How to Write the Perfect Email. Every Damn Time.

Everyone receives terrible emails. And somehow almost everyone also writesterrible emails as well. It's a tragic cycle.

We all know the pain of scrolling through endless lines of unnecessary sentences, straining our eyes in a vain attempt to find out what the hell this person wants from us. Or we are successful (slash lazy) enough to delete or archive them if a quick scan doesn't reveal the point.

The problem is simple: we don't write well when we are given empty text boxes. You click "Compose" and up pops this blank field, ready for you to fill with your ramblings, digressions, and unsolicited opinions.

Eventually we get to the point, of course. Then we send the whole thing and hope for the best. That's why most of the bad emails you read (and write) are worthless until the last 20%.

Writing this way takes forever (i.e. productivity drops), is not likely to accomplish your goals (i.e. productivity drops), and can affect your relationships with coworkers (i.e. productivity drops).

The Facepalm Email

Recently one of my interns came up to me with a problem. He applied to an IBM internship a few months ago but never heard back. After several follow-up emails, he gave up and decided to look elsewhere.

"What did I do wrong?" he asked. "I really wanted this. I spent hours writing that email and couldn't believe he didn't send me back anything."

I asked him to send me a copy of it, which I printed out. All six paragraphs of it. The email must have been 800 words, easily.

I underlined the one sentence (buried in the fourth paragraph) where he asked for the internship, and then called him over. We had a long talk, resulting in him re-writing the email using a simple three-part format.

The result was about 150 words, and a new confidence that he would be able to get the internship next year. Plus anything else to which he applied.

The Perfect (or at least Much Better) Email

Like that intern, almost all of us write without structure. And if there is one thing we need for most of our emails, it's a structure.

Remember high school english? Beginning, middle, and end?

Well, nothing has changed. How you learned to write a three paragraph essay mirrors the structure of how you write a perfect work email. The result won't be Shakespearean by any stretch of the imagination, but that's not the point. This is about a systematic approach, not an artistic one.

A perfect work email is the one that accomplishes what you want. It doesn't matter how well it's written, or how many compliments you give to the other person.

Follow the three part format and you will write much better emails. Plus you'll write them way faster - what's not to love?

  1. Beginning: Give the reader context
    Consider this a framework for everything that follows. This is can be something as short as one line that says "As we discussed in yesterday's meeting, I am following up about . . ."
  2. Middle: Clearly ask the reader for what you need
    What the heck is the point of this email? The important thing here is to consider the value from the other person's perspective.
  3. End: Offer a path forward
    If the context and "ask" are aligned, you are almost there. Suggest the specific steps that need to be taken. Even if the person disagrees, he or she should suggest an alternative. Either way you are moving ahead!

This is pretty ingrained in me now, but there is a simple trick I use when an email requires a bit more attention. When you pull up the notorious empty draft email, type "Context:" on one line, "Ask:" on the next line, and "Plan:" on the last line. See below:

Then all you have to do is fill them in, add a greeting and signature, and the email is ready to go.

Good luck, and God Bless.