Stop writing emails and start creating online conversations


The trouble with email is that it’s a shape-shifter. You can’t learn to write an email in the same way you’d learn to write a cover letter or a proposal because email isn’t a type of writing; it’s a communication channel. Consequently, email messages take on a range of forms depending on multiple variables, such as purpose, content, and audience, to name just a few.

Unfortunately for those of us who crave the comfort of cookie-cutter processes, we can’t rely on any single template for creating an email. We can’t even lean on a single set of templates to serve all our email writing needs.

Boy, is this frustrating. Most of us write dozens, if not hundreds, of emails a day. Surely working life would be so much easier if only we could automate email production.

Or would it? When writers try to short-circuit the email writing process, they tend to sacrifice warmth, specificity, and the ability to engage the reader in an ongoing conversation. Templates may seem like time-savers, but they often rob messages of the conversational quality it takes to engage readers and move them to action.

If you want to spend less time on email writing, the number one thing you can do is to stop thinking of it as writing. Instead, start thinking about email as a way to interact with others through online conversation.

As Catherine Blyth has helped me understand, conversation flows as a kind of dance between two people.[1] It includes a shared sense of interest and a sense of give and take. When two people participate in a conversation, they prompt each other to contribute and move the conversation forward. Without this kind of collaboration, there’s no true conversation, just a monologue.

Imagine you’re attending a cocktail party when an acquaintance approaches you and starts talking to you. Without stopping to remind you of who they are and how you know each other, they launch into a long spiel on a topic that matters a great deal to them but you don’t really care about. How do you react?

Depending on your patience with pontificators, you probably either (a) maintain a minimally polite degree of eye contact while mentally composing your grocery list of (b) find a way to abruptly end the conversation and move to a different part of the room. (“Look! There’s my long-lost cousin from Alabama. Nice chatting with you, but I really need to catch up with her.”)

Unless you intentionally, actively engage your email readers in conversation, you run the risk that they’ll react to your written communication in similar ways. What are some of the signs this is happening? If you find that your emails get ignored or misinterpreted, then you’re probably violating some of the essential ground rules for true conversation.

Those ground rules are actually simple to follow. To create emails that start or continue conversations, just keep these four principles in mind:

1. Introduce yourself—Make sure your reader knows who you are before you dive into the subject at hand. If you can find a way to refer to something or someone you and your reader have in common, so much the better.

2. Create a shared sense of purpose—Some email writers fall into the trap of thinking that the phrase “I’d like to” makes their message forceful and persuasive (as in “I’d like to arrange a meeting to discuss the interior design of your new building.”) Yes, people who know what they want come across as confident. But who wants to have a conversation with someone who’s preoccupied with their own desires? Great conversationalists engage others by inviting them to consider a topic that matters to all parties.

3. Speak naturally—Engaging emails use the same register of language the speaker would use in a live conversation. If you’d normally talk with your colleague using slang and contractions, those markers of informality may work just fine in a casual email, as long as you’re not cc’ing someone with whom you don’t have a close relationship.

4. Invite a response—In the dance of conversation, one partner pauses to invite the other to participate. If you want your reader to carry on a conversation with you, engage them by using direct questions. A Norwegian study found that emails that made a request using a direct question were 70 percent more likely to get a reply than those that didn’t include questions.[2]

Persuasive emails don’t result from “perfect” templates. They develop as open-ended responses to another human being or group of human beings. Ultimately, your ability to exude conversational qualities through your messages will count for far more than flawless punctuation or slick formatting. Email templates may save a bit of effort in the short term, but email conversation builds long-lasting relationships and produces real-world results.

If you’d like to get better results from your emails, let’s have a conversation! You can reach me at dawn@dawnhenwood.com.

[1] The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure. (New York: Gotham Books, 2009). [2] K. Skovholt and J. Svennevig. 2013. “Responses and Non-responses in Workplace Emails.” In Handbook of the Pragmatics of Computer-Mediated Communication, eds. S. Herring andT. Virtanen (Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter), pp. 581–603. https:// www.researchgate.net/publication/275958714_Skovholt_K_Svennevig_J_2013_ Responses_and_Non-responses_in_Workplace_Emails_I_S_Herring_D_ Stein_T_Virtanen_Eds_Handbook_of_the_Pragmatics_of_Computer-Mediated_ Communication_Mouton_de_Gruyter_581-603.

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