Email 101

More and more we rely on digital media as opposed to print to organize and streamline our lives.  As the complexity of doing business increases, so does the medium of which we used to communicate.  I find it lately that I need to remind my colleagues on the appropriate use of email.  It is a popular way to reach out and communicate, but unfortunately have not been used with any kind of standard or basic "rules of engagement."  What I would like to publish are suggested standards that may be note worthy to incorporate from within your organization:


Email 101

1.      The More the Fewer… As a rule of thumb, the more people to whom an email is sent, the less likely any single person will respond, much less perform any action requested.  Those addressed in the “To” field are expected to read and respond. Those addressed in the “cc” field are not expected to respond. Only those who need to be aware of the message of the email should be copied and the number should be limited to the greatest extent possible. The “bcc” field should be used even more sparingly, as those recipients will not visible to others.

2.      Get to the Point! Always include a subject and make sure it is specific and clear. Do not make the reader wade through a long message to get to the point. State the most important point first.

3.      Don’t Write a Book! Like the number of addressees, the longer the message, the less likely recipients will respond quickly. The message will be set aside until there is more time, and, unfortunately, forgotten. Long messages should be written in memo form and attached to an email. However, if you must send a long email, warn the recipient in the subject line by stating, “LONG EMAIL ALERT". Presumably, the message will explain why an email was used instead of a memo. This is especially important in the days of smart phones where reading long emails is cumbersome.  

4.      Stick to the Point! Don’t discuss multiple subjects in a single message. This makes it possible for the sender and the recipient to scan subject lines later to find the message.  It also contributes to briefer e-mail messages and a greater likelihood of a response.

5.      Provide “If-Then” Options.  Provide options to avoid the back and forth of single option messages.  For example, “If you have completed the assignment, then please confirm that via e-mail.  If not, then please estimate when you expect to finish.”  Or, “I can meet at 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m.  Will one of those times work?  If not, would you please reply with three times that would work for you?”

6.      Never Assume.  If you are not sure of the intent of the message, ask! This will avoid misunderstandings.

7.      This is Not a Guessing Game! When responding to an email, answer all questions, and when possible, pre-empt further questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and either state where the answer might be found or indicate when you will respond with the answer. This saves everyone time – AND frustration. If you are able to anticipate follow up questions, do so. The recipient will be grateful and impressed with your efficient and thoughtful customer service.

8.      Silence is Not Golden! E-mail doesn’t demand an instantaneous answer; however, it does generally require a timely response. If you are in sales, customer service, tech support, or similar fields, a rapid response – within hours – is expected. For most others, responding within a day, maybe two days, is sufficient. 

9.      Don’t Take That Tone With Me! Unlike face-to-face meetings or even phone calls, those who read your e-mail messages don’t have the benefit of your pitch, tone, inflection, body language or other non-verbal cues. You need to be very careful about your tone.  Sarcasm is especially dangerous.  If something gets “lost in translation,” you risk offending the other party.  The more matter-of-fact you can be, the better.

10.  Sleep On It… Never fire off an e-mail in anger.  They rarely serve their purpose or further long-term interests and often result in ruined relationships. If it makes you feel better, go ahead and write the message, BUT DON”T SEND IT! If you go back and read it a day or two later, you’ll understand the wisdom of restraint.

11.  Facebook This Isn’t! When you are one of many recipients on an email, unless asked, don’t “reply to all”. Not everyone needs to know if you are booked on Friday at 10:00! This just adds to everyone’s already unwieldy Inbox.  Your default response should be only to the sender.  

12.  Don’t Be a Tattletale! It’s one thing to copy someone’s boss as a courtesy, such as when making an assignment to someone who is not a direct report to keep their supervisor in the loop.  But it is not a good idea to do this as a form of coercion. It is not subtle and you aren’t fooling anyone. You may be tempted to do this when you don’t get a response to an earlier email. You will be better served to pick up the phone and call the person.  If they are not responding to your e-mails, try a different communications strategy.

13.  Full Disclosure Is Required. Use a signature with your contact information.  This is a courtesy for those receiving your messages.  It also cuts down on e-mail messages, since people don’t have to send a second or third e-mail asking for your phone number or mailing address.

14.  English 101. Lapses in grammar or punctuation can be forgiven, but misspelled words are just too easy to correct.  That’s why we have spell-checkers.  Make sure yours is turned on.

15.  Measure Twice, Cut Once!  It’s a good idea to re-read your messages and make sure that you are communicating clearly and observing good e-mail etiquette BEFORE you hit send!

16.  Decisions Decisions! Don't assume that email is always the best method.  Decide whether it is better to write or call. You don't have to reply to an email with an email. If it is more effective, call the person and talk through the issues raised in the email. And if you find that you are emailing back and forth with someone trying to come to closure on a topic, pick up the phone and resolve it in real time. A good rule of thumb is that if there are three emails (email, response, response to the response), pick up the phone or use your feet to go across the hall.

17.  Early Dementia?  Be sure your email box is set up to include the original email in your response. (Also, don’t click “New Mail” instead of “Reply” when responding.)  Don't leave out the message thread. If your recipient sends and receives many emails, he / she can’t remember each individual email. A “threadless” email will not provide enough information about the context of the message and will frustrate the recipient.

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