Software

12 do's and don'ts for communicating effectively via email

Writing effective email messages is a matter of developing the right habits. Here are a few good ones to apply--and several missteps to avoid.

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Image: iStockphoto.com/peshkov


We've been using email for a while now, and most of us have learned a few basic rules, such as 1) Don't use all uppercase letters and 2) Don't use emoticons and acronyms. Yet despite our efforts, email is often ignored because we still can't seem to agree on a few simple standards. In this article, I recommend a few habits that when adopted (or avoided) will help you communicate more effectively via email.

1: Do be succinct

Your messages should be short and to the point.

2: Do use meaningful subjects

Using a meaningful subject will increase the chances that recipients will act in a timely manner. The best subjects are action-oriented, providing a synopsis of what the recipient needs to do. For instance, the subject Project Meeting isn't nearly as meaningful as Project Meeting: Need your agenda points. You can't abuse this power though; recipients will learn to ignore you if you bluff them with too many dramatic subject lines.

3: Do organize

When you must include a lot of information or make several inquiries, organize that information in a meaningful way:

  • Put the most important information first.
  • List subsequent items in order of their importance or time-sensitivity.
  • If you have several action items or questions, format each as a separate line or a bulleted list to make it easier for your recipient to respond.
  • If the message is going to multiple recipients, bold corresponding names for action points and questions.

Keep in mind that the longer your message is, the less likely the recipients are to respond or act upon the information (see #1).

4: Don't abuse To's and Cc's

Don't include everyone in your To list just because it's easy. To determine whether a recipient is a To or a Cc, consider the following:

  • To recipients are people who need the information to act.
  • Cc recipients need to know that the To recipients have received the information.

Why does it matter? It's a courtesy. A quick glance at the recipient list allows Cc's to better prioritize incoming mail. Some people even use rules to move messages in which they're a Cc recipient to specific folders for later review.

5: Do read it!

You know what you wrote and it's great, right? No, probably not. Reviewing for typos and logical errors is an easy habit to acquire. Nobody's so busy and so important that errors don't matter.

6: Do be discreet

Nothing's private anymore. If you include gossip or derogatory comments, someone will share your thoughts, even if you ask them not to. Don't say anything in email that you wouldn't want read aloud in a meeting.

7: Don't use email for everything

If you need a quick response, call or stop by the person's office. Email generally isn't effective with time-sensitive issues.

8: Don't belabor the issue

If an email conversation goes south—due to inaction or drama—take control. Make a phone call if you're dealing with one person. If the issue requires the input of more than one person, use the options in the Respond group (on the Home tab) to set up a meeting.

9: Don't take action for granted

If you know recipients will need a bit of time to respond or act upon your message, ask them to acknowledge the email upon receiving it. "Please respond when you receive this message and let me know when I can expect ...." prompts the recipient to acknowledge your request without requiring a complete response.

Everyone hates the read receipt option. They're intrusive, and some people consider them rude. In addition, most everyone ignores the High Importance tag.

10: Don't annoy your manager

It's a bad idea to Cc your manager on every email you send. Most managers probably don't want to be Cc'ed on any of your email at all, so do so sparingly. If you're uncertain, ask your manager what he or she prefers.

11: Don't write when angry

This one's tough, but don't send messages when you're angry. If you must spill your guts, go ahead, but save it as a draft and revisit it later. Sarcasm isn't a good communication tool either—it's usually misunderstood in email.

12: Don't nag

Don't send follow-up messages too soon. In the initial message, tell the recipients when you expect a response and then leave it alone. If that date comes and goes, then nag away.

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. Don't send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at susansalesharkins@gmail.com.

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About Susan Harkins

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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