Are you making crucial mistakes with your emails?

It’s been around a long time, but many people still make basic mistakes—and messages get lost or crucial actions fall by the wayside as a result. Here’s what to keep in mind.

You’ve made up your mind about email: It’s tremendously convenient, or it’s jarringly intrusive.

Regardless, it’s virtually inescapable, especially in the professional world. In online publishing, it’s essential.

When I edit stories for our websites, it matters not a whit whether I’m sending my revisions, trims and other assorted meddlings to an author in Scandinavia or 10 feet away—it’s going as an email attachment.

Every workplace has its idiosyncrasies, of course, and every work team has its shorthand. Still, certain protocols and, dare I say, courtesies prevail—or they should—in the interest of landing your message clearly and with minimal friction.

Here are some ideas for making the most of email exchanges:

Start with a salutation

When beginning a message chain, especially in the morning, a little “hello” or “TGIF” goes a long way.

Length/focus

Ideally, you should keep emails concise. Heck, you should keep everything as concise as possible; people are busy.

Choose one topic (with maybe a few related offshoots) and stick to it. The central topic below is Paul’s vacation; the offshoots are the delegated responsibilities:

Hi, all.

Reminder that I will be on vacation next week. In my absence:

  • Vera will run the weekly meeting;
  • Chuck will handle my emails;
  • and Dave will follow up on pending projects (X, Y and Q).

Thanks in advance. I’ll send you a postcard from the Isle of Wight.

Best, Paul.

Suppose you want to elaborate on the above points. You can either send a separate email to each of those three with expanded information, or you can have those bulleted items at the top for a quick glance, followed by the augmented directives:

Vera—Please cover points A, B, C and J. George will arrive late. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Chuck—Watch for information from Amalgamated Yeast; their stock is rising, and we stand to make a lot of dough on it. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Dave—Project Q is a month overdue. Please move it up in the queue. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

The email(s) above deliver information along with a …

Call to action

If you want/need someone to do something, say so—and do it specifically:

Hey, everyone:

The new dental benefits become effective Sept. 1. Please review and fill out the attached form, and return it to HR by 4 p.m. on Aug. 15.

Simply put: No form, no benefits.

Thanks.

Dennis Vizzit

Benefits coordinator

There it is: the change in coverage timeline, the employee’s obligation, and the deadline to do so—along with the clear consequences for not taking action.

Subject line

Think like a headline writer for a newspaper: You have finite space, yet you want maximum impact and clarity.

Instead of:

Employee enrollment form for dental benefits will be due in mid-August

Try:

Save your teeth! Dental form is due Aug. 15

Now imagine you’re responding to Mr. Vizzit about another benefits matter—expanding from employee/spouse coverage to full family benefits.

Change the subject line to reflect that. It keeps yours distinct from others’ dental inquiries, and it helps Dennis search for your specific concern.

Try:

Upgrading to family coverage: Baby due in March

That’s distinct and clear.

Also remember not to Reply All in such cases. Speaking of which…

Reply versus Reply All

One major benefit of email is selective inclusion of recipients. When responding, take note of the original list of recipients. Most likely your response will be relevant to everyone in that circle, so keep everyone in the loop when you reply (side remarks and conversations notwithstanding).

If someone opts out, so be it. Respect that.

If another person should be added to the discussion, at the very least, note that you are looping that person in as you do so. (You might even ask the originator of the thread for permission beforehand.)

Also: Do reply, even if you’re busy.

Got it. Thanks. Swamped now; more later.

It saves guesswork on the other end—and it will head off a follow-up when you least need another interruption.

New or modified information

Say you’re providing a report or other documentation concerning a project you’ve discussed previously, but some key figures have been tweaked or, perhaps, are still in flux because of certain variables.

Make that clear.

Hey, everyone.

We discussed the Zirnkilton bid last week, and here are the numbers in the attachment.

PLEASE NOTE: The estimate for materials is now $147,000, up from $143,500. That will actually save us on labor hours, so the overall bid is actually $8,500 lower.

Just wanted to avoid any confusion about the revised figures. Everything else is as we discussed. Thanks for the teamwork on this.

Regards, Penny Pinscher

Getting up front with deviations from what had been agree upon will establish trust; no one will be left guessing whether other issues have changed without their noticing.

Proofing

Proofread your emails—twice. Often you’ll catch something—a typo or a missing word, maybe even some ambiguous phrasing.

Here’s an example: Two colleagues and I were in an email conversation about some materials to be reviewed for our Awards programs. The colleagues—let’s call them Bill and Mary, because, well, those are their names—were sending and receiving those materials. The edited versions were flawless, as was the rest of the email. There was a problem, though; it began:

Dear Nart,

A gentle shift of the typing fingers a half inch to the left had turned Mary into Nart.

Some gaffes are far more serious than this, of course, but the resulting derisive teasing lasted weeks. I daresay that upon publication of this article, it will resume with a vengeance.

Another colleague sent an email about his availability and presence in the office during a given week.

I have outside obligations Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so I’ll be in on Wednesday.

Wait…what?

Turns out the first Wednesday was supposed to be Thursday, hence the confusion. Again, that’s not a major problem, but it required an extra round of emails to clarify. Take time to proofread your emails, and you’ll save time for all concerned.

Don’t waste people’s time

If you’ve decided something, don’t make a charade of soliciting someone’s opinion or asking them to do fact-checking on a given matter. Be forthright:

Dear team,

For the foreseeable future, we’re going to cut out the review process at the regional level and have all communiqués go straight to corporate headquarters. This runs counter to prior procedures, but this will be the new protocol.

Just wanted to let you know.

Thanks.

Cass Tinstone

What email tips would you offer? Please let us know in the comments section.

Note: No editors were harmed in the making of this article.

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