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.
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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.