How do you like your e-mails?


Short, sweet, direct + to the point?

Warm and friendly, opening with a nice greeting and closing with a cheery good-bye?

Or long, detailed, and packed full of data, facts and other useful information?

Chances are that the way you typically write and like to receive e-mails is closely related to your individual personality style and, in the case of business correspondence, the culture of the organization in which you work. Which can be fine if you're only corresponding within your own organization with people who share your personality style preferences.

What happens, though, when you have to communicate with someone who doesn't share your preferences or cultural context? Someone in a different part of the organization, with a different personality style, or someone working in a different country who speaks a different native language? What do you do in those cases to make sure that your e-mail message is received and understood in the way you intended?

I think that the same basic principles that apply to good marketing and effective presentations are useful here too:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Put yourself in their "shoes" and imagine the context in which they may be reading your e-mail: on their Blackberry while walking to a meeting, at their desk as the 10th in a pile of 100 messages in their in-box, or at home after their kids have gone to bed. 
  3. Clarify what you want them to do in response to your e-mail.
  4. Write to connect with them: considering their perspective, speaking in language that they understand, and addressing their needs.
  5. Clearly articulate what you need from them in response and when you need it and why (e.g. what's in it for them).

If you're communicating with someone who speaks a different language, then eliminating extra words, avoiding slang, and using visual cues (bullet points, numbers, or colorful, bold type) can all be helpful.

If you're communicating with someone you know well, a friendly greeting may be just the right way to start your e-mail.

Sometimes a very brief, urgent, direct message is absolutely the way to go.

There's no magic formula for the perfect e-mail, especially when you're communicating across cultures, time zones and language barriers, but starting from the recipient's point of view will almost always increase the odds that your intended message will be received and understood.

This article was first published on Ann Marie's Blog in 2011