A vaguely written and poorly formatted email will most likely get lost in the shuffle or ignored (at least for a couple of days). So if you want to start writing strong emails that command attention, look no further than the U.S. military.
For decades, the U.S. Air Force has relied on “The Tongue and Quill,” a manual on how to communicate efficiently. During his active duty service, Kabir Seghal, a U.S. Navy veteran and former vice president at J.P. Morgan, says the training helped him learn how to structure emails that maximized a mission’s chances of success.
“Since returning from duty, I’ve applied these lessons to emails that I write for my corporate job,” Seghal wrote in an article published in Harvard Business Review. “My missives have consequently become crisper and cleaner, eliciting quicker and higher-quality responses from colleagues and clients.”
Here are Seghal’s top lessons on writing emails with “military precision”:
The subject line should always be clear and succinct. This will ensure that you’ve set expectations for the recipient, and that they know what needs to be addressed and communicated.
According to “The Tongue and Quill” handbook, the subject line should be between five to seven words. Seghal recommends using “keywords that characterize the nature of the email in the subject.”
If you’re emailing a contract that needs a signature, for example, your subject line might be, “SIGN – Send back by Friday this week.” If your message is intended for informational purposes only, it might be, “INFO – Working from home.” If your message requires a response from the recipient, it might be, “ACTION – Send weekly lineup by EOD.”
Military emails always focus the recipient’s attention on the issue and what needs to be done. Ditch the fluff by making sure your message is:
- FOCUSED: The issue — nothing more, nothing less — is addressed
- ORGANIZED: The information is presented in a systematic and straightforward format
- CLEAR: The words are precise and exact
- UNDERSTANDABLE: The message includes the information the audience expects and needs to know
- SUPPORTED: The information provided is supported by additional details
Here’s an example of an email that a manager wrote to her CEO:
Subject: INFO – Running late
Mary, my train has been delayed and I expect to be in the office by 10:30 A.M. I’ve already let my team know, and I still plan to meet today’s deadline for the project recap presentation.
For the most part, you should keep your emails as short and simple as possible. When writing emails with a limited amount of space, the military uses either the “BLIND” or “BLUF” method:
According to the handbook, this method is useful for messages to the “commander, leader or decision maker.” It must provide just enough substance to take action.
- BL: Bottom Line
- I: Impact on organization
- N: Next steps
- D: Details to support the bottom line and any significant discussion points
The BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) method is reserved for messages that need to be even shorter. The purpose and actions required are declared at the very top. Your email doesn’t need to be structured in any specific format, but it should answer the five W’s (who, when, where, what and why).
“The reader doesn’t necessarily want to know all the background information that led to the decision,” writes Seghal. “He or she likely wants to know, ‘How does this email affect me?’ And the BLUF should answer that question every time.”
Using a passive voice can make your message longer and twist your sentences. That’s why it’s recommended to use an active voice and put nouns ahead of verbs. So instead of, “The communications office could not be reached,” an email with military precision would say, “We could not reach the communications office.”
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