Email

Email is both the best and worst tool around.  It allows for almost instant communication around the planet.  The downside is the constant notifications when a new email arrives.

Email is very often overused.  It becomes a form of messaging tool. This is reducing with the introduction of services from Facebook, Slack and Microsoft.  Email is still the most dominant written communication tool.

What should I send in an email

We use email for a long list of different communications.  These include:

  • Short update text
  • Task assignments
  • Detailed updates
  • Ways of sharing photos
  • Sharing links to interesting articles
  • Long-form text, sometimes with mixed in graphics
  • Sharing of documents using attachments.

Being able to share something via email does not mean we should.  

There are many systems we can use.  These provide the same functions but with increased convenience.  

The downside is different people use different systems.  These all need unique user accounts and passwords.  We end up needing to remember who uses what and how we access it.  This is a lot to remember when sending a one or two line message.

Using email means there is one interface.  We can access this anywhere on the planet.

How should I structure my emails

This depends on the audience you are sending it to.  Your organisation may have style guidelines for emails.

In general you should try and follow the following simple guidelines

Be brief

A lot of people write an email as if they are writing an essay or novel.  They are long and consist of paragraph after paragraph.

Emails in this style generally end up with one of two results

  1. They are not read
  2. They are read but due to length the message does not get through

The key to successful emails is to keep them brief.  Use bullet points, where possible.  This means that someone can easily see what you want from them.

If you need to include long paragraphs of explanation then put them at the bottom of the email.  This text should only be there if it supports the bullet points you have written.

Keep an eye on the length

We are all busy.  We have a constant flow of information coming at us from many different sources.  One of the key ways we prioritise what to read is the length.  If we see something with a lot of text we are likely to move on to something that is easier to read.

Try and keep your emails less than 3 paragraphs long.  Also try and keep each paragraph no more than 3 sentences.

This means you have to spend a bit of time thinking about the message you want to send.  This is useful as it allows you to get clarity over what you are requesting.  It is surprising what spending a couple of extra minutes thinking and clarifying can do.  You end up with a succinct message that is easily read.  This also results in a quicker turnaround of your request.

Don’t mix messages

It is very easy when sending an email to someone to put everything you want into one email.  This means the emails length grows and introduces potential confusion to the reader.

Split long emails into single request emails.  This increases the likelihood of getting a good response.  This does mean sending multiple emails to the same person.

The benefits of this approach include:

  • Increased response rate to requests.  The recipient is likely to action simple requests immediately.  You are no longer waiting for all the actioning of all the requests before getting a response.
  • This reduces the likelihood of missing requests. Often recipient actions the first request but misses the rest due to the length of the email. 
  • The recipient will be clear on each request.  Each email contains the request and its context.  If anything is not clear then the recipient only needs to clarify that request not the whole email.

CCs and BCCs

We often copy, or blind copy, people into emails. 

For those who do not know, when someone is blind copied, BCC, then no-one else in the email chain knows the person is BCC’s.

As a general rule try and avoid using BCC.  It is very passive-aggressive.  It only provides one-side of the story.  Using BCC means they lose the full context of the email exchange.

When copying people in it is best to think about the reason for doing so.  It is very easy to add people who don’t care about the conversation.  

This could include things like adding in your boss to every email you send.  Likely they do not care about the conversations, they can get the summary from you.  They only need to know if something will impact the business result.

Other times people use CC, and often BCC, is when sending a “complaint” email to someone.  This is usually a tactic to humiliate and belittle people.  Don’t do it!

Think about the people you are going to copy in.  Do they have a valid business reason to see the email?  If not then don’t include them.

Email Chains

These are another bane of our working life.  You send an email, usually an unclear and long one.  This spawns a response.  You answer this and receive another response for clarification.  This can go on and on for days, and often weeks.

In this situation it is best to have a hard rule on how to handle it.  I find the best one is:

  • If you have more than 3 emails in a chain do one of the following:
    • Pick up the phone and talk to each other
    • Go to the other persons desk and talk (yes a lot of people sending emails sit within meters of the recipient)
    • Arrange a meeting to discuss the email contents

The simple act of talking reduces the confusion and allows work to move forward.  This is much better than the ping-pong email chain.

Spelling and Grammar

I am putting this here as it is something I am guilty of.

Always check your spelling.  It is surprising how a small mistake can take someone out of the message.

Always check your grammar.  I am aware that my grammar is not very good.  To help with this I use the following web services, which analyse the text and help me to fix the issues.

Using these together allows me to clarify my text and improve my response rate.  It does add a bit of time to the creation of the email.  But it saves a lot of time over the confusion that poorly worded emails generate.

Summary

Email is something we need in our lives.  It allows us to communicate with others regardless of where their location.

We need to monitor how we use emails.  To help ensure responses we need to keep in mind:

  • Being brief in our text
  • Keeping emails short and to the point
  • Having one clear message or request per email
  • Thinking about who we CC or BCC into an email
  • Keeping on top of email chains, so they don’t ping-pong between people
  • Check spelling and grammar to help the recipient to understand and action the email.

Email is likely to be a big part of our lives for the foreseeable future.  It is down to us to make sure we get the best value from it that we can.

 

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Also published on Medium.