How to (and not to) write an effective email

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Do you write annoying emails? Do you receive them? Poorly written emails irritate both the recipient, who resents the interruption, and the sender, who gets frustrated by a lack of response.

So how to get them right? I’m about to take you through five real-life examples that illustrate traps to avoid and how to better engage your intended reader. 

I’ve redacted the details of the senders because in no way is this intended to criticise them personally. These were people who crafted messages they thought were good. I mean, no-one tries to produce content that is pointless, do they? This suggests there is a real problem out there though. We’re wasting time and energy on writing in the wrong way, so let’s look at about how to better communicate so stuff gets done. 

This account manager started with a “quick question” about something that was none of their business before asking for 15 minutes of my time. Errr, no. I have better things to do than be sold to. Their positioning was all wrong.

What did they want? For me to agree to a 15 minute phone conversation.

What did they need to overcome? Apathy. Why should I commit 15 minutes of my time to be sold to? Also, my anxiety about being forced into a product I didn’t want.

Were they successful? No. I was irritated by them thinking it was a “quick question”, asking a question that was none of their business, and wanting 15 minutes to talk

Did they do anything well? They addressed me by name and provided their logo and signature line so I knew it was legitimate.

What could they have done differently?

  • Avoided “quick question” because it is presumptuous (family and friends are excused).
  • Rather than an invasive question, like what phone system I use (none of your business), the subject line could have signaled the benefits to me as a customer (for example ‘now available: unlimited calls’).
  • Personalised it by mentioning how long I had been a customer of theirs so I would be reminded that I trust them (for example, ‘you’ve been with us for X years so I wanted to let you know…’). This would have heightened the chances I would reciprocate to keep the relationship constructive.

This stranger wants to bang on about wellness on my website even though it is more about business effectiveness. No thanks. If you want to be part of something someone else has built, tell them what you like about it, how you fit and why it’s a good thing for them.

What did they want? Me to agree to them writing for my site.

What did they need to overcome? Apathy. Prove why this is of value to me so I even bother to reply.

Were they successful? No. They failed to make it easy for me to see value. There was no ‘what’s in it for me’.

Did they do anything well? The subject line was clear so I knew exactly what it was about, but I only opened because I was curious about how they were asking rather than having anyone write for my site.

What could they have done differently?

  • Personalised the message rather than random “hello!” It’s not hard to find my name on my site.
  • Tailored the intro to what they like about my site and what I do rather than launching into a rant about wellness. Remember, this is unsolicited so I needed to know why this would be relevant.
  • Mentioned how it would alleviate some pain I might be feeling (for example, ‘I know it can be difficult to keep generating content for your readers so what if I wrote a short piece).
  • Provided full contact details so it looked credible.

This brand-new LinkedIn contact thought they’d introduce themselves by shoving their book down my throat. No sale. 

What did they want? Me to buy their book.

What did they need to overcome? Apathy. This was the first LinkedIn exchange and breached social mores by jumping into a pitch.

Were they successful? No. They came on way too strong.

Did they do anything well? Not really.

What could they have done differently?

  • After “welcome aboard”, something like ‘I see you are involved in X’ before mentioning their mantra (if they felt it was vital for me to know).
  • Not included anything about where to buy their book or its pricing.
  • Not included another pitch once I’d noted my distaste for the first one.
  • Not ended by effectively admitting it was a pitch because they didn’t want to spend money on ads.

This journalist wants me to write an article for them. When effort is greater than reward, people won’t bother to do what you ask.

What did they want? produce content for them for free.

What did they need to overcome? Apathy. Why is the reward for doing this greater than the effort involved?

Were they successful? No. Weak WIIFM for a busy professional.

Did they do anything well?  The subject line made me open the email. Could have been better if they said ‘about your upcoming talk at X conference’.

What could they have done differently?

  • Personalised the ask (for example, ‘I’m excited you’ll be speaking about behavioural influence at our upcoming conference’). Play to the ego of the person you are asking something of.
  • Provided a specific readership reach (for example, ‘your piece will be seen by X’ rather than “it will run in”). 
  • Offered payment (not always an option and usually not required if you ask in the right way).
  • Provided a deadline to help work out feasibility and priority (for example, ‘to get you in front of people in the August EDM we would need your ideas by X’).

This is one of my favourite emails of all time. A colleague was asking for me to contribute pro bono to a project, which I gladly did because they asked in such a great way.

What did they want? Me to do work pro bono.

What did they need to overcome? Apathy. Why should I bother?

Were they successful? Yes. Highly engaging and provided enough WIIFM.

Did they do anything well? 

  • The subject line made me open. Curiosity is gold.
  • Matched the informality to the relationship we’d developed so it felt like I was doing a mate a favour.
  • Acknowledged how cheeky this was and said they were likewise working essentially pro bono (if they can so can I).
  • Playing to my ego about what value I can contribute.
  • Emoji to add positive affect.
  • Telling me how I will receive credit.
  • Offering a secondary option if I couldn’t do the first and giving me an out if I needed it.

Key takeaways from these examples

Asking someone to do something is a fundamental business skill. You spend hours every day doing it. Yet your inbox and the examples we’ve worked through suggest too many are getting it wrong. 

That means you have an opportunity to stand out for the right reasons. Here are some pointers on building your emails.

  1. Having a clear behavioural objective. Before you write the email, be clear on what you want them to do.
  2. Making it about them. What’s in it for them to bother? Lead with this rather than blathering on about yourself.
  3. Ensuring reward exceeds effort. Minimise what they need to do and maximise their perception of the benefit.
  4. Ensuring you’ve earned it. Tell them why you care about having them involved and don’t rush them to a commitment they are not ready to make.
  5. Being honest. Be clear in what you are asking and why, so they don’t start to doubt your intentions.

NOW READ: Thanks for your email: Why you need to shake-up your out-of-office message immediately

NOW READ: Five email send hacks that get faster results


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