Spotlight on Email: Tips for Writing a Message That Cuts Through

I have received the same question from several executive clients recently … “Is email still a good way to communicate with my employees?” Valid and appropriate question given the rise of emails people are receiving and sending on a daily basis. It’s important to know how to cut through the clutter with relevant, prioritized messages. From our perspective, email is still a viable tool as long as it is used strategically. This depends on your target audience and how this diverse group receives and uses email along with a host of other communications. It depends on what type of message you need to deliver. It also depends on what type of action you require as a result of your communication.

Let’s start with how your audience uses email. I have seen varying statistics on this, but it seems a range of 35-40% of people open email based on the subject line alone. As we have worked with companies and leaders over the years, we find that there’s a strong “What’s in it for me?” element to making the decision to open an email. Beyond just opening it, there’s an even greater “What’s in it for me?” driver for making the decision to read just a portion of or the entire email. We worked with a client recently who told us they had learned and validated that the majority of their 20,000+ employee population was not taking time to read emails from c-level leaders in their entirety. After evaluating these communications, we helped them determine that they needed to change both the cadence and content of their email messages. Their cadence was too frequent to include “newsworthy” information. Their content needed to be divided among the company’s intranet on various pages. It also needed to be adjusted to give predictable sections and headlines so that people could skip around and find areas of interest. We also helped them “brand” their leadership emails with banners so that recipients could make a quick connection between the content and the leader. Tone and word choice were adjusted to convey secondary messages with the audiences. As a result of these changes, readership improved as did retention of the information.

Radicati Group reported that there were 294 billion emails sent daily in 2010, 2.8 million per second, or 90 trillion annually. While much accounts for spam, there’s no doubt that the sheer amount of emails is massive. It’s important to get the message right if you want to cut through clutter in this space not just once, but on a consistent basis. For leaders, we coach that timing and content is everything in effective emails. Most good messages feature a regular, predictable cadence (weekly, quarterly, etc.) and contain messages intended to “inform” or motivate a particular feeling or sentiment. For those who have worked with our team at Winning Presence, you know that we design communications plans around a predictable trajectory that begins with knowledge and concludes with action. It’s a combination of tactics that lead to action, not email alone*. As a result, content should be brief, in priority order, and using headlines, section headers, photos or embedded video whenever possible. When writing, challenge yourself. What content can wait until my next email? What content belongs in another vehicle or other tactic? What content should not be delivered by email, but might warrant a team meeting? For instance, it’s typically best to discuss significant change or negative information in person or by a webcast and make time for dialogue. Many people rely on email for sharing (or embedding) news that they are uncomfortable sharing in person or in a dialogue setting. This is never a winning scenario, and it erodes trust. (*Note: Marketing emails are an exception to this rule because people generally know and believe in the brands from which they purchase online. We aren’t addressing email marketing here.)

In any communications plan, email is likely only one way in which leaders communicate with their target audiences. Plans typically include live presentations, informal and formal dialogue, social media, e-books, video messages, web chats, instant messages, brown bag lunches for discussion, and the list goes on. Email, if used alone, will typically not achieve impressive outcomes. Include email communication as part of a holistic, strategic plan that offers your audience a variety of different options for hearing from and interacting with you.

Finally, be open to measuring success. Ask your audience whether your emails are achieving what you — and they — want and expect. We always begin good communications with the end in mind. So ask yourself and your audience, “Did we achieve what we set out to achieve?” Then, based on what you learn, make adjustments so you can be most effective.

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Spotlight on Email: Tips for Writing a Message That Cuts Through

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