Executive Email Effectiveness: Six Essential Steps

It was a big eye-opener for me.

I was circling back with a client of mine who hadn’t returned an important email. So, naturally, I went back to that email to pick up the train of thought, and there it stood.

Screaming at me.

No wonder he hadn’t responded. He probably hadn’t even read my email. I didn’t want to read my email either.

It was long, rambling, and pedantic, a wall of words that would never get read.

And it was then and there that I decided to apply a rigorous discipline to all my business email. I would write like the executive leader that I was: crisp, clear, and concise.

Here are six essential steps in that process:

STEP 1: Lead with a Strong Subject line

We know this, of course, but don’t fully grasp its implications.

Because of email apps, we process all our email—not by the content of the correspondence—but by the quality of the subject line. It’s the headline of story, and, depending on the strength of the headline, determines whether we keep reading.

So make your headlines clear and actionable. The formula is simple: one word + one statement.

Here are a few examples:

     REQUEST: Please approve final website copy by Wednesday, September 21

     REPLY: The Midwest Division’s input on sales bonus incentives for Q4

     UPDATE: Executive Team meeting agenda for Friday, October 4

Most business email is either a request, a reply, or the relaying of important information. You may have other words that you prefer; or may adapt the words above, as in SECOND REQUEST or READ AND REPLY.  I like putting them in caps to get the attention of my readers.

The second part of this formula, one statement, succinctly summarizes the email in a handful of words. It’s merely a shortened version of Step 3 below.

STEP 2: Start with a Short, Sincere Greeting

The people you are writing to, of course, are human beings. And good leaders acknowledge that fact in all interactions with their people. But these people are also very busy human beings. Starting an email, however well-intentioned, with a long, rambling salutation loses the attention of the reader.

A short, sincere greeting, however, keeps a personal touch and lets you get down to business.

Here are a few more examples:

     Good morning, Sara, great job on the vertical marketing roll-out.

     Hello, Mike. Another stellar sales quarter. Congrats to you and your team!

     Good afternoon, Dee. Thanks for your email inquiry.

Twelve or fewer words, that’s all you’ve got. Make ’em count.

STEP 3: Write a one Sentence Summary

This is the discipline that transformed my email the most. Forcing myself to summarize what I wanted to say in one sentence made me think, at the very outset, what this email was really about.

 Email Effectiveness Essentials

Here are some more examples:

  • Please find attached a first draft of the e-learning proposal you requested for your sales managers on executive execution. Highlights of this proposal are:
  • This is your official reminder of our next Executive Team meeting via WebEx on Friday, October 4 at 11:30 AM Pacific. Items on our agenda are:

Answer the standard questions you were taught in Writing 101. Who? What? Where? And when? And, yes, I know both examples above have two sentences, but the first sentence is the summary and the second sentence is the transition to the list, explained in the next step.

I always write my summary sentence first because it drives the content of the entire email. Then I edit it down to use in the subject line.

Can’t summarize your thoughts in one sentence? Then you don’t need to write an email, you need to have a conversation. Really. So write an email requesting a conversation. Email is for short, brief, succinct communication. Never send one when a live interaction is needed.

STEP 4: List Supporting Statements

After creating a summary sentence for your email, stop writing prose. Make a list.

Any paragraph that comes after your summary sentence will be a wall of words that will cause your reader’s eyes to glaze over in their head. A bulleted or numbered list, however, does this:

  • It creates white space on the page. That’s a good thing!
  • It quickly communicates key points.
  • It keeps the discussion on topic with the summary sentence.

Get it? Make sure the items, as with the list above, are crisp and clear. Practice pith with each point.

STEP 5: Close with a Specific Step of Action

You’re an executive leader and your job as an executive leader is to move the business forward. By extension then, your job in writing email is to do the same. Always close with the next immediate step that makes sense with what you’ve just written.

For example:

  • Let’s apply this template to our team’s internal email by Tuesday, October 15. Okay?
  • Please send me additional items you would like to see on the agenda by EOB Thursday, October 3. Thank you.

STEP 6: Use a Simple Signature

Drop your fancy signature line with colorful graphics and a handwritten autograph. Not only is that distracting, but you’ll get sent straight to junk mail by a spam filter. List your name, position, company, and basic information in straight type (add color if you must). Two to three lines max.

Put It All Together

Here’s what an email following this template would look like:

READ AND REPLY:  E-learning proposal first draft with follow-up meeting

Hello, Mike. Another stellar sales quarter. Congrats to you and your team!

Please find attached a first draft of the e-learning proposal you requested for your sales managers on executive execution. Highlights of this proposal are:

  • On-demand availability for greater flexibility for your international team
  • Application of the philosophy of teach fast, practice slow with short 15-minute podcast sessions and real-world learning exercises
  • Inclusion of our most popular module, Achieving Email Excellence as an Executive
  • Variable pricing options to meet budget considerations in Q1

Let’s schedule a 30 minute meeting to nail down details and a start date. Does Friday, October 4 at 8:30 AM or Thursday, October 10 at 3:30 PM work for you?

Here’s the Bottom Line:

Stop sending email that’s a wall of words that will never get read. Write email like the executive leader you are (or want to be).

Be crisp, clear, and concise.