Getting people to read (and respond to) your emails

As everyone already knows, email is ubiquitous – in both our private and professional lives. Emails are easy to write and send – and we are inundated with them daily. As an in-house business English trainer at a major production site, I see daily the frustrations this can cause – not just for those receiving 90+ mails day (or 1 every 5 minutes!), but also for those sending the mails – knowing they may need to wait a while before hearing a reply. Recently, a manager I train in the automotive industry asked “How can I increase the chances that people respond to my emails?”

Studies have shown that people are more likely to respond to emails written in a simple, straightforward manner than to emails with more complex language. In fact, emails written at a 3rd grade level have been shown to have the highest response rate! So put away those thesauruses and get rid of those dependent clauses! Simple, concise writing is a main driver in increasing your response rate. As with any writing, placing your reader’s needs first is a must. There is no one magic formula for guaranteeing that people will respond to your email, but it’s important that you write emails that people will read. The tips outlined below will definitely tip the odds in your favour!

Writing emails that people read: Free eBook downloadTIP 1 – Keep your subject line obvious and short

Short, simple and obvious subject lines of only 3-4 words get the most responses. The most important thing, though, is to make sure the meaning is clear. Clarity beats ambiguity every time! Military personnel often use keywords e.g. ACTION, REQUEST, DECISION, INFO. This helps the reader immediately understand the purpose of the email. Then, just a couple more words to clarify the subject.


  • Prod Spec (vague)
  • End User Prod spec file plz send (relevant words but could be easier to understand the meaning!)
  • Request- Send Product Specifications file (optimal!)

TIP 2 – Use simple language

As part of my job, I work with engineers providing on-the-job English training. Last week Klaus (not his real name) asked me to help him understand a mail from a supplier. Klaus was struggling to understand …“Hitherto now, I have been unable to place the whereabouts of your aforementioned order, to which I would like to offer the following proposal, able to be fulfilled forthwith”.

Working together with Klaus we simplified it into “We’re sorry but we can’t find the order you mentioned in your email. However, we can suggest the following immediate solution …”.  As Klaus rightly said – why didn’t they just say that?

TIP 3 – Write human

In addition to simplicity, write with emotion! It doesn’t matter if that emotion is positive or negative, writing with any emotion is better than writing a neutral email with absolutely no emotion. The bottom line is: use a believable amount of emotion without getting too hostile or overly-sentimental.

Example of increasing positive emotion:

  • I want to meet next week to discuss my proposal. (neutral)
  • I would love to meet next week to discuss my proposal. (better but maybe a little over the top)
  • I’m definitely interested in meeting next week to discuss my proposal with you! (best!)

Example of increasing negative emotion:

  • Our experience with your product did not meet our expectations. (neutral)
  • From my experience today, I find the quality of your product to be sub-par. (better but “sub par” isn’t simple English)
  • Your product sucks. (too much human)
  • Based on my experiences today, the quality of your product is far below our expectations (best!)

TIP 4 – Write short sentences and paragraphs

When writing your email, make sure it’s an appropriate length. Imagine if you received a novel in your inbox. Would you even bother to read the first sentence? Probably not! The optimal length of an email is roughly 50-125 words, and the response rate slowly drops off as the emails get longer.  When you really need to write longer emails use sub-headings to break the text up.

TIP 5 – Keep the dialogue moving with clear questions

One final way to increase the chances your email will receive a response is to include a task, so ask a few questions! Otherwise, the recipient will most likely assume the purpose of your email is nothing more than to inform. Statistically, 1-3 questions are optimal. Any longer and it becomes a questionnaire, which quickly sends the email to the “do later” box. As I wrote earlier, you won’t get a response to every email you write, but you can change how you write your emails so that you are more likely to get a response when it counts most! And remember to use the phone or video calls if something is important, urgent or contains an emotional message.

Keep on developing your email writing skills with these blog posts

And if you’re looking for training (delivered virtually or face to face) then check out …