Writing effective e-mails VII: Long project e-mails/Summary

Long project e-mails

Sometimes we have to write e-mails that cover a number of different issues, aimed at a number of different people. Remember that people are overwhelmed with the amount of e-mail they get: because of this — beyond a certain length — people don’t read e-mails properly. So, if you do have to send something long you need to use special tricks to make them at least read the most important sections.

First, make the e-mail very structured. Write your issues or tasks as a numbered list. This allows the reader to scan to each item and easily skip onto the next one if they decide they’re not interested or that it doesn’t apply to them. Before the list, explain how the list works, how it’s ordered, what it means, so that people can intelligently skim the sections that are not relevant to them and read carefully those that are. Make sure that they understand up front what action they need to take.

So you might say, “Below I’ve separated the tasks out by who needs to do them. Please go through and add them to your own to-do lists or, if you think I’ve allocated something incorrectly, make sure to let me know a.s.a.p.” You can then add the extra line, “If I don’t hear back from you by next Tuesday, I’ll take it that this list is correct as far as you’re concerned and that you will have your tasks done according to the schedule.”

One of the ways that you can order your list is not by what needs to be done or known, but by whom. For instance:

    1. Chika: Please make sure the design is finished by Thursday 5 May at 5pm. The specifications you were waiting for are in the attachment.
    2. Chika and Vasos: Don’t forget that we need the text for your bits of the final report by Monday at noon.
    3. Vasos: You mentioned that you had some graphs and figures we can use. Can you send them TODAY so that we can work out how to incorporate them into the report…?
    4. Gary: Just wanted to make sure that, as Head of Department, you’re happy with the plan as it stands.

You can also generalize this by using job functions or roles instead of names if you’re writing to a large group of people. So you might want to address some actions to Team Leaders or to Administrative Team. However, accountability is always better if you name individuals, so maybe label them as Kate and the Administrative Team rather than just the team name.

Note that using bold (as I did in my list above) is a good strategy for making sure that these labels jump out at people.

You may find it makes sense to split the list into four or five separate lists, each of which is very clearly labelled and aimed at different people or teams. If you’re thinking about doing this, ask yourself why you need to write to all the teams at once. There could be good functional or political reasons for this: showing the overview of what is happening in the project so team members understand where they fit in; showing the interdependence of tasks; showing that the burden of work is being shared equally. However, if there’s no strategic reason to include everyone in, this is the point at which to split not just the lists, but the e-mails. The shorter and clearer an e-mail, the more likely it is to be read, understood, and acted upon.

At the end of the e-mail, make sure to reiterate, briefly, what exactly you are expecting from each person/team/role you are contacting: by name if possible. People’s eyes are always drawn to their own name (especially if it’s in bold!), and they are more likely to act if they can see clearly that they’ve been called on to do so.

Writing effective e-mails: Summary

  • It is worth spending time and effort on e-mails.
  • Make sure to include a good subject line, to think about who the recipients should be, and work out how to address them and in what tone.
  • Be clear about what you want your e-mail to make happen, with yourself (before you start writing) and with your recipients.
  • Assume any message you send could eventually be seen by anyone you mention in it.
  • Organise long e-mails so that it’s clear exactly what everyone reading them should focus on.
  • Get your anger out in a dummy e-mail and then write the real one to achieve your goals.
  • Don’t forget the attachment!

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