box of the inevitable 3 messages from AA, BB, and CC saying “nothing attached”.  This is fat, and remember, your e-mail is on a diet!

8. Replying – there is nothing worse than sending an e-mail containing 3 questions, and receiving a reply with only one answer.  This will inflate yours and others in-boxes, so avoid at all costs. Commit to answering all e-mail with as thorough a response as possible. Maintain that respect for colleagues time and in-box management in the way you respect your own.

For those e-mails that have followed this strategy and have delineated questions, reply in the main body of the message below each questions.  Keep it tidy and easy to read for the recipient. Use a different colour so they can spot answers quickly.

9. Task Requests – Don’t delay a response until you have completed any request – if you have questions of clarification, pick up the phone, then schedule time to the task in your diary.  We too often treble account for our time and a response is important to the person who sent it.  Respect their needs and schedule time to do what they need.  If not, your in-box will explode again with unnecessary chasing mails!

10. Lead by Example – c’mon, we are on week 3 now, you are becoming a dab hand at putting these lessons together so:

  • edit mail titles in responses if they were unclear to you;
  • break up long paragraphs of noisy ramble and highlight the core of the request and reply to it immediately beneath it in a different colour – help to refocus the senders eye on what you believe to be the core point;
  • if you continue to get long rambling streams of thoughts, reply very succinctly and get out of the inbox by following up with a phone call saying ” we clearly need a conversation on this complex issue”.  This gets you out of stone-deafness and into a situation of being able to read facial expressions and tone of voice.  Communication is primarily non-verbal!
  • Finally, know when to say nothing at all!  NEVER write an e-mail if you are angry, upset, tired, stressed, or worse, drunk. These sorts of responses should go straight into your draft box.  Never say anything in an e-mail that you aren’t comfortable with people overhearing on a bus!


These strategies will help to train others not to expect long responses in real time.  E-mail is an a-synchronous medium but too many folk try to use it for synchronous conversational issues.  So don’t reply in real time, remember, we’ve invoked a diet to your e-mail.  It is not a pavlov’s response!  If someone needs a real time response, they will ring (and you should do same).  If necessary, put a trailer on your e-mail signature saying: “I may not respond immediately to e-mail. If your message is urgent, please ring

Good luck and this will be so worth it!

Sharon Davidson on EmailSharon Davidson on FacebookSharon Davidson on LinkedinSharon Davidson on TwitterSharon Davidson on Wordpress
Sharon Davidson
Organisational development professional specialising in personal, team and whole organisation improvement. Full range of OD tools and techniques available including: Belbin team role analysis; learning style inventories; 360 degree feedback; cultural assessments; personality psychometrics; strategic planning and workshop facilitation. (This list is not exhaustive!)

Improvement is everyone's concern: +44 1550 720902 will start that process today.

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  • Peggy Edwards says:

    Ok the first two weeks were easy, this one is going to be a real challenge for me. I am very quick off the mark and have been known to “shoot from the hip” with my emails. They are also long on times and I send loads of them (as Sharon will testify). This will take me time to master and I will have to keep reminding myself to actively do this, even though it will take longer. I am off all this week so next week I will have to the quick shifting and then pause before I respond to any of them. I will let you know how it goes.

  • Aresko says:

    Week 3 is a big one Peggy as it incorporates personal change that becomes visible to everyone else. It asks you to pause, think, and change. This is probably where we will not be perfect. Where we will try and not get it right every single time. So this bit is about determination. Appropriate, I thought, during the 2012 Olympics 🙂

  • Alison Crawford says:

    What’s interesting is that after three days on leave I’ve come back to a pretty managable list of less than 50 emails to sort and read. And dealing with them has been pretty painless, fitted it in around an all-day training course.

    Part 3 will be interesting. A lot of my emails are as responses to queries generated by others, so I’ll have to start changing the subject titles I think to make tthis work. The other thing is that staff I manage, and if they will pacik up on this and start doing the same. Will keep you posted.

  • Aresko says:

    Well done – it feels great doesn’t it? Persevere, week 3 is well worth it 🙂

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