When you have to write an important email, understand your objective

Dartboard with dartsHave you ever needed to write an important email, but found yourself procrastinating on it?  I certainly have.  I can think of days where by 10am I knew that there was one really important email that I needed to write, but I did not end up writing the email until 11pm at night.  That is so frustrating!  I know that it is a common experience.

For this reason – I often tell team members that I am happy to review any difficult emails that they need to write.  I would much rather spend 10 minutes to review a team members email, and have them get on to more productive work, than to have them waste a day procrastinating.  The result of this is that in the average week I review half a dozen important, but difficult, emails for other people.

Every time I read the email completely first.  Then I ask the same starting question: “What is your objective with this email?”

My reason for asking this question is quite simple: it is hard for me to provide constructive feedback on how well they hit their goal, if I do not know what their goal is.  The responses have often surprised me.

Common Responses

The most common response is to pause, look at me, and say “I do not know…”

What?  How could that be?  Well, the answer is simple.  Often these emails are being written in response another persons’ email.  The writer feels that they need to respond, and they need to respond quickly.  However, they have not taken the time to stop and think about what goal they have beyond getting a response out.  They are effectively writing random words and hoping for the best.

The second response that I get is “Well, I definitely do not want to imply ‘X'”

Okay, this is a sensitive situation and you know that there are things that would not be productive to say.  That is good.  But you need something better than a goal of avoidance.  If you are writing an email where your only goal is to not say something, the best outcome is that you will write a lot of meaningless words.  A likely outcome is that your readers will get the feeling that you are trying to avoid saying something.  And the worst case is that you might just write “I do not want to imply ‘X'”; in which case you just have, and everyone knows it.

The third response that I get is “My objective is [goal 1], and [goal 2], and [goal 3]… And [goal 4]”

Getting closer.  But chances are that you cannot successfully communicate all these goals at the same time.  You will end up writing a huge amount of text that people will find hard to read, and important points will be missed.

For all these cases – I work with the writer try and identify one poignant objective of their email.

Good Objectives

“I want them to know that we are working hard, and take this topic seriously”.

“I want to make sure they know they can trust me to handle the situation”.

“I want there to be a clear, shared understanding of the status”.

“I want to ensure everyone knows about the problem that just happened, so we can figure out the best next step”.

These are examples of good email objectives.  Once we have identified the objective of the email the process becomes a lot easier.  Because now we can go through the email one sentence at a time and ask “Does this sentence support the objective?”.  If the answer to that question is no, either remove or rewrite the sentence.

In all cases, merely having a clearly identified objective immediately reduces the stress of the writer.  So remember, the next time you have to write an important email the first step is to identify what your objective in writing is.


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