5 Essential Elements of an Email That Respects People's Time

Recently, I had an interesting exchange on Twitter with a reader of this column (evidently, there is one). I will call her Brooke, and by "exchange" I mean a somewhat one-sided lambasting of an article I authored regarding email myths, in which I made the point that entrepreneurs should prioritize email as a valuable and useful tool rather than vilify it as a distraction.

While my exchange with Brooke turned into a debate, mostly with both of us struggling to one up the other and get in the last word, she did make a very strong point:

"[Email is] a 40-year-old technology and based on an antiquated physical metaphor. Email has never advanced a career, only hurt it."

Indeed, email might be antiquated, especially with the advent of so many new mediums to communicate. I still contend, however, that email is an extremely effective way to run your business life. For me personally, it is what allows me to embark on many ventures, keep in touch with many people, and ultimately accomplish a great number of tasks every day.

I depend on email.

Related: 4 Tips to Better Manage Your Email Inbox

With that said, there is no doubt that email, if not properly applied, can hurt a career. Who has not, at some point in their career, regretted pressing the “Send” button after composing an angry, sensitive or otherwise ill-advised email. No doubt, these can come back to haunt us.

Next time you compose an email, take a few moments to think about what you want to write. If it happens to be an important correspondence, take time to review what you wrote before sending it. And always consider these five communication elements that will make your correspondence more effective and, more important, respective of your recipient’s time.

1. Value 

Is the information you are providing useful, practical, and applicable to the recipient? Are you making it worth the reader's time to read your email and consume the information? If your words are not providing a value to your reader, then do not bother sending it.

Bad: We have an important meeting on Thursday, so do not make plans after 3 p.m.

Better: We have the opportunity to meet with a consultant who specializes in reducing waste, and I believe she will help us improve our business tremendously. We are still coordinating a time, so please leave your calendar open after 3 p.m. this Thursday.

2. Credible 

Stick with using factual information that is accurate and ethical and avoid, at all cost, manipulating facts to fit your message or narrative. Provide all the information transparently, so the recipient can make his or her own decision. Avoid vague generalizations that tend to express your opinion rather than the facts.

Bad: I believe that operations is the root of our continued struggles to meet projections.

Better: I have reviewed the latest productivity report, and I believe that we can increase profitability if we tackle the problem of waste on the production line.  

3. Concise 

Nobody has time to read lengthy emails, especially endless emails that never get to the reason behind it. Make your point quickly and with the fewest but most effective use of your words.

Bad: I know you are busy with your upcoming business trip and the soccer tournament with your kids, but I was hoping I could take just a few minutes of your time to discuss the topic I mentioned in the hallway last week. If you are around this week for lunch, I know a good place we can meet and chat.

Better: Are you available this Thursday, Jan. 22, at 3 p.m. ET (it's important to include time zone, especially if the recipient is in a different one than yours) for a call to discuss the recommendations I made for reducing waste on the production line? If not, I am available next Monday or Tuesday, so let me know a day and time that works for you.

Related: 5 Bad Email Habits That Waste Your Time

4. Clear 

Be excruciatingly clear about your expectations and the actions needed to move forward. If you have the capacity, be clear about assigning tasks as well as due dates. Being vague in this regard will create nothing more than a long chain of email responses and very little progress.

Bad: Someone needs to work on the recommendations made by the consultant we met on Thursday. Who has time this week to work on it? I would like to have most of them implemented by the end of the month.

Better: Based on the recommendations made by the waste management consultant we met, we have three action items to be completed. Alex will complete the initial line assessment by close of business this Friday. Based on Alex’s findings, Janice will complete the second phase the following week. This leaves final implementation to Greg. Our goal is to have these recommendations implemented by Feb 28. If you have any questions or concerns, I am available tomorrow all day to discuss.

5. Compelling 

The most important part of an email communication is convincing the reader that action is needed. If there is no reason for the reader to take action, more than likely no action will take place.

Bad: We need to fix the problem of waste because management is coming down on me to meet projections.

Better: If we do not get to the bottom of the issue of waste on the production line, there is a very good chance we may not meet our yearly goals. Keep in mind that our year-end bonuses are based on these goals, so if we pull together and tackle this as a team, I believe we can meet and even exceed our projections.

My strongly opinionated and generally email-hating protagonist made one last argument, which is worthy of repeating. 

"Rich people use the phone!"

Of course, this assumes that the premise behind every email is to increase wealth, which I would contend is not necessarily the case. Regardless, she had a great point.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for personal interactions. Important tones and other non-verbal cues are lost in emails, and nothing replaces the warm, firm handshake or inviting hug (depending on your propensity for this) of an colleague or associate. So make it a point from time to time to pick up a phone, schedule a lunch or just walk down the hall for a personal visit.

What other tips do you have for composing a more effective email? Please share with others in the comments section below.

Related: Why a Phone Call Is Better Than an Email (Usually)