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Emailing with empathy: seven steps for writing well during a crisis

Published on: 24 Apr, 2020

Emailining With Empathy
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Gary Woodward

Gary has been writing and training others for over 20 years. After studying language and literature at university, he became an avid student of psychology and philosophy – also very important disciplines for copywriting, as it happens.

It’s a stressful time for everyone. Covid-19 is making us anxious, confused and even frustrated. And we’ve got to adapt to new pressures in our day jobs. One of the key challenges for us is to stop that stress from affecting the tone and effectiveness of our communications, especially our emails. Here are seven steps that will keep your writing on track.

The seven steps: at a glance

1. Assess the emotionsDon’t write when you’re angry. Also, consider how the recipient is likely to feel when they read the message.
2. Identify your purposeWhat are you trying to achieve? Is email the best method of communicating this issue? Is the timing right?
3. Clarify your messageWork out what you want to say before you start writing. Get the main message(s) early. Use a reader-focused subject line.
4. Use the right toneUse ‘Hi’ or ‘Dear’ at the start. Orientate the reader with a line of context before diving into a problem/issue. Don’t blame, accuse or judge. Use positive framing.
5. Make it humanUse natural, human language.
6. Check the detailsHave you double-checked the facts? Are the grammar and punctuation correct?
7. Go for solutionsFocus on what you can do. Go for solutions.

1. Assess the emotion: yours and the reader’s

Move away from the keyboard if you’re feeling angry or frustrated. Email in haste and you’ll certainly regret it. If you have to write a response immediately, do so in Word rather than your email program. If time allows, put the email aside for at least an hour and come back to it when you feel more balanced. Also, consider the reader’s emotions: how are they likely to feel when they receive your email?

2. Identify a reader-focused purpose

What are you trying to achieve with your email? Get really clear on what you want the reader to do, think or feel after they’ve read it. Is an email the best way of achieving your objective? Should you pick up the phone instead? Is the timing right for the recipient, or is it just convenient for you?

3. Get clear on your key messages

One of the biggest frustrations for readers is trying to work out what the writer is trying to say. The clarity of the message can easily get lost if you feel stressed when writing. So work out your key message(s) before you start writing. Imagine being face to face with your reader, and they ask you, ‘What do I need to know more than anything else?’ You would be pretty clear about what to say to them. Once you’ve clarified your key messages, get them early on in your email. Also, think carefully about the subject line: is it useful for the reader?

4. Use the right tone

The following should reduce the risk of the tone of your email causing offence:

  1. At the start of your email, remember to say ‘Hi Jane’ or ‘Dear Jane’, rather than just ‘Jane’. One syllable can make a big difference.
  2. Don’t jump straight into the problem or issue. Give one sentence of context to orientate the reader, eg: ‘Thanks for your recent email about XYZ’ or ‘I’m getting in touch to ask your advice on ABC.’
  3. Avoid blaming, judging or accusing. For example, ‘I received your information after the deadline’ is less inflammatory than ‘You sent your information after the deadline.’
  4. Use ‘positive framing’ where you can. ‘Please send us the information by 12 March so that we can…’ is better than ‘If you don’t send us the information by 12 March, we won’t be able to…’

5. Make it human

It’s worth remembering that you’re always writing for a human being. So much business writing seems to have forgotten that basic principle. So use natural language; make it sound like a human has written it, too. Here are some examples to illustrate:

Clichéd/stuffyHuman, natural but still professional
I write with reference to/Further to your recent correspondenceThank you for you recent email about…
Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience causedWe’re very sorry that…
Please do not hesitate to contact me at your earliest conveniencePlease get in touch if I can help you further

6. Double-check the details

It’s easy to rush and miss typos and mistakes, especially when you’re under pressure. Sadly, these mistakes can alienate many readers; they start to question the content of what you’re writing. Consider printing very important emails – it’s easier to spot mistakes on paper. Check an email by reading slowly, word by word, line by line. It’s boring, but it could save you a lot of trouble later on. You might even ask a colleague to read it through, particularly if it’s an email about a sensitive topic. Also, double-check the facts in your emails – especially if you’re trying to convince or persuade.

7. Aim for solutions

Ultimately, we’re all working towards the same goals. So when a colleague is asking for help, try to think about what you can do, rather than what you can’t do. If you can’t help with their problem directly, think about who else might be able to. This solution-focused mindset will naturally improve the tone of what you write.

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