Good old email. While there is a wide variety of ways we can communicate with one another, email remains the primary vehicle for the written word, especially in business. And yet, even though — or maybe because — it’s so easy to fire off a quick email, it seems that clear, concise communication is hard to come by these days.
If you’re finding that your inbox is fuller than ever, but it’s taking longer and longer to get the information you need, or to even get a response at all, it may be time to examine your email habits. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned what makes for a successful email exchange, and just as important, what can cause the dreaded email fail.
Following are my top email Do’s and Don’ts for successful communication.
DO include a subject line.
This may sound obvious, but I’m amazed at how the volume of emails I get without one. The subject line should be focused and specific, so that it helps give your recipient a clear sense of what the email is going to be about.
Make sure it’s not too wordy, and put the most important information at the beginning (so it’s mobile-device friendly). Bonus points for adding a call-to-action such as “please reply”, “no response needed”, or “FYI” to the end.
DON’T just forward a lengthy email chain.
Simply hitting the forward button and forcing your recipient to read through and try to pick out the portions that are relevant to them is just plain lazy. And you’re almost guaranteeing that not only will they not bother to read through it, but they will be less likely to open/read future emails coming from you. Fail!
If you need to include the entire chain for context, take the time to summarize the information your recipient needs, then include a note such as; “following is the full correspondence, for your reference.” Bonus points if you highlight the specific items of importance for them.
DO change the subject line when needed.
If the topic of your correspondence is starting to depart from the original correspondence, get rid of that annoying string of FWD:FWD:RE:RE:RE:RE and change the subject line so that it accurately reflects the current topic.
DON’T write a novel.
Trying to cover too many topics in one lengthy email will ensure that (a) important information will be overlooked, (b) you will get a partial response that requires a follow-up message, or (c) you don’t get a reply at all.
DO format your emails.
Using bullet points and adding space between your lines of text will make your message easily scannable and will speed up comprehension. This means you’ll likely get a faster response time. That said…
DON’T overdue the formatting.
Stick to a single, easy-to-read font (no Papyrus, please!) and only use an additional color if it helps to clarify or call attention to important content. For example: “Our agreed-upon next steps are shown in red below.”
DO include links.
Use links, instead of attachments, when needing to share documents, assets, or reference websites. This will help prevent having your message land in the SPAM folder, or worse, fail to deliver altogether. Bonus points for including as hypertext, instead of copying/pasting the entire URL.
DON’T overload with attachments.
I just received a message from someone with an email signature that contained 8 (!) separate attachments: one for each social media icon, plus their company logo. A good rule of thumb is to keep your attachments at no more than two small (<5mb) files. If you have more, use one of the many file-sharing services out there, and include that link in your message.
DO include a call-to-action.
Make it clear if you want/need a response, and when you would like to receive it. If there are multiple recipients included on your message (more about this below), make sure your inquiry is directed to specific parties, and refer to them by name in your message. Lob a question out to the group at large, and they may all assume it is someone else’s responsibility to reply.
DON’T abuse the cc: and bcc: lines.
This is probably one of the biggest mistakes made — especially within larger companies. Be judicious with who you decide to “loop in” on your correspondence. If you’re unsure, opt to leave the extra names off, and ask your recipient if they feel there are other people who should be in the conversation. I’ve ended up involved in hundreds of email chains, sent under the guise of collaboration, when there really wasn’t any particular reason for me to be included.
DO be courteous.
A sincere thank you always goes a long way (the word “thanks” in your auto-generated signature doesn’t count). I like to go a step further by including a mention of the action I’m requesting that they take. For example;
“Thank you in advance for your assistance with XYZ.”
“Look forward to receiving your input on XYZ soon — thanks.”
And, at the risk of sounding a bit old school, I recommend including a salutation. It adds a positive, friendly tone, and without it, your email may be interpreted as sounding abrupt or curt.
Here’s to better email habits for all, and wishing you an inbox free of email fails!