Five tips for writing emails that colleagues will read

As a freelance journalist, I’m constantly writing to editors at newspapers and magazines to propose ideas for articles. These editors are swamped with hundreds, if not thousands, of emails a day. Cutting through the noise—and making sure my message gets heard—depends on having an email strategy.

Here are five tips I’ve picked up over the years to help my emails stand out and get read. These tips apply equally well when reaching out to high-profile contacts or when communicating with busy colleagues.

1) It all starts with the subject line

It may not be a good idea to judge a book by its cover, but lots of people decide whether or not to read an email based just on its subject line. A good email subject line should look a lot like a good newspaper headline. It has to be concise, offer a quick summary of the email itself and—above all—pique a reader’s interest. Just like a vintage burlesque act, a good subject line reveals a little without giving too much away.

2) Skip the formalities

It’s important to remember than an email is not a formal letter. It’s a much more casual medium—most readers expect you to get right to the point, without a lot of preambles or introductions. This should be reflected even in the salutation, or greeting, that opens the message. When writing an email, I almost never start with “Dear . . .” Instead, I use the more collegial salutation “Hi . . .” This sets the tone that I’m about to share information in a straightforward, clear way.

3) Shorter is sweeter

Probably the most valuable email lesson I’ve learned over the years is keep it super short. In the professional world, we’re all swamped with demands for our attention. It’s asking a lot for a busy professional to read through a long email. Instead, I generally try to follow (in spirit, if not always in letter) the three-sentence rule. It proposes treating emails, in essence, as text messages and limiting yourself to around three sentences.

4) Include a simple, direct call to action

The concept of a call to action is second nature to people in sales and marketing. It’s the “call now,” “sign up here,” “ask us more” messaging that comes at the end of an ad and is meant to provoke an immediate response. As much as I can, I like to incorporate this concept into my emails. For instance, I’ll often close with a simple question—“Does a call next week work for you?” for example—in the hopes of prompting a reply and some kind of interaction from the reader.

5) Don’t be afraid to follow up

We all do it. We open an email, scan the contents, then something comes up and we forget to write back. So when you don’t hear back from a colleague or associate, don’t automatically assume that they’re not interested in your message. If I don’t receive a response, I’ll generally send another email in one week with a very brief message saying, “I just wanted to follow up on the message below. Thanks.” I’m amazed how often the recipient will get back to me, often apologizing for the delay.

Writing effective emails isn’t rocket science, but you can benefit from a bit of strategy. Above all, put yourself in a reader’s shoes. You’re a busy professional, too, with lots to do. What kind of emails do you actually read and engage with? Use them as models to inform your own writing.

About the author

Remy Scalza began his career as a journalist, contributing to the Washington Post, New York Times and Globe and Mail. He has earned national and international awards for feature stories on business, travel and technology.

After years of interviewing executives at leading companies, he recognized a need for writing and publishing services designed for thought leaders. He established C-Suite Content to provide guidance for high-profile business leaders interested in sharing their thoughts with a wider audience.

Over the years, Scalza has worked with some of Canada’s leading tech companies, helping executives craft and publish thought leadership content in Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication.

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