- Janine Kurnoff and Lee Lazarus are founders of The Presentation Company which teaches business storytelling to big brands.
- The sister duo says storytelling is key to sending great emails and ensuring you get a favorable response.
- They say to use the email subject line as your story’s headline, and to offer context before making a request.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Inboxes are overwhelming, particularly for busy managers, key stakeholders, and VIP executives that everyone wants a response from. Most of us are bombarded with dozens of emails each day, if not more, and can’t afford more than a few seconds to glance over each one before moving on. So if you want to cut through the noise to reach decision-makers and move business forward, focus on structuring every email (and we mean every email) with a story strategy.
Adopting good email strategy – the kind that gets a response – is often the result of years of experience. To save you some time, we’re sharing our five top email strategies, purely based on classic story structure.
1. Find the right balance between brief and meaningful
Before diving into your email storytelling strategy, we want to dispel a very common myth – that emails must be super-short to get answered. This isn’t true. When emails are too brief – perhaps just requesting some immediate action – they will often be ignored because they actually “get to the point” too quickly. They lack the context that gives recipients a deeper understanding of why you’re reaching out and what you need from them.
Additional information can actually enable the reader to make a decision more quickly. If they’re confused, or your ask seems complicated, they’re more likely to put off the answer you’re looking for. Still, being overly wordy is also a sure way to get your email ignored.
Make sure you find the right balance between brevity and key details in your emails. The reader should always be left with a clear idea of what they need to know and do with your information – and why.
Data suggests the ideal length of an email is between 50 and 125 words. Emails this length had a response rate above 50%.
2. Always have a headline and put it in your subject line
Good emails should tell a story. Good stories have a headline. Ergo, your email needs a headline! And where should said headline reside? Right up top of course, in the subject line.
Unfortunately, it’s very common for people to squander this opportunity for an attention-grabbing headline and instead use boring subject lines such as “Meeting follow up” or “Project update.” These generic tags tell your recipient very little and probably won’t grab their attention.
Maximize the prime real estate of your subject line instead and introduce the big idea of your email story. Your big idea is the key information – the ‘what’ of your story – that you want your recipients to remember the most. So, instead of “meeting follow up,” you could say “Reconnecting on next steps for sales kickoff next month.” Instead of “Project update,” you could say, “Project X is on target but needs additional design resources.”
Focus on your single biggest, most consequential, or most insightful piece of information. Put this headline in the subject line to give your email the best chance of being opened.
3. Your email opener must provide context
As we mentioned above, jumping too soon into your ask without providing context will leave your reader confused. Context is key so they can process your information (or request).
In storytelling terms, context is the combination of setting, characters, and conflict that build the arc of a story. For example, if the email is a follow up to a budget meeting from last week, the setting must take the reader back to the “scene” of last week’s financial discussion, the important “characters” affected by budget decisions, and the chief conflicts affecting those characters.
This look back is critical to remind them who and what’s at stake, and what decisions must be made.
4. Repeat your big idea
Being overly repetitive is the death knell for any email, however, restating your single big idea is the power move of any great storyteller. When you remind readers of your key takeaway – the ‘what’ of your email story – you cement it in their brains.
The best way to get in that one-two punch is to establish your big idea first in your headline (i.e. your subject line), then repeat it after you’ve established your context.
5. Always unveil your resolution last
One of the hallmarks of a poorly structured email is when it begins with your recommendations or your call to action without any context. As we mentioned above, many people believe that keeping an email as short as possible is best. So, they just state upfront what they need from the recipient: “Please approve this budget,” or “Can I get your feedback?” or “Need approval for a new hire.”
These requests are all part of their resolution, the answer to a certain conflict. If the resolution comes before the conflict, the recipient is less likely to buy into why they should complete your request. So instead, have this element last in your email.
Janine Kurnoff and Lee Lazarus are authors of the new book “Everyday Business Storytelling: Create, Simplify, and Adapt a Visual Narrative for Any Audience.” These Silicon Valley-bred sisters founded The Presentation Company in 2001 and work with brands like Facebook, Nestle, and Medtronic. Follow them on Twitter.