These days, many people do their personal and business communicating primarily via e-mail or text messaging. E-mail will only become more important as we move into the future, with the number of users worldwide projected to grow by one billion by 2016, according to research firm Radicati. The next generation of American workers will have never known a world without the Internet and text messaging.
One reason that e-mail is so popular is that it is a fast, easy, and convenient way to communicate. In the 1980’s, a written memo could take two weeks to travel through a bureaucracy and reach the CEO. Now, e-mails are received almost instantly, and many people can be included in them. Another benefit is that, unlike telephone calls, e-mails automatically document interactions with clients, employees, leaders, and vendors. Communicating via e-mail also allows users more time to think through issues and refine their thoughts and replies before responding.
However, as helpful as e-mail can be, it also has its pitfalls. When cues such as body language and tone are removed, people often “read between the lines,” which can easily result in miscommunication. Badly crafted e-mails can mean damaged client relationships, offended staff members, or confusion throughout an organization. Thus, it’s important to keep in mind the following tips—gleaned from both research and input from our four companies' staff— when preparing e-mails.
Ask yourself, “Is this needed?” Mike receives about 100 e-mails and text messages daily, many of which are unnecessary and distracting. He’s not alone—many others we interviewed said that they often receive unwanted “chain” messages, political e-mails, and other forwarded junk from their contacts. Even if it remains unread, this mail is distracting and takes time to delete. Most businesses and groups provide a confidential way to unsubscribe to their e-mails (often through a link at the bottom), which you can use to drastically reduce the amount of this type of spam. However, you may have to personally ask friends and family not to include you in their mass e-mailings. Likewise, give your contacts the same option. For example, we send our friends and family the articles that we write, but we include a (confidential) link at the bottom allowing recipients to contact our Director of Communications if they wish to unsubscribe.
If you continuously receive inappropriate or unwanted e-mails, designate the sender as an “Unsafe Sender” within your e-mail program. Beware: spammers are getting very crafty at making their e-mails appear legitimate. To avoid viruses, never open attachments from unknown senders.
Also, if you receive an e-mail that doesn’t require a response, don’t e-mail back just to say “OK”—that’s one more unnecessary message! If you do need a response, always establish a reasonable target date and state it clearly in the e-mail.
Include a clear subject: The subject line should quickly and accurately sum up the e-mail’s content. Incorporate keywords so that recipients can easily find the e-mail later if they need to refer back to it.
Consider not just what, but when: Some people try to show their dedication to their jobs (or call attention to themselves) by sending e-mails outside of work hours. In addition to taking away from their personal time, this also puts pressure on others to do the same. Dr. Felix Blumhardt recommends, “If you don’t really need something at 8:00 PM, then wait until the next morning to send the message. This way, the recipient won’t feel obligated to respond right then.” You can also choose to “delay delivery” via Outlook so that the e-mail won’t be sent until work hours. Be wary of the timing of messages during business hours as well. Monday is usually the hardest day to get a timely response because folks are catching up from being gone over the weekend and may not be in the best mood. If you need to speak to someone by telephone, it can be helpful to e-mail them to ask when a good time to call would be.
Use the High Importance button sparingly: How often do you get an “important” e-mail (marked with a little exclamation point) that doesn’t turn out to be urgent at all? As Stephanie Marshall, MBA, noted, e-mails should only be marked “High Importance” if the matter is urgent. “Using it too often diminishes the effectiveness,” she said. Kristin LaRoche, MSW, agrees. “I always stop myself and ask, ‘Is it really that important?’ If something needs an answer immediately, a telephone call would be more appropriate.” LaRoche suggests using it for e-mails that explain truly important information, like deadlines.
Choose recipients carefully: E-mail “groups” allow you to send e-mails to a designated group of people using just one address (for example, a “Leadership Team” group with all managers programmed in). Marshall suggests using them for work teams who are collaborating on group projects. That way, she said, people don’t have to waste time typing in the same five e-mail addresses multiple times. The customized group list can then be dissolved when the project ends.
The auto-complete function also presents potential problems. E-mail programs such as Outlook will usually fill in frequently-used e-mail addresses after you type in the first few letters, so make completely sure that you have selected the correct group or individual name. For example, you may want to send a salary list to the finance group, but if you are not watching carefully, Outlook may select the e-mail of a person named Finley because both e-mail addresses start with “Fin.” It would be very demoralizing for a leader to accidentally send sensitive information to the wrong person! Once someone opens an e-mail, it cannot be rescinded, so be careful.
Do you copy? “Carbon copy,” or “CC,” is used to make sure that everyone involved can see communications on a certain topic, even if they are not directly involved in the e-mail exchange. If used judiciously, it can be very useful in keeping everyone—even those located in different cities—informed during group projects. The flip side of the coin is that CC-ing unnecessarily can flood people's inboxes with unwanted, irrelevant messages. Sometimes, a leader or a key individual should be copied in an initial e-mail to keep them informed but left out of later e-mails until the project or debate is done.
To keep people from being overwhelmed by e-mails they don’t need, Blumhardt suggests, “If possible, have a discussion about e-mail with your working group ahead of time.” Make sure that everyone knows who needs to be aware of what information, and don’t CC those who don’t need it. In cases where one or two players are doing a lot of back-and-forth communicating, it’s usually better for them to communicate privately until they have come to a conclusion; then share the information with their leader and group.
Beware of the dangers of Reply All: Due to its location (next to the regular “Reply” button), the “Reply All” button is responsible for many communication mishaps. Carelessness or the slip of a finger can easily send an e-mail to someone who shouldn’t see it. For example, an employee might accidentally send a client unflattering remarks that another staff member made about him or her. The solution: slow down before sending and make sure everyone who is in the "To" line should be there! Use Reply All sparingly since it just adds to others’ inboxes. If you want to share something with select people, use the “Forward” button instead. If the information contained in an e-mail should not be shared, be sure to alert the recipient. Mike marks such e-mails with “CONFIDENTIAL” in bold at the top.
Keep it short and simple: No one likes seemingly endless, wordy e-mails. Try to say things in the fewest possible words, and if you have several topics to cover, follow the Wall Street Journal’s recommendation and “use bullets to cover all your points briefly.” If the message is very long, attach it in a separate file and introduce it in the body of the e-mail. To ensure clarity, write at a 10th grade level, leaving out obscure vocabulary, acronyms, and complex terms.
Christy Derrick, MPH, has a neat trick that she uses to make communicating with our Evaluation Group customers easier. “If I have a long email, at the end, I will summarize next steps, or even say ‘no action needed on your part at this time.’” This strategy helps ensure that everyone is on the same page about deadlines and deliverables. A 2012 New York Times article by Alina Tugend goes a step further, suggesting, “If you have more than one point, send separate e-mails.”
Keep it personal: If you need to say something to your coworker next door, why not find a good time to do it in person? Communicating with officemates solely by e-mail fosters a cold, impersonal work environment. If you need a written record of the conversation (for important decisions or a performance review, for example), send a follow-up e-mail after the meeting or conversation. To form better, more efficient relationships, our staffs at DuBose Web Group and Columbia Conference Center are building in more face-to-face meetings with team members and clients as part of their strategic plan.
Avoid disciplinary e-mails: It’s easy to be too critical when you’re shielded by a computer screen. Employee discipline should always be conducted in a private face-to-face conversation (or, if it cannot wait for a meeting, call and ask the person when a good time to talk would be). Without seeing their body language, you will miss many cues on how the employee is taking the criticism. Using email to discipline can cause resentment and misunderstandings, whereas in-person meetings can result in good, positive conversations on how to work together and clarify expectations.
Make it easy to get in touch: Include a few lines at the end of every e-mail with your name and contact information so clients and coworkers can contact you in a snap. In Outlook, you can preprogram different signatures for use internally and externally. For external customers, include your name, title, address, website, e-mail, and telephone/fax number. Internal signature lines can be more informal, including just your name and a closing like “Thanks!” or “Sincerely,” since coworkers should already have access to your contact information. Make sure your signoff is appropriate, especially when dealing with clients.
Utilize Out of Office auto-replies: Outlook and other e-mail programs offer a helpful function that alerts people who e-mail you when you are away from the office and tells them when you will return. However, set it to only alert each sender once (not every time they send you something), and put a reminder in your calendar to turn it off when you return.
Confirm receipt: In an attempt to prevent scams, Internet servers, firewalls, and virus protection software are blocking an ever-increasing number of legitimate e-mails. To ensure that your important e-mail hasn’t ended up in someone’s spam folder, select the “Request Receipt” option from your e-mail program or include a sentence at the end of the e-mail asking your contact to verify that they have received it. Check your spam folder every couple of days for important messages that you may have missed.
Proofread…then proofread again! The quality of your writing reflects on you and your organization. If you don’t pay attention to grammar and spelling in your e-mails, customer, leaders, and colleagues may think that your work will be similarly sloppy. Always strive to present a competent, professional image in all communications. “Practice makes perfect” applies to writing as well!
When you feel that your e-mail is ready to send, pause for a moment. Run a spelling and grammar check, but even those can miss some errors, so thoroughly comb through the e-mail yourself too (reading it aloud can be particularly helpful). Check your tone as well. Adding words like “please” and “thank you” to business e-mails strikes the perfect balance between friendly and professional. For very important (non-confidential) e-mails and proposals, have another person double-check the e-mail for anything you might have missed. Most grammar mistakes come from being in a time crunch or adding content at the last minute. Sending an e-mail when you are rushed, angry, tired, emotionally drained, or have consumed alcohol is asking for trouble. If you aren’t confident about an e-mail, save it as a draft or e-mail it to yourself and revisit it later.
Once you are sure that the text of the e-mail is correct, check your recipients again. Make sure you have addressed it to everyone who needs to see it and have left out any who should not read the message. Then, send away!
The bottom line: When it comes to e-mail, slow down and think before sending! It’s better to delay your communication than to rush it out and make embarrassing—and potentially damaging—errors. Sometimes, it’s even better to pick up the telephone or go next door and say, “Let’s talk.” Don’t forget: we’re humans, not machines!