We’ve all been there, when we hit send and five seconds later wish we hadn’t.
And that’s more likely to happen if you operate in the middle of your company (i.e. those who have a boss and are a boss, and that sit at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal flow of information). As I illustrate in my new book, Leading from the Middle, A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, and Across the Organization, writing more influential e-mails is as simple as asking yourself five questions before hitting send. Try keeping these questions on a sticky note next to your computer screen as a reminder.
1. Will my reader instantly understand my goal in writing this email and why they’re receiving it?
State the reason for the email, right up front. If you can tie in the benefit to the reader for reading it, even better. Even better still if you can accomplish all of this in the headline.
2. Have I made it easy for the reader to be interested in what I have to say?
You can grab their attention by describing a problem they care about or promising a benefit that matters to them.
3. Have I put the core content of the email into digestible chunks?
This is a trick I learned in writing for Inc.com. Write the email as if it were going to be skimmed, which it probably will be.
4. Did I close the email being clear about the action requested and having made compliance desirable and easy?
Ensure there’s nothing left to block the reader from taking the action you want.
5. Is there redundancy or passive-aggressiveness in this email that can be removed?
These are the two biggest traps that destroy persuasiveness. Our speech patterns are repetitive in nature, and with email being the closest written proxy to how we speak (other than texts), it’s easy to fall into a repetitive speech-like pattern in your email. Catch redundancy and comb it out.
It’s also important to avoid the tendency to be passive-aggressive when trying to speed up the persuasion process. Research shows what follows are the top six passive-aggressive email phrases used that cause people to shut down versus opening up to be persuaded. I also suggest alternative phrases.
• “As per my last email…” This sounds like an accusation that the last email was ignored. Instead use “If you don’t mind my reinforcing a point I made before, only because it’s so important.”
• “Just a friendly reminder…” We both know you’re not trying to be friendly. Instead try “I honestly hate when people bug me about something, but I’m forced to be ‘that guy/girl’ here in reminding you that… because…”
• “Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood.” What you’re really saying here is “We both know you’ve got this wrong.” This one is the most disingenuous of all because the recipient knows you don’t think you have it wrong at all. Instead, write: “I honestly could have this wrong, but…”
• “Any updates on this?” If I were to open an email from you with this in it, I couldn’t help but picture you peering over the top of my cubicle with arms crossed, feet tapping, and a resting jerk face. Try this test: Say “Any updates on this?” out loud to yourself without sounding snippy. Impossible. Here’s an alternative: “I’m guessing you’re swamped–so, sorry to bug you, but what’s the latest on… It would help to know because…” Being brief in email is key so I’m not preaching verbosity in any of these alternatives, but this one requires a bit more couching.
• “According to my records…” This sounds formal and uptight. Is this a cross-examination or an email? Some alternatives: “I honestly could have this wrong, but from what I think I know…” or, “The way I see it is…”
• “Going forward I’d prefer…” “Going forward” presumptively says “You were wrong” and “I’d prefer” sounds passively dictatorial. Since you’re requesting a different action based on displeasure with the way something was done in the past, it’s best to pick up the phone on this one.
E-mail is influence – so you might as well use it persuasively, with these five tips.
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