Despite the rapid growth of intra-company apps like Slack and business use of text messaging, email remains the primary communications tool in business, both within and between companies.
Everyone complains about email, but it seems that no one does anything about it. However, Adobe’s annual consumer email survey, reported in an article in Mental Floss provides some hard evidence for what not to do with your email. But fefore we get into the don’ts, let’s list the do’s.
The “To” Field
Autofill has made it easier than ever to send previous recipients email, even if they would have no interest in it. Think long and hard about the following before you fill in the address field or let your email app do it for you:
- Who really needs to know about your topic? Think about the way secretive organizations like Apple operate – they keep information on a strictly need-to-know basis. While you don’t want to develop a reputation as secretive, people already get way too much email. According to Adobe their survey of 1,000 white collar workers with smartphones found that they spend 3.1 hours a week checking email.
- Why are you sending it to them? If it’s just to keep your colleagues “in the loop” you may be doing them a favor by not sending it all or moving them to the cc field.
- What action do you expect? If you aren’t clear what you expect your recipient to do about your email how can they be? And if you send the email to more than one person it can be fuzzy about which person is expected to do what. If there’s not action expected, go back to point number two – why would they want to know about your topic?
- If action is expected when do you expect it? Everyone is busy. If you don’t attach a deadline to your expected action, even if it’s just “get back to me by next Monday or I’ll assume it’s ok.” your to do will slip to the bottom of their list, if not off it entirely. Redundancy helps avoid confusion. Rather than just saying “next Monday” use “next Monday, the 25th.” And notice the use of the default above? A default is the action that will take place unless the user intervenes. Defaults are very powerful in computer interaction design, as they reduce the decision making load on users. Defaults can provide the same benefit in emails.
- Why are you sending it? Unless you are replying to an email, you need to make the reason for sending it clear from the get-go. See “The Subject line” below. If your reason is too complex to fit a subject reline you may need to rethink it. Again, though, redundancy can help, so it doesn’t hurt to restate the reason in the first line of the email less tersely than in the subject line.
The “cc” field
- The over use of the cc field is probably the biggest problem with interoffice email. It’s so easy to add people “who just might need to know” or “just might feel slighted if I don’t include them.” Well if you develop a reputation for just emailing people who really need to know and don’t bother everyone else that will soon become a positive in your online reputation.
- Be careful about cc’ing superiors. Think long and hard before you cc your recipient’s manager or other senior official. There are at least two bad outcomes: one, your recipient may feel like you are covering your ass by copying their boss and two, the senior person may think the same of you. Neither are good for your virtual reputation. Keep that “need to know” principle in mind. Experienced emailers who get involved in referral threads wisely say something like “moving you to cc” to me when I’ve done my job of introducing two acquaintances. Then I know I’ll soon be dropped from an email conversation I know longer need to take part in.
The “bcc” field
I never use this field. I don’t like the idea of hiding a recipient from the person I’ve directed the email to. I can imagine if you are in corporate HR or have some other internal political reason to use this – but I’m not. If you aren’t either, then don’t use it. And if you use it infrequently you may actually forget if you cc’d or bcc’d someone, which could get embarrassing in a team meeting.
The Subject field
- Anyone who gets a lot of email – and who doesn’t? – learns to scan subject lines. After the importance of the sender – and most email packages enable you to set up a VIP list to highlight email from important people, use it – the subject line is next. Lack of clarity in subject lines is one of the biggest issues I deal with. My guess is that people just don’t give enough thought to the subject in their rush to write the actual email. But treat the subject line like a text message – it needs to stand alone and convey useful information.
- Keep it short! Overly long subject lines may get truncated or wrap awkwardly depending on the recipients device and email app. And shorter subject lines are more likely to be read.
- As a test bring up your own email and view just the subject lines. How many are helpful? How many are too long? Or even too short? By reviewing both the emails you receive and the ones you send you can keep tabs on how well you (and others) are making use of the Subject line.
The From field
This one seems like a no-brainer, right? But for those of us with multiple email accounts it isn’t. If your default account is your work account you don’t want to use it for personal email. And if for some reason your email defaults to your home email address, make sure you change the From field in business communications. Which brings up a pet peeve of mine: people who share email addresses with their spouse. I have no idea why they do this, or worse yet, why they use these email addresses for business, but you’d be surprised by the number of freelancers or entrepreneurs who do this. One word for this practice: Don’t!
Ok, we are finally at the whole point of sending your email – seems like a lot of work to get here, but trust me it will pay off. Some simple rules for your message:
- Be consistent in how you address recipients. If you know them, then a “Hi, Bob” is fine, though some people prefer you don’t bother with a salutation and just get to the point. For someone you don’t know you’ll want to give more consideration to the salutation and potentially be more formal, as in “Hello, Mr. Jones:”
- Keep it short, simple, and to the point.
- Keep separate topics or points in separate paragraphs. This makes it far easier for the recipient to read or scan.
- Don’t mix personal with business in the same message.
- End with an action item, even if all you want is an acknowledgement.
The major takeaway from the Adobe survey was that 25% of email recipients were enraged by getting emails with phrases like “Not sure if you saw my last email”, “per my last email,” “per our conversation,” and “any update on this?” It seems clear that people resent follow up emails. If someone hasn’t responded to your email there’s probably a good reason – they aren’t interested or are too busy. Sending them yet another email won’t help in either case.
The other tip from the survey is to eliminate tentative filler language like “no worries if not” from work emails. If you want to get ahead, it’s better to be assertive, clear, and direct in your emails, not passive aggressive and wishy-washy.
One final tip – replying to email
Don’t use a previous email to start a whole new topic with your recipient. Not only can this be confusing, your recipient may skip your email if they see it as a reply that they have already dealt with. If you have a new topic to email about, start a new email! They are cheap and it will keep your recipients email inbox more organized, along with your sent email box. The latter is important, if like me, you sometimes use the sent box to keep track of where you are in a project with another group.
To recap: email is dangerously easy to use, and thus to use sloppily. Keep in mind you intent in sending your email. Remember that how you handle email will make up an important part of your online reputation. Needlessly cc’ing your colleagues manager or worse yet, the manager of someone you are trying to sell to, can be self-defeating in the short run and harmful to your reputation in the long run.
We are stuck with email for the foreseeable future. So learn to use it sparingly and appropriately, just as you would with any other form of communication.