Email Infinity Plus – Part 5: How to Make Your Emails Readable

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Let’s say you’ve got a ton of ideas thanks to Email Infinity. You’ve structured your first email using the three-part “Thought For The Day” Method. All good so far. But now you come to write it… is it readable?

This is massive. Your reader won’t persevere if the email looks like a big sweaty effort. Why would they, with a million other things vying for their attention?

They’ll only wade in if it’s super-easy to absorb your message. So easy, it feels like they’re not READING it at all – they’re just BREATHING IT IN!

I’m not saying it has to be “short”. I’m saying make it a fast, easy read. So they feel they’re moving quickly through the message… shooting towards a meaningful end.

The key is to make your emails SIMPLE and CONVERSATIONAL – so they feel more like a chat with a friend than a memo to the board. So how do you do that…?

21 Ways to Keep it Conversational

My book Do You Talk Like That at Home? goes into this in detail. It’s all about the mantra “Write Like You Talk”.

You can grab a free copy here, along with my other books on direct mail and planning your next marketing campaign.

Or if you’re stuck for time, here’s a quick list of small changes you can make to your copy – changes that will give the reader a much easier life!

1: Talk directly to the reader

A good radio presenter knows, they’re having a one-to-one conversation in the listener’s ear. They may be talking to millions of people at once, but each listener should feel like it’s a private moment.

Your copy should have the same single, intimate voice. So you’re not saying “Do any of you feel overworked and under-valued?” – you’re saying “Do you feel overworked and under-valued?”.

It’s a small difference, that draws the reader that little bit closer.

2: Talk about them – not you

Your “what happened to me” story isn’t really about you – it’s about them, and the impact it has on their lives. So keep relating it back to them. Their problems. Their fears. Their dreams.

A useful trick is to use the words “you” and “your” as much as you can – and limit words like “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”, “we”, “us” and “our”.

3: Use simple words

“Help” is better than “facilitate”… “use” beats “utilise”… “prove” beats “substantiate”… you get the idea. Even if you’re writing to a professional, upmarket audience, please don’t get sucked into the Big Word Fallacy. You’ll sound pompous and no-one will like you!

4: Use effortless words

Words like “buy” and “learn” suggest there’s going to be some effort! So instead of “Buy it now”, say “Own it now” or “Get access now”. Instead of “Learn how to XYZ”, focus on the end result: “You can XYZ”. It just feels easier!

5: Use contractions

In conversation, you’d say “you’ll know how to”, not “you will know how to” – so your copy should do the same. Use the shortened form.

(The only exception being, when you’re trying to sound more emphatic – in that case, “I will not be repeating this offer!” is more effective than “I won’t be repeating this offer!”)

6: Use jargon carefully

Industry buzzwords have their uses – they can show readers you’re one of the gang, and you understand how their world operates. But think about your whole audience: are they all “in on it” – do they all speak this lingo?

If not, you don’t want to annoy the non-jargon people, or make them feel out of their depth. Better to segment your list into laymen and expert groups – or stick to one list and keep it jargon-free.

7: Keep sentences short

Researchers say we can handle a sentence that’s up to 14 words long. After that, we start to lose the thread. And by 25 words, the brain goes into meltdown!

Don’t get too hung up on the numbers here – just take the principle. Break longer sentences into 2 or 3 short lines. Or use a bridge, like a hyphen ( – ) or ellipsis (…).

8: Break it down with bullets

If a sentence feels like a list of things, bullets are your new best friend.

Start with a “hanger statement”, like “You can:” or “You’ll discover:”– then make sure each bullet reads as a follow-on. As in:

You can:

  • Find more customers
  • Charge higher prices
  • Double your business

You’ll discover:

  • 7 ways to find more customers
  • How to charge higher prices
  • The fastest way to double your business

9: Don’t overstate it

Only use a word if it absolutely totally helps you to make sure that the sentence that you’re writing really does make total sense!

Or to put that another way:

Use the words you need – nothing more!

10: No flowery language

You’re writing copy, not prose.

So don’t say: “When you finally succumb to the realisation that…”

Say: “When you realise…”

To put that another way, you’re writing to EXPRESS – not to IMPRESS!

11: Apply Elegant Variation

Maybe you need to use the same word twice in the space of 1 or 2 sentences. And maybe that sounds awkward. Synonyms can help.

Example: “we’ll check your hearing aid, to make sure it’s still producing the best sound. Then we’ll clean your hearing aid and give you some new batteries.”

This isn’t terrible – but “hearing aid” crops up twice. So it’s better phrased as:

“We’ll check your hearing aid, to make sure it’s still producing the best sound. Then we’ll clean the device and give you some new batteries.”

12: Clear beats funny, vague or clever!

Humour can work in copy, but it comes with a risk. It can easily detract from the message, or even leave a reader with the wrong impression.

Puns and wordplay are the worst offenders. They focus the reader’s mind on linguistic trickery – not the meat of the message.

And forget ‘clever’ stuff, that asks them to join the mental dots. If they don’t see the point immediately, they won’t bother to look for it.

Just be direct and to the point. It won’t win you any awards, but it will get your message across.

13: Use colloquialisms, not clichés

Colloquialisms can help your message, because they’re easily processed and understood. But clichés can spoil the message, because they’re naff and overused.

Unfortunately, there’s a very thin line between the two! And it’s always shifting – so today’s colloquialism is tomorrow’s cliché. Plus, this is very much in the eyes of the reader. Some will feel a certain phrase is nicely colloquial, while others will feel it’s a stale old cliché.

So you have to use your judgement, thinking “what’s acceptable to the reader – to this particular audience?”

For reference, here’s a generic list of each. You may disagree….

Cool colloquialisms:

  • Making tracks
  • Not on my watch
  • Suck it up
  • Hacked off
  • Tooled up
  • Bad-Mouthing
  • Standing guard
  • Hedge your bets
  • Pass the buck
  • Eat my dust
  • Hunker down
  • Keep your powder dry

Evil clichés:

  • Bought the T-Shirt
  • Mutton dressed as lamb
  • Money for old rope
  • Talk to the hand
  • High as a kite
  • Run of the mill
  • Sick as a parrot
  • Wine O’clock
  • Like a duck to water
  • I wasn’t born yesterday
  • Put your money where your mouth is
  • You’re driving me up the wall

14: Avoid embedded clauses

When you park a sentence inside another sentence, like this mini sentence here which is called an embedded clause, the reader will lose their thread.

You’re asking them to take in Point A, then park it half-way through to take in Point B, then come back to Point A!

That’s a lot of bother! So they’d rather you explain Point A in full before you move onto Point B.

Example: “JJ Solicitors, which has been around for over 30 years and has expertise in every field, can help you with all your legal queries.”
…would be better as:
“JJ Solicitors can help with all your legal queries. Over the last 30 years, we’ve developed expertise in every legal field.”

15: Be active, not passive

Back to the classroom here!

ACTIVE: John ate the cake
PASSIVE: the cake was eaten by John

In other words, active means “people doing things”, while passive means “things being done by people”.

Readers can process an active phrase quickly, but a passive phrase takes a bit of mental gymnastics. Plus the passive dulls the edge of your copy. Best keep it active.

16: Use positives, not negatives

Every negative phrase can be reworded as a positive.

NEGATIVE: I can’t do this until tomorrow
POSITIVE: I can do this tomorrow

This is just like active Vs passive: a positive phrase is easy to process, while a negative takes some effort. Plus, a negative puts a downer on the message. Stay positive.

17: Relax some grammar rules

In conversation, we break the more pedantic rules of grammar. So feel free to do the same in your copy.

That doesn’t mean abandon all rules and descend into chaos! You don’t want to misuse apostrophes… or misspell words… or throw in stray words that cause confusion…do any of that stuff and you’ll slow the reader to a halt.

But there are minor grammar ‘sins’ that can give your copy pace – and personality too.

Example – the world is not going to end if you…

  • Start a sentence with conjunctions like “and”, “but” or “because”
  • Use a comma before “and” (aka the Oxford Comma)
  • Write a short sentence without a verb (Like “Bad idea!”)
  • End on a preposition, like “at”, “by”, “with” or “from”
  • Replace old-sounding words – so “whom” becomes “who”, and “whilst” becomes “while”

18: Keep paragraphs short

If a paragraph is too long, it feels daunting. So keep yours to just a few lines. It will help to keep up the pace and make for an easy read.

Especially if you vary the length of paragraphs, and throw in the odd single line.

19: Pay attention to segues

Your copy is a developing argument – so each paragraph should flow effortlessly into the next. In other words, there should be a logical sense of progression.

Often, that progress is implied – as it is in this paragraph. We’re expanding on the last paragraph, so you know where the message is heading.

Some paragraphs don’t imply progression. This one doesn’t.

But it would, if it had said:

“However, some paragraphs don’t imply progression.”

…Because the word “however” acts as a segue, to signal a change of direction.

See how that works?

20: Make your copy scannable

Some readers are methodical, reading every last letter on the screen. But others are lazy, scanning the message to pick out the main points.

You have to make sure your copy works for both types of reader. So here are some techniques you can use to good effect:

  • Vary the length of paragraphs, so the copy doesn’t seem dull at a glance
  • A single line paragraph in between longer paragraphs is always effective
  • Start with a single line paragraph, to lure the reader in
  • Use regular sub-headings or emphasis to help readers get the gist at a glance

21: Linearity is king

One email has one purpose. So it has just one story, leading to one reflection, leading to one offer and one call to action. Anything else is confusing.

Next Up: General Q&A
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What is Email Infinity?

If you send regular emails, and you know the agony of staring at a blinking cursor, waiting for inspiration to strike…stare at this instead!

Email Infinity comes from years of geekery, of late night sessions analysing email after email.

Stuff I’d mailed to my own list. Stuff I’d written for clients. Stuff from pros and gurus. Stuff from regular SMEs.

It all went under the microscope, in a furious bid to reverse-engineer whatever “it” was that was working.

The result is 100+ proven ways to generate ideas – enough to keep anyone in emails till the end of their days.

UK Copywriter James Daniel

James Daniel

You might not know who I am, but no doubt you've read my copy. If you've ever bought a hearing aid, a pizza oven, flat roof or vacuum cleaner. If you've hired a will writer, an IT guy or accountant. If you've been to events on marketing, acting or how to buy a business. There's every chance it started with a bit of my copy - a few simple, chatty, gently persuasive words. Ring any bells?

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