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The Power of a Well-Written Email: How to Apply Instructional Design Practices To Everyday Emails

Instructional designers, in part, are writers. Just like writers, who labor over draft after draft of an article or book, we would never submit a learning solution for final approval without first having it reviewed and edited. Our solutions often go through alpha and beta drafts (and many iterations in between) before they get to our final audience. Why wouldn’t we apply the same rigors of drafting and review to writing email?

The most impactful and successful instructional designers I’ve met aren’t just experts at designing, writing and developing training — they know a thing or two about communicating too. They understand that a large part of their job is to quickly build meaningful relationships in often unfamiliar organizations. Let’s face it — even though we all say we despise email, the reality is that it’s still the primary mode of communication in business. According to the Harvard Business Review “email takes up 23 percent of the average employee’s workday, and that average employee sends or receives 112 emails per day.”

Since being a good communicator is required for being a successful consultant, we can approach the writing of impactful email just as we would the writing of impactful learning solutions. Before composing an email we should ask ourselves:

Once you have these answers in mind, you’re ready to start. Here are the best practices from instructional design that we can we apply to composing emails.

  1. The subject line matters.Just like a title of a learning solution or the description of a course, the subject line of an email should be clear, concise and in a few words tell your audience exactly what they will find in the body of the email.

    Putting a call to action right in the subject — something like Action requested: Review Sales Training— will tell the recipient immediately what they need to do and the purpose of your correspondence.
  2. Focus on need-to-know versus nice-to-know. Learners, like email readers, skim and scan for information, so make sure they clearly see the information that is absolutely vital to your purpose.

    Put the call to action and most important information at the top of your email—this should be the minimum information your readers need in order to achieve the results you want.  Supporting details and the nice-to-know information can be at the bottom. Some people will skip it, some will read it all, and others will skim and scan. It won’t matter as much though because the key message was at the top and likely the first thing the reader will have read.
  3. Write tight(ly). The trend in training is to focus on bite-size learning. With email, focus on bite-size messages. Be concise. Write a draft and then cut it in half with an eye on your key points.
  4. Aesthetics matter. We’ve seen the rise of graphic design play a more integral role in solution design and development. I’m not suggesting you make your email “pretty” or write everyday emails in html, but the use of simple formatting — bolding, font color, sub-headers and bullets — can call attention to your main points and make your message clearer and easier to read. Like any good design practice, use these formatting techniques judiciously.
  5. Read, review, revise. Just like we wouldn’t show a proposal or solution to a sponsor or stakeholder without first having it reviewed – read, review and revise your own emails. In our fast-paced, multi-tasking world, don’t be tempted to quickly hit send.

    This tip is especially important when sending emails to a large audience or to senior leadership and decision makers. Have a colleague review your email to ensure it gets the main points across and your message is clear.

Last year I was consulting with a team on an organization-wide regulatory training rollout. We were struggling to nail down decisions from one of our sponsors and the team asked me to take a stab at some written communications. I followed the guidelines above and sent it to the director who then sent it to the sponsor group. The director not only praised the email, but her boss sent her a note saying “great communication!” These kudos stand out to me—not because they represented my greatest accomplishment on the project but because a well-written email is rare enough that it garnered notice.

As consultants, we’re often tasked with getting things done in a short amount of time. Next time you’re in the middle of a conference call, thinking about another project and about to hit send on an email, challenge yourself to take five minutes to run through the checklist above and edit your own work to craft a concise and powerful message.

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