You’re writing an important email to your boss, and it has to hit all the right notes. You want the subject of your email to be taken seriously. You want a quick response. And, you want to approach the subject with the right amount of professionalism.
But, you know that your boss is busy—and if your email is too wordy, asks too much, or isn’t clear enough, you’ll likely have to wait a long time to hear back from them. Worse, they might shoot down your idea simply because they weren’t clear on what you were asking, or because it took too long to wade through your email and get to the point.
Fortunately, if you put yourself in your boss’s shoes, and frame your email with their preferences (and their busy schedule) in mind, your message is a lot more likely to be effective.
Here are some strategies that will help you learn how to write an email to your boss that is more likely to be well-received, prioritized, and quickly acted on.
1. Cover the most important information first
When you’re writing an email to your boss, it’s tempting to overflow with formality and pleasantries. You want to come off as polite, competent, and not demanding. Plus, if you’re making an important request, you might even be a little nervous, so you may try to be overly deferential.
This is totally understandable. But, beating around the bush won’t do you any favors.
So, consider framing your email so that the most important information is as close to the start of the message as possible.
You don’t have to completely dispense with politeness, but don’t offer several paragraphs of small talk or context before you get to the meat of your message. Begin with a greeting, and get to the point.
Let’s say you’re emailing your boss to let them know the results of a project you have been working on.
That email could look something like this:
Hi Mr. Smith,
I wanted to let you know the results of the A/B test I’ve been running: We’ve seen that version A vastly outperformed version B. Version A saw a 4.5% click-rate, versus version B’s 1.8%.
With this in mind, here’s how we’re moving forward: [Continued context and next steps as needed].
This example starts with a polite greeting and quickly gets to the main point: the results of the project. From there, you can go into more detail if needed—but you’ve put the main point front and center, so your boss doesn’t have to hunt around to find the key takeaway.
2. Start with the question
Are you asking for a raise? Suggesting a new tool that could help your team manage their work better? Requesting time off? What do you need?
We sometimes get so caught up in describing our circumstance, that the “ask” gets a little lost.
Using a simple example: Let’s say you are emailing a higher-up to discuss a promotion. You’ll likely build a case for why you deserve it, your experience, your successes, and so on. You’ll probably also want to state that you’d like to have a meeting to talk about it further.
Those things are all valuable and necessary to include—but don’t forget to actually clearly state that you are requesting consideration for a promotion. Articulate the question or the request clearly and early on in the email, so that it doesn’t get lost under all the context.
So, you might begin your email like this:
I hope your week is going well.
I’m emailing you today as I’d like to be considered for the manager role that just opened up in our department. Over the past few years, I’ve demonstrated my leadership skills through [examples that qualify you] and I played a key role in [projects that you initiated]. [Continued context and further persuasive messaging].
With an email like this, the “ask”—to be considered for the management role—is front and center. After clearly articulating the request, the email can then go into further detail and provide a persuasive argument for why the request is important and should be granted.
Speaking of persuasive arguments, just because you are being brief and to the point doesn’t mean you should avoid persuasive language. Consider sales emails for inspiration; they need to be as persuasive as possible, but still grab the reader’s attention quickly. This is also true for emailing your boss—you want to get their attention, be brief, and offer a persuasive argument.
So, if you are asking for that promotion, being persuasive might look like framing your ask so that you clearly highlight how the company stands to benefit (as opposed to just how it benefits you personally). Or, maybe you’re pitching a new technology; can you include persuasive “social proof” that shows how your competitors are benefiting from using that tech in their businesses?
For more ideas on making your emails more persuasive, this Hubspot article geared toward writing persuasive sales emails is a good place to start.
3. Use the right tone
Just because you are writing an email to your boss doesn’t mean you need exaggerated deference and formality.
What sort of voice and tone is appropriate within your company? Do you use titles and last names only, or are you on a first name basis?
Whatever the precedent is within your organization, your email communication to higher-ups can still follow these same rules. So, be polite and defer if that’s the relationship—but you can also be less formal (but still polite) if you have a more casual relationship.
Here at Palo Alto Software (makers of Outpost), we have a fairly informal company culture. Notably, our COO Noah Parsons prefers less formality in email overall. For Noah, this often means dispensing with capitalization, sign-offs, and opening small talk. I discussed the reasons for this (and email formality in general) in more detail here.
So, when it comes to emailing your boss, take note of their preferred style of communication. (If possible, having your entire team write their own user manuals is a great exercise and way to clarify preferred communication styles; I talk about user manuals a bit more in this article.)
For example, if I’m sending Noah an email, I know not to make excessive small talk and ask him how his weekend was before getting to the point. He prefers brevity, so I follow his lead. I’m also fairly certain our director of marketing, John Procopio, would look at me as if I’d grown a second head if I addressed him as “Mr. Procopio.” Since our communication style is more casual, that just isn’t a part of our company culture. So, all emails start with “Hi John,” or “Hey John,” or simply dive right in and begin with the reason for emailing.
The main takeaway here: When it comes to tone, don’t feel the need to be overly formal if that isn’t typical within your business. Just because you are emailing a boss doesn’t mean you need to throw your company’s standard way of interacting out the window.
4. Keep it to the point
Email is essential, but it can also be difficult to deal with on a daily basis. Wading through your inbox takes a lot of time, and it’s easy to get lost down rabbit holes while trying to solve problems and answer questions.
You’ve certainly experienced this. Now, imagine how your boss feels. They experience the email time suck just as much as you do—but, they have the added pressure of having to approve (or say no to) request after request, put out fires, take the necessary steps to move tasks along to avoid being a bottleneck, and so on.
A study by Michigan State University found that not only is email disruptive to managers, but it can also negatively impact their leadership abilities. When email takes over, what suffers is leadership. That is to say, in order to make room for a continuously swelling inbox, managers cut corners elsewhere. They become more task-focused, and less leadership-focused.
Knowing this, it’s important to keep your emails to the point, and as succinct as possible.
We’ve already discussed putting the most important information first, and opening with your big-picture “ask.” In addition to these elements, focus on keeping the entire email on point. What is the “Tl;dr” of your email? What context can you afford to omit? Don’t get wrapped up in explaining every little detail; if need be, request a meeting to discuss the topic further.
Remember, each minute your boss spends reading and responding to email is a minute they don’t have to focus on being a strong, effective leader, and managing their team. So, stay on point and keep emails as short as possible.
5. Consider their preferred communication method
Broadening the discussion out from email alone, think about this: How does your boss most prefer to communicate? What works best for them? What type of interaction is going to get your question answered most easily and efficiently?
Maybe they prefer to be able to give a quick approval message over Slack. Or, perhaps they’d rather hash things out in a meeting. Maybe they do best with a Basecamp task that is assigned to them, with all details and material clearly logged and included, so that they can review everything when they have the time.
Kateri Kosta, our managing editor and content marketing strategist here at Palo Alto Software, says that she appreciates it when people are open to getting an answer to their email through another channel—like a Slack message, during a meeting, and so on. “I find that if I email someone with a complex question or requests, if I offer that they don’t have to write out a full response if that’s not convenient, I often get my need met sooner. It’s great to be able to think about the requests, but not get bogged down in a composing a 500-word response that takes into account every single variable, ” she says.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of instances where email is necessary and the best way to convey information. I’m hardly suggesting that you only ask your boss important questions over Slack because it is their preference. But, consider working into your email an understanding of this preference, and offer them a chance to respond with another communication method if it works better for them.
This could mean closing your email with: “I’ll set up a meeting so that we can brainstorm how we’re going to move forward” if they prefer a back-and-forth verbal dialogue, or “I’ll drop by your desk at 1 p.m. today to get your thoughts” if you know they are free during that time and prefer a quick pop-in.
Coupling your next steps with consideration for their preferred communication style makes it easy for your boss to know what to expect, and leaves space for them to respond in a way that meets their needs. Not only is this likely to generate a more favorable response and keep you in your boss’s good graces, but it’s also respectful, plain and simple.
6. Clearly articulate next steps
Speaking of next steps, close your email by being clear about how you’d like to move forward.
What do you need from them? Do you need their approval—to move forward with a project, to take time off, or similar? Do you need to meet and discuss something? Do you need a key piece of information?
Be clear about what it is exactly that you need, and what kind of response you are expecting. This can be as simple as closing your email with: “Please let me know if I can schedule a meeting sometime this week,” or “If I have your approval on this, I will get started right away.”
Collectively, these strategies are all about respecting your boss’s time and giving them the path of least resistance.
Think about it this way:
Which email are you more likely to respond to as soon as you read it—one that requires a long, complex, typed out answer, or one that just requires a “yes, sounds good”?
By being clear, brief, respectful of their time, and thoughtful of their preferences, it’s much easier to write an email to your boss that is both well-received and addressed quickly—instead of abandoned in their inbox indefinitely.