It’s not enough to have the correct grammar, the right tone, and organized thinking. Effective business writing must grab readers’ attention early on and be relevant and approachable from beginning to end. Let’s take a closer look at two elements that can improve your email messaging.
Subject Lines That Pull in Readers
When you visit a news website, you scan the headlines to determine which stories to read. Email subject lines should serve the same purpose as a headline, giving readers a glimpse of what the message is about. But they frequently don’t. Consider these:
- Upcoming schedule
Readers are always looking for a reason not to read your message because they are eager to move on to the next one. The subject line needs to tell them why this particular message is of value. It is the first place where you communicate with the reader.
When the subject line says “hello,” do you know what you will find when you open the message? What does “availability” tell you about why this message is worth your time?
Be specific. Choose words that specifically relate to the content to distinguish this message from others in the reader’s inbox, including previous messages on this same topic. Position the most relevant words at the front of the subject line, so they catch the reader’s eye.
Opening With the Essentials
Because we write messages quickly, we often plunge in and begin typing without first thinking about what is most important. We want to be sure the important information is in the message, but we are not necessarily careful to ensure that the opening few lines accomplish what they should.
Just as a proposal or a whitepaper has a summary at the front, email messages of more than two paragraphs should open with a synopsis of what the message is about.
Value of a Good Opening
A long email, memo, or other document of significant length should open with two to four sentences, more if necessary, that explain to readers why they are being asked to read the message.
Although many people have heard about summary paragraphs, few people use them effectively and consistently. A summary is only a few highlights. Leave the details for the body of the message.
Here is an example of how many messages begin:
In 2015, the Records Task Force met to discuss and review all the boxes of records that our company has stored with Iron Mountain. The goal was to determine which boxes would be eligible for destruction. Management chose stakeholders from each business unit to evaluate the inventory of boxes, which were assigned to three categories: retain, destroy, or examine further. The task force analyzed the inventory to be certain which boxes could be destroyed. Here was their four-step procedure …
As the reader, can you determine from that opening paragraph why you received the message? Is it clear what you need to know and do?
Here is an alternative opening, using information that was originally at the bottom of the page and on page 2:
The attached list of cartons, which is stored with Iron Mountain, is approved for disposal. Because you are a stakeholder who evaluates the inventory, please review this list, complete the attached “authorization to destroy” form, and forward it to Tom Snyder, the supervisor of records management. Call Tom with questions at 781.699.4227, or email him at records.management@ABC.com. Also attached is an explanation of our procedure for destroying these records.
The original opening provides background information, which is frequently what people open with. It is better to start by telling your readers why you are writing and what you want them to do (if anything) and whether there is a deadline.
Value of Summaries
Providing a capsule view of the essential facts and the necessary context has these major advantages:
- It engages the reader quickly by delivering the important information.
- It provides a preview, what reading comprehension experts call “anticipatory text,” because it lets the reader see what’s ahead.
- It reduces the time needed to process the entire message, because readers have a sense of where they are going.
On the other hand, these are some of the risks of not including a summary in a long document:
- The reader gets impatient and leaves.
- The reader reads the entire message but misses the most significant information because it is scattered in different paragraphs.
For more advice on how to organize your thinking, structure your writing process, and influence your audience, check out the June 2017 issue of the TD at Work, “Business Writing for Managers.”