E-mails have long been the gorilla of the communication world; they’re too big to ignore and they don’t always behave properly. Despite the frequency at which most people send emails, many are drab and often a mare's nest of ideas hurriedly typed with no real regard to the reader.
The result: If you are lucky to get a response, it could be off-base and completely impertinent to the topic at hand. Worse, you could receive a request asking you to re-explain everything. In this case, you're now re-doing work simply because you rushed through the first one.
If you send e-mails (and who doesn’t these days?) doesn’t it make sense to make them more effective? I'd say so.
Here are ten things you can do today to begin refining the way you communicate in email.
- Get to the point
Face it, people don’t want to spend a second longer reading your e-mails than they have to. If they want to be entertained, they can open a good book; so don’t beat around the bush. Say what you have to say and no more. You don’t have to follow the same norms when writing e-mails that you follow in conversations and phone calls (i.e., a lot of fluff and fillers, like “Hey, how are doing?” and “What’s new?”) Just say it and leave it at that.
- Greet them by name
People like to see their names in print – even in e-mails. Including the recipients’ names in the opening lines of your e-mails buys you a pound of personalization for an ounce of verbiage. A simple, “Joe, the meeting will be held …” or “Hi Joe. The meeting will be held …” is much more appealing than “The meeting will be held ….” And it costs you only one or two extra words.
- Put the subject line to work for you
The subject line is the headline of your e-mail. It may be the only thing the recipient reads, so make it good. Use it to (1) grab the reader’s attention and pull him or her into the main message, and (2) reveal what the e-mail is about. I once received an e-mail from my son, who was in Peru. The subject line was “A monkey bit my tie.” You can bet that got my attention.
- Keep the subject line fresh
When you reply to e-mails, update the subject line to distinguish your new message from the one you’re replying to. Don’t leave the original subject line on each of a long series of back-and-forth e-mails. Updated subject lines help identify one e-mail in the string from another.
- Don’t send unnecessary or unwanted e-mails
Again, people are busy. Their inboxes tend to fill up quickly. If you send them “junk” e-mails, they’re not going to like you for it. If you keep doing it, they may summarily delete the e-mails you send. They may even relegate you to the spam folder.
- Know when to cut the thread
At the end of a spoken conversation, people typically bat closing comments back and forth, such as, “Good to see you,” “Yeah, good to see you, too,” “Say hi to Bill,” “I’ll do it,” “Take care,” “Bye.” Too many people follow a similar protocol when it comes to e-mails. For example, if you e-mail a co-worker and ask for a report and she sends it to you, it may or may not be appropriate to send her a follow-up e-mail to thank her (depending on the circumstances). However, if she receives your “thank you” e-mail and then sends you another e-mail just to say “You’re welcome,” that’s clearly unnecessary and a waste of time. Know when to cut the thread.
- Avoid long blocks of text in the main message area
Long, uninterrupted text blocks are intimidating. No one wants to read them; they’re too much work. But if you split the same text block up into smaller paragraphs, they are suddenly inviting, even though they represent the exact same amount of text. The empty lines between the smaller paragraphs provide visual relief.
- Proof it before you send it
A quick read-over for errors and typos can eliminate confusion and embarrassment. It would not have been pleasant to have been the one who sent out the e-mail to everyone in his company that said, “We’re happy to announce the birth of Dylan Smith, the sin of Alan and Loretta Smith,” or “The people in accounting have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the lobby Friday.” If the e-mail is important, read it out loud. Your ear catches subtleties your eye can’t.
- Send and copy it to the right people
Make sure you’re sending the e-mail to the right person. People have been fired or divorced because of misdirected e-mails. For example, one human resources manager for a large company was asked to send a spreadsheet to the CEO showing everyone’s salaries, bonuses and stock options. By mistake he attached the file to a Christmas party invitation that went out to all the employees. It was his last e-mail as a company employee.
- Don’t make them dig through a long string of messages for a needle in a haystack
Don’t write, “Yes, let’s go ahead with the sixth option,” and make the reader search through 10 pages of previous e-mails to find out what the sixth option is. Be kind. It’s easier for you to copy and paste the relevant material into your current message.