With inboxes bursting at the seams, how do you get busy people to open and read your emails? How can you help them remember what you said? Better still, how can you encourage them to respond the way you want?

Open sesame

4660273582_167a3fbeceI like to call email the mother of social media because it’s far more interactive and often more personal than traditional formal memos. The email has to come from you, rather than an organization, department or project, because it’s social.

Many people first open those from important clients or colleagues, move onto friends and family then to emails they have subscribed to. Notice SPAM and unsolicited content are not on this list. Email that’s read, remembered and responded to is permission-based.

After opening your email because it’s from you, your recipients look at the subject line to decide whether to continue reading immediately. If it’s littered with FWs or REs, they will not feel special. They may yawn.

So replace this with a subject line that summarizes the point of your email, tailored specially for the person or people it’s intended for. For example, What you need to do before the Friday meeting or 3 ways you can take charge of your pension plan.

Keep reading

Because the first paragraph is all many people will read, you need to summarize your main points and how they affect your recipients. For example: At this Friday’s meeting, we will brainstorm how we can increase sales through mobile technologies. I encourage you to do some research and thinking and come prepared with ideas to share. Or To give you more control over your retirement savings, we will be introducing more choices in March. Here are the three most important changes and what they will mean to you and your family.

Now that your readers know what the email is about and what’s in it for them, you can expand on your main points in a few paragraphs.


To help your readers remember, your message has to stand out from all the other information they absorb through emails and other communication every day.

Here’s how you can help:

1.       Bulleted or numbered lists

For example, you could provide a bulleted list of mobile apps to consider or the three issues they need to consider about their pension plan changes.

2.       Plain language

Don’t use geek talk to impress them about your knowledge of mobile technologies. Don’t fling terms like “vested pension contributions.” Unless you’re communicating expert to expert, use the simple language you would use in a one-on-one conversation.

3.       Visual cues

If the topic of your email has a visual element that will reinforce your message, for example a simple logo for your benefits plan, include it.

You can also help them remember by emphasizing your main point with subheads or bolded text.

4.       Repetition

You need to state your main point in the first paragraph, expand on it in the body and repeat it in the final paragraph. To keep readers awake, rephrase it each time. For example, you can quickly summarize in your intro, then bring your main point to life in the body with a metaphor your readers can relate to or a personal anecdote. You can expand on the benefits to the reader in the final paragraph.

5.       Catchy phrases

Although this might sound hokey in some businesses, catchy phrases, like effective advertising slogans, will stick in people’s minds.

To come up with one, try similar sounds, such as the three Rs, (read, remember, respond) or rhymes, as in the Weight Watcher’s slogan: “Bite it, write it.”

Or you could try organizing words under an acronym, such as FAST (Face Act Streamline Test).

6.       Concise

Show respect for your busy readers by keeping your email as concise as you can. The less they have to dig through and remember, the more likely they are to retain your key points.

For people who want more information, insert links.

By planning what you’re going to say before you start to write your email and later trimming your first draft, you can compose sharp emails. Don’t skip this vital part of the email writing process if you want people to read, remember and respond to your emails.


You need to state, in the introductory paragraph, body and conclusion, the specific action you want your readers to take. This may be a longer-term action, such as coming up with sales ideas or talking to their partner about their retirement plans.

If you need an immediate response, state that clearly, in the subject line too. Asking for an immediate response will also help them remember your main point. For example, you could suggest that they start researching mobile apps or thinking about how they want to spend their retirement today.

If you want to keep the conversation rolling, end with a question. If you’re writing to an individual you know, this can be an upbeat, social question, such as how was your weekend or have you enjoyed today’s good weather. Don’t do this with large groups or you’ll look like a phony.

But if your question is sincere, this answer will not only confirm the email was read through, but will also help you build relationships.

Unless you work in a very formal culture, don’t sign off with “best regards” or other expressions that hark back to formal memos.

A friendly catch phrase, such as “cheers,” “have a great day” or “thanks” offers more warmth. Better still, come up with a unique personal signoff.

Don’t start with friendly chatter, because busy people want to know whether they should continue reading. But you can connect with friends with some banter at the end.

Give your reader the choice of how to respond. In your email signature, include your phone number and other contact information, so they can decide whether they want to email, tweet, Skype or whatever.

Emails that are clear, targeted and friendly are more likely to be read, remembered and responded to. As I say in my online business writing course, extra words may not cost you money, but they cost your readers valuable time.

Bonus: Sharp emails will also support your organization’s productivity and performance by ensuring that people don’t squander precious time on rambling emails. More importantly, they’ll clearly understand what’s going on and how they can contribute.

What are your email writing tips?

Thanks for the image.

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The 3 Rs of email writing: read, remember and respond
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10 thoughts on “The 3 Rs of email writing: read, remember and respond

  • April 17, 2013 at 8:15 am

    I agree with much of what you said, Barb, but not this: “After opening your email because it’s from you, your recipients look at the subject line to decide whether to continue reading immediately.”

    I think people are more likely look at both sender and subject line BEFORE opening. If the subject line does its job, as you outline it, the reader will know if it’s urgent or appealing and will act accordingly. The senders who can count on having their emails opened no matter what the subject line are usually family and friends, not marketers.

  • April 17, 2013 at 8:28 am

    I should have accounted for you Mac folk. The way I have my Outlook set up, I don’t see the subject line till after I’ve opened. If it’s from a marketer, it’s someone I’ve subscribed to or spam. The marketers who deliver quality content usually get opened right after family and friends. Even so, I will read the subject line before deciding to continue reading.Thanks for sharing your insight.

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