I think it’s safe to say that now, more than ever before, we are sending and receiving more emails every day.
Yes, we hear about Zoom fatigue a lot, but with the increase in remote work, email fatigue is also a real issue now. While, in this article, I will be sharing ways in which you can write more positive emails I think there is a real need for us to ask ourselves if email is the most appropriate medium of communication to use.
Some helpful reflection questions to ask yourself before sending that email could be:
Would it be better to arrange a call?
Could I send a video or audio message instead?
Could I embed a short video into the email to change things up a bit and make it more personalized?
We do tend to fall into ruts and habits when it comes to emailing, me included! Our default is to just send a quick email. However, those times when I’ve received an audio message through WhatsApp or a quick video message really stand out and have made such a positive impression on how I feel about that person.
I also seem to remember the message more easily because it has stood out among all the other more standard emails.
This is not to say that I am for eradicating emails all together. But, in order for the emails we do send to have a positive impact and to not be ignored, we need to ensure we are following some fundamental principles. Before sharing those, I would like to first consider us as receivers of emails.
As I’ve mentioned, we have all been suffering from email fatigue, so how can we minimize this?
The answer lies in how we are handling our email inbox. Firstly, we need to resist the temptation to be constantly checking our emails throughout the day. We need to give ourselves permission to turn off that notification bell that is telling us we have another email waiting; yet another distraction.
In a Forbes article entitled “How to Manage Email Overload at Work” by Caroline Castrillon the tip is to only check your emails at designated times each day, this means blocking out 30 minutes a few times a day to check email!
Let’s now turn to email etiquette. I’ve spent over a decade delivering email writing workshops, the topic of email etiquette always comes up and what follows is usually a lively debate. I often hear some strong feelings on using Cc and conversations around people being Cc’ed into emails where they felt it wasn’t necessary and in some cases employees feeling that it was a way for their bosses to “keep tabs on them!” This suggests a lack of trust and micromanaging going on that was clearly not appreciated!
So in order to positively build relationships with your customers both internally and externally some communication rules need to be agreed on at the organisational level first.
Such as criteria for replying to all and some prompt questions such as:
Does everyone on the list need the information contained in your email or not?
What is your intention or purpose for Cc-ing certain individuals?
To summarize, I can say that there are three fundamental questions to ask before even getting down to what you should include in an email. These are:
1. Is email the most appropriate channel of communication?
2. If not, what would be – an audio message through Whatsapp or perhaps a video message or just a simple phonecall?
3. What email etiquette do you and your organisation follow?
So now let’s get into the content of the emails we write. I am going to focus my examples around what I call high impact correspondence and those are emails that are saying “no” and replying to a complaint. They are high impact because if written poorly they will cause significant damage to the relationship between the writer and receiver and larger than that the organisation.
The opening and closing sections of your email are where you can make a big impact. The opening sets the tone and is where you will either make a positive or negative first impression much the same as in spoken communication.
When saying “no” to a customer’s request, do we really want to be saying “we regret to inform you that…” in the first sentence? I think it is very unlikely that the recipient will read any further and this means they will not read about why you made that decision and how they could turn this “no” into a “yes”.
So how do you set a positive tone in the opening sentence. Well, I would recommend avoiding old-fashioned language such as “We refer to your email dated…” unless you are working in the legal system. You want to state clearly why you are writing in the first sentence. So, what is the purpose of your email? For example, “I am emailing you about your request to…” or “Following, our conversation yesterday, I am emailing to confirm…” the formality of this opening sentence will depend on the relationship you have with the reader. Always keep the relationship you have with the reader in the forefront of your mind. If you have met the reader a few times and have a good relationship with them it would not be appropriate to start your email by saying “I acknowledge receipt of your request.” This feels too cold and impersonal.
I think we can all agree that as far as possible we would like to make our readers feel positive when reading our email communication and respecting the relationship we have with the reader will help us set an appropriate tone.
The Case Study of "Rachel"
I often refer to a situation I experienced a few years ago. Let’s call this person Rachel. She was a client of ours and we met a few times in person for coffee and lunch. We had a lot in common both having small children and we knew the same people as she had worked for the same organisation. We spoke about our families, our travels as well as the training I was delivering to her team.
In my emails to her I would always include a couple of sentences of social chat in the beginning before getting down to business. Something along the lines of:
I remember you mentioned that you were going to try that new Thai restaurant the other day.How was it?
The reply came back short and to the point answering only my work-related question without any mention of the Thai restaurant. Her replies were always very formal and not at all like how we communicated in person. How did it make me feel? Well certainly a bit confused. So how did I respond, did I:
A - drop the chit chat and match her more formal style
B - did I persist in trying to engage her in some social conversation?
I went for B and persisted for another couple of emails. She did not engage and continued to only use email in a formal style. In fact, I found her use of language quite abrupt very different to the smiley, warm and approachable person I found her to be in person. In this situation, she was a client so you could argue it was up to me to align with her style of email even if it wasn’t my preference and felt impersonal. At the end of the day, we should be adapting our style to suit those that we are communicating with, right? I will leave that question here for you ponder and to think about your own examples.
Going back to the opening. This is where you clearly state the purpose of writing and in the case where you are replying to a complaint you need to convey empathy first. For example:
“I’m sorry to hear that you were dissatisfied with the service you received while at our center on (date)."
The “sorry” conveys empathy and it acknowledges the customer’s feelings. This needs to be personalized and specific to the individual and phrases like “we are sorry for any inconvenience caused” should be avoided.
Because this could be just copied and pasted to every reply to a complaint and the complainant will not feel heard or reassured that you are taking their particular complaint seriously.
So, if you must use the word “inconvenience” make sure you are specifying what inconvenience was caused. For example:
“we are sorry for the inconvenience caused when you were twice told to re-register your details on our system.”
For your emails to be clear you need to be specific when asking someone to do something. As a reader we want all the information. We do not want to be left with more questions than answers. So make sure that you are answering all the critical questions your reader will have such as:
What do you want them to do?
By when exactly?
Who needs to do this?
Why does this need to be done?
“So that we can meet the application deadline, we will need you to attach your most recent data report by Thursday this week, please.”
Notice that we start with the why so we are getting buy-in straight away, we are specifying which data report we need and the deadline.
Before sending an email, we need to be crystal clear about the purpose of our communication and we also need to think carefully about who we are writing to.
One question you could ask is:
How much does the reader know?
The answer to this will inform you of how much jargon and abbreviations you can use. There is nothing more frustrating as a reader than having to decode all the language of the email.
Questions to consider:
Are you writing to someone who has the technical know-how that you do?
Will the jargon you use be understood?
If not, then this language needs to be translated into laymen terms or Plain English.
For our email writing to build positive relationships it needs to consider and be compassionate to the audience. What would you say to the person if they were sitting in front of you?
When writing we don’t need to use over-complicated English and flowery language for our message to come across as professional. We don’t need to suddenly use the passive voice which serves only to create distance between us the writer and our readers. To often I see phrases such as Please be assured and please be informed rather than the active, friendlier I would like to assure you and I would like to inform you. Don’t be afraid to use the personal “I” in your emails. You can use “we” when describing something on behalf of the organisation. And yes you can use both “I” and “We” in one email.
“There’s EQ in writing!” I would proclaim in every writing workshop I have delivered in the last decade. Words have power. They make people feel something, so don’t write a reply when you are feeling particulary frustrated, upset or stressed out. Take a moment.
Writing in Reverse Technique
Justin Bariso shares this technique in his article:
Why Emotionally Intelligent Minds Embrace The Rule of 'Writing in Reverse'
This means that you have to reverse the roles of the writer (you) with the recipient (your audience). This technique helps in three ways:
You are not writing from a purely emotional perspective.
You are not writing too much.
You are writing only what is helpful to the recipient.
Here is the full article:
Using the Six Cs to help us write positive & relationship-building emails
The Six Cs can be used as an editing tool. So, lets focus on replying to a complaint. Focusing on all six Cs at once can feel overwhelming so start with one or two that resonate most with you and the ones that you would like to develop. Once you are confident with these you can move onto another two and so on. For now, let’s just focus on Compassion. I define compassion as a formula:
Empathy + Desire to help + Appropriate action = Compassion
With this in mind your email should include the following three elements:
Empathizes with the reader and fully acknowledges what they went through and how they may have felt in this situation. Name the feelings that you noticed or picked up on in any previous communication. For example, “I am sorry to hear of your frustration or disappointment or whatever feeling you noticed. This should come in the opening section of your email.
Offer a solution, alternative, way forward, some kind of compensation and /or any helpful advice.
Include an assurance that this won’t happen again and what specific action you have taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
When it comes to putting your reader first and writing in an emotionally intelligent way, I think Rumi’s words are worth keeping in mind:
“Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
These words take on a whole other meaning, importance and relevance when we think of the pandemic we are living with now.
If email writing is a skill that you and your team would like to develop, please connect with me and I will be happy to discuss your learning needs and design a learning programme with you that targets your specific writing challenges.