How to Properly Write an Email to Get What You Want

How to Properly Write an EmailThis has probably happened to you a number of times at work.  You receive an email, requesting you to complete a task of some type or another.  It could also be a request to complete training.  Invariably, you also see a due date of just a few days, hardly time for you to really respond.  You have other deadlines, on top of this.  You try to figure out if you had already completed the requested action item or required training, first and foremost.  Not sure…Well, the training site will tell me.  I just need to get to it first.  Where is the training located?  Let me reread the email, except the sender making the request has neglected to include the link!  You have learned from past experience that the person tends to do this and also has a tendency to not respond to emails for whatever reason.

It’s up to you to dig up old emails and figure where the requested items are.

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone.  Research indicates that 95% of people tend to author emails of this nature.  Alright, so I actually just made up those statistics.

Most people, for whatever reason, tend to author email in this nature.  I think mostly it’s unconsciously by design.   How do you know you are one of them?

Five easy questions to ask yourself:

  • Who am I addressing?
  • What am I asking the person to do?
  • Why do you need to complete this action item or training?
  • Where do they go to complete this item or training?
  • When is it due?

You probably noticed this is really just the basic 5 W’s that journalists follow.

Who am I addressing?

Who am I asking to perform these tasks?  Did I send out a generic email, asking everyone to do these tasks, even though it might not have applied to some people?  Sometimes, in the interest of saving time, we do this.  If you are the person responsible for maintaining a list of who’s done what, though, then I’d suggest including only the applicable recipients.  It shows you are keeping a list for a good reason; otherwise, people wonder why you have a list in the first place.  It also shows that you are considerate in being mindful of other people’s time as well as professional.

What am I asking the person to do?

This should have been obvious from the subject line or the body of the message.  Sometimes though, we tend to imply rather than state the obvious.  If your recipient tends to miss subtlety, then explicitly ask!  Back in the days, I was the king of subtlety, stating my requests in non-question form:

I wonder if it’s possible to obtain a copy of the form.

This “request” would be part of a larger paragraph.  Most of the time, the other person would not even be aware that I was asking a question until I asked the question again, this time with a question mark at the end of the sentence.  These days, I err on the side of safety and state my question so that it is obvious what I am asking.  I also bring it out so that it is noticeable.  If you are asking for multiple items to be completed, then consider formatting your requests in bullet form.  Sometimes, you’d want to list your items in numerical form, but be wary that this could be construed as a priority list in that your recipient may complete some items but not others, unless that was your intention.

Why do you need to complete this action item or training?

Sometimes you can just leave this out of the email.  You may not even know yourself why you have to do it.  Bureaucracy exists at every company, at every level.  If it’s a rule or requirement, then people will understand.  If you do know, it’s nice to inform others as to the reasons why.  When people understand the reason behind the request, you also get a higher compliance rate.

Where do they go to complete this item?

This is the part where one office manager, without fail, gets me every time.  Where do I go to complete this request?  I have a faint notion where to go, but it’s really just a guess.  Of course, I’m also getting agitated trying to look for it, when the request, if it was stated clearly the first time, would have saved me and everyone else a lot of grief.  It does take a fair amount of time.  As a good employee to your company, you should be making it easy for everyone.  Think of it another way: Twenty employees looking for the same thing times half an hour each is a lot of company time wasted.

When is it due?

Everyone’s constantly in a rush.  So, make it easy for them by giving them plenty of time to complete your request.  People tend to get grouchy if something is sprung on them at the last second.  When you state the deadline, make sure it is easy for them to take note of the deadline.  One easy way is to prominently display it in the subject.  Or, make it the first sentence or two at the start of the email.  That way, they instantly know.  If they need to reread the email at a later time, then they can easily locate the information without having to read a novel.

Keep it short and sweet!

Putting It All Together

To close, the next time you send an email to someone or a group of people keep these simple guidelines in mind.  Who should be receiving the email?  What am I asking this person to do?  Why do they need to do this?  Where do they go to complete this request?  Are my instructions clear on how to get there?  When’s the deadline?   Always start your requests with a “please” and close your requests with a “thank you.”  It’s basic etiquette and manners.

Most importantly, keep your email short, sweet and to the point.  In today’s hustle and bustle world, people are short on time.  They want to quickly know what is asked of them so that they may get it done promptly and move onto the next thing on their plate.

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