E-mail is like a double-edged sword. If written properly, it can be an effective communication tool that boosts collaboration, efficiency and productivity. The downside is that it can potentially distract people from important tasks, confuse them, waste their time and, worse, add to their stress levels.

So what does it take to write the right kind of e-mail messages?

The challenge

First, empathise with the recipients of your message by reminding yourself that they already have another 50 messages vying for their attention in their inbox.

Imagine your target readers are rushing to do other important tasks and attending meetings and are overwhelmed by information overload.

Your challenge is to write a message that fulfils two conditions: It must grab the
attention of the recipients described above and they must understand its message within the shortest time possible.

What works?

The key lies in the profound observation made by Spanish writer Enrique Jardiel Poncela: “When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.”

First, know what works and what doesn’t work in e-mail communication, and then make an effort to craft your messages accordingly. Here are some tips:

Subject line

The fate of your message — whether it will be ignored or given priority — depends on what you write in the subject space.

Here’s how to write a subject line that attracts people’s attention:

* Reflect and write: Just before you write the subject line, ask yourself: “What exactly is this e-mail all about?”

* Make it specific: A specific subject is more likely to nudge the recipients to open the message rather than one that leaves them wondering about its contents. Make the subject specific by adding key information (for example, “minutes of meeting with CEO attached”). Avoid general subjects like “agenda” or “enquiry”.

* Use an informative first word: The first word of the subject line will grab people’s attention first. Start the subject line with the most powerful word instead of non-informative words like “the” or “a”. For example, “Reminder: Please submit expense report” is better than “A gentle reminder for sending expense report”.

Another advantage of using the right first word is that your message will be easily traceable when your recipient sorts his e-mail according to subject.

* Keep it short: People usually scan the inbox to identify important messages. Don’t write an overly long subject line that demands extra attention from recipients. For example, avoid a subject line such as: “Review of sales projections, sales meeting with VP sales — please remember to attend.”

To make an immediate impact, try to limit the subject to five to seven carefully chosen words: “Reminder: Sales projections meeting at 4pm today”.

* Don’ts: Leaving the subject line blank or using an exclamation mark or using informal words like “hi” or “hello” in formal e-mail is unprofessional and pointless — your message will be delegated to “low-priority” at once.

Thinking and pre-writing

Before you write the body of your message, step back and ask yourself why you are writing it? What are the key points?

This process, known as pre-writing, is an effective way to bring focus and clarity to your e-mail. It will channel your thoughts in the right direction and direct you to write a message that is relevant and to the point.

Tomorrow: Guidelines on writing the body of an e-mail message and some points of netiquette.