There are so many ways to send messages, yet email shows few signs of declining. In fact, it's growing, according to the latest statistics from the Radicati Group, which predicts 3 billion+ people will be using email by the end of 2019. That's about one-third of the world’s population.
It might sound basic, but you can do good and bad things in emails. For the purpose of this brief essay, we’ll assume your most common email type is a pitch to a journalist or influencer. (Yes, I know some of you are thinking how cute, they're writing about email on Election Day 2016 because one of the candidates has had trouble with it. No, it's a coincidence only.)
1. Respect Your Reader’s Time: If you leave this page with nothing else than a respect for your reader’s time, I’ll be happy. With an email pitch there’s little or no time to clear your throat before you begin your argument. State your reason for writing and get to your call to action (CTA) quickly and clearly.
A corollary: Some journalists consider that a communicator who does his/her homework is respecting the reader's time. Agreed. As I write this I've received a long email from a U.S.-based public relations firm informing me that I can be one of the first reporters to interview the CEO of an emerging Chinese steel corporation. Huh?
2. Make the First Sentences Count: You only get one chance to make a first impression. Yes, it's a cliché, but true nonetheless. Some argue that the first impression in an email pitch is the subject line. That’s probably correct. For our purposes, though, let’s assume the reader already has bitten and opened your email.
Please don't interpret my above exhortation about brevity to remove an element of politeness and friendliness from your email pitch. Don't skip an introduction. You can and should open with one, maybe two sentences of introduction, but stay on message. Let's say you’re pitching a reporter or influencer whom you’ve met once, months ago. Remind him/her where you met in one sentence. If the reporter or influencer was giving a speech, compliment the speech, but keep it to a brief sentence. You're a regular reader of the reporter’s work and have been for years. Fine, mention a recent article, but do it briefly.
Of course, if you’re friendly with the email recipient you can take a few more sentences to begin. “How are your kids?” “Hope you enjoyed the long weekend.” "I bet you're looking forward to vacation." Be careful with who qualifies as a friend for the purposes of an email pitch. Although some might disagree, I think I'm a pretty friendly person, for a journalist. Still, even I am taken aback when a communicator I don't know begins a pitch to me with an informal greeting such as "Hope all's well with you today."
Deborah H. French, writing in PR News’ Writer's Guidebook, Volume 1, advises beginning with friend-appropriate “buddy-chat…if and only if you...have already had casual face-to-face or phone conversations [with the email's recipient]. Assuming a level of familiarity that isn’t mutual can be interpreted as arrogance—certainly not a character trait you want people to attribute to you.” Good advice.
3. Use "Please" and "Thank You:" As we said above, people are busy. They don’t have to read your email and or agree to respond to your CTA. Be polite with your ask and thank them for their time. It helps.
4. Spelling Counts, But There’s More: Consistent with # 1, keeping your email short and to the point is necessary in this super-busy world. Haste really does make waste, particularly when it comes to writing. That’s why in addition to spell-checking your email before hitting send, read through it, relatively slowly.
True, proofreading one’s own work is very difficult because you know what your wrote and as a result your mind tends to skip past errors with regularity. One of the big errors, besides spelling, is leaving out words. Another error is homonyms and homophones. I remember a writer who sent me a politically themed email that included the cliché “both sides of the aisle,” but was written “both sides of the isle.” Ouch.
Another problem that can lead to sloppiness is that while you’re writing one email, you're likely thinking about several others you need to write before the end of the business day. That’s a lot of pressure and you're bound to get sloppy. A related problem: As you write one sentence you're thinking about another one. Again, as I write this essay I've received a pitch about an influencer named Ethan. A line in the pitch caught my eye: "Ethan's is a thought leader who has been featured regularly in...." The writer probably meant to write "Ethan is a thought leader...."
I'm guilty, too. I was horrified the other day when a request I sent too quickly to several influencers included the phrase, “Don’t worry, I promise to make [the interview] painful.” Of course I meant to write, “Don’t worry, I promise to make the interview painless.” While I personalize each pitch, I usually include in all my pitches several basic sentences, including an assurance that an interview will last just 15 minutes (see tip #1 about respecting the reader's time) and be painless.
I sent my pitch to several busy brand communicators. When the first communicator pointed out my mistake with a bit of humor I was embarrassed. I consoled myself by reasoning the others would likely miss the error. Nope. Lesson learned: Writer, heal thyself. Take a few extra seconds to look over every sentence in your email before hitting send. It won't take too long if you've made the email brief. Also, see the cliché in the first line of #2 above.
Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein