As a Project Manager, you’re probably already fully aware of how important communication skills are in driving you towards successful project delivery. In this modern world, the amount of communication that we give and receive has simply exploded.
The written word remains a key form of communication – this comes in two main formats – most obviously, written documents such as papers, reports, presentations or updates. Then you have email, social media and instant chat which give you multiple routes or channels for regular communication with your team, your stakeholders and your customers.
It is a fast and convenient way of communicating and consuming information – but there is a high chance of miscommunication or misunderstanding if you are not using effective writing skills and techniques.
When you’re using these fast forms of communication, it is very easy to take some shortcuts and become a pretty casual in your approach – after all – it’s just one email right?
In fact, you should be extra careful when you’re writing these communications – you can’t get lazy and let your standard slip. It can be a real minefield and you’ll want to avoid the variety of mistakes that you can make.
This is, in fact, the biggest opportunity for improving your writing skills – and perhaps even your communication skills – as a Project Manager.
Do you need to learn to write a more effective email?
- Do you find yourself feeling frustrated that your emails just aren’t achieving your desired result?
- Have you ever send an email that perhaps you needed to check over first?
- Have you been frustrated or angry and sent that message that you regret?
- Perhaps you’ve forgotten to add that attachment.
- Have you realised your mistake as soon as a few seconds after pressing the send button – argh, why doesn’t that recall button work!
- Have you even seen that same email that you send too promptly pop back to you after someone has forwarded it on (probably with everyone’s manager copied in too)? How did it feel? I’m probably guessing that you felt pretty rubbish and wished you hadn’t sent it as it was.
So to help you with this key form of communication, I wanted to share some quick and actionable tips to help you write a more effective email. If you’re an action taker – assess as you read and commit to taking at least one of these techniques on board and start improving the emails that you write today.
1. What’s the point – why are you writing that email anyway?
The first step to writing an effective email is to understand why you are actually writing it. What do you want to achieve with it? How will this drive your project progress forward?
Once you understand the goals of sending an email, you can ask yourself if email is the best tool for the job.
(Oh, by the way, if you’re needing an urgent response or an urgent action to take place…. it’s probably not the right tool for getting the job done. However, it can be a useful way to follow up on a phone conversation with the agreed actions and decisions).
2. Who are you writing “To” – and who makes the cut for “CC”
Once you’re clear on why you’re writing the email you need to confirm exactly who you are writing to. One of email’s strengths is, of course, to include multiple people onto a communication. But this can be a downfall too.
If the number of people that you are sending “To” is too many then it can become confusing and people are more likely to misunderstand if you are asking them a question or assigning a task or action. If you’re including people in the CC field and you’re asking them to do something then it makes it likely that they’ll not realise – after all, by including them in the CC field you’re essentially saying that it is a “for your information” type email to help keep them in the loop.
To write an effective email, limit the number of people that you’re sending to. This allows you to personalise your emails and ensure the correct focus on the outcome – rather than just a blanket style broadcast for your own convenience.
You should also be very aware of the impact of adding someone’s manager to the CC field. It’s a great way to ruin relationships and make people feel worried. It also makes it look like you can’t deal with issues by yourself.
3. Subject lines that rock
This one is simple but super effective and can help you stand out in people’s inboxes.
Too often people’s email subjects are, well, weak. They don’t clearly explain what the email is about. They don’t clarify anything about urgency, importance or what needs to happen. This gives you the opportunity to stand out and make your emails effectiveness soar.
Your subject lines should be short and to the point – and relevant to who you are sending to
This will help your audience to manage their email – especially if they are reading on the go via a phone or tablet. Plus it will help with searching later on. This, in turn, will mean that your audience actually likes receiving your email as it is clear and easy to deal with.
Here are 4 top tips and examples of each to make your subject lines rock.
- Use a short summary of your whole email as the subject line. This will set the tone for the email and will ensure that your key point hits the mark and is clearly understood.
e.g. Latest trial data shows sales uplift of 1.2%
- Try including the recipient’s first name if you’re looking for them to do a specific action. This will stand out in their inbox and help to clearly communicate what it is you are looking for them to do with the email.
e.g. Adam, please can you provide feedback on the business case
- If you’re sending to a project stakeholder who may be part of many projects – particularly a senior stakeholder, you’ll probably want to make it clear what project you’re referring to which will again set the right tone but also make it easier for them to manage their overflowing inbox. Use square brackets to make your project name stand out.
e.g. [Project Alpha] Proposed trial stores requiring approval
- If you want to draw particular attention then you can also use square brackets to highlight this. This is especially useful if you are sending an email about an activity or task that needs to be done by the recipient.
e.g. [Action Required] Contract sign off needed by Friday
4. Make it convenient for them, not for you
When you’re writing the main body of your email, you should focus on customising it for your recipient. This will make your communication more familiar to them and will increase the likelihood of your message getting across.
Use the same type of language as they would use – try to look at the emails that they have sent to you and see what you can learn. It’s like the equivalent to mirroring body language but in written form. Doing this will make it accessible for them and they’ll love you for it.
As well as altering the language, you can also adapt the structure to your audience. Again, this makes it feel familiar and you have taken another step towards writing an effective email.
- If your recipient is an analytical type of person – then to them an effective email probably equals a well-structured email. Perhaps you could incorporate bullet points and numbered lists where relevant. Add data points to back up any conclusions.
- If they’re busy – keep it short and to the point.
- If they’re a friendly person – make sure you include a nice welcome and take the time to ask how they are. This will help reinforce the relationship with these people.
5. Check your spelling and grammar
It’s so easy to use a spell check tool now – but it’s also super easy to make typos, especially if you are writing quickly on a mobile. Take a few seconds and check that you’ve not made any typos and you’re using the right grammar. Making mistakes like this could mean that it impacts your personal brand and shows you as someone who makes mistakes and isn’t checking your work over. It can take some polish off your reputation.
Aside from the impact on your personal brand, it could also significantly change the meaning of what you’re writing. The example that put a smile on my face recently was to consider the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” vs “Let’s eat Grandma”.
6. Making the most of attachments
If you’re using an attachment…. Obviously, make sure it’s there before you press the send button!
Almost everyone has made that mistake before (I know I have!) so, as another step in writing an effective email, you should focus on building in a mental check that ensures you include the attachment that you’re referencing. If I need to include an attachment then I won’t write in anyone in the “To” box until I’ve attached it – this helps me remember to include it before sending. You could also get into a habit of attaching first before starting to write anything.
Another tip when using attachments is to make a specific reference to a particular point. This makes it meaningful and relevant for your recipient plus it guides them, very specifically, to what you need them to see or do. Too regularly people include attachments and it’s not clear to the recipient what they should do or what the relevance it. You’ll also get those occasions where someone sends a huge document – often a spreadsheet with loads of tabs, each on with a lot of information or data – if there is no reference then what exactly is that recipient meant to do with that? It can be more confusing than it is helpful.
For an effective email, make specific references to the attachments and make references within the attachments so someone knows what they are looking for and what they should do with that information.
e.g. please see the latest project business case attached – look at the Summary tab for the overview figures with the net benefit of £3.1m in cell F26.
e.g. check out slide 8 in the attachment which shows key feedback from the first phase of rollout – have you got anything further to add to this?
7. Get their name right – no excuses on this one
This is one of the cardinal sins of emails in my opinion. The name of your recipient is perhaps one of the most familiar and most important words in the whole world. In your email, it will jump out at them as a word they recognise and like.
BUT, if you get that name wrong then that makes you look like you just don’t care about them.
To make sure you do this right you can either: check how their name is spelt in the email system / corporate address book or using LinkedIn. If you’ve received an email from them before, just use the exact name and spelling that they use to sign off their email.
There is no excuse for this other than laziness and thoughtlessness.
These tips are all easy to implement TODAY so you’ll want to take action now. Like right NOW. Which of the above tips are you going to implement immediately to catapult the success of your project emails?
Have you got more tips to share? Comment below to add your tips and techniques for writing an effective email.