Do Your Emails Make People Cringe?

If you want people to read and act on your emails, begin with your request.


In management training classes, I've taken this test. It guages your instruction-following skills. 

The consists of about 30 steps over 2 pages.  The first step: Read this entire test before starting.  The last step: Write your name at the top of the page and skip the rest of the test.

The test is tricky. Your emails shouldn't be.

If you want your email's recipient to do something, state the request as early possible.  That usually means the subject line.

Here's the same request presented two ways. The first imitates most of the requests by email I get at work.  The second, a far more effective request.



Subj:  Favor

Body:  Are you coming to the 10:00 with the Johnson folks?  If you are, I need a favor.  We're doing this exercise with them that involves four teams of people coming up with as many questions as they can about a problem. Not answers, questions. Each team elects a leader and scribe, and they write down 2 kinds of questions.

We want one type of question to be in Red and the other in Black. We have plenty of Red dry erase markers, but we only have one black one, and it's kind of dying.  If you could, please round up 4 newer black markers and bring them with you.

Appreciate it!


What's wrong with this email?  Everything.

First, the most important information--my request for four black dry erase markers--is the last thing in the body. This isn't a test of direction-following skills, so my recipient might never even read the most important sentence. 

Second, I've written a lot of garbage that Jill, the reader, probaby doesn't give two whiteboards about.  If I feel the need to justify my request, I should do it after the request itself. That way, the information has meaning and context.  

Third, I begin with a question unrelated to the purpose of the email.  The email's subject promises a favor, but I start off with a rather rhetorical question.  This common error--an attempt to sound interested in the recipient's world--encourages readers to answer the question and stop reading.  (And that's exactly what I did last week in an embarrassing episode that inspired this post.)

Last, but not least, I provided no feedback loop.  How will I know if Jill's bringing the makers?  I've assumed the best-case scenario.

How can I improve?



Subj:  Can you bring 4 black dry-erase markers to the 10:00 meeting?

Body:  Please text "yes" if you can or "no" if you can't to 555-123-2983 before 9:30. Please test them first, too. If I don't hear from you by 9:30, I'll go to plan B.  Thanks, Bill

If Jill sees only the subject line, she knows exactly what I want.  If her email viewer includes an excerpt, she can probably read the entire request without opening the message.  

Plus, I've provided a feedback loop that gives me time to deal with any of Jill's options.  I used the text messaging option because I want an interruption if the answer's "no."  Also, text messaging demands brevity, while email allows for chattiness.

If you were Jill, which email would you prefer? 

BONUS:  Try to help keep emails to 500 characters or less.  If you try it, let me know at