What You Need To Know To Write More Effective Emails

Ed BurghardEmail is easy if you want it to be. Simplify before you get complicated.

When I first started my career at Procter & Gamble, I was introduced to the one-page memo. This method of communication was invented in P&G. It was not only its one page length that revolutionized written communication within P&G. But, it was its clear title, opening paragraph and predictable structure. It forced the author to think clearly.

Secrets of The P&G One-Page Memo

There were only a few options to start the opening paragraph of such a memo: “This recommends for approval the ….”, “This seeks your alignment on …”, “This asks for your help to …”. The rest of the opening paragraph clearly indicated what you wanted from the reader. After this opening sentence, and only if needed, the document spelled out the background and issue/proposal in detail. No matter who wrote the document you got, you always knew that up front you would know why it was addressed to you and what was expected of you. Communication within P&G was simple, concise, effective and very productive.

It seems to me the lessons I learned in writing one-page memos can be reapplied to help make emails a more effective communication tool.

Five Reapplied One-Page Memo Lessons To Help Make Your Internal Emails More Effective

  1. Use a clear subject title.  Whenever you write an email make sure the title tells exactly what the subject is all about. For example, do not say “marketing plan input”. Tell me “This recommends for approval the marketing plan”. If needed, change a subject title on any email you forward. If you can not (re-)formulate a clear title, do not send the message.
  2. Whenever you write an email, tell the reader up front what you want him/her to do.  Try using these few options only: “this is to recommend for approval the ..”, “this is to get your alignment on ..”,“this is to ask you to do xyz”. If you cannot tell the reader what to do, do not send the message. 
  3. Whenever you forward somebody else’s message or put somebody’s name on the cc list of a forwarded message to someone else, tell the readers up front (in the opening paragraph) the reason why you do so and what you want them to do. Tell the reader “ I want you to know about this because… “. Be specific and concise about the “because” or the reason why. If you send the same message to several people do not hesitate to tell each the reason why you send the message! For example: “Frank – I agree with your recommendation, go ahead.  Sally – see the section on cost in the recommendation, please let me know if budget is available. George – Please send me your thoughts on the research plan to support the marketing plan”. If you cannot formulate the reason why, do not send it to the person or do not put sombody on the cc list.
  4. When replying to someone’s email NEVER press “reply to all”. Instead force yourself to type in the names on the cc list. This will make sure you know why you send it to them. To many emails come from being included on reply to all list.
  5. Tell the reader if you expect a reply. Add to the start or end of your email the words “no need to reply” or “no expectation you will reply”.  This will reduce the number of unnecessary replies you will get.

Discussion

Email is an amazing communication tool if used properly.  It can also be a productivity killer is misused.  Like any form of writing, you should focus on the reader’s needs rather than your own.  The above tips will help you ensure that your emails communicate effectively and efficiently.  If you use the tips, it won;t be long before you get a positive reputation for authoring emails people want to read rather than delete.

Based on your experience, what additional tips would you suggest to improve the quality of emails?  Do you have a pet peeve regarding emails you receive?  If yes, what is it?  The more we share, the smarter we all become.

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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7 Comments so far

  1. […]   […]

  2. Roy Schauffele

    November 19, 2013

    Interestingly enough, I had a marketing professor at Wharton Evening College that advocated the same technique. Unfortunately since it is over 30 years ago, I don’t recall his name but his went:

    Recommendations, Analysis, Conclusions and all three had to fit on 1 page.

    All Case Study reports and exams followed this one page format and it taught me to think clearly, concisely and to condense my thinking to its critical items.

    I have had my own firm for over 26 years and the Recommendations, Analysis, Conclusion format is the law of the land.

  3. Edward

    November 19, 2013

    Roy – Thanks for sharing. The format encourages strategic thinking and provides an excellent discipline that ultimately empowers employees and reduces executional risk. If the logic fails on paper, the execution will fail in market. My guess is your company is successful in part because of you use of the format.

  4. Patrick Loftus

    November 20, 2013

    Excellent piece again Ed.So practical and yet so effective.I agree fully that the reply to all option should never be used and the people cc’s should understand why they have been copied and what response if any is required. The reality tends that people often feel they are covering their backs by copying everybody while in reality they are simply clogging up peoples inboxes and diluting the effectiveness of the email system.Imposing a P & G system along the lines you suggest would be a very effective tool in my opinion. It would particularly good to instruct new rerecruits on this policy,force them to think trough possible solutions and target the appropriate people and would cut down if not cut out the” copy all” lazy emails seeking easy answers to questions they should be offering solutions for.

  5. Ed Burghard

    November 21, 2013

    Patrick – Thanks for the feedback. Let me know how the tips work for you after you’ve had a chance to try them. It would be cool to have some follow-up observations :-)

  6. George Harben

    November 21, 2013

    Ed, very helpful. E.B. White would be pleased.

  7. Steven Gittis

    November 28, 2013

    Thanks for the article, I find the use of bullets vs. paragraphs an effective communications tool as well. This prevents:

    Thoughts getting lost in words
    More concise thinking
    People being overwhelmed with poor formatting.

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