“I’m convinced,” Stephen King says, “that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”
That’s especially true with emails. Because the words are in writing and therefore permanent (or as Count Rugen would say, for posterity), without thinking — or out of habit — many people add qualifiers to their emails.
Which makes them sound hesitant. Unsure. Indecisive. Wishy-washy. And turns what could have been a powerful message into something far less.
Next time you write an email, take a second to change or delete the following words:
An employee spots a quality problem and asks you to make a decision. Compare these two responses:
- “I think we need to re-run that order.”
- “Re-run that order.”
Both convey the same basic message: You think the order should be re-run. Adding “I think” makes it sound like the decision is up for debate. Or that you’re unsure. Or maybe you’re subtly seeking input.
Or that you’re hedging, because you’re worried you’ll be wrong.
Want to re-run the order? Just say so.
What’s your first reaction when someone writes, “I just need five minutes of your time”? If you’re like me, you assume you’re going to be sold, and that five minutes will actually be more like 20.
Instead of making a request sound quick or easy by using “just,” instead think like a marketer. Explain the benefits. Describe what’s in it for the other person. Help me want to spend that five minutes with you. In short, don’t try to convince me with how long — explain why.
The same is true for requests or directions. Saying a task will “just take 5 minutes” sounds like you’re trying to soften the blow.
Instead of diminishing importance by writing “just,” prove the importance by explaining why.
Or by simply leaving “just” out.
Sometimes you really are guessing. A sales forecast is a guess. A churn rate projecting is a guess. No matter how comprehensive the underlying data, anything you attempt to predict is still a guess.
Even writing “best guess” still sounds soft, like you’re pulling numbers or results out of thin air.
Instead, use projection. Estimate. Forecast. Calculation. Even expectation (which will naturally make people want to meet).
In short, use a word that conveys you’ve assessed the past and present to forecast the future.
Because otherwise you really are just guessing.
“Need” conveys importance and urgency — but also dependency.
A better approach? Substitute a polite word. Instead of, “I need you to complete the order by the end of the day,” write, “Please complete the order by the end of the day.” Or, “Thanks in advance for completing the order by the end of the day.”
(Side note: closing an email with “thanks in advance” is the top-ranked phrase in terms of getting people to respond.)
Granted, some things are important… and others are very important.
But writing, “It’s very important that your department improves its safety results…” sounds like you’re trying to convince me.
Leave out superfluous adjectives like “very,” “highly,” or “extremely.” If you feel you need to stress severity or criticality or seriousness, use data and reason instead.
When you want something to get done, including a few adjectives will rarely motivate or inspire.
Sharing the logic behind the decision or action — turning a directive into a shared mission — definitey can.