An Architect's Introduction to Email - How to Build Better Correspondence
Email is a necessary evil.
In a digital world, email still reigns supreme over most forms of professional communication. Yes, it’s true that some correspondence is done via ‘snail mail’ or (gulp) fax. The vast majority of our documented interactions day-to-day are found in our inbox.
It makes sense then that we should try to focus on how to get better at writing emails so that we can both maximize our efficiency with them and to prevent some of the unfortunate consequences of taking email for granted.
Let’s take some time to understand exactly what it takes to build a better email. We’ll look at the purpose and format of an email and then dive into a few pitfalls you should avoid and habits you should strive for.
The Purpose of an Email
The purpose of an email is to professionally document something happened. You’ll see it’s no more or less important than any other type of correspondence as we dive deeper into what makes an email tick.
When you want to document a conversation or meeting, ask a formal question to another person, or notify others out in the world of something, an email can be used as the vehicle to do just that.
Inherently, an email is essentially just a faster version of a letter.
Yep, that’s right. Email doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
To think of it another way, an email has essentially just taken the place of physical mail because of how efficient and fast it can be. That doesn’t mean it’s not without its faults. Email can become convoluted and unwieldy if not considered with respect.
The Format of an Email
The advantage of an email is that it can be, at its simplest form, an abbreviated version of an actual letter.
While the same logic may apply in general to an email, there are a few small changes that you’ll want to consider to keep your emails streamlined.
1 // The Introduction
Address the email to the party or parties you want the email to go to. Make it very clear what your purpose for the email is right up front.
2 // The Body
Next, ask your question or state the purpose of the email in more detail. If you have an attachment connected to the email, identify what its purpose is as well.
3 // The Conclusion
Be polite and sign off. Repeat the ‘call to action’ you would like the person on the other end to do next. Do you want them to respond? Is it just for their reference? Let them know and sign off with a professional email signature at the bottom.
Sounds pretty easy, right?
Well, if I know anything about email, it’s that email takes practice. Here are 5 pitfalls to avoid when writing your next email and 5 habits to strive for.
5 Email Pitfalls to Avoid
1. Spelling and Grammar Mistakes
Guys, this should be without question, but you’d be surprised at how many emails I see cross my desk every, single day with poor or entirely non-existent spelling and grammar.
You can tell when someone hasn’t written often before or when they just don’t care by the format and professional feel within an email.
Let’s go back to what we just discussed above about an email essentially just being a digital equivalent of a physical letter. Would you just not punctuate sentences in a letter? Would you not spellcheck? Would you not try to proofread?
I mean, maybe you would, but I don’t think so. I believe in you.
So don’t get sucked into thinking that you can slack off in an email. Take the extra minute to write every email with the mentality that it’s a physical piece of mail.
2. Criticism or Blaming
I don’t know if I’ve ever really blamed someone for something in an email. As an Architect, putting the blame on someone tends to lead to more problems than solutions. Criticizing a person or group for something that may have happened isn’t productive, and in an email, could be used later against that party or you depending on what the issue is.
A question I’ve always asked myself when writing down literally ANYTHING is, “Would I be willing to let anyone read this?” In particular, I think of my grandparents. Not that they would have wanted to have read any of my emails, but would they have been ashamed at what I wrote?
I try to be a fairly even keeled person overall, so I don’t really lean towards confrontational language when I write anyway, but keeping that in the back of my head does keep me from going to the darker side of email.
It may be a cheesy lesson, but don’t write something down if you wouldn’t be willing to let anyone read it.
Do you have email tirades with your office peers about others in or out of the office? If you said, yes, stop it. Stop it right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re venting about something real or not.
Complaining about others is toxic, especially when you write it. Going back to the last point, what if the person you were talking about found out about it? What if your boss did?
If you have legitimate complaints about something or someone, try to confront it head on and go to the source of the problem offline. A conversation over the phone or in person can immediately release tension that doesn’t need to be festering in some dark corner of you inbox.
Let me tell you, I used to over explain topics like nobody’s business. I was a pro at it in fact. Looking back, it’s something I’m still working on.
You know why?
People lose interest in what you’re talking about and communication essentially breaks down.
You may have been able to write your epic, ‘War and Peace’ email to explain your encyclopedic knowledge of something, but it will end up only serving you. It won’t help the people on the other end understand the purpose of the email or help them sift through your library of novels later when they need to.
We’re Architects. As such, we speak in a bit of our own language. We’ve learned from years of working in an office that there are words we’ve reinterpreted and there are words we have completely just made up to explain our creative endeavors.
Now, that said, we need to talk to people the way that THEY talk. Communication essentially breaks down when someone can’t understand what you’re saying.
If you didn’t know the language someone else was speaking, there would be no way for you to discuss the nuances of the issues at hand. Emails are the same. You can’t write an email to someone the way you speak to your architecture friends who have been living in the world of design for years with you.
The best corollary I can think of is how newspapers are written. Most newspapers are written to a fourth or fifth grade reading comprehension so that the readers understand the news presented to them.
You need to treat your emails the same way. Write to your audience, not yourself.
5 Email Habits to Strive For
1. One Topic
I struggle with this, but it’s important. If at all possible, only write one email for one topic or idea.
The reason for this is twofold - to keep the conversation about one subject and to keep the conversation searchable for future reference.
For me, it can sometimes feel a bit overkill to send an owner three different emails about different topics, especially if they’re being sent in quick succession. In those cases, I’ll at the very least try to keep the email as brief as possible with a clear delineation for each topic.
It’s not perfect, but I do strive for each email I send to be its own topic because it allows me to quickly search for that email again later if I need to. When there are multiple topics, it becomes very difficult to sift through thousands of emails for one email at one moment in time.
2. Strong, Catalogued Subject Line
I’ve adapted a technique implemented by a few of the firms I’ve worked at to include a project number, project name, and topic all within the subject. This allows me to scan through emails easily to find what I’m looking for.
When you’re working on multiple projects for the same owner, it becomes even more critical to develop this practice so that you’re not sending the same person emails about two entirely different projects, ultimately confusing the issue and likely the person on the other end.
Whatever your system, try to consistently use the same subject format when you send emails. If you get weird or broken subjects from others that don’t fit your own (as you inevitably will), feel free to re-write them as necessary when you respond. It will help you catalogue the topic later and ultimately help the conversation.
Sometimes people are writing emails entirely from their phones or they’re in a hurry, or they may just not care.
But you can care. You can help catalogue the conversation for everyone.
If you have to send a more complicated email, which can often be the case when there are issues requiring many different stakeholders, try to make the emails scannable.
Many people on the other end of your emails may not be able to follow, or even need to follow, your emails if they are written as an ocean of bloated paragraphs.
Instead, when I do have to send larger, complicated emails, I’ll include subjects that I underline and/or bolden in order to emphasize the different types of points or topics I’m trying to cover.
Someone who is just trying to scan the email can then do so fairly easily and just respond as necessary.
We’ve discussed this a few times already, but I can’t stress enough how being brief in an email can be a benefit to all who read your correspondence.
A concise email can efficiently get your point across and help the person on the other end understand what you’re trying to get at quickly.
The last thing you want to do is confuse the person you’re sending the email to, or even worse, make their eyes glaze over as they begin to resent your epic work of non-fiction.
It takes time, but saying less is a craft that, once learned, can mean all the difference.
5. Call to Action
When it comes to the point of an email, you should try to be as clear as possible with what you want the recipient to do next.
Is the email you’re sending for their reference or do they need to perform some type of action (ie. answer a question or physical take action)?
Try to place your call to action at the top of your email if possible so that a person scanning will see it right away. Then, explain what you’re talking about and reiterate it again so that the intent of what you are asking for is clear.
Email is a necessary evil as a professional working in the 21st century. There may be another form of communication society uses in the next fifty or one-hundred years, but email is here to stay for the time being.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from my time writing emails as an Architect, it’s that email, like any other document in your toolbox, can be used later in a court of law to settle disputes or resolve issues. I’ve heard of situations where email played a pivotal role in documenting not only a one-off incident, but a pattern of either unprofessional behavior or neglectful action.
When I write emails, I do so with purpose. I do so trying to write them as though they could be read by anyone, used by anyone, and protect myself and the firm I work for if it ever came to that.
Keep a defensive mindset when you write your next email. Strive not for perfection in writing, but better writing that could help you avoid professional pitfalls later.
It may sound silly, but treat your emails with care. It does make a difference.