The Big Question: How to write emails that people respond to

Kathryn Reeves | July 16, 2020

Image, drawing of a laptop, lamp, and coffee cup on a desk with the icons of different communication methods above them

Write consultants answer a big question. Image by Geralt / Pixabay licence

This month, we asked our consultants to answer a new ‘big question’.

We asked:

How can we get people to respond to our emails the way we want them to?

Here’s what they said.

Anne-Marie Chisnall: Avoid those ‘Oops’ moments

image, head shot of Anne-Marie Chisnall

Anne-Marie Chisnall, Deputy Chief Executive and Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Ever sent an email and thought ‘Oops’? We’ve all done it, with varying consequences! Take a moment to read over what you’ve written before you send it.

This second reading helps you to see where you can tweak for better clarity and tone. Using a friendly, conversational tone will help get the results you want. Make sure your subject line is compelling so your reader will open the email. And clarify any call to action so your reader knows what you expect them to do, or how to reply, and by when.

A clever tip is to set your email program to delay sending on every email by 10 seconds. That way you can revise your email if a sudden thought strikes you, as often happens when we press ‘Send’.

Inez Romanos: Write a killer heading

Image, head shot of Inez Romanos

Inez Romanos, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Write a killer heading. Reveal your main message. Save them the bother of opening your email to judge whether it’s worth reading.

Let’s face it, emails can be boring, even when they’re useful. They’re usually messages about getting a job done. So put that right in the subject line. Tell the reader what to do. They’ll thank you for it.

What do I mean?

Not this: Our next meeting

Nor this, though it’s better (adding info about time is always better):
Meeting, Tuesday 21 July: agenda items

But this: Send me your agenda items by Friday, 17 July — for 21 July meeting

There. Action, deadline, more info about event and timing, all in 15 brief words. Your reader knows what to do. The two dates won’t be mixed up, thanks to the dash. Readers can open the email to find out more. But even if they don’t, they’ve got something concrete to add to their to do list.

A warning: don’t overstuff your subject line. Make sure your subject fits in the box. Overfill it, and you defeat the purpose of a succinct, informative subject line.

Josh Wilson: Use your subject line

image, man in short sleeves holding a wineglass

Josh Wilson, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Write an interesting subject line that’s easy to find later.

A ‘label’ subject like ‘Finishing our annual report’ sounds boring and vague, and means the reader has to do the work of figuring out what you want. It also doesn’t give you (or the recipient) much detail if you’re looking back through your emails in the future.

It only takes a minute’s effort to solve both these problems, making the subject more engaging for your reader and improving the chance they’ll respond. Add a personal touch with ‘you’ and explain what part of the task you’re involving them in:

‘Could you help us finalise the figures for the annual report today?’

Earnsy Liu: Email the right people

Image, pair of red running shoes with white shoelaces

Earnsy Liu / CC BY-NC-ND

Emailing the right people includes putting their names in the right line.

Eleanor Meecham: Write a good subject line

Image, head shot of Eleanor Meecham

Eleanor Meecham, Document Services Manager and Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Make the subject line of your email as descriptive as possible. Include the main question you want your reader to answer, or the main action you need them to take.

Instead of
New job

New job coming up — are you available in June?

Instead of
Progress report

Please get your report to me by Friday

Colleen Trolove: Choose how you communicate

Image, head shot of Colleen Trolove

Colleen Trolove, Training Manager and Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

This is a hard question to answer because you can’t control how people use their email. You can increase your chances of a response with a great subject line, a clear main message, a request for action, and an upbeat tone. BUT (and it’s a big but!) if the person doesn’t read their emails, you’re not going to get a response.

So my biggest tip is to notice how people communicate. If email is not their forte, communicate in person. Phone them or walk over to them and talk with them. If they’re heavy cell-phone users, try texting, Slack, or Messenger.

Corinna Lines: Give people a reason to read and respond

Image, head shot of Corinna Lines

Corinna Lines, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Give people a reason to read it and respond!

If I see an email with the subject line ‘IMPORTANT: READ THIS!’, my rebellious streak kicks in. I think ‘BUT WHY?’ and may keep scrolling without opening it. But the writer really wanted me to read it — and respond!

Human nature is a fickle and unpredictable thing. If you want someone to respond to an email, first of all I’d recommend thinking like a reader. What makes you open an email? Is it a helpful subject line? Is it a clearly identified action or required response? Is it because there’s something in it for you?

You already know what makes you keep scrolling. Now think about the emails you do open. And the ones you answer. What works? What doesn’t? You have all the clues in your inbox already — so do some detective work and think about what will encourage your reader to respond, rather than hoping for the best. (And mysterious subject lines are not the answer!)

Melissa Mebus: Use the MADE structure

Image, head shot of Melissa Mebus

Melissa Mebus, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The stakes are high with emails. If you don’t get your reader’s attention from the outset, the chance of getting your message across diminishes exponentially. To get your reader to respond the way you want them to can be even tougher still.

The best advice I feel I could give is to follow the MADE structure with email content. That is:

M = main message
A = action your reader needs to take
D = details
E = extra information

Your subject heading should be the M component of an effective email. You can then elaborate further in your first paragraph, describing the action you want your reader to take. By following this structure, you’re making life simpler for your reader.

We hope you enjoyed these tips!

See last month’s post for answers to the question: What’s the biggest benefit of plain language to organisations?



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