If you want to connect with readers, pay attention to five things they want in an email.

Business professionals waste an enormous amount of time dealing with the same information two or three times because messages are poorly written the first time. The reader, unable to make sense of the communication, calls the writer and asks her to explain the issue on the phone (second time). Then he asks the writer to put it in an email message so he can print it out and save it for future reference (third time).

In most messages, whether they are email, formal memos, press releases, or reports, readers want five things:

  • A subject line that conveys the purpose of the message. One or two-word subject lines are of no value 99 percent of the time, because such few words tell the reader nothing. Like a news story headline or a good advertising tag line, a subject line succinctly conveys the essence of why you are writing. Question is not enough. Question about budget meeting agenda is much more useful. People are looking for a reason not to read your message, so if you want to fight through the clutter of someone’s inbox, be specific in the subject line.
  • A summary of your main points in the opening two or three sentences. Readers enter a message cold. Even with a good subject line, the reader still doesn’t know the specifics, so she needs context for why she received this. What’s the point? Why do we need to do this? What’s the time frame? are the types of questions the reader is asking. The first paragraph should answer them. Don’t get bogged down in details. Just pull up snippets of specific information from the body of your message so that the opening provides a snapshot of what is to come.
  • Tight writing. Be a demanding self-editor. Look for places to squeeze words that do not contribute to the main thought of your sentence. A lot of becomes many, in the process of isn’t necessary, in order to usually can be reduced to simply to. The more words you include, the more likely you risk smothering your core message.
  • Words they are familiar with. You’re not writing poetry or a novel, so readers don’t value mystery or double meanings. Buzzwords are boring and often vague. Technical language sometimes is necessary, but use a simpler substitute if you think the audience might not know the word. There is nothing wrong with simplifying language. This is business communication. Readers want to know what they need to know so they can move on to other things.
  • Writing that is free of grammatical errors. Grammar and punctuation errors are a distraction and sometimes confuse readers, which tarnishes your credibility. Asking someone else to read the message before you send it is wise. Grammar and punctuation guidelines are not like biomolecular chemistry. They are not difficult to comprehend. You might have to look them up a few times to familiarize yourself with them, but then you will commit them to memory. Care enough to look things up when you are not sure.

The great playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it actually happened. Corporate communications professionals and business writers: Ensure that it does happen. Pin these five elements next to your screen.


If you could benefit from learning to write in small spaces such as short email, blogs, and summaries, listen to this webinar Wednesday, March 23rd.

Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at Amazon.com.

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