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Effective E-mails, Part 1: Get Noticed

By Alexander T. MacDonald


The scarcest resource in the modern workplace is attention span. Every day, people get dozens, if not hundreds, of e-mails. Even if they devote their entire workday to combing through their inbox (which some people do), they don’t have time to read every message carefully. So they develop triage strategies: they ignore e-mails that don’t look important and skim the ones that do.
 

In this environment, you have to compete for your reader’s attention. Your e-mail can’t just be relevant; it also has to be interesting, professional, and efficient.
 

And in this context, efficiency means brevity. Studies have shown that the longer a message is, the less likely people are to even start it, let alone finish it. That means you have to say more with less, which requires discipline. If you struggle with verbosity, try imposing a personal cap of 200 words per message. You’ll be amazed at how much more economical your writing becomes when words are a scarce commodity. True, you’ll occasionally have to write a longer message. But when you do, make sure you can justify the extra words.
 

Of course, even short e-mails won’t get read if the reader doesn’t open them. That means you have to write good subject lines. A good subject line boils the message down to its essence. Reading it, the recipient immediately knows what to expect. Remember: e-mails aren’t Christmas presents; no one likes a surprise.
 

A good subject line should also be searchable. Your recipient might not read the e-mail immediately; in fact, she might not read it for weeks or months. So you have to make sure she can find it when she needs it. Avoid limp subjects like “deposition,” which don’t distinguish your e-mail from the dozens of others sitting in the reader’s inbox. Instead, use something like, “Deposition of John Green, Summary, 8/4/2017, Case Number 16-0678.” Specificity is the key.
 

Your introductory sentence should be equally specific. You’re e-mailing the reader because you want something; don’t make her plow through four paragraphs to find out what that is. Tell her up front, and tell her directly. Too many people blather on for hundreds of words, then end with a phrase like “please advise.” That’s unhelpful and lazy. It says to the reader, “I couldn’t figure out what the problem is. You do it.”
 

If you want your reader’s attention––which surely you do––you can’t waste his or her time. You have to get to the point. Say what you have to say, say it quickly, and say it in a way that catches the reader’s attention. In other words, always keep your reader at the front of your mind. If you’re solicitous of your reader’s time, you’ll be rewarded with attention and, occasionally, actual gratitude.
 

Alexander MacDonald is a 2012 graduate of the William & Mary School of Law. He works in the Office of the General Counsel of the United States Postal Service. He can be reached at amac2644@gmail.com.