Claire Hewitt | August 13, 2020
Can you imagine the look on their face when they read that email? You should! Thinking about how your reader might respond to your writing is an important part of sounding more human in emails.
And it matters because getting the tone right in your work emails makes good things happen. With a human-sounding tone, you’ll find it easier to build relationships, keep your reader interested, and move them to action.
Emails are the work — even though we often see them as a distraction. Isn’t it frustrating to be badgered by emails when you’ve got a big project on, or a major piece of work to produce? Even so, everyday emails are often the places where we drive the detail of the important things we’re working on. Effective emails help you reach your bigger work goals.
People are busy. But the best way to get their attention is by writing emails that are compelling in a personable way. Stuffing in red flags, aggressive fonts, and exclamation marks is the digital version of a tantrum. In the long term, it’s rarely an effective tactic.
Fortunately, plain language offers well-researched principles that can help you get action from your emails. The idea is to make it as easy as possible for readers to find answers to their questions and understand what they need to do. Start by explaining the purpose of your email and making your main points easy for your reader to see.
A trick to keeping your emails lively is to write sentences that have a natural rhythm. A varied pace urges people to read on. On the other hand, there’s nothing more machine-like (or boring) than writing that has no variation in sentence length.
In emails, you want to bring your average sentence length down to 9–12 words. That’s because when people read emails they’re so often interrupted — reading on the go or peering at a small screen. It makes it hard to concentrate and read deeply.
Oh, and drop in some bullet points too. Bulleted lists are a great way to let long-winded texts breathe. You could think of them as the lively hand gesture you’d make when you list something in a conversation.
Emails are where we create, build, and keep relationships. Showing care makes an impression on readers, and that includes being relatable and respectful. If you were chatting to your reader face to face, you’d make an effort to be polite and clear. You’d avoid patronising them or wasting their time.
It’s the same in emails. For example, take care to spell people’s names right. Use the same familiar words you’d use in a conversation. If readers find your writing difficult to understand, they might think you’re intimidating, unhelpful, or uncaring.
Your greetings and signoffs help set the tone of your whole email. They’re also your first and last chance to create a connection between yourself and your reader. You wouldn’t barge into a room and start talking without first saying hello. Nor would you greet someone as ‘sir slash-madam’ in real life.
Worn out phrases like ‘please don’t hesitate to contact me’ may give the impression you’re typing on autopilot rather than writing with care. How about, ‘I’m happy to help if you have any questions’ or some other simple, sincere phrase? You can find other ideas in our post about closing emails: Email etiquette — how best to sign off
If you’d like a process to make sure your emails have a healthy heartbeat, then download our checklist, How human is your writing? It will help you easily analyse the tone and helpfulness of your writing at work to really bring it alive.
Our series of videos on tone takes you on a personal adventure into the often subtle but always present power of tone in writing at work.