Writing emails with military precision makes them highly effective and more likely to get the response you need quickly.
Use a Keyword in Your Subject Line
The first thing your recipient sees of your email, whether it’s on a desktop computer, a mobile device or even in a notification, is your subject line. Use a keyword that states the purpose of the email. For example:
- ACTION: This signifies the recipient is required to take action.
- SIGN OFF: Useful if your boss is your recipient and you need them to sign an attachment or sign off something.
- INFO: Your email contains information only, and no action is required.
- DECISION: You need your recipient to make a decision.
- REQUEST: Unlike SIGN OFF, which you would probably only use with your boss, this can be used to signify a request made to anyone.
- COORD: Your email required your recipient to coordinate something, or to coordinate with you.
Give it a go. The next time you need to get your boss to sign off your annual leave form, use SIGN OFF – Annual Leave form. If you are circulating a new policy, try INFO – New HR Policy published. This may seem obvious, but without these keywords, the purpose of your email is not obvious to your recipient until he or she opens the body of the email. With these keywords, your recipient is more likely to open (and not ignore) an email where they can see from the subject line they are required to do something (e.g. ACTION: or SIGN OFF:) but it gives them the ability to postpone looking at an email that’s headed INFO: for example. Your busy colleagues will thank you for this!
Begin with the Bottom Line
Have you ever received an email that goes on for page after page with background information, only to find out the purpose of the email in the last line? Frustrating, isn’t it? So start your emails with the bottom line. If your bottom line is in the first paragraph then your recipient can quickly digest the action they need to take or the information they need.
Here’s an example I sent recently:
Subject: INFO – Worship Meeting Plans for Sunday 30 October
Bottom Line: Worship Meeting plan attached for this week.
- Huge thanks to Rob (16 Oct) and the Songsters (23 October) for leading worship in my absence.
- All your contributions to worship are much appreciated by the corps and by me.
The recipients know that no action is required because the email is marked INFO. The bottom line makes it easy to grasp the nature of the email. The background information that follows (which may not be relevant to all recipients) fills in the details behind the bottom line.
Keep It Short
Short emails are more effective than long ones. Keep sentences short. Use the active voice. If you need to include a lot of information, then use bullet points. It makes it easier to digest.
Use Links, Not Attachments
Finally, rather than attaching documents (which take up valuable server space) use links instead. Use a service like Dropbox or iCloud Drive that allows you to share attachments. This means when the recipient opens the document it will be the most up-to-date version. They can choose whether or not to download it to their server.
For many leaders and workers, email is their work. So it pays to make it as effective as possible. This post is based heavily on the post, How to Write Email with Military Precision by Kabir Sehgal which I first read on Harvard Business Review in November 2016. I was struck by just how relevant his suggestions are in a Salvation Army, quasi-military environment. So I adopted his military email etiquette straight away.
I must admit though, that I’ve slipped away from his principles. This post has reminded me to put them back into practice!