By Anne Marie Segal
With everyone pressed for time and email inboxes overflowing, one of the worst things you can do is fire off an email that is unread, left lingering or summarily deleted. Not only do poor emails waste time on both ends, but they may also create negative impressions about your ability to think, solve problems and communicate.
If you want to be known as someone who acts strategically and demonstrates leadership with a positive professional outlook, writing better emails is a key place to start. Based on my years in the hedge fund and private equity space (where you need to work hard to get someone’s attention!) and coaching of executive, attorney and entrepreneurial clients on effective emails and other business writing, I’ve developed a four-step approach that can help you plan and structure emails that prompt action.
Step 1: Prepare The Foundation
Ask yourself some questions before you begin to write. First and foremost, decide if email is the proper medium to communicate your message to your intended recipient. Is he or she the right person to ask? Does the recipient generally respond to emails? Is your subject matter appropriate for an email, or is a call or meeting a better way to get in touch?
Second, determine both your “why” and your “ask” for the email. Why are you writing to this person at this time, and how can he or she benefit from the information shared or request made? What response are you attempting to receive and how can you frame your thoughts and language to make that happen?
To determine an appropriate ask, try to gauge what level of engagement you can expect from the recipient. At times, your ask may be too large; at others, not assertive enough. Establish your ask before you start writing, as it will frame the entire conversation. For example, if you are writing an email to ask for an introduction to a third person, are the right relationships present? How can you facilitate a solution (i.e., make it less work or risk for the person to do what you are asking)?
To prepare, you can also conduct light research or compile information to learn more about the recipient (or others who are relevant to the conversation), bolster your points, enhance your credibility and/or propose possible solutions.
Step 2: Write
With your foundation set, begin writing. A compelling, effective email includes:
• Proper recipient address
• Compelling subject line
• Introduction or warm up
• Reason for connecting
• More details (if needed)
• “Soft out” (if needed)
In this example, I might use the subject line “Request for Introduction to Kate O’Malley.” Then I might reconnect with the recipient in one or two sentences and explain my reason for writing at the start of a second paragraph. Next, I might use a third paragraph to give more information about the request, taking pains to create a clear ask and readable message. I very intentionally say might rather than should, as the art of the email is specific to the writer, situation and recipient.
A “soft out” may be appropriate if you are asking for something that is a bit of a stretch beyond what you could reasonably expect or something he or she may not be able to fulfill immediately. For example, if you hope to meet with someone who is known for having a full schedule, you might ask if he or she is available next week or later this month, rather than list possible dates and times.
On this same point, I urge you to get out in front of requests before you actually need action taken, giving people time to respond. Sometimes it can take multiple requests to achieve a result — and at those times, consider again whether email is the best or only medium to use — so be persistent, resourceful and patient. Writing an actionable email often accelerates the process, but it is not a panacea for procrastinators.
Step 3: Review
After you have drafted your email, the steps below allow for comprehensive review. The process need not be arduous or time-consuming; once you have internalized the concepts, these steps become second nature.
• Rewrite any run-on sentences, lengthy paragraphs or unclear ideas
• Delete 15 words (as a rough guideline)
• Consider if bullet points or another format is appropriate
• Review again for clarity
• Proofread your final draft
My suggestion to delete 15 words comes from years of tearing apart my own emails and helping clients distill their ideas and communications. Use only the number of words you need and no more.
A simple way to achieve clear writing is to put an email aside for some period of time — a few minutes, an hour or even overnight — and then read it cold. Ask yourself if the recipient will understand your message and be motivated to take action. If more background is needed, consider how to convey that information without breaking the flow of the communication. For example, you may attach a file or link that fleshes out a main idea, rather than diving into details that distract from your ask and deter your recipient from responding.
Step 4: Follow Up
The last step in actionable email writing is often overlooked. If you want someone to take action, be prepared to follow up. I often schedule potential next steps at the time I send an email so I can stay on top of my request. That way, I avoid any temptation to agonize over when and whether to respond. Often, recipients are grateful for a short follow-up to “refresh” them about your request, so approach future communications in that spirit — how can I move the ball forward and help us both achieve a better result?
Simply sending an email is no longer enough to garner the results you need. Refresh your approach to email composition to improve your professional communications, drive action and get results.
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This content was originally published by Forbes Magazine. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By Forbes Magazine