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9 Top Tips for Writing Effective Emails (According to Google)

Matthew MacLachlan

25 Apr 2017

Email is the most frequent source of frustration, desperation and stress in many people’s lives. You are punished for any time off with a new batch of unread messages; many of them unnecessary streams of consciousness.

The number one item on any business person’s wish list is that their colleagues could learn how to write more effective emails. No one goes to university or starts their dream job to manage their inbox, and yet more and more of us spend significant time every day doing exactly that. 

How to write effective emails?

It is not possible to read every email. It is not possibly to read every word of the emails you do open. If you do decide to write an email that requires an action or a response, you need to find a way to ensure that the recipient reads it, and acts upon it. (And if they don’t need to act or respond, you probably shouldn’t write it in the first place!)

Time Magazine examined techniques used by executives at Google to identify how they have developed effective emails. These techniques were included in the book How Google Works.

What can Google teach us about effective email writing?

An effective email is one that the recipient reads. As a writer, our email must therefore make an impact very quickly and must be memorable. As a recipient, we must learn to manage our inboxes to ensure that we prioritise emails that need actions.

9 Rules for Writing and Managing Emails

The Google executives developed nine rules that encourage more effective emails. Some of them relate specifically to users of Gmail, but there are ways to incorporate all of them into other mail systems, such as Outlook.

1. Respond quickly

People who respond quickly to emails accomplish things immediately whenever this is possible, reducing the length of their to-do lists.

In addition, people who respond to emails quickly get noticed by the sender. Non-responses often send out negative messages to the writer; a delayed response creates clutter as the decision may already been made or a deadline missed.

People who respond to emails quickly get noticed by the sender

2. Crisp delivery

A crisp delivery is one that is direct, clear and uses words carefully. A long email hides the key message in wordiness and causes the reader to skim read and so miss important information. It is sensible to draft a complex email first and then edit it for ‘crispness’.

A long email hides the key message in wordiness

3. Clean inbox

A clean inbox is a strong sign of a well-managed email system. The Google executives have a few tips on how to accomplish this. They rely heavily on the ‘OHIO’ principle. The OHIO principle is to Only Handle It Once.

When opening a new email, decide immediately what action you should take. Email is divided into three categories:

  • Read it straight away, respond (or forward), and file
  • Read it to the point where you determine it requires action later and send it to the to-do list
  • Label as one not worth reading and delete

The OHIO principle is to Only Handle It Once

The goal is to minimise the number of emails lingering in your inbox. It is also important to manage and reduce action items efficiently.

4. Follow the LIFO rule

The LIFO rule means Last In, First Out. If you are managing your inbox, then following the LIFO rule should not be difficult.

The LIFO rule means Last In, First Out

This keeps the reader on top of any new emails and positions them to manage them more effectively.

5. Reroute

People frequently receive emails that others can deal with more effectively. If you know that someone else has more expertise or knowledge, it is much better to reroute the emailed request to someone else than to let it linger in your inbox or action item file.

6. Rethink bcc’s

The bcc option is most often used to hide something, and is perceived as a sign of distrust. The Google executives advise copying people openly, or omitting the person entirely.

7. Do not shout

Many people regret shouting or otherwise losing control of their emotions via email. If you feel that angry about an issue, then it is best to find another way to communicate your feelings, ideally in person if possible.

People frequently receive emails that others can deal with more effectively

8. Make it easy to follow up

Make it obvious what you want from the reader. Label actions and follow up points clearly and obviously. When you have to follow up an email, make sure you add a deadline to the flag so that emails don’t linger in your inbox.

9. Make it easy now to search in future

There will be emails that you will inevitably need to access later. Many of these are predictable. For any email that you believe you may need to recall in the future, it is a good idea to tag them with key words at the time you initially read the email. You will probably use the same key words in future when you are looking for your archived email.

Make it obvious what you want from the reader

Writing effective emails is an art form. It is also a great way, when done well, to manage a key factor in daily communication both at work and in your personal life. Following these nine rules is a great way to start.