June 06, 2011

Respondez s'il vous plait: E-mails that get results

Catherine Sanders Reach
  • Do your e-mails fail to get answered in a timely fashion?
  • Do your action items get ignored?
  • Does your e-mail generate several back-and-forth responses before getting the issue at hand resolved?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, read on to find out how to write emails that get the results you want. In a recent two-part blog post, social media consultant Chris Brogan suggests how effective use of the subject line, brevity, and other techniques help reduce the need for a back-and-forth e-mail exchange.

Craft a short, descriptive subject line

The first step is to craft a short, effective subject line that suggests what action the reader should take, or what information they should anticipate. Many people are reading e-mails on handheld devices, where they can only see five to eight words in the subject lineā€”so make each word count! Use the subject line to help the reader understand why she needs to open the e-mail and what type of action or response is required of her.

Get to the point early

The body of an e-mail should contain the main point of communication at the top of the missive. There is no reason to build a story at the beginning, and if there is, then e-mail may not be the right form of communication for the message. Start with the main points and action items at the beginning of the e-mail, after your greeting. Use bullet points and lists when possible to further help communicate succinctly. Follow these points with any background materials. Whenever possible send hyperlinks to supplemental or explanatory information, rather than copying and pasting information that is already available in full online.

Format matters

Sending questions in the appearance of a survey form can help ensure direct, uniform responses. Free electronic survey tools, such as SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang, let users create quick surveys to get specific information from e-mail recipients.

Mind the size of attachments

Sending attachments with e-mail is common, but unfortunately, large attachments are often rejected by recipients' ISPs due to size constraints, and the entire e-mail is not delivered. Services like YouSendIt hosts attachments, so users can send a link to a supporting document, rather than sending the document itself. The basic service is free, but for a fee, the company also provides users with premium features including security, larger file size capacity, delivery receipts and more.

Other services like Drop.io allow users to upload multiple files on its Web site and provide a single link for e-mail recipients to access all the uploaded material.

Another option is to use a product like Adobe Acrobat 9 to conveniently package multiple files. The program creates a portfolio that can include multiple documents "wrapped" in a single pdf, with each document maintaining its individual characteristics.

Find ways to limit the need for information exchange

One of the most inefficient practices in e-mail communication is what Brogan calls "the loop." The loop begins when one party e-mails the other with a series of questions that require individual responses. The loop continues as the sender and his message recipients resolve their issues. For instance:

"Do you want to get together with some of the stakeholders to discuss finalizing the contract? When and where would you like to meet? Who should else should be involved?"

A more effective message would be: "I would like to call you and Ray Jones tomorrow at 1:00 to finalize the language for the attached contract. Will that work for you two?"

By supplying answers in this way, there are fewer items to negotiate in an e-mail exchange.

Use helpful technology tools

Technology can also help close the loop, especially when organizing a meeting. When scheduling a meeting with multiple people in different time zones, first check the World Clock Meeting Planner to ascertain an appropriate time for all parties involved.

If the attendees are all using Microsoft Outlook at the same firm, there are several meeting request tools that can help to limit the number of e-mail exchanges.

However, to schedule a meeting with multiple outside parties, consider a free online tool like MeetingWizard or GatherGrid to poll attendees about their time availability. These tools allow the organizer to suggest several dates and times to her e-mail invitees, who respond by clicking on the dates they are free. The tools tally the responses and notify everyone when a meeting is scheduled. They also have features that allow the organizer to query those who have not responded, and to follow-up with additional items.

This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members.  Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.

Catherine Sanders Reach