A large portion of my communication takes place via email. Over a period of time I have built certain guidelines to conduct effective email communication. For the foreseeable future, email will remain the primary source of corporate (and personal) communication. I present below the following tips (in no particular order) which have helped me get good results – I am sure you will also find value in at least one of these:
A quick “got it” or “will get to it next week” is much better than just waiting and doing a lot of work on the side, which is invisible to the sender. The sender will assume the worst, and contemplate whether he/she should re-work, or re-write the email. (I am still working on this one).
The subject line is the message
If you can deal with the topic in the subject itself, i.e. put an asterisk (*) at the beginning of the subject line, or EOM (end of message) at the end of the subject line, you don’t need to write anything in the body of the message. Your recipient does not even have to open the message! This will work only when people are familiar with this style. Your own project team, study group or department can use this great time-saver.
Save long stories (that’s for in-person or leisure telephone calls). Use simple language and short sentences. We used to have a person who would write long sentences constructed using the Queen’s English and use words that would make the common man’s head spin. For every email, I’d have to open dictionary.com and check the meaning of certain words. When I checked around, most others shared the same feeling.
To be effective, you got to write shorter, crisper and simpler.
And it is not professional to use chat lingo (lol, c u l8er, Gr8, ttyl, etc.) in emails. The possible exception – and I have to check on this – is when you are responding using your mobile phone. That is when typos are forgiven and you could use short-hand. I use it very sparingly, and only in cases when I do not have access to my laptop and I feel that responding to the message is more important than waiting to compile a well thought out response.
Cut out the bcc
The blind copy – where the recipients do not know who else in being copied – is sneaky. In earlier days it used to backfire, when the blind copied person inadvertently hit a “reply all” and sent a response. But that is not possible now in standard email functionality.
If you must send it to someone else, you can always forward the copy from your sent message folder with an appropriate message. That way you can send a different message along with the rest of the message.
I have also received messages which start with Dear All (what’s that, by the way?) and my email is the only one in the “To” section. This is a classic case of having all emails in the bcc, so that the other addresses are hidden from each other.
One topic per email
And come out with the topic clearly at the start. In that same vein, keep it to one request or inquiry in an email, whether it is a call for action, requesting a decision, or seeking a response to an open-ended question.
Specify what you are requesting for, and by when.
Also, as the email thread or chain grows longer, be on the lookout for other questions or topics creeping in. A different topic means a different mindset and possibly a different grouping of people.
I have my own rule for this. When it is the third or fourth round (back and forth), and/or there are three or more people on the email, it is best to close the email and call a meeting.
Format your message appropriately – use paragraphs, bullets or numbers and bold/italicize sparingly, i.e. only the relevant parts.
Don’t lump the whole message in one big paragraph.
Please use punctuation marks. We had a senior manager who would just write one long sentence. That’s it. Without commas or periods. It was difficult understanding the message.
Worse, don’t use too small font-sizes or too large font-sizes.
A flowery or patterned background can be used during the holiday season, but sparingly.
Also, you should settle down on a particular font. Don’t change it every now and then. I use Calibri – size 10, black color for my messages. I have seen people use Comic Sans Serif for their messages. As long as I can associate the font with the person I am fine.
Be familiar with the recall functionally, but use it very sparingly. Also be aware that most email services do not have this – this is another reason to not rely on this feature. I use this functionality only in Outlook.
Automated out of office message
Outlook allows you to set a different message to people outside your organization than to those within your organization.
The reason is that for people within your organization you can provide your mobile number (it should already be in your contact information anyway) and also a deputy in your absence. This information is gold for vendors who make unsolicited calls. So don’t include this in the message to people outside your organization.
When you include the name of a different person to be reached when you are away, please make sure that person is not away! This happens quite often.
You do not need to set the automated out of office message every evening when you leave the workplace (i.e. you are out of office). Surprised? I get this message quite often.
Another good thing to include is if you are going to be in a different time zone. Especially when you include your mobile phone number, this at least alerts the caller to not call you at certain times.
High priority flags, etc.
In Outlook you can assign flags such as high priority, due by, read receipt, etc. One tip is to use these sparingly. If all your emails are marked “high priority” (the red exclamation mark), then guess what – there is no other flag for “high high priority”.
Many a times I have been bailed out by the Due By flag. The flag alerted me to complete something for a colleague, like completing a report or providing a review. Since the report was being compiled for a higher person in the organization, the flag saved me from being the person who delayed the report!
So use the due by flag (at least) when you are compiling the report for your boss, and need inputs from your peers. And let them know.
I understand the use of “read receipt”, but I have hardly ever used that functionality.
More Relevant subject lines
In internet marketing, a very common statistic is that out of 10 email recipients, 8 read the subject line, and 2 open the email. The 20% open rate on emails leads to crafting more impactful and suspense-filled subject lines.
While you don’t have to be dramatic with your subject lines, at least make them relevant. By the time the email opens up, you have a few micro-seconds to get your reader in the right mindset.
Sometimes I pull out old(er) emails and start a new topic, simply because all the people I need to send the new message to, are on that email. I have been guilty of leaving the same subject line on. It becomes very confusing. You better have relevant subject lines for the message.
Personalization is important
In a one to one message, personalization works wonders. After all there is a human being who is going to open your email, more like a friend and associate.
Either use the pleasantries at the beginning or at the end (not in the middle of the email).
Sometimes I include a short “PS” at the end of the message, asking “how was the team event last evening” or “hope you are feeling much better now”.
I have seen PS, PPS and also PPPS in certain messages and these are related to the main message. Then I wonder why were these not included in the message itself and why are they afterthoughts?
Handling messages piled up in your inbox
Especially when you return from vacation or a business trip, you will find a ton of messages sitting in your in-box.
If you are a methodical person you will start tackling the messages in the order in which they came in, i.e. first message first. This is good for getting “the story as it happened”.
Here is a quicker way:
Organize your messages by “conversation”. Then check out the last message, i.e. the most recent one, and you can work your way through to the earlier messages. More often than not, the issue would have been taken care of.
As soon as you get that (that the issue has been resolved), move on to the next conversation.
Scan the sender and the subject lines of the other unread messages to know which ones need to be read more thoroughly. You can move them to another folder in your inbox (I have named this folder “To Read Carefully”) and pay attention later.
The unread emails remaining are most likely the ones that don’t need a response, purely informational, or sales/informational emails. You can either come back to them later, or move them to a less important folder.
This will help you get a good grip over the messages that have piled up in your inbox in your absence.
Responding to messages
For some messages you need to wait for someone else to respond first. I adopt this strategy when I feel that my response may be controversial and I want to see if at least one person in the group shares my feeling. Other times, I want to be the first to throw in my support to the person taking the stance in the first place.
For group email responses, this is an art and you need to find out what works best for you.
Whether you choose to hit just reply (i.e. only the sender gets your response) or hit reply all (where everyone gets the message), you need to make a conscious decision.
I have received emails where the person says “I can imagine” or “LOL” with reply all. This has prompted me to send out my own “reply all” saying that unless there is a pointed question to me, to please take me off that email chain.
It is bad enough having a lot of emails to deal with (I process, on average, more than 60 emails a day, and I can tell you that number is quite low) without these “no-value” reply all’s.
You are better off with two rules of thumb.
One is that there is no such thing as a “confidential email” and the second is that you must assume that all your emails will be forwarded.
It is easy for someone to forward your message because you have described a situation. Re-writing the message or tailoring it to the extended audience is a pain. Forwarding is easier.
If you have something confidential to say, use the phone or seek an in-person meeting instead of emailing.
Your email signature
Email signature serves two purposes. Firstly it provides your contact information so the recipient can reach you. Secondly, it allows you to market yourself by including your title, organization and your educational qualifications.
You can have multiple signatures in Outlook and customize the signature to make it relevant to the people you are writing to. For routine emails that you write to familiar people you perhaps do not need a signature. But you are communicating with external partners, it is important to indicate your authority and contact information.
When the email chain grows, you should cut out your signature from your next response, especially if your signature is already available in an earlier email in the chain.
Some people include a quote or a thought for the day, usually pulled from the internet with no attribution to source. I recommend leaving this out, since it neither conveys your personality nor adds any value to the message.
Action needed? Ask for it
There are various ways to ask for action. If you are seeking a decision, lay out the points that need to be decided on, and ask the reader to pick one (or many as applicable).
I use voting buttons in Outlook, when there is a quick yes/no decision that I need.
I also mark (right at the beginning) some of the following, as applicable.
FYI – for your information only
FYA – for your awareness
FYNA – for your necessary action
Nothing to do at this time
Documented evidence emails
Also called “CYA” emails, you should be trained to spot these. Usually when someone is copying their boss or your boss on the email, or when they are quoting their actions and events that took place in the past or when they attach other emails to this email message, it indicates that they are documenting something.
Usually this is to protect themselves. From the opposite side, this is to incriminate you.
In my experience such emails take time to write, make the writer (and the receiver/s) uncomfortable, generate more activity and usually DO NOT contribute to a result.
To be really effective, you must be results-oriented as opposed to being activity-oriented.
Whenever possible, avoid attachments. When you must attach a document, be conscious of the size of the attachment. 4Mb limit is the standard limit for most corporate Outlook messages. If your attachment exceeds this size, you may have to send multiple emails with attachments.
A better option is to use a collaboration service such as Sharepoint, Google drive or Dropbox. Be aware that recipients would need explicit authorization to access documents in these locations.
Group email chain
Two things to note when you are one recipient in a group email chain:
When replying, leave the message thread – but under no circumstances should you EDIT the thread.
Close the loop in a group email – send interim update messages, i.e. who has responded, and who you are waiting on (you can generalize this as well). This is if you are the originator of the email.
Plain text does not convey the tone. And you have absolutely no control over how the recipient is reacting to your email. Therefore, you need to proof-read your email to ensure that (to the best of your ability) the right message is conveyed in the right tone.
Some other best practices are to run a spell-check, not to use all capitals (it is email equivalent of shouting).
Never send a message when you are disturbed. Almost always it will come out wrong. Best solution is to wait a day. A night’s sleep somehow has a magical effect of calming one down. At least I have found this to be very effective. Even so, I almost never send out the first draft I write (in case of a problem, escalation, personality clashes and resolving critical issues). Sometimes I seek the help of my boss or a colleague to review my note, just to get another person’s opinion.
Resist the urge to send a follow-up email when you are seeking an urgent decision. Allow time to the other person to respond. Best case is to assume that someone is on vacation and forgot to turn their out of office message. Other reasons are sickness or email overload. If your message went on a Thursday, wait for Monday. Or use the phone to find out if they have read the message.
The matter may be urgent to you. It may not be urgent to the recipient.
Image (c): Kay Leadership Academy