13 techniques to improve your emails

If you have ever sent an ill-advised or error-laden missive or have been swept up in a meeting availability vortex, you’ll welcome—and share—these tips for refining the process.

13 email tips

Ever get annoyed with work emails? You’re not alone.

Nearly two-thirds of one survey’s respondents cite it as a source of workplace complexity, confusion and resentment.

As a writer and communicator, you can help turn the tide by making your own emails a model of clarity and efficiency—and save some of your own time, to boot. Here are 13 tips:

1. Don’t send emails reflexively. Consider whether you could better handle the issue with a phone call or direct conversation. Here are six times when it makes way more sense to speak with someone rather than emailing them: You want to apologize, you expect lots of questions, you have to explain something complicated, you’ve taken too long to respond, you want to discuss something personal, or the issue at hand is urgent.

2. Be succinct. Emails may seem fast and easy to you, the sender, but remember the challenges your recipients face. Recall your own inbox with 353 unread emails, and don’t ramble on and on. Instead, get to your point quickly. If your email is super short, odds are better that you’ll get a faster response—and your reader will appreciate your superior communication.

3. Have a specific subject line. When the line is highly specific. For example: “Tornado may affect delivery of your purchase” is much more motivating to read. (Also, the email is easier to find later.) In your subject line, offer a summary of the information contained in the message. If there’s a deadline, put it in the subject line, e.g.: Sales report. DEADLINE, Friday, July 19.

4. Be clear about what you want people to do. Put your request high up in the email. Don’t bury it in the middle or toward the end. If you want the person to write a report or attend a meeting, tell them right away. Your clarity will improve their response rate.

5. Discuss only one idea per email. Don’t jam 10 messages into one email; don’t even jam two. Just as “one person, one vote” should be a respected principle in politics, the concept of “one email, one idea” should govern your email behavior. I received five emails from my webmaster this morning. Each addressed a single idea (and the subject line matched). I love getting email this way. It helps me stay organized and find important information more easily.

6. When setting up meetings, list your availability in the first email. If you want to set up a meeting with one other person, begin your email by listing your own availability. (e.g., “I could meet Monday between 2 and 3; on Tuesday, any time after 11 a.m., and Wednesday between 9 and 10 a.m.) If you need to set up a meeting with multiple people, don’t do it with email. Use an app like Doodle.

7. Check your tone. Email is inherently relaxed, but there are many traps within. First, if you’re writing a business email, keep your tone professional. No smiley emoji or too-casual language. Also, whatever the style of email, be aware that humor—irony in particular—is hard to convey, because so much depends on tone of voice. Even with friends, avoid humor in email; save your best jokes for your phone or in-person meetings.

8. Make your email scannable. Use super-short paragraphs, employ bullets or numbers, consider subheads (for necessarily long emails.) Just as important, pick a legible font at a reasonable size, and don’t overuse boldface or italics.

9. Always CC the minimum number of people. The irritation of getting needless messages becomes incandescent when the email contains a single sentence saying something like “thank you,” or “I agree,” copied to a dozen people.

10. If your email offers a compliment, CC that person’s boss. Everyone appreciates praise, but they’ll get even more value out of it if their boss is made aware.

11. Don’t assume privacy. Don’t send anything by email that you wouldn’t want posted—with your name attached—in the staff room. Email is not secure.

12. Be sure to proofread. Have you ever looked like an idiot because of spelling or grammar mistakes in your emails? Never send emails right away. Instead, develop the habit of saving them as a draft and editing them an hour later before sending. I know this strategy will seem like a hassle, but you’ll spare yourself a lot of embarrassment. Even better, it will prevent you from sending angry emails without thinking twice.

13. Don’t reply too quickly. Dampen your enthusiasm for the speed of email. If you’re dealing with an issue where speed is essential, pick up the phone. Otherwise, process your email only several times a day. If you always respond to email in less than five minutes, you’re training your colleagues to expect that rate of response. Instead, train them to expect the reverse.

This post first appeared on The Publication Coach blog.


One Response to “13 techniques to improve your emails”

    Bill Spaniel says:

    Good advice, Daphne. Many people, including myself, just read the subject line and first two or three lines of an email in a preview screen to determine if it is worth opening. Sometimes I’ll just send an email that only has a subject line that conveys the information that is important to the recipient.

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