How to communicate clearly and concisely in email

Email is a wonderful communication tool — it is speedy, efficient, asynchrous, the “conversation” is documented, you may communicate with more than one person at a time, and much more.

However, for the same reasons, there are a few pitfalls you may or may not be aware of.

In this article we provide some helpful guidelines and tips to avoid those pitfalls and help you write messages that are clear and concise, so that your emails will be understood and interpreted the way you intended.

1. Write a meaningful subject line

Subject lines are headlines, just like headlines in a newspaper. A meaningful and descriptive headline will grab the recipient’s attention, and help him/her decide what to do with the message. Make sure the subject line concisely summarizes the message’s content.

Naturally you want the recipient to actually read the message, so make the subject line explicit and inviting. If the email is about a meeting, include the meeting’s topic and date. If it is important that you receive an answer, make that clear in the subject line, for instance “Urgent”, “RSVP”, or even “Please reply by March 18”.

2. Only one topic per email message

To make it easier for recipients (and yourself) to direct messages to different folders and search for them at a later time, try to limit the email to one topic. If you have two or more unrelated issues, consider to send more than one message.

Every email should have a specific subject line that relates to the content. This will help the recipient quickly to grasp what your email is about, and to manage their email more efficiently.

3. Be sure that the recipient instantly knows who you are

When writing email to someone who don’t know you, include your name, occupation, and other important information in the first sentences, followed by a statement telling the recipient why you are sending the email.

Remember to sign the message with your name, position, company name, and possibly other contact information in case the recipients would like to reply via other means.

4. Be courteous, spare the CAPS, and leave out emotions

It is a good rule to start with the recipient’s name, and to close the message with a “Regards” or “Best regards”. Include an appropriate signature so the recipient will understand clearly who you are. Add your email address just in case your address will not appear in the “From” field.

Avoid whole sentences in CAPS — the recipient MIGHT INTERPRET THIS AS SHOUTING. Use CAPS only for emphasis within a sentence.

You can never anticipate the mood of the recipient when reading your email, so write simply and be cautious with humor and other emotional traits. It’s too late to say “I was only joking” in the next message if the recipient felt offended.

5. Email is for (relatively) short and distinct messages

Email is a category of communication somewhere in between a telephone call and a letter, and it’s important to consider the time available for the recipient to read long passages of text while checking his/her email.

Write your message as short as possible, that is: Keep it brief. Break up text using short paragraphs and bullet points to highlight important points.

If you have large amounts of text to send, consider putting it in a document and attach it to a message describing the contents of the file.

6. Try to anticipate possible responses

To avoid many back-and forth of messages when asking for something, give the recipient clear options using “if…then”, “if…so” and “if…not”. That will enable the recipient to reply clearly to your questions, and then it will not be necessary with follow-up questions.

7. Be aware of sobriety

Nowadays it is expected that email conform to normal standards for professional correspondance. Unless you know the recipient very well, email is for distribution of facts, or other business-like information. Anyhow, email is not for discussions of someone’s actions or behavior.

Do not write messages when you are low-tempered. If you feel that it is difficult to find the right words, make a draft and sleep on it. Don’t send messages you wouldn’t like to see published.

And: Minimize the use of exclamation marks!!! Try to formulate your message such that no exclamation marks are required.

8. Review for ambiguity and conciseness

You are wise to review your message before you hit the “Send” button so that misunderstandings and typos are avoided. Check the message for ambiguous statements that could be interpreted the wrong way.

When reviewing, look for words, sentences or paragraphs that may be superfluous regarding the essentials you want to communicate. Email noise is annoying.

9. Double-check the recipient addresses, and more address stuff

Beware of sending a message to people it isn’t intended for. For instance, make sure you haven’t hit the “Reply all” button when you mean to send reply to the sender only.

Be doubly careful when using the BCC field to include “invisible” recipients that the main recipient(s) can’t see. The BCC recipient could easily miss the fact that (s)he was BCC’ed and use the “Reply all”-button. This could potentially be quite embarrassing. Consider just forwarding the message in a separate thread, explaining the nature of the content.

On the other hand, BCC is handy when sending a bulk message to a group without making all the email addresses visible to everyone. Put your own address in the “To”-field — this looks nicer than a blank space.

Also, think carefully before forwarding a message to other people. The sender may not like it, and the thread may contain information that is confidential in some way. Be careful not to send email to a whole group when only one or two need to see the message, and do not misuse the “CC”-field — it might cause confusion and waste time.

10. Preserve the thread

When email communication goes back and forth and the subject line is meaningful, it is very easy for all conversation participants, yourself included, to keep track of history and to manage the messages.

On the other hand, if the topic changes during the exchange, consider changing the subject to reflect the new topic.

We hope  these tips will make your email life easier to deal with!

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