You've Got Mail

April 26, 2019


A terrible thing happened the other week. I was sitting in a lovely local bar, having a lively catch-up chat with my friend Chris, when I suddenly realized that my purse was no longer hanging over the back of my chair.

You can no doubt imagine my panic. I looked left. I looked right. Under my coat. Under the table. Back at the bar where we had ordered our drinks. Nothing. Nada. No purse in sight.

Of course, it wasn’t just my purse that was missing. It was pretty much my whole life: phone, wallet, credit cards, health card, a favourite pair of Lady Mary style black leather gloves, driver’s licence (complete with home address), and keys to front door at said home address.

Fearing the worst, I headed straight home. Sure enough, when I logged on to my bank account, I could see that the purse thief had wasted no time racking up multiple charges – at Tim Hortons, Starbucks, David’s Tea, convenience stores. Easily done with our “convenient” tap technology, but at least they weren’t on a spending spree at Tiffany’s or Apple. And as Chris somewhat wryly suggested, “maybe you helped feed a hungry person tonight.”

Charitable deeds aside, if you’ve ever lost your wallet, you’ll know what a hassle it is to put things right. (Not to mention expensive: $355 for a locksmith to change the lock on our front door.)

As you might expect, the credit card companies were soothing and immediately responsive. I had a new American Express card in record time. (Clearly, they don’t want me to miss a single shopping beat.) And Service Ontario was surprising good too. I had anticipated a long wait to replace my health card and driver’s licence, but the government was actually pretty fast and efficient.

Presto, on the other hand….Not so fast. Not so efficient. Definitely not soothing. In fact, the act of reporting my lost transit card only added to my anxiety.

Shortly after speaking to someone about the lost card, I received an email advising me that a “new credit card has been linked to your Presto account.” This confused me and threw me into another small panic. What did this mean? What credit card had been linked? Didn’t I cancel them all? What nefarious act was the purse thief up to now?

When I called Presto to clarify, I was told this was a “system-generated email.” Okaaay, I said, but I’m still confused. Why this particular message? How about a message saying, “We have cancelled your card and a replacement will be mailed to you in 10 days.” Or does Presto have only one standard system-generated email – a one-size-fits-all message which is sent to all and sundry, regardless of the issue? Don’t know was the helpful reply.

Despite speaking to three different customer service reps – and completing Presto’s customer service survey – I never did get a satisfactory answer. Eventually I just gave up. And I fully calmed down when I saw that there’d been no unusual activity on my Presto card. (Apparently, my purse thief did not require a getaway streetcar.)

Apart from the excellent how-not-to lesson in customer service, my Presto experience, and the “system-generated email” in particular, got me thinking about email messages and what makes them effective.

According to a McKinsey analysis, the average professional spends 28% of their work week reading and answering email. In a survey of 550 professionals, Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, found that people spend an average of 9.3 hours per week reading emails and another 6.4 hours a week writing them. However you measure it, that’s a helluva lot of emails flying around.  

With so much email cluttering up our inboxes and our lives, what are the chances that your message will be read? Or even opened?

Here are five tips that might help.

No. 1. Ask yourself why you are writing.

What is the purpose of your message? What do you need? Information? Approval? Comment? Or is the message simply an FYI?

Knowing why you are putting fingers to the keyboard will help you get straight to the point (always a good thing), and it will help you focus on crafting the message so it elicits the response you’re looking for – first time around.

No. 2. Take a quick moment to envision the recipient.

Even if you didn’t stop to ask yourself why you are writing, your recipient surely will. Consciously or subconsciously, the reader will be wondering, what’s this about? What has it got to do with me?

Also consider what you know about the recipient. Is she one of those busy executives who receives hundreds of email messages a day? Does she usually communicate in short, snappy, business-like phrases? Or does she like fully-crafted sentences and a few pleasantries? The answers will dictate both what you write (the content) and how you write it (the tone).

No. 3. Make sure your subject line is crystal clear.

Having identified your purpose, put this insight to good use. Use the email subject line to make it clear why you are writing and what you expect from the recipient. If you need information or input, say so. If your message is just an FYI, say that.
Subject lines like Matthews House Purchase or 360 Bay Street are vague. A person scanning their inbox can’t immediately tell if you are asking for information or help or merely providing an update.

You can also use the subject line to signal urgency as in, GRESB Report – Respond by Friday. Of course, I recognize that many emails are actually replies; by the time an email reaches you, the subject line has already been set - by someone else. We can only hope he or she has followed this advice.

No. 4. Get to the point.

As in all business writing, you should apply what Josh Bernoff calls “the Iron Imperative”: Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.  

Even when you have included a good, informative subject line, restate your purpose at the beginning of the message. Avoid the temptation to engage in too much introductory chit-chat. And instead of starting with “I know you’re busy…,” you could do the busy person a favour and jump right in with your ask.

(For more first lines to avoid, see this article by Jeff Haden at 11 First Sentences that Guarantee the Rest of Your Email Won't Get Read.)

No. 5. Format the email for maximum readability.

As with all effective, action-oriented business writing, use short sentences and short paragraphs. List attachments in bullet form – don’t embed them in a narrative, as this takes up valuable space.

Remember how people read emails: they scan and grab. Use headings and bold type to provide the reader with helpful signposts. And avoid putting text in parentheses – it can be easily glossed over or ignored outright.

If all this seems like a lot of work for one lousy email, well I guess it is. But the thing is, if you do it right, likely you’ll only have to do it once. You will boost your odds of getting the response you’re looking for, and you’ll spend less time following up because the recipient didn’t open your email, or opened but didn’t read it, or read only half of it, and therefore missed the crucial bits.

Then, again, you could travel back to 1995 and use that ancient two-way communication tool we call the telephone. Unless, of course, you’re trying to talk to Presto … then it’s best not to bother at all.

Remember this:

To break through the endless email clutter, make sure you know why you're writing, use a clear subject line, and get to the point.