Tips: Effective E-Mail
This is basically a response to to MichaelJ’s We Have to Fix E-Mail page from earlier today. I didn’t leave my thoughts in the comments there as I didn’t want to take over his page. I also figured they might have a better chance of being seen (and perhaps being helpful) if they were on their own page.
The article MichaelJ referenced discussed various techniques for managing the huge amounts of email we deal with every day. In my experience there are two things that can greatly reduce the clutter of business-related emails: Knowing how to write an effective email, and knowing when NOT to use email.
Know how to write an effective email:
Use a clear, relevant subject line - I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received emails with vague subjects such as “Hello”, “Feedback Needed”, “Phone”, “Website Estimate”, etc. Subject lines like these make it exceedingly difficult to locate that important bit of info you need 3 months and 2,000 emails later.
First and foremost, always include a project or client name in the subject.
Second, If you’re making a request or asking a question, then preface the subject with REQ: or Q: accordingly. If your email doesn’t require a reply, then indicate such by using FYI.
Third, if you’re resending an email that was somehow previously missed by the recipient—or if you need to subtly make the point that you’re still waiting for a response—then use RESEND instead of the default FW.
Fourth, try to stick to only discussing the project/client/action listed in the subject. If you must switch to something else in mid-thread, then at least to amend the subject line in some way that will help you (and the recipient) locate the email 6 months down the road, should you need to. I usually add something in parentheses or square brackets.
If you have a client or coworker that consistently sends you emails with useless subject lines, you can politely ask them to be more specific (that is, assuming that you have a great boss like mine who trusts you to be tactful).
Keep the body of the email short & sweet - Keep your paragraphs short and to the point, and make sure you’re explaining things in a manner suitable to the position of the recipient—e.g. the farther up in the corporate chain someone is, the more likely they are to be interested in a high-level description instead of details (which may be meaningless to them).
If some sort of action or response is required or expected of the recipient, then close the email with a clearly stated call to action, for example: “Please let me know when you’ve successfully downloaded the file so I can remove it from the server” or “Please let me know you’ve received the attached file” etc.
Formatting is your friend - If you know the person can receive HTML email, then use bulleted lists, tables, headings, bold text, etc. to help visually convey information hierarchy. Even if you’re limited to plain text emails, you can still provide cues by using all caps for headings, tabs for indents, asterisks for bullets, numbers for lists, and a series dashes or underscores as separators.
THIS IS A HEADING
Here is my list:
* Item 1
* Item 2
* Item 3
Here is some other stuff:
1.) Yada, yada, yada
2.) Yada, yada, yada
3.) Yada, yada, yada
And so on.
Know when NOT to use email:
This is perhaps the most overlooked solution of all. We are so used to just firing of quick emails, that we often forget some subjects are simply better suited to a phone conversation.
If there are a lot of things that need to be explained or discussed, or if you’re already confused and seeking clarification on something, it’s often more efficient (as less frustrating for everyone involved) if you just pick up the phone and call. You can—and should—always follow up any phone calls with an email reiterating what you spoke about, as well as any action that needs to be taken as a result (in other words CYA).
That’s it. I promise that if you follow some of the guidelines above, it will help you tame your inbox.