Writing gracious and empathetic emails is an excellent goal. But if you aim to achieve this (even inadvertently) by padding your sentences with softeners, modifiers or additional fillers, you’re in fact weakening your ideas, throwing off the interpersonal power balance, and obfuscating the reason you’ve written.
Where your goal had been to come across as generous and respectful, the outcome is you’re burdening your reader by making them wade through your language and intention, adding to their mental load and potentially slowing down the conversation chain.
The good news is finding the perfect balance in your emails so they’re warm, concise, confident, and direct can be done by implementing the following four rules. Do this with the next email you write, and you will see how your reader responds in kind!
- Keep your tone warm, engaging, and respectful
- Be concise
- Assert your confidence
- Be direct
1. Keep your tone warm, engaging, and respectful
Many people struggle with sounding like … people in their emails. There’s a false pervading belief, perpetuated in jargon-heavy work environments, that to come across as professional in writing, one needs to sound like an erudite machine.
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In fact, the most effect communicators are those who eschew those artificial expectations and simply converse with their reader as if they were indeed two human beings talking.
The best way to do this is to visualize the person to whom you’re writing. See their face, imagine them laughing at something you said. Then write to them from that feeling. (Even if they aren’t your favorite person, or you’ve never met them, imagine a person on the other side of your words. It helps humanize and warm your tone measurably).
2) Keep your language concise
a. Cut your adverbs
Adverbs are words that modify verbs (quickly, efficiently), adjectives (really great, totally interesting) or other adverbs (very quickly).
In some cases, they are valuable and useful; in others, they’re filler.
The most common filler-type adverbs that can be removed are:
- And every young person’s favorite tic, “literally”
Strike these from your sentences, and they will instantly seem taller and more confident (and by extension, so will you as the writer).
James Parsons calls “just” a “pre-emptive apology for your needs.”
Dropping the word “just” makes your writing more confident. You put forward your needs or requests, and they’re answered, without the implied self-deprecation and self-minimization. That kind of professional confidence bolsters your communications dramatically.
This Washington Post article from Benjamin Dreyer (of Dreyer’s English) drives home the point of how very un-very this word can be; in fact, he illustrates how using “very” to modify another adjective can be downright condescending.
b. Remove phrases that make it seem like your shoulders are up around your ears
- I wanted to ask
- I hope you don’t mind, but
- I was just hoping to find out
- I was just wanting to know
- Would you mind very much
You’re running late for the train and are hoofing it to the station.
Someone comes up to you and asks, “I’m very sorry to bother you, but if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to ask whether you might have the time?”
You would likely consider (mentally) strangling this person. Out with it, man!
You can be pleasant, polite, and warm in your language and tone without feeling like you have to soften the “blow” of asking for information or clarity on a point by adding cushioning phrases such as these.
*Note, more important than asserting brevity is knowing your audience (for example, being culturally sensitive). If you feel a cushioner is the better way to go, and around that you can still maintain a good email balance of being warm, clear, confident, and direct, then use your judgement.
3. Assert your confidence
Unless you’ve done something you should apologize for, why are you apologizing again?
Front loading a request with an “I’m sorry,” or apologizing for a late reply weakens you in your reader’s eyes and upsets the power dynamic.
It’s the equivalent of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist looking up with big needy eyes, holding out his empty bowl for what he hopes will be more gruel, saying, “Please, sir, I want some more?” (at which, “The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle”).
Unless that image is one you’re comfortable with embodying as a colleague or equal to the person to whom you’re writing, operate from gratitude instead and thank them for their patience and or say how you appreciate their time.
This way everyone maintains their standing, the mutual respect continues, unfettered, and there’s enough gruel for everyone.
4. Go for the jugular (but do it while smiling!)
People are busy and receive many emails. Most people scan the first few sentences of an email to find out what’s wanted/needed, the timeline (whether it’s urgent), and what their action should be: respond, forward, or take action first then reply with a solution.
If you are slow to speak up or meander to the point, your reader may feel annoyed that they can’t quickly determine what you want and move away from the email to deal with it later. Knowing they have an unwieldy email hanging over them adds to their mental load, which may cause your reader to feel frustrated with you.
Instead, the acronym BLUF, or Bottom Line Up Front, is a terrific reminder to go in for the jugular (but with a smile!)
Right away after a congenial greeting, state the reason for your email (Bam!) similar to the way a journalist will start an article with the “lede” (the item of business). After this, you can fill in the details (or again borrow from a journalist and answer the 5 WH questions: who, what, where, when, why, (and how)).
By stating the purpose of the email immediately, you’re accomplishing several positive things: you’re showing you value your reader’s time, arresting the reader’s attention, and since you were clear with what you wanted/needed/had to say, there won’t be any misunderstanding, and you’ll get the right response.
No need to go overboard and sound hasty or harsh. Avoid using the imperative (Give me) or being demanding (I need); again, you can still be empathetic and warm with your greeting, and being polite goes a long way!
“Please let me know” as opposed to “Let me know” does add words, but brief good manners are always welcome and show you value your reader as a human being– and one you respect.
This also isn’t to say you shouldn’t honor your relationships (or your humanity) by engaging at a personal level in your emails; people aren’t robots, and it’s always lovely to hear someone’s personality shine through in their writing even if they’re only nudging you to RSVP for a staff meeting.
But by striking that perfect balance in your emails of being warm, concise, confident, and direct, you’ll ultimately maintain a healthy power relationship, show you respect your reader’s time and attention, and help you become a stronger and more effective writer, which will influence all the writing you do.
Jenna is the founding director of One Lit Place, a full-service writers center that supports all writers with coaching, editing, and mentorship. Any time you feel you would benefit from personal support, please reach out for a free chat about your work!