Write e-mail messages that get attention

Contributed by McGhee Productivity Solutions

Do you get so much e-mail every day that you find it hard to read it all? If you're like a lot of us, you might spend as little as 15 seconds scanning a message to determine how it applies to you.

Commonly, when recipients can't quickly identify the relevance of an e-mail message or the action the message requires, they end up deleting the message or leaving it in their inbox "for later" — without taking the necessary action. So if you want recipients to read and act on your e-mail messages, it's critical to make your messages concise yet informative.

The McGhee Productivity Solutions e-mail P.A.S.S. model

When you use the McGhee Productivity Solutions (MPS) e-mail P.A.S.S. model to help compose your messages, you help ensure that your messages are meaningful and useful and that the recipient has all the relevant information at hand to act on them. Additional benefits for using the MPS e-mail P.A.S.S. model are that you send and receive less e-mail and create quicker response times to your e-mail messages.

What is the MPS e-mail P.A.S.S. model?

"P.A.S.S." is a memory aid that reminds you to ask yourself four simple questions as you compose your message to help ensure that it is more useful for the recipient. The four questions are:

P — What is the purpose of this communication, and does the purpose relate to an objective?

A — What action is required; is there a due date; and who owns the action?

S — What supporting documentation does the recipient need?

S — Does the subject line effectively summarize the message?

Identify the purpose of your message

The first step in writing your e-mail message by using the MPS e-mail P.A.S.S. model is to identify the purpose of the message and what objectives the purpose relates to. For example, ask yourself what you want the recipient reading the message to do, and ensure that it relates to one of your objectives and one of their objectives. Often, people launch into writing an e-mail message without thinking about the result they're after. (I know you would never do such a thing!)

When composing your message, skip the To and Subject lines and get right to the purpose of the message in the first one or two sentences. For example: "The FY '05 budgets need to be revised to reflect a 5% savings over '04 actuals. Recommendations are due to me by May 15th."

Identify a required action

The second step in writing your e-mail message is to identify the type of action that you want the recipient to take after reading your message and to specify whether a deadline exists for the action. Identifying the type of action that is required helps eliminate any confusion about what your expectations are. In many cases, identifying the type of action is as helpful to you as it is to your recipients.

If there are multiple individuals responsible for different actions, call out the individuals by name in bold text and clearly indicate who is responsible for what. Always include due dates for each action.

The four most common actions are:

  • Action    The recipient needs to perform a physical action. For example, your action item might state, "Provide a proposal for a 5% reduction in Travel & Entertainment."
  • Respond    The recipient needs only to respond to your message; no other action is necessary. For example, your message might state, "Let me know if you can attend the staff meeting at 9:00 A.M. on Friday."
  • Read Only    The recipient needs only to read your message; no other action or response is necessary. For example, your message might state, "Please read the attached sales plan before our next staff meeting being held on August 12th."
  • FYI Only    The recipient needs only to file your message for future reference; no other action or response is necessary. In fact, even reading the message is optional. For example, your message might state, "Enclosed for your records are your completed expense reports."

Setting a deadline

If your message requires some type of action, determine whether a deadline applies to the action. Specifying a deadline helps recipients prioritize their tasks more effectively. If a deadline applies to an action, revisit the purpose of your message to determine a realistic completion date.

Identify supporting information

The third step in writing your e-mail message is to provide any supporting information that will help the recipient complete an action or respond successfully without requiring the recipient to come back to you for more information. For example, if you want a recipient to fill out a form, you could attach a sample copy of the form that illustrates exactly how it should be filled out. If background information is required, you can include it in the body of the message in a concise format.

Supporting information can come in different forms, such as text typed into the body of the message, an attached message, or an attached file. It should provide the recipient with all the information required to complete the requested action.

Create an effective Subject line

The last step in writing your e-mail message by using the MPS e-mail P.A.S.S. model is to summarize your message in the Subject line. It might seem counterintuitive to write the Subject line after writing the content of the message; however, waiting until after you write the content ensures that the Subject line accurately summarizes the body of the e-mail message.

Useful information to put in your Subject line includes:

  • A standard subject heading such as "Action Requested," "Response Requested," "FYI," or "Read Only," depending on the action indicated in the body of the message.
  • The meaningful objective or supporting project that the message relates to, for example, "FY '05 budget forecasting."
  • The required action, if applicable, for example, "Consolidate departmental budget spreadsheets."
  • The due date, if applicable, for example, "Due by July 7."

An example of an effective Subject line is "Action Requested — Consolidate all department spreadsheets for FY '05 budget and return to me by May 15th."

The To, Cc, and Bcc lines

After you write an effective e-mail message by using the MPS e-mail P.A.S.S. model, you can complete the To, Cc, and Bcc lines. It's important that you target your message to the appropriate audience and not overwhelm people with e-mail that does not relate to their meaningful objectives or supporting projects. Appropriately addressed e-mail messages reduce e-mail volume, increase productive work, and help you and your staff stay focused on your real objectives instead of meaningless distractions.

The To line

If you want to make sure that the right people take the right action, ensure that the right people are on the To line. The To line and the Subject line are integrated. Each individual on the To line is responsible for taking the action (or part of an action) outlined on the Subject line and the message relates directly to one of their meaningful objectives or supporting projects.

If the Subject line effectively summarizes the message and the message is clearly written, each recipient on the To line will have a clear understanding of the objective or project that the message relates to, the action to take, and the due date requested.

The Cc line

It's tempting to put as many people on the Cc line as possible in order to cover your bases. However, there is a more appropriate way to use the Cc line. Remember:

  • No action or response should be expected of individuals on the Cc line. The recipient needs only to read or file the message.
  • Only those individuals whose meaningful objectives are affected by the communication should be included on the Cc line. If you are not sure that the communication relates to a recipient's objectives, you can check with that person to find out whether they want to receive the message.

The Bcc line

This line should be used very judiciously. Protecting a distribution list and keeping individuals from receiving a "Reply" or "Reply All" are good uses of this line.

In general, it's best not to use the Bcc line to slyly escalate matters, as there is always a chance that the individual on the Bcc line could hit "Reply All" and unintentionally reveal that the matter was escalated.

Some final questions before you hit "Send"

You have finished writing and addressing your e-mail message. Now, ask yourself the following questions to ensure that you send meaningful e-mail communications:

  • Have I followed the MPS e-mail P.A.S.S. model in writing the message?
  • Have I included enough information in the message so that it will not come back to me with questions?
  • Am I sending the message to the correct recipients?
  • Have I run the spelling checker and edited the message for grammar and jargon?

Using the McGhee Productivity Solutions e-mail P.A.S.S. model for writing effective e-mail communications can greatly enhance your correspondence. Sending clear, well-defined messages can reduce the volume of e-mail you send and receive, encourages needed answers and correct action, saves time, and limits e-mail trails. Take the time to pause and think through your e-mail message BEFORE you write it. You'll be amazed at the results you get!

About the author     McGhee Productivity Solutions (MPS) provides consulting and education services designed to increase productivity and quality of life.

 
 
Applies to:
Outlook 2003