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Boost Your eQ (E-mail Intelligence)

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 4, 2008, page 17)

You may know your IQ (intelligence quotient) and maybe even your EQ (emotional intelligence), but what about your eQ?

E-mail intelligence is a little-known and seldom-measured quotient. In fact, since I’ve only just made up the term, it might be more accurate to call it barely known and never measured.

Though the concept of eQ is in its infancy (okay, maybe more like its gestation), we nonetheless know when someone has it. When we get an e-mail from a high-eQ individual, we read it quickly and easily, we grasp the main points, we know exactly how or if we should respond. When we get an e-mail from someone less gifted, the reading can get tough.

According to the Translation Bureau’s Michel Gauthier, who has studied e-mails in the workplace, the following are our leading complaints:

  • Too much low-level and untargeted information
  • Unclear purpose
  • No logical structure
  • Too long
  • Too difficult to understand
  • Key information difficult to find

All of these pitfalls are avoidable. Arm yourself with a few e-mail pointers and you’ll boost your eQ high enough to sail right over them.

Maximize the subject line

Your subject line is the lure. Word it well and recipients will open your e-mail with a sound idea of what the message contains. The trick is to make the subject line specific while keeping it short, and to tell your readers overtly how the e-mail relates to them. Otherwise, they may assume the message is a general FYI and rush for the delete button.

Besides clearly announcing the e-mail’s content, the subject line should, if possible, alert readers to any action required.

Not: Survey information
But: Draft survey attached: review by Jan. 9

Not: Organizational change
But: New staff join our work group next week

Not: Christmas party
But: Please contribute to our Christmas potluck

Begin with a bang

Crafting a precise, reader-oriented subject line is the first step toward giving your e-mail a clear purpose. The second is to announce your key message(s) at the beginning.

Doesn’t this just duplicate the subject line? Not really. Think of the subject line as your knock on the door. Once the reader opens up, you still have to say why you’ve come calling. State the purpose of your e-mail up front, in the opening paragraph or two.

To do this, you need to have defined your purpose beforehand. Ask yourself why you’re writing the e-mail. Are you informing the reader of a situation? If so, begin with "For your information…" (or "FYI," if your reader knows the shorthand), then state the main topic, then follow with the details. Are you asking the reader to do something? If so, start with the request, then fill in the supporting information and background.

If there’s a time line associated with your e-mail—especially if the reader needs to review something, reply or take action by a certain deadline—don’t bury the date at the end of the e-mail. If you do, you run the risk that the reader may glance at the opening, file your e-mail for later reading and miss the deadline.

Ditch the optional details

Nothing tests an e-mail reader’s patience like irrelevant information. Once again, how your e-mail begins is crucial. Many writers, feeling compelled to lead their reader on a gentle, meandering path to the main point, will always begin at the beginning (chronologically speaking), with background information. The trouble is, background details are meaningless, and sometimes downright irritating, to a reader who doesn’t know why they’re being provided.

State your purpose clearly, then provide only those details the reader needs to understand the e-mail. Use hyperlinks and attachments to supply any background, charts and other supporting details that are too in-depth for the e-mail itself.

Be clear and concise

Clear and concise writing is a must for e-mails, perhaps more than for any other type of writing. Given how many workplace e-mails people get (on average about 50 a day, according to one researcher1) and how little time they have to read them, the risks are plain—a long e-mail may not get read.

What length should your e-mail be? Common wisdom says no more than one screen page.

Curb connectors

Avoid using phrases to make connections. Simple prepositions and conjunctions will do the job better.

Not: with regard to, in connection with, on account of the fact that, in the event of
But: about, on, because, if

Pass on passives

Passive voice is not only wordier than active; it’s less clear.

Not: It is recommended that… A decision has been made…
But: We recommend that… We have decided… The decision is…

Minimize modifiers

Modifiers such as very, highly, slightly, greatly and somewhat are often unnecessary and can be deleted. If they do add an essential nuance, consider switching to a more precise word.

very important = crucial
highly focused = concentrated
slightly worried = concerned

Consider contractions

Contractions cut word count and remind the reader that there’s a real person—approachable, readable, persuasive—behind the @ symbol. Use your judgment, though. Contractions may not be appropriate in highly formal e-mails.

Shrink sentences

Keep each sentence to one main idea, plus maybe a supporting idea. Anything longer and a busy reader will lose the thread.

Pare down paragraphs

E-mail paragraphs should be shorter than their print-based counterparts. Run-on text with nary a pause gives the impression that your material is dense and hard to read.

Use headings and lists

Just like a peruser of print documents, an e-mail reader needs help focusing on key information. Headings and lists (numbered or bulleted) quickly tell your reader what your main points are. And they signal where your main points are, an important consideration for e-mails that readers might refer to again in the future.

Use headings and lists together with forecasting statements, and readers will know exactly where they’re headed. For example, if you’re writing to ask the reader three questions, say:

I have three questions for you.

Then list the questions, numbered 1, 2, 3. This allows the reader to mentally tick off each question when replying.

If your content doesn’t lend itself to a numbered list, try keying the forecasting statement to headings. For example:

At the meeting, we will discuss two topics: the upcoming retreat and our quarterly budget.

Then use the headings "Upcoming Retreat" and "Quarterly Budget" to structure the information that follows.

Be clear about follow-up

Follow-up actions are best grouped together at the end of the e-mail, so they’re the final ideas the reader is left with. Use a simple, clear heading such as "Actions to Take," "Next Steps," or "Your Tasks." Again, for easy reading and future reference, present the actions in a numbered list rather than in one continuous paragraph. Your reader will leave the e-mail thinking, "Okay, I have four things to do."

And if you’re lucky, your reader may also think, "Wow. What a high eQ!"


  • Back to the note1 Christina A. Cavanagh, "Email in the Workplace: Coping with Overload," June 2004 (research paper). Cavanagh is a professor of management communications with the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario.