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Effective E-Mail – It’s the Structure that Counts

Present your ideas in a logical sequence

Business e-mail is a Darwinian world. Although you may think you have a special relationship with each person you are writing to, you are in fact competing everyday with at least 50 to 150 other e-mails that each of your correspondents receives. As a result, only those e-mails survive that are fit to be read. If your e-mail is unclear or too detailed, your readers may misunderstand your message. Or, they may simply lose patience with what you have written and put their attention on another e-mail that is easier to understand.

What none of the countless books and articles on communicating effectively by e-mail ever tell you is that, more than any other factor, the structure of an e-mail, the logical sequence in which you present your ideas and information, will determine whether your e-mail gets the attention you want from your readers.

The assumption most people make is that e-mail is like a conversation. Just to keep up with an incessant deluge of e-mails, the tendency is to open a screen, write whatever comes into your head, and hit the Send button. Each e-mail is treated as if it were just the latest contribution to an oral back-and-forth, and a casual one at that. As a result, most e-mails ramble. And if they make a point at all, it’s usually at the end, when the author has finally figured out what he or she wants to say.

The basic structure for any e-mail looks like this:

  • Set context: Tell your readers why you are writing about your topic at this particular moment. Are you responding to a question the reader asked you? Have you finished the research your reader requested? Are you writing to update your reader on a project or topic?
  • Tell your readers what you want them to do or believe. What action needs to be taken, or what is your evaluation of the situation?
  • State your reasons for advocating a particular action or evaluation. Use no more than 3 to 5 supporting points, in a bulleted list, if possible.
  • State the next steps. What do you want your reader to do and what will you do to advance the action or point of view you are advocating?

Try it, and I bet you get better responses to your e-mails.