‘Small Mishap’ Or ‘Huge Problem’ – Emails That Don’t Hit The Panic Button

Like many college juniors, my daughter, Magdalen, decided to travel abroad for a semester. Rather than go somewhere in Europe, where I would have gone, she traded the comfort of Boston College for a four-month stint in Uganda. My wife and I are not overly-anxious parents; we are normally-anxious parents, which means we look forward to each new email or FaceTime call to see how she is handling this experience.

Last Monday, we woke to an email ominously titled, ‘Small Mishap.’ I am sharing parts of the message to show how to write clear messages.

“Mom and Dad, 

I first want to say that everything is okay. I am okay. If you take away one message from this email, it is that I am okay.

I spent yesterday in the hospital….”

Maggie then detailed her body’s reaction to a food allergy.

I continued reading as Mary googled ‘flight options to Entebbe Airport – Kampala, Uganda.’

Maggie started with the key message. She’s OK. It put everything else in context. When you write with a purpose – compared to creative writing – put your message up front. It allows the reader to hear the details with perspective. If your email subject line is, ‘Update on the Acme Project,’ the first line should be, ‘With regard to Acme,…

…everything is on track,’ or

…we just hit a roadblock,’ or

…the deal isn’t going to happen.’

That key message at the front, tells me how to read the rest of your message. It prepares the reader for what’s to follow. It also allows the reader to prioritize your overall message. If I’m sitting at my desk and your message comes in and says ‘Regarding Acme, everything is on track,’ I might decide, ‘Great. I’ll read the rest of that later when I’m done putting out the fires in front of me.’

If your message says, ‘I need your help to get to the next step,’ I’ll keep reading to see if I can solve this quickly and then put out the fires. Either way, the key message up front helps me understand how to move forward.

Some people like to build an argument, or share background before stating their main point. This tends to be a less effective approach than just getting to the point. Regardless of your role at work, your title isn’t ‘Mystery Novelist.’ Don’t hold the big secret until the end. Just get to the point up front.

Back to Uganda. Maggie has battled severe asthma her whole life. Although it didn’t prevent her from being a high school athlete, it played a behind-the-scenes role in many of the choices she has made over the years. We sent her off to Kampala with enough albuterol to stock a small clinic.

In her email, after she described her food allergy she wrote:

“Now let’s get to the Q&A portion:

1) Is my asthma acting up? No. Not even a little bit.”

She knew what her audience’s most immediate question would be. She even framed it as a question to show she knows her audience and their concerns. She knew the intensity of the concern so she didn’t just say, ‘No,’ she emphasized it appropriately.

When you’re writing a work email, think about your audience. Your email isn’t about your content, it’s about what the audience needs to do with your content. Instead of thinking broadly, ‘What are my readers’ concerns?’ think specifically, ‘What’s the first question the readers are likely to ask themselves about this issue?’ The more closely you can identify with your reader, the more likely you are to provide them what they need. After telling me, ‘We’ve hit a roadblock on the Acme deal,’ address my main concern. ‘Will we still be able to close the deal? If so, on time? At what cost?’ Think of how you can be most helpful to your reader.

Maggie then posed and answered lots of questions she knew we would ask, each one more in depth than the last. But she also knew that the key message should not just be up front in the communication. It should be reinforced throughout.

Her final question and wrap up:

“8) Am I sure my asthma isn’t acting up? Yes, very sure.

I hope I anticipated all of your questions. Remember, I am okay.

Talk to you soon,

M”

A well written email puts a clear message up front, anticipates the main concerns of the reader, and reinforces the main point as often as necessary.

Just FYI – We have spoken to Maggie several times since last Monday. She is fine. On a separate note, please let me know if you are interested in a non-refundable coach ticket to Kampala. Going cheap.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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