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Cut your email into three chunks for better digestion

Photo Credit: 27147 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: 27147 via Compfight cc

Travis, a former student who now works as an IT consultant, asked for a summary of what we taught him about developing and organizing content in emails ’cause he wants to share it with his project leaders. (Seems they had asked him how he knew what the majority of new grads don’t.)  Although I’ve written here about email requests and different aspects of organizing content, I couldn’t find a single post to meet his needs.  So I whipped up this one.

Let me start by showing you an announcement I recently received at work. It was NOT easy to digest.

This message was a blob I couldn’t begin to swallow. I mean I could read the words. It had well-formed sentences. It had three short paragraphs. But I had no clue what it meant. Because it was sent by a top administrator, I felt some obligation to figure it out. I actually read the entire message. And I talked to fellow employees. No one had a clue. Most had simply trashed the message without reading more than the first few words.

Note the problem isn’t one of brevity. The announcement was brief.

Here’s a revised version of the announcement I’ll use to describe the three chunks needed to help your readers digest an email easily.

Chunk #1: State your bottom line message clearly as an obligatory appetizer.

The bottom line message in the revised version of the announcement is stated early. And twice.

  1. Subject line: Directions for Office of Internal Audit Requests for All University Employees
  2. First sentence: I want to clarify the role of the University’s Office of Internal Audit on our campus and direct all University employees to cooperate with their staff fully.

The first chunk of your email must establish your purpose in communicating with your readers. Stating it clearly requires that you can actually verbalize it before you hit the send button. The critical problem with the original announcement was that it did not explicitly state the bottom line message. There was a required chunk of information missing entirely!

Stating the bottom line in the first chunk of your email requires you to take responsibility for making the message easier for your readers to digest. Even if the writer had included a bottom line message at the end of the original announcement, it would have created indigestion. Believe it or not, there are few situations when a delay in stating your bottom line is warranted.  (See the video tutorial on placement of the bottom line for more help.)

Chunk #2: Provide details or other information supporting your bottom line as the main course.

The details in the revised announcement are nearly identical in content to the original. The details about cooperation for all employees appear in one paragraph. The details about cooperation for all managers appear in a separate paragraph. The content here is brief. But you can provide a load of detail in the second chunk of your email if you make it easy for readers to skim and scan. (See the video tutorial on format for help.) The more complex the second chunk is, the more important it is to provide a wrap-up, further analysis, justification, or something else to tie the details together.

In the revised announcement, I also altered the writer’s style from the original to make it more personal. I couldn’t stop myself.

  • Original bureaucratic tone: University personnel are expected to collaborate with the Office of Internal Audit during an audit review.
  • Revised personal tone: As a University employee, you are expected to collaborate with the Office of Internal Audit during an audit review.

That personal tone is more likely to succeed if you want readers to interpret what you have to say as directions. (See the video tutorial on tone for more on this topic.)

Chunk #3: Include a call to action for dessert.

Readers of the original announcement received nothing after their main course. Readers of the revised email received just a little something as the third chunk of the writer’s message.  Call it lagniappe. They were thanked. And they were told where to go if they had questions.

This chunk isn’t strictly necessary in a downward message like the announcement email (where the writer has more power relative to the readers). But it makes sense to create goodwill that may help you get readers to pay attention to what you say in the future. After all, the language you use with subordinates determines whether they will follow you.

The original announcement was not easily digested because it used three paragraphs, but not the three-chunk format. Thanks to Travis for requesting this summary guidance for writing emails. We’re delighted he’s not the cause of indigestion in his workplace . . . Oh, how we LOVE confirmation that we’re teaching the right stuff!

Research Support

If you’re interested in the research that backs up our guidance, you could start with the following.

Fielden, J.S. & Dulek, R.E. (1984). How to use bottom-line writing in corporate communications. Business Horizons, July-August, pp. 25-30.

Evans, S. (2012). Designing email tasks for the Business English classroom: Implications from a study of Hong Kong’s key industries. English for Specific Purposes, 31, pp. 202-212.

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