Boost your eQ (email intelligence)

You may know your IQ (intelligence quotient) and maybe even your EQ (emotional intelligence), but what about your eQ?

Email intelligence is a quotient that’s little known and seldom measured . . . well, make that not known and never measured, since I’ve basically just made up the term. But even though eQ doesn’t really exist, we know when someone has it. When we get an email from a high-eQ correspondent, we read it quickly and easily, we understand the main points and we know how or if we should respond. When we get an email from someone less gifted, the reading becomes more arduous.

According to plain language specialist Michel Gauthier, who has studied email in the workplace, here are the leading complaints:

  • Too much low-level and untargeted information
  • Unclear purpose
  • No logical structure
  • Too long
  • Too difficult to understand
  • Key information difficult to find

If you boost your eQ by learning a few email pointers, you’ll rise above all these pitfalls.

Maximize the subject line

The subject line is the lure. Word it well and recipients will begin reading with a clear idea of what the message contains. The trick is to make the subject line specific while keeping it short, and to tell your readers how the email relates to them. Otherwise, they may assume the message is a general FYI and hit delete.

Besides announcing the email’s content, the subject line should, if possible, alert readers to any action required.

  • NO Survey information
    YES Draft survey attached: review by Jan. 9
  • NO Organizational change
    YES New staff join us next week
  • NO Christmas party
    YES Please contribute to our Christmas potluck

Begin with a bang

Crafting a precise, reader-oriented subject line is the first step toward giving your email a clear purpose. The second is to announce your key message(s) at the beginning.

Doesn’t this just duplicate the subject line? Not really. Think of the subject line as your knock on the door. Once the reader opens up, you still have to say why you’ve come calling. State the purpose of your email up front, in the opening paragraph or two.

To do this, you need to have defined your purpose beforehand. Ask yourself why you’re writing. Are you informing the reader of a situation? If so, begin with "For your information . . ." (or "FYI," if your reader knows the shorthand), then state the main topic, then follow with the details. Are you asking the reader to do something? If so, start with the request, then fill in the supporting information and background.

If there’s a time line associated with your email—especially if the reader needs to review something, reply or take action by a certain day—don’t bury the date at the end of the email. If you do, the reader may glance at the opening, file your email for later and miss the deadline.

Ditch the optional details

Nothing tests a reader’s patience like irrelevant information. Once again, how your email begins is crucial. Many writers feel compelled to lead their reader on a gentle, meandering path to the main point and always begin at the beginning (chronologically speaking), with background information. The trouble is, background details are meaningless, and often irritating, to a reader who doesn’t know why they’re being supplied.

State your purpose clearly, then add only those details the reader needs to understand the email. Use hyperlinks and attachments to provide background, charts and other supporting details that are too in-depth for the email itself.

Be clear and concise

Clear and concise writing is a must for emails, perhaps more than for any other type of writing. Given how many workplace emails people get (an average of 54 a day, says Christina A. Cavanagh in her 2004 paper "Email in the Workplace: Coping with Overload") and how little time they have to read them, the risks are plain—a long email may not get read.

How long should your email be? Common wisdom says no more than one screen length.

Curb connectors

Avoid using phrases to make connections. Simple prepositions and conjunctions do the job better.

  • NO with regard to, in connection with, on account of the fact that, in the event of
  • YES about, on, because, if

Pass on passives

Passive voice is not only wordier than active, it’s also less clear.

  • NO It is recommended . . . A decision has been made . . .
  • YES We recommend . . . We have decided . . . The decision is . . .

Minimize modifiers

Delete non-essential modifiers such as very, highly, slightly, greatly and somewhat. If the modifier adds an important nuance, consider switching to a more precise word.

  • very important = crucial
  • highly focused = concentrated
  • slightly worried = concerned

Consider contractions

Contractions cut word count and remind the reader that there’s a real person—approachable, readable, persuasive—behind the @ symbol. Use your judgment, though. Contractions may be too breezy for formal emails.

Shrink sentences

Keep each sentence to one main idea, plus maybe a supporting idea. Anything longer and a busy reader will lose the thread.

Pare down paragraphs

Email paragraphs should be shorter than their print-based counterparts. Run-on text with nary a pause gives the impression that your material is dense and hard to read. Three to four sentences maximum is a good length.

Use headings and lists

Just like a peruser of print documents, an email reader needs help focusing on key information. Headings and lists (numbered or bulleted) quickly convey what your main points are. And they show where your main points are, an important plus for emails that readers might refer to again in the future.

Use headings and lists together with forecasting statements, and readers will know exactly where they’re headed. For example, if you’re writing to ask the reader three questions, say:

  • I have three questions for you.

Then list the questions, numbered 1, 2, 3. This allows the reader to mentally tick off each question when replying.

If your content doesn’t lend itself to a numbered list, try linking the forecasting statement to headings. For example:

  • At the meeting we’ll discuss two topics: our upcoming retreat and our quarterly budget.

Then use the headings "Upcoming Retreat" and "Quarterly Budget" to structure the information that follows.

Be clear about follow-up

Follow-up actions are best grouped together at the end of the email, so they’re the final ideas the reader is left with. Use a simple, clear heading such as "Actions to Take," "Next Steps" or "Your Tasks." For easy reading and future reference, put the actions in a numbered list rather than one continuous paragraph. That way, the reader will finish your email thinking, "Okay, I have four things to do."

And if you’re lucky, the reader may also think, "Wow. What a high eQ!"

Copyright notice for Peck’s English Pointers

© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada

Search by related themes

Want to learn more about a theme discussed on this page? Click on a link below to see all the pages on the Language Portal of Canada that relate to the theme you selected. The search results will be displayed in Language Navigator.