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Can This Email Be Saved?

I got a request from Luke, who wanted help with an email. He wrote:

I recently authored a brief ACT prep guide that I am giving to schools throughout the country free of charge. Unfortunately, the response rate from superintendents/ principals has been very low. I believe this is partially because I need to send a more concise and inviting email. I'm also not sure whether I should send the PDF of the prep guide with the initial email or not. Could you help me construct a better email so that I can reach more schools?  

Note: ACT is an entrance exam that many U.S. colleges use to assess applicants. 

Below is the entire email Luke has been sending, with the exception of his subject line, which he did not share with me. 

I am writing to inform you about a brief study guide I recently authored. My advice is based upon years of studying and coaching, and it is available free of charge. Would you mind passing this on to the parents of ______ High School? I hope you find it useful, and I wish you the best of luck. Thank you for your time! Let me know if you have any questions.

Do you recognize why Luke's email is not getting a response? Would you revise it or start over? On Friday I will share my recommendations. 

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

15 comments on “Can This Email Be Saved?”

  • The main problem with the email is that it isnʻt You-Attitude focused. The emphasis is on “I” – what I did, what I want. Where is reader benefit? I teach my students that busy executives always ask two questions: what is this? how will I benefit. The guide may be the best thing since sliced bread, but without reader benefit, it will be ignored. I love you column and regularly use your articles with my students.

  • Here are my suggestions for how Luke may improve his Email.

    1. Add a greeting indicating who this Email is directed to.
    >Dear ____/To the College Guidance Counselor of _____ High School,

    2. Start with a more thorough introduction stating his credentials.
    >My name is Luke [Smith], and I am a [professional educator] with [11] years of [higher education] studying and coaching experience.

    3. Introduce the purpose of the Email and why it benefits the recipient.
    >I am writing to offer you a free copy of “[ACT Up!]”, a brief ACT study guide that I recently authored. The advice in this guide includes:
    *[What kind of content to expect on the ACT]
    *[Tips and tricks for effective study sessions]
    *[Test taking strategies]

    4. If he attaches a file to his original Email, it may get filtered as spam. He might offer to send it later, or better yet, tell the recipient where they can find it on their own if they are interested.
    >If ____ High School’s students would find “ACT Up!” useful, you may download the full guide from []. I would also be happy to send it to you in PDF format via E-mail.

    5. Luke should state his contact information in the body of the Email.
    >Please contact me at if you have any questions.

    6. Make the closing a bit more specific.
    >Thank you for your time. I wish ______ High School’s ACT test-takers the best of luck!

    7. Sign off with his name and contact information.
    Luke [Smith]
    [Education Professional]

  • How about adding a call to action at the end of the email. For example, he can indicate that he will be following with a telephone call to discuss their needs.

  • I agree with Alicia. I notice that Luke barely states his qualifications to be offering this kind of service. At the same time, he’s marketing to people who are in the credentials business. He lacks credibility.

    Has Luke considered that the whole approach by email may be wrong? I imagine that school administrators get hammered by at least as much email solicitation as the rest of us. Some of them may be constrained from forwarding ANY email to parents.

    Besides, if parents are the target, why isn’t Luke approaching them directly? Sorry, but any re-wording of this email isn’t going to hide the fact that he’s trying to get school administrators to “carry his water.”

    A publicity campaign that gets his free assistance into the news may be much more effective, especially when coordinated with a social media effort that keeps the information percolating among groups likely to be most influential. Back this up with a self-service web site for delivering the goods, and who knows?

    If he had endorsements from some respected teachers–or even better, from students who succeeded with his assistance–I think that would help too.

    My two cents.

  • Hello Kamalani, Alicia, Perminus, and Jim,

    Thank you for your excellent ideas for Luke. You have made my job here easy.

    Kamalani, I agree that the message needs more focus on benefits to the reader and the reader’s students. Adding the details that Alicia mentioned would fill that gap.

    Alicia, you have provided a terrific outline for Luke. My main suggestion for him is to do a better job of answering the reader’s likely questions, for example: Who are you? Why should I read your email? What does the study guide contain? Your draft of the email answers the reader’s questions.

    Alicia, I also like your idea of providing a link to the study guide, along with an offer to send a PDF.

    Perminus, you are correct that the call to action was missing. Luke indicated to me that the response rate was poor, yet he did not ask for a response.

    Jim, I admire your solid thinking on other ways to communicate. All I know of Luke’s situation is what I posted above. I am not certain why he is doing this (which he should mention in his email to principals) or how much time and effort he wants to invest. Depending on his motives and goals, your ideas may be perfect for him.

    I will send Luke the link to this discussion. I hope he will take the time to respond to your helpful suggestions.

    Thanks to all!


  • Thanks for the suggestions, everybody! I agree that parents/teachers would be better to contact, but there are no large email directories for teachers/parents. There are statewide email directories for principals/superintendents, so it is much easier to do that, though it is not ideal. As far as the letter goes, I think the biggest problem was that I focused too much on “me” instead of them. It also sounded boring.

  • This is what I came up with!

    Dear ______,

    Are you drowning in an ocean of paperwork? Do you feel distant from the students you hoped to serve? Let me introduce you to a revolutionary tool that administrators across _____ are using to connect with students and parents alike: Efficient Improvement.

    Written by a renowned ACT tutor with twelve years of coaching experience, this unique approach to ACT prep is inspiring kids across the state to improve their scores, escape the cycle of poverty, and aim squarely for college.

    Administrators rarely get the appreciation they deserve, and I’d like to offer you the opportunity to have a highly visible impact on the lives of every student in your district. How? Just share Efficient Improvement with the teachers and students of _______ High School. It costs nothing.

    This is your chance to connect with students, endear yourself to parents and teachers, and create a legacy for yourself all in one stroke! And not to gain glory, but to be known as someone with a passion to provide quality education so students have the most opportunities to go out into a new, exciting world.

    Few achievements can stand above providing countless students with an amazing study guide for the ACT, the most vital test for their future. May I respectfully ask that you review Efficient Improvement, share it with _______, and watch the incredible response you receive. Let me know if you have any questions.

    Best regards,

    Luke Ramsey

    P.S. Introducing this complimentary ACT prep guide would be a spectacular way to start the school year!

  • Actually,

    I would propose writing a short, succinct email with only the key salient points.

    The subject title is also crucial to readers. No one bothers to read emails with boring subject titles.

    Perhaps something like: Increase student intake with (name of Guide)!

    My suggestion:

    Dear so and so, (better if he goes the extra mile to get real names)

    (1st para – Short intro of himself, background and objective of writing.)

    (2nd para – brief intro of his guide, followed by benefits to target audience)

    (3rd para – call to action. Guide in pdf format can be downloaded here. If you required further information, my contact information is in my signature. -and for bonus points- volunteer to make himself available to give a talk about his guide and how to use it.)

    Finally, sign off.

  • Hello Luke,

    You have certainly changed the message!

    I am sorry to say that I feel uncomfortable and irritated with this draft. As a superintendent, I would delete the email after the opening sentences. I am turned off by the assumptions about the reader and the suggestions that your brief study guide will change the reader’s life.

    The email uses way too much hard sell language. Who says your study guide is “revolutionary”? In whose opinion are you “renowned”? “Escape the cycle of poverty”? “Every student in your district”? “Create a legacy”? That’s too much hyperbole, and readers will see through it.

    I apologize if my comments pulled you in the wrong direction. When I agreed with Kamalani that you should focus on benefits to the reader and the students, I did not mean to suggest that you sell so hard. The benefit to the superintendent is that he or she can pass on a useful, no-cost resource in an environment where study guides always cost money. The benefits to the students–what are they specifically? And are they proven? If so, say so.

    Luke, I recommend that you follow the suggestions of the writers above. For this draft, that means cutting the exaggeration and hard sell techniques. Write with honesty, clarity, and conciseness about your study guide. Your original email had holes in it, but you can start with it again and fill in those holes as necessary. See the comments of Missinex above.

    To show your expertise, include a brief reference to your publications, your work history, or your awards. That would give your reader confidence that your work is worth passing on.

    If you cannot provide documentation about the success of your guide yet, start small. Get some parents and students to try the guide and see how much it helps them. (Or get one superintendent to comment on its usefulness.) Take what you learn from people who try the guide, and either promote the guide because it leads to terrific results or revise it.

    Persevere! I wish you success.


  • I agree with the many great suggestions. And also agree that the rewrite contains heavy helpings of marketing cheese.

    I’d add one thing. School counselors, in my opinion, are the best target, at a school, for this email. If an email list is not available for them, it would be wise to include a line in the email, such as, “Please share this email with your school’s guidance counselor(s)”.

    But, Luke might want to connect with some college fairs. They are the ideal market, as students who attend are more likely to take the ACT. The college fair will have an additional offering and might also have direct correspondence with students.

    On a technical note, the ability to A/B test emails with a subset of the mailing list is fairly easy and is built into most email marketing platforms. Testing subject lines to see what offers the best open rates is a start. You can then test the content to see which gets the most click throughs before sending out a mass email.

  • With five years experience as a school district administrator (technology services; not directly focused on instruction), I’d like to weigh in briefly.

    Principals and curriculum leaders want to know there’s some research showing success of a program or materials before they distribute it to parents. This entire concept has a very long uphill climb if Luke expects a principal to endorse his program and/or materials. Any distribution in the manner he is requesting would be seen as an endorsement (leading to liability, perhaps, if parents find it a waste).

    Luke needs to show some research, with a control group, that shows that students using his guide have higher ACT scores than similar students that do not. Without evidence of success, I don’t think he’ll find many takers.

    I applaud the effort, but I’m pretty sure no administrators in my district (~22,500 students) would pass this information along to any parents. There are numerous such programs around and the only thing that would make this stand out is evidence of success.

    And, in response to an earlier post, school district administrators get bombarded with SPAM in similar quantities to business leaders.

  • Thanks for the follow-up advice! I definitely get what you’re saying. I’ll type up a couple different versions and see which one gets the best response, then stick to that one. Thank you, everybody, for all the help!

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