10 Rules For Better Email

I’ve often thought about turning over this column to the readers from time to time, and today’s article is just such a guest contribution. It comes from my old colleague Dave Griffin, who was a regular and highly popular columnist on Industrial Technology magazine when I edited that in the 1990s. If you’ve got something you’d like to get off your chest, do get in touch and I’d be more than happy to give you a guest slot here. Here’s Dave Griffin then, with his 10 Rules For Better Email…

1. SUBJECT LINES

Emails consume more time than they need to, because people often have to open the message to see what it’s actually about. So write suitable subject lines (in terms the recipient will understand). And if forwarding an email with a poor subject, put a better one on it. There’s an exception to this. If you and your colleagues use a good email system that can group together related emails into “conversations”, then changing subjects mid-discussion will likely interfere with this function. But this only applies to a minority of us at the moment.

Take a leaf out of the professional email marketers’ book. Subjects should never be more than 50 characters, always with a succinct, eye-catching message. Try to see it from the other guy’s point of view. Your customers don’t want an email entitled “Quotation”. They want “Quotation from (your company) on (date)”, so they can find it again, easily, in a hurry. Think what they would call it, not what it means to you.

2. ADDRESSING: TO AND CC

It is worth agreeing a convention with your colleagues: “To” means that this concerns you, you must read it; “CC” means “just for information”. That is, you may want to have this around to read sometime, but no-one is depending on you having read it. This way people don’t have to read stuff that need not concern them.

3. REPLY ALL

In a word, don’t. This is hardly ever appropriate, unless a small team is discussing something, or a few people are planning an event. For more than about 5 people, Reply All is not the way to go.

4. QUOTING THE EMAIL IN THE REPLY

Again, don’t. You might want to quote specific bits of the email to put your answers in context. But you should not quote the whole thing needlessly, nor should you quote the footers (and in some cases legal disclaimers) from every email in the ongoing conversation.

5. FINISH THE CONVERSATION

Every email potentially starts a conversation. If you never finish any of these conversations, you will end up with an infinite number of them going on, which means your email traffic level (and that of your colleagues) will inexorably rise. In every email exchange, you should be aiming to complete the conversation if possible. Send complete answers. Don’t ask “which of these two do you mean?” when you could easily send both. Answer every email as if you are about to go incommunicado on a two-week trip, imminently, rather than as if you expect to have to deal with more of the same conversation soon. This way, each email you write may take longer, but you’ll end up writing fewer.

6. SET SENSIBLE DEFAULTS

Basic defaults on your email system (things which happen unless you specify otherwise) such as “don’t automatically quote whole email in reply” and “don’t include attachment in reply” should be common sense. Reply All must not be a default EVER. Forwarding an email as an attachment is not a good idea, as it is not platform independent.

7. USE THE BEST TOOLS AVAILABLE

You should not be seeing any spam in this day and age. If you are, you’re using the wrong technology. And you should be able to see related emails grouped together in conversations. You should also have some sort of automated prioritisation on incoming emails so you can see which are the most important. If your email program can’t do this yet, think of upgrading. Time is precious – don’t waste it doing unnecessary work.

8. AVOID AMBIGUITY

Always write dates as (for example) 1st February 2011 rather than 1/2/11 if you ever deal internationally. Whenever you write a time, include the timezone. If you deal with the USA and don’t understand the difference between EST and EDT, then go to Wikipedia and learn about it. Don’t assume “summertime” (daylight saving time) starts on the same weekend in every country. More planned phone calls are missed because of this than you would believe. If in doubt use WorldTime websites to see what the time is in the other location.

9. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Many of your colleagues will only read the first paragraph when they skim emails. That might be in a preview window that only shows a paragraph. So you should get the key message across rapidly. “There are problems with this approach – see answers below” or “Various bits of information needed by 2pm Wednesday – see details below” are a better ways for an email to start than with a page of the recipient’s own email quoted back to them before any of your comments even appear.

10. YOUR INBOX IS NOT YOUR TO-DO LIST

If an email contains something you need to act on, file it in an “Action” folder. If it has reference material, file it in a reference area (perhaps under a project). Just get it out of your inbox. You should aim to get your inbox down to zero regularly by going through it and either replying (if a proper reply will take less than a minute) or filing it appropriately. But don’t leave stuff in your inbox. It stops you seeing clearly and creates undue stress. If your inbox is used as a store of things to do then you will keep looking at the same emails over and over again.

Guest author: Dave Griffin works for LTS Technology, a provider of innovative solutions to everyday problems.

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