7 tips for emails that don’t annoy and actually get things done

inboxSometimes I would like to replace that eco-friendly addition to e-mail signatures “Do you really need to print this e-mail?” with “Do you really need to write this e-mail?”; with the volume of e-mail I have to process each day, there’s no time to waste wondering why I received the message or what action I am supposed to take.
Though many excellent articles have been written about e-mail etiquette and effective message writing, I have my own pet peeves and (hopefully) a bit of good advice on the subject.
 

 
1) Why are you writing this e-mail?
When you open a new e-mail, be sure you know WHY you are writing the message. Do you need someone to provide a specific piece of information or take an action? Approve something? Is this an article of interest that you want to share and no action is required?
 
Knowing why you are writing the e-mail will help you write a clear subject line, an effective message and will ensure you choose the appropriate recipients for your e-mail.
 
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I don’t know how many times I have scratched my head wondering what I am supposed to do or why I received the message.
 
2) Subject lines are critical
I am floored by the number of times I receive e-mail with an irrelevant subject line or worse, no subject line at all. More and more, people scan the subject lines in their inboxes to decide which e-mails to open first. With the mobile Web added to the mix, this is becoming the modus operandi for sorting e-mails.
 
Do you want to get something approved by Friday? How about “Approval needed on X project by Friday” as a subject line? If you need additional details to complete a report, “Additional info needed for X report” could be a good choice. Or, if you are sharing an article of interest, my favourite approach is to add “Info” to the beginning of the subject line: “(Info) Article on new trends in X”.
 
Oh, and if you are replying to an old e-mail I sent you rather than pulling my address from your address book, please change the subject line. I once received an e-mail with a subject line urgently requesting my input about a project that had ended two years before.
 
Speaking of urgent, typing the word “Urgent” or adding exclamation points to your subject line does not make your e-mail a priority. It makes it annoying. Especially if almost all your e-mails are “Urgent!!!”.
 
3) Be specific about the action you want the reader to take
A good subject line will get your e-mail off on the right foot, but writing a clear message that tells the recipient why you are writing and what you would like them do will increase the likelihood that you will get a relevant reply.
I like to put the action required up front and complement it with context later on. That way, even if recipients are just scanning their inboxes, they will get the gist of the message in the e-mail preview text.
 
Let’s say a supplier is going over budget and we need to organize a meeting to review how to deal with the cost overruns before moving forward with the next stage of the project. The goal of the e-mail is to say that we need to meet to find a solution to a specific problem.
 
So a good way to begin could be:
Hello Joe,
We need to meet before Friday regarding cost overruns by XYZ. This may have an impact on our ability to deliver project X.
You can then briefly explain the problem (where things went over budget), the action needed (a meeting to be scheduled) and the desired outcome (making a decision about how to deal with the supplier and/or deliver the project).
 
4) Be as brief as possible
The best e-mails go right to the point and do not cloud the message with preamble. Short sentences and bullet points are always good ways to break down the information.
 
One technique that has worked well for me has been to state in the first sentence the number of subjects about which I need information. I then elaborate each in short sentences in a numbered list.
 
For example:
Hello Joe,
I would like to clarify three points from your e-mail so we can brief the supplier.
1) Does the budget you gave me include production costs?
2) Did you want to give the job to XYZ, or do you want to have it evaluated by more than one supplier?
3) When you say, “For the end of the month”, can the delivery date be November 30, or do you need this completed by a specific date?
If you can get back to me by Tuesday, we can get the project underway by the end of the week.
Thanks,
 
My experience is that the numbered list makes it easy for the recipient to answer directly in the body text of your e-mail, and ensures that all your questions are answered.
 
One last note about brevity: for complex issues requiring multiple actions and decisions, consider whether an e-mail is the best way to go. A call or a meeting might be a better choice.
 
5) Use Cc, Bcc and Reply to All with restraint
At one time or another, we have all been caught up in the spiral of messages generated by people hitting the “Reply to All” button. Recently, I was on a committee of over 20 people. The meeting organizer would send the last meeting’s minutes to all attendees. Then, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, most of the committee members felt the need to “Reply to All” to say things like, “Thanks!” or to address points that were of concern only to them. This chain generated a whopping 37 e-mails in one week, most of which could be deleted immediately. This was incredibly frustrating because I actually had to check these e-mails on the off chance the content pertained to me or required some action on my part.
 
When I Cc people, I usually add a line at the beginning of the e-mail like “Joe, Jane, this is for your info only.” In business environments we often have to Cc bosses for reasons of protocol (or to cover our behinds), but if you do not have to include someone on an e-mail, don’t. They will thank you for it.
 
The best use of the Bcc is when you want to write to a group of people without revealing everyone’s addresses to the group. In this case, the Bcc is the polite thing to do as it protects recipients’ privacy and avoids the whole “Reply to All” scenario.
 
Otherwise, I only Bcc individuals when I have told them beforehand that I intend to do so. For example, if I have to address problematic behaviour with an employee, I will often tell my superior that I will Bcc them on the correspondence. That way, my employee doesn’t feel like she is being “dressed down” in front of the big boss, and my superior is made aware of the action that was taken.
 
6) Don’t write it if you wouldn’t be prepared for everyone to read it
E-mails can be forwarded, printed and shared witho7 ut your knowledge. Never assume that any e-mail is private. Ever. Private conversations take place face-to-face, usually behind closed doors. Don’t write it if you are not prepared to see it on the company bulletin board.
 
7) Be polite and watch the tone
This should be obvious but I am finding that, especially with more and more people writing and replying to e-mail on mobile devices, basic politeness is often the first casualty of the e-mail war.
 
I personally like to begin with a salutation (“Hi Joe”) but many are foregoing this step by beginning with the message itself. This can be perfectly fine if the message is respectful and polite. But I often see abrupt, run-on sentences as directives or replies that make me bristle (often in lower case when it comes from a phone) when that was probably not the sender’s intention.
 
I don’t think that everyday “functional” e-mail requires a lot of fluff and fanfare. But the right choice of words can make all the difference. For example, the following two replies contain the same number of characters, but the tone is totally different.
??? what do i do with this? need to see finals before approving. See me
vs.
Let’s meet to go over finals before approval. I have questions. Thanks.
 
One exception: if you are writing something “official” to the entire department, to your CEO, or to memorialize an organizational decision, the preamble and protocol are a must. This type of communication is actually a business letter that is sent by e-mail.
 
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