Use this structure for tricky emails

Young person with head in hand looking at laptop and sitting in cafe boothIf you’re putting off writing a tricky email or text right now, you’re not alone.

According to a recent poll by YouGov, almost one in three adults (31%) say they’re currently struggling to compose a message or have struggled to recently.

And the survey of over 3,000 people in Great Britain shows the problem is most common among young adults.

Young struggle

Nearly half (46%) of 18- to 24-year-olds say they have trouble with emails. (See our graph below.)

Those at the other end of the age spectrum are the least likely to be dogged by difficult messages.

This makes sense. After all, most have retired from the workplace by their late sixties and left the tyranny of email behind (along with tricky customers or troublesome bosses).

That said, those in their later years often do still struggle in a world in which we rely ever more on communicating through our keyboards.

But what may be more surprising is that younger people, who’ve grown up with the internet – the so-called ‘digital natives’ – are the most likely to have trouble with written communication.

In my experience, there are two explanations for this paradox.

Email shock

First, many younger people seldom use email at all until they enter the workplace. And they’re often shocked to discover that there’s a big difference between chatting with their mates on Instagram and writing a professional message to a senior colleague.

The other reason is that they rely more on their keyboards to communicate. And writing itself is not a natural process for the human brain, let alone one that’s still developing.

Email and text are wholly unsuited for dealing with complex or emotive topics.

But there is an alternative technique that’s often much better for this kind of heavy lifting. And it’s a method that we’ve evolved over millions of years.

It’s called speaking.

Bar graph showing age groups who struggle with writing tricky emails. Full description below under 'Open description of image'

Generations text: young adults struggle most. Image credit: Emphasis, Wes Hicks

Open description of image

Bar graph titled ‘Who’s avoiding tricky messages’ and ‘Source: YouGov’.
The X-axis shows age groups and the Y-axis shows the percentage.
The bars show these results:
18-to-24-year-olds: 46%
25-to-49-year-olds: 39%
50-to-64-year-olds: 25%
65 and up: 17%


How to structure tricky emails

First things first. If you’re wrestling with how to cover several things in one message or worried that an email might backfire, that’s a sure sign you should really be talking.

Many problems can be solved in seconds by taking the phone on which you’re typing and raising it to your ear instead. (And we’re less likely to get an angry response if we do.)

When that’s not practical, use SCRAP to structure your message:

Situation – where you are now. Begin with something you’ll both agree on.

Complication – why you can’t stay there (the problem you’re trying to solve).

Resolution – your proposed solution.

Action – what you’re going to do (or would like the recipient to do).

Polite – a polite sign-off sentence to end on a positive note (for example, ‘Thank you for your patience while we get this sorted’).


Get more help

Our Knowledge Hub has lots of advice on email writing, including The seven rules of writing difficult emails.

I also cover the SCRAP technique and more in our short e-learning course Writing better email.

You can see the full results of the YouGov poll here.


Main image credit: Tim Gouw / Unsplash

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