How To Write Actionable Emails At Work

October 20th, 2016

Write Actionable Emails

By Edward Sullivan, Contributor

Most everyone dislikes email, but it’s still the preferred method of communication for 90% of workplaces. So here are a few quick tips for writing clear, actionable work-related emails (for more on this and how to manage 10x-level talent, check out our upcoming book, Game Changer). 

1. Write Shorter Emails

Super entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki explains, “The optimal length of an email message is five sentences. All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.”

You’ve probably heard people tell you over your entire career that you should write shorter emails. Here’s why:

  • Brevity Demonstrates Confidence. Speaking plainly and directly shows a command of the subject matter. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Einstein

  • Brevity Facilitates Comprehension. Like an intuitive product, a well-crafted, short email needs no superfluous explanation. “The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.” — Mark Twain

  • Brevity Shows Respect. We’re all busy people, and we all know that being concise sometimes takes more time than being loquacious. That’s why long emails contain an implied Post Script: My time is worth more than yours. “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” — Blaise Pascal

  • Long Emails Don’t Get Read. If being confident, understood and respectful don’t matter to you, perhaps getting your emails read does. “I don’t read long emails. Long emails are the sign of a disorganized mind.” — Dilbert

Rule of Thumb: If your greeting and signature don’t fit in the same Gmail window without any scrolling, your email is likely too long.

To be clear, there are times for longer emails but they are few and far between. Usually if the email is going to be long or needs to address a sensitive issue it’s likely best to talk directly with the person via phone or in-person.

2. Structure Your Emails for Action
Actionable emails have FOUR parts:

  • Call to Action 1: Subject line — Here’s where you grab the reader’s attention. Keep it action oriented, short & sweet.
  • Context — What is the purpose of your email? What else has been done, where are we now, etc.
  • So What? — Why is this important and timely?
  • Call to Action 2: Include Your Deadline Date & Address Owner of Task — If you want it done right it’s important to be clear, ensure you assign the task to the correct person and indicate the due date.

3. Annotate and Format for Clarity
Large blocks of text are the death of action.

Keep it readable:

  • Bullet Out Calls to Action — Put a sequence of tasks in bullet or list form. Never in a string of sentences.
  • BOLD the Responsible Parties’ Names — This is especially important on group emails. I’ve even seen a header that lists the people mentioned.

4. Check Your Tone

Given that many of us must communicate via email and text, we should be aware of the fact that emails can have a “tone” or depending on the reader’s perception they might interpret a negative tone when one wasn’t intended. Language needs to be precise and if there’s a possibility for misinterpretation particularly in tense situations, it is best to be explicit about the tone of the email. When you compose your email recognize that the receiver may not be in the same mood or emotional state as you. Try to imagine how the person receiving the email could interpret it.

5. Proof It Before Sending
Open the draft and look at it quickly.

Ask yourself:

  • Do my main points jump off the page?
  • Is it clear who is to do what?
  • Have I conveyed urgency?
  • Have I considered how others might interpret the email? Check your tone.
  • Would my boss be impressed or displeased if she or he read this?

Remember, the more often you stick to clear, concise emails that elicit a specific action or response, the more likely you’re going to get what you want out of the exchange. Good luck and now go write that kickass email!

If you liked this article please recommend and/or share it. Do you have tips for writing crafty emails? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

You might also enjoy reading, Why You Need To Delegate.