Welcome to the fifth part of Practical Phrases and Scripts for Non-Native English Speakers Working in Tech. This time I will share with you a framework and checklist you can use to write effective business emails.
Grab attention, get the action or information you need, and do it swiftly — saving your and other people’s times.
Business Email Cheatsheet
- Subject Lines
- Be clear. Add these keywords: ACTION, SIGN, INFO, DECISION, APPROVE, COORD (Part of the BLUF framework. Read on for details on what each keyword mean and to learn how to use this framework to write and organise the body of email.)
- Be brief. 25-30 characters, or 3-5 words.
- Be direct. Use active language.
- Yes: Nouns and verbs!
- No: pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs.
- Use To’s, CC’s, and BCC’s correctly
- To: who is taking the action or making a decision. Primary recipients.
- CC: who needs to be included for context and awareness. People not expected to take any action or reply to the message.
- BCC: for impersonal emails (e.g. newsletters) that don’t warrant responses. Use this if you want to keep recipients’ from seeing each others’ emails. The list will be a secret to everyone but the sender.
- Bonus: Different ways you can frame a request:
- Please [verb]
- Would you mind [verb-ing, aka gerund]
- Could you [verb], please
- And as always:
Do email, the military way.
BLUF stands for “Bottom Line Up Front”. It is a communication framework that’s designed to enforce speed and clarity in reports and emails. It was originally introduced by Commander Alfred H. Miles in A Code for Correspondence in 1934.
We saw the keywords. What are those? Quoting this HBR article:
- ACTION – Compulsory for the recipient to take some action
- SIGN – Requires the signature of the recipient
- INFO – For informational purposes only, and there is no response or action required
- DECISION – Requires a decision by the recipient
- REQUEST – Seeks permission or approval by the recipient
- COORD – Coordination by or with the recipient is needed
I have referred back to the article more than 10 times ever since I discovered the framework. Go read it.
The core ideas of the framework are:
- Give away your main point in your first paragraph. Don’t hide it in the depths of the email. Email is not the best place for you to walk the audience through the exact route you took to reach your conclusions. Save that for when you are writing a mystery novel. Give it all away.
- Use the subject line to quickly orient the recipients towards the action you intended or require them to take: Inform, Decision, or Action. For Decision and Action, we add NLT (No Later Than).
- Make it easy to scan and understand. Use lists and break key points into separate sections / group of text. If you have several main points, number them. If you have several divisions, use subheads. First sentence of each section should be its main point.
Email like you tweet. Ask yourself: What would a 255 character version of this email look like?
Get to the point and organise for readability. This requires you to 1) first be clear with yourself about what you’re trying to say/ask and 2) spend time thinking, drafting, and editing. 
Hard thinking makes good writing. Good writing makes easy reading.
My attention span has definitely shrank with the amount and speed of information I have available every second, 24/7. And I believe I’m not the only person who immediately snooze a piece of content; whether it’s an email, an article, a Slack message, or a video when I can’t quickly decide “What is in it for me? Do I need this now?” and “So what do you need me to do with it?”, within 3 seconds.
Everyone is more distracted than they are busy these days.
I keep this in mind whenever I’m writing, speaking, or presenting in business settings. I first aim to create that hook to get my audience’s attention locked. Then I open and close gaps to keep the attention engaged as needed — but always, laying out the points as clearly and as lean as possible. No fluff.
Wouldn’t you want to love to live in a world with less lengthy and ineficient emails, meetings, and presentations?
Yes as a consumer and knowledge worker, I always try and develop and maintain that mental muscle to stay focused and do deep work. But my heart sings whenever I see a clear, concise, and thoughtful piece of communication. I immediately think highly of the person who put them together.
That said, this style of communication might come off as blunt and brash. I trust we all know how to adapt and apply it appropriately according to our different cultures and settings.
We don’t always need to get to the point — keeping every piece of communication as lean and dry as possible.
When your goal is to tell stories, it’s more effective to walk our audiences through your thought process, share the trails and evidences and let them come up with the conclusion. People love putting two and two together. That’s why suspense novels and puzzles are intriguing. People remember and engage with stories more than a list of facts.
When your goal is to persuade or get buy-in for your ideas, making people reach the place where they see the same problem as you do and then helping them feel like they come up with the solution / idea themselves is a great method to execute.
When our goal is to ask for or tell facts that don’t need to last, then efficiency is the better policy.
It’s all about knowing the different tools and applying them well.
Related Mental Models
Other links worth checking for examples and extra details about the BLUF framework.
About this series
Even though this guide is aimed at helping non-native English speakers working in Tech, native English speakers can also use this as a cheatsheet for synchronous and asynchronous communication as I believe the principles here are mostly language agnostic and are more about guiding the way we can think and approach certain situations in business settings.
My working outline for this series:
- Managing Asynchronous Communication as a Non Native English Speaker & Running a meeting > Preparing > What and When
- Running a meeting > During > Starting, Setting Context, and Presenting
- Running a meeting > During > Moderating Discussions, Answering Questions, and Disagreeing
- Running a meeting > During > Concluding & Thoughts on English Skills Being a Non Native English Speaker
- Business Emails
- Managing Up and Managing Down
- Asking for Help, Delegating, Following up
- Frames to Help You Think More Strategically, Critically, and Creatively
- Misc (Consulting Mindset, Sharing Information, Coaching Your Team, Salary Negotiation, Sales Calls. Please suggest in the comment section any other topic you’d like me to share about.)
Make sure to check out the previous parts If you missed them and stay tuned for upcoming ones, but don’t feel any FOMO for skipping around. I am proponent of more “Just in Time” and less “Just in Case” living, so you should be able to treat each part as a standalone piece.
Hope these conversational frameworks and reference phrases save you time, let you focus more on solving real problems for your teams instead of spending your brain CPU cycle worrying about what when and how to say certain things.
About this publication
Be sure to check back on Tuesday and Thursdays for updated links as the series go.
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Good conversations are rare these days but we often forget that we can create them. So go and share this with friends and colleagues who would find this useful to spark meaningful discussions and generate shared experience.