Here’s the bitter truth: Your 800-word opus on the status of your upcoming product launch looks like a horrifying avalanche of words on your boss’s computer screen. She clicked out of it immediately, terrified of losing half an hour of her day slogging through all your carefully crafted prose. Within minutes, the ideas you labored over are buried under an onslaught of new emails pinging her account.
It’s important to remember that it isn’t the words or ideas that doom your emails — it’s the lack of structure. And the best way to give your message structure is through classic storytelling.
In December, I wrote a post on how to write a killer subject line, with advice from The Presentation Company (TPC). Here, TPC founder Janine Kurnoff shares her top tips for bringing the same focus — and impact — to the body of your emails.
A Simple Story Structure
“Whether it’s an email, a presentation, or even a conversation, classic story structure is the ideal framework for your ideas,” Kurnoff, explains.
All stories have four recognizable signposts: setting, characters, conflict, and resolution.
- Setting: Your setting is a snapshot in time, a place, or a circumstance. It immediately establishes the context for your message
- Characters: Your characters are who or what is affected by the current situation — your customers, employees, or team.
- Conflict: With the context of setting and characters in place, it’s time to reveal the conflict. Conflict is what provides the tension that gives your audience a reason to care. Emails that get responses usually detail some type of tension or conflict that — as in any good story — clarify what’s at stake. If you clearly state your conflict or tension, you will have a much better message, and a good shot at getting a response.
- Resolution: With setting, characters, and conflict established, you can finally bring your reader safely through conflict….to embrace your resolution. Your resolution is, of course, your recommendations, product, or solution.”
Context Context Context!
If you’re a frazzled, busy executive whose head is in the previous meeting or trying to recall dinner plans or thinking about your kids’ upcoming ballet recital, all incoming ideas are harder to follow. Getting long, rambling emails without context makes them excruciating.
When setting, characters, or conflict are either skipped or buried, the reader is forced to work harder to understand what the writer is trying to communicate,” Kurnoff says.
Imagine receiving this email during your 2pm "post-lunch" food coma:
Hope your week is going well! The team is really plugging away on our stuff and we were all talking to each other about what’s next. We think there are a few things to finish up before the hammer falls next week. Do you have any thoughts here? Some of the hold-ups from a few months ago are definitely making it harder to hit our deadline. Let’s chat about this whenever you get the chance. Wow, busy week for all of us!
In this example, there is no context for the conversation. There is no apparent setting (What project? What “stuff”?). The characters are confusing because she is only referencing herself and the team. The conflict is buried in there somewhere (the word “deadline” is mentioned on line five!). Some people jump right to their resolution too soon without establishing context. In this case, a concrete resolution is utterly missing.
Here is an example of the same information, told with a story structure:
As you know, the deadline for Phase 1 of the building expansion project is next week. [SETTING, CONFLICT]. The builder [CHARACTERS] has forwarded his list of outstanding items we [CHARACTERS] need to resolve if we want to make this deadline [CONFLICT]. Below is my prioritization of this list [RESOLUTION]. Let me know if you have any specific feedback or changes you’d like me to incorporate.”
“Notice how the setting, characters, and conflict all appear within the first two lines?” Kurnoff asks. “The setting is the project finish. The characters are the builder and the team (we). The conflict is the looming deadline. After setting, characters, and conflict are established, you hit the decision-maker with your resolution (in this case, a prioritized to-do list). If you just hit the boss with, ‘here’s our to-do list,’ he or she won’t know what you are talking about or how they fit into the picture.” Kurnoff adds, “This lack of story is one of the most common mistakes people make.”
Stories Drive Ideas in All Forms
Whether it’s a presentation, a conversation, or an email, wrapping your ideas in a story gives you a much better chance of grabbing your audience and getting a response. “With high stakes emails especially, story structure should quickly orient your reader, supplying them context to digest your ideas. You’ve got a few seconds. This is your best chance of avoiding the delete button,” Kurnoff says.
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