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Business Emails That Get Answered

May 19, 2019 | 11m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • Structure and write emails that will get you what you need from your colleagues and clients
  • Learn what to write and what NOT to write, to ensure that your writing is professional and efficient
  • Understand how keeping the bigger picture in mind and writing for context and audience will enhance your emails


Clear and Concise Communication

Grande caffè latte. Extra shot. No foam, with a caramel swirl and chocolate sprinkles.

On your early morning coffee run, you want things to run like clockwork. You enter Starbucks, stand in line, say the magic words and receive your coffee. You want your coffee made just as you asked.

It’s always much easier to put it out there correctly the first time, rather than to backtrack later and try to explain what you meant. Likewise, writing clear and concise emails without ambiguity is essential in virtually all industries and situations. If you get it right from the start, you, and your colleagues or clients, won’t have to deal with the myriad issues that can follow poor communication in the business world.

Thus, good writing is not merely a theoretical exercise for grammar pedants. To understand why, think about the problems that poor writing causes:

  1. It will cost you or your company business. Your clients or customers won’t buy products or services that they can’t understand.
  2. It wastes time. You will waste your time, and that of your recipients, rewriting or explaining unclear messages. Worse still, a confused recipient may take the wrong action in response to your message, requiring him or her to do the work again, which may result in a missed deadline or unnecessary delay in your desired outcome.
  3. It will undermine you, your team, and your company. If your recipients consistently receive from you emails that are unfocused, unclear, or rife with jargon or irrelevant details, you will lose their trust.
  4. It is dangerous. Especially in situations in which you must communicate the correct or best course of action, such as in legal, regulatory, or safety matters, any confusion or ambiguity can have dire consequences.
  5. It will cause your readers to focus more on the form of your communication than the substance. The impact of your good ideas will be lost if your readers must sift through poor writing to find them.

In my leadership role in tax compliance for a large bank, part of my job is to ensure that the department communicates our messages to the wider organisation promptly, concisely, and without ambiguity. I frequently get involved in the writing and editing of my subordinates’ emails because I have seen the havoc caused by unclear or ambiguous communication.

When you order coffee, you expect to receive exactly what you have ordered. The same applies to the replies you receive from the recipients of your email messages. Just as you would not expect your barista to intuit your order, you should not expect your recipients to be mind readers. If you find yourself thinking about your reader, ‘he must have known what I meant,’ it’s likely that your writing is unclear or ambiguous and it’s not your reader’s fault. It’s time to review how you structure and write your email messages.

Rant over. Where should you begin?

Start With the End in Mind

Start each message or document by thinking about why you are writing it. What is the point of the email? Who needs to read it? How much background information or detail does the recipient need? Do not unnecessarily copy the world or to burden your reader with unnecessary details. Always start with your audience and purpose in mind.

“Once you know why you’re writing the email, then the structure can begin to take shape.”

What message do you want to send? What’s the ultimate outcome? What do you expect your recipient to do? Are you confirming or memorialising the details of a meeting or discussion, providing information to your reader, or do you really want your recipient to take action? Before you type your first word, you must know what you want your email to achieve.

Here are a few points to ponder:

  1. Don’t be vague. Articulate your key message or request clearly, and do so early in the email; your reader shouldn’t have to search for it or guess.
  2. Use the active rather than the passive voice. Use shorter paragraphs and sentences, and ‘smaller’’ words. Use more nouns, fewer adjectives, and fewer adverbs. (More on style later)
  3. If you find that you are struggling to convey your key points clearly, stop and spend more time structuring before you resume writing..
  4. Remember to write for your reader. If your reader is well-versed on the topic, you needn’t provide as much background information. If you’ve had many dealings with your client, your messages should demonstrate your understanding of his or her needs, objectives, and concerns. If you need your superior to make a decision, include only the relevant information he or she needs to make it, and provide your recommendations clearly and unambiguously. (More on this in the next section)

If you do not clearly articulate the issue or desired outcome, you cannot expect your recipient to match your expectations. By starting with the end in mind, you can write emails that will communicate what you need to achieve.

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Michael Brevetta

Former Head of tax compliance

Standard Chartered



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