Your guide to writing impossible-to-ignore e-mails

22 May 2016

Email

— Photo courtesy: Creative Commons
— Photo courtesy: Creative Commons

Most, if not all, of the time we really don’t pay attention to outbound e-mails. We safely assume that our recipient will open our e-mail, read it till the end, understand everything and figure out what we want to hear in response.

Is that true?

Are our e-mails meeting our objectives, or do you find yourself frustrated by the lack of responses, and — if you’re lucky enough to get one — the poor quality of them?

The fact of the matter is: as senders, we have the greater responsibility of making sure we communicate properly in the first place, rather than relying on the receiver to figure everything out for themselves.

As the co-founder of PriceOye.pk — a start-up which helps you find the lowest prices for products sold online in Pakistan — I’ve written hundreds of e-mails over the past few months. I’ve cold e-mailed CXOs, VPs, writers at popular websites, power users of related services and more.

Through all of it, I’ve learned some great lessons which I would like to share with you.


Pro-tips for writing e-mails


1. Hone your subject lines

Consider this: important people get dozens — some get hundreds — of e-mails everyday. When they’re scrolling down their inbox, they’re literally skimming over subject lines and making split-second decisions to open e-mails based on the quality of the subject line.

See: Email etiquette: Minding manners

The most common mistake people make is using lazy subjects for their e-mails.

For starters, you definitely don’t want your subject left blank. Instead, you must write something that instantly draws their curiosity.

I’ve had great success with these subject lines or reaching out to industry leaders for PriceOye.pk related work:

● "Thank you!"

Reaction: What are they thanking me for? I’d better open this e-mail and check.

● "Bilal, we’ll drive down to Lahore to meet you — you’re doing amazing work”

Reaction: Whoa! This guy thinks I’m amazing. I wonder what he has to say.

● "Congratulations on your achievement, Bilal! ☺

Reaction: Oh look, an emoji!

If your recipient is young and understands emojis, it's an excellent idea to use them to really make your e-mail stand out.

These are just a few examples that worked for me. You should change them to suit your context.

2. Keep your e-mails brief

Use the KISS principle: keep it simple and short.

With no character limits or cues in desktop e-mail apps (unlike, say, Snapchat or Twitter), one can end up needlessly explaining every detail. These days, e-mail is largely read on the go owing to smartphones with tiny displays, and so long ones often get ignored.

Take a look: Email writing and etiquettes

Limit each paragraph to two to three sentences, and then apply the same to the number of paragraphs in your e-mail.

My own e-mails tend to have three sections — greetings and introduction, background context and request for action — followed by a cordial ending.

Explore: Techno tricks: Email etiquettes

The request for action is crucial, otherwise your recipient won’t know what you want from them. Don’t be shy: be clear and upfront.

I would even recommend bolding it. You’ll save time and effort for everyone involved in the e-mail thread.

3. Nail the introduction

Too often, I see e-mails being ignored because senders simply keep yapping about themselves. It’s fairly off-putting when you read such pretentious e-mails.

Instead, you want to start your e-mail by showing that you respect their time, and what they've achieved in life.

Keeping that in mind, I have had great success with cold e-mails where I begin with honest and sincere appreciation. It’s easy — you are e-mailing a successful person for a reason, right? Tell them about it!

Take the time to look into your recipient’s professional history on LinkedIn, or perhaps their personal website — cite a particular achievement or characteristic that drew you to contact them.

It’s important to be honest about it, as fake compliments are easily detected and can leave a bad first impression.

I learned this from Dale Carnegie’s 'How To Win Friends and Influence People'. It’s an amazing self-help book, which will drastically improve your social skills. I strongly recommend it not just for improving your e-mails, but all aspects of your personal communication.

4. If you don't solicit a response, follow up

The first e-mail I send out is rarely ever replied to, especially when sent to busy folks. A vast majority of responses come only after I’ve made my first follow-up, with a lower but still appreciable number of responses coming with successive follow-ups.

Follow-up e-mails are usually just a couple of sentences long. I sometimes keep it to a simple: Hey, did you get the chance to read my e-mail?

What’s more important is the gap between follow-ups.

I recommend using the principle of exponential back-offs. Time each successive follow-up to be roughly double the number of days you waited the last time.

So, for example, I send my first follow-up two days after the initial e-mail. If I don’t get a reply, I send a more detailed follow-up e-mail five days later. Then I try again after another 10 days. Then maybe after a month depending on how long I can take the ego hit that comes from not getting any reply for such a long period of time.


To excel in both your professional and personal life, it is necessary to have polished digital communication skills, of which written communication on e-mail is widely considered to be #1.

By applying the aforementioned pro-tips, your e-mail communication will become instantly clear, and more persuasive.

Start today and you will reap the benefits for a lifetime.