14 Email Do’s and Dont’s
Ways to make your messages more efficient and effective
Anyone who regularly uses email to communicate with coworkers or other professional contacts has probably noticed that, despite its many positives, email can also be incredibly inefficient.
Think about it: How many times have you volleyed a half-dozen messages with a coworker over the course of two days just to schedule a meeting? How many hours of your life have you wasted trying to decipher messages missing one key word? And how many tasks did you interrupt today alone so you could respond to a note that just arrived in your inbox? When you consider how many issues email can pose — and how many of your nonprofit’s staff members use it to communicate on a daily basis — you can begin to see just how much this tool can actually hinder your organization’s ability to get things done.
The good news is that you can get back to a state of efficiency without giving up email altogether; you just have to get rid of some bad email habits — and convince your co-workers to do the same.
When You’re the Sender
1. Make sure that email is the right communication tool for the job.
Although email can sometimes feel like the ultimate replacement for all other forms of communication, it’s actually more limited than you might initially think.
First of all, email is not synchronous like telephone calls or in-person conversations; in other words, sending a message does not guarantee an immediate response. Also, it can sometimes take more time to write an email than it would to speak to someone directly. Finally, email doesn’t make it easy to convey quick sketches or notes that are non-linear. If you need an immediate response, think you’ll have a lot of follow-up questions, or need to convey a complex topic using visual aids, email is probably not the best tool for the job.
2. Get to the point right away.
Whenever possible, ask your question — or provide your response — within the first few sentences of your message; you can always give details and explanations later. Tackling the major points up front decreases the chances that you’ll lose your reader’s attention, confuse him, or irritate him by forcing him to spend extra time looking for your point.
Good: Hey, can you send me your TPS report today? I noticed you haven’t filed it yet.
Bad: Hey, I noticed you haven’t filed your TPS report. It’s really important that we get all these reports in every day. Have you done yours yet? I’d like to take a look.
3. When asking a question, be sure to ask the question.
If you need information or have a request, phrase it as a question to ensure that your recipient knows you need a response. Simply making a statement and assuming people will respond is a good way to get ignored.
Good: Do you have time to analyze the failure of the TPS report system and put together a report on it this week? We may have an opportunity to go with a different vendor.
Bad: We need to look into the failures of the TPS report system. A report would be good to have.
4. Specify who should respond.
If you send an email to a list or a group of people, you may not receive a response unless you specify who in that group is responsible for following up. Group emails make it easier for all recipients to assume someone else on the list will handle the request.
Good: Hi, all. Good news: We’ve decided to upgrade the TPS report system based on your feedback. Peter, can you check in with IT to make sure the rollout doesn’t require us to stop production of the reports?
Bad: Hi, all. We’ve decided to upgrade the TPS report system based on your feedback. Can we check in with IT before this happens?
5. Be clear about when you need a response.
If you want the recipient to get back to you by the end of the day, save yourself the frustration of playing the waiting game by setting a deadline for a response. Otherwise, your coworkers might put your message on their to-do list and get back to you whenever it’s convenient for them. Additionally, you may want to bring extra attention to time-sensitive messages by flagging them as high-importance items or noting the deadline in the email’s subject line.
Good: Can you replace the cover sheet on your TPS report with the new cover sheet we’re using now? Also, please re-file it by the end of the day.
Bad: Yeah, I’m going to need you to go ahead and replace the cover sheet on your TPS report with a new one, OK?
6. Provide context to frame your message.
If you’re emailing someone out of the blue, don’t just assume he or she will know what you’re talking about — even if you were just talking about it in person a few minutes ago. People don’t always check their email right away, so they may not recall what you were discussing. Also, some people may want a record of the email thread to look back on days or weeks later.
Good: I agree with what you were just saying in the hall about how TPS reports are a waste of time. I’m not going to do mine any more.
Bad: You’re right. I’m not doing mine any more.
7. Don’t forget the rules of grammar and punctuation.
You might think that you’re being hip by forgoing all capitalization and paragraph breaks in your messages, or you might just be trying to save yourself time by never proofreading your outgoing messages. Either way, you’re increasing the chances that your message will be misunderstood, and you’re definitely wasting the recipient’s time by forcing her to decode your cryptic note.
Of course, some variations on style are fine, but remember that grammar and punctuation were invented for a reason. Checking your outgoing messages for spelling, grammar, and punctuation not only helps make your organization’s internal communications more efficient, it will also make you appear more professional to the outside world.
Good: Let’s talk about this in person. I disagree that not doing the reports is the way to handle this. I’ll call you.
Bad: i dont think thats good idea lets talk tomororw. ill call.
8. One message, one topic.
Don’t mix a bunch of unrelated questions or responses into one message. Not only does this increase the chances that some of your questions or responses may get overlooked, but it prevents the recipient from filing messages about different subjects into different folders.
Of course, some email conversations will naturally spawn tangential conversations. In those cases, it’s helpful to change the subject line of your email message to better describe the new topic. This not only lets the recipient know the topic has changed, but also makes it easier to find the message when you’re searching for it later.
Good: What’s this I hear about you not filing your TPS reports?
Bad: Peter, we’re using a new cover sheet for our TPS reports now, so go ahead and file with those. Oh, and I’m going to need you to go ahead and come into work this weekend, OK?
9. Provide a summary when you forward an “FYI” email.
Don’t just forward a message or a whole conversation thread and assume that the recipient will take the time to read it all and figure out what’s going on or that they’ll do so without any misunderstandings. Since you already have a reason for forwarding the message, you can save your recipient time and confusion by jotting down a quick summary of the entire thread. (And if you don’t have a reason in mind or haven’t even taken the time to digest the information you’re about to forward, you probably shouldn’t even send it.)
Good: FYI, I thought the following email thread might add some ammo to your plan for getting rid of TPS reports altogether. If it doesn’t, feel free to ignore it.
When You’re the Recipient
1. Don’t make any assumptions about the sender’s emotional state.
Unless the sender actually spells out the fact that he or she is angry with you, don’t assume that the person intended to send a rude response — you just don’t know for sure. Most people aren’t great writers, so it’s possible that the sender didn’t realize how his message would sound when read by another person. He may even have been trying to make a joke by being sarcastic, a feat few people can actually pull off in writing.
If you receive an email that really makes your heart skip a beat when you read it, try walking away from the message and re-reading it later before you respond. See if there’s any other possible way to interpret the note; you may even want to ask someone else to take a look at the message and offer her impressions.
2. Don’t escalate a conflict by sending an emotionally charged response.
If you do decide that the sender intended to send you a rude email, don’t make the problem worse by sending an equally charged response. Doing so may start a vicious cycle of nasty emails — after all, it’s easy to hide behind your computer and fire off angry messages that say things you probably wouldn’t say in person. Pick up the phone or set up an in-person meeting, and you’ll likely have an easier time getting to the bottom of the issue and resolving the conflict.
Good: Can we schedule a quick, face-to-face meeting or phone call to discuss this?
Bad: Oh yeah? Well, I guess I’ll just have to burn the building down then.
3. Ask for clarification.
If you receive an email that doesn’t quite make sense — with confusing grammar or no punctuation, for example — ask the sender to clarify. It’s a whole lot faster to ask for clarification than it is to re-read a message four times, ask everyone for their opinions on what it means, and send back a response that doesn’t address the sender’s point. While you can ask for more information by replying to the email, getting clarification over the phone or in person might be an even quicker way to get answers to your questions.
4. Use your email software’s built-in tools to help organize messages.
Some email clients — including Microsoft Outlook — allow you to set up rules that help organize incoming messages, making it easier to quickly locate particular messages and keep your inbox from becoming needlessly bloated.
Want to make sure you never overlook a key email from your director? If you’re using Outlook 2003, the “Organizing Using Colors” feature can automatically highlight her emails with bold red subject lines. You can also organize messages from your boss or other important contacts by assigning colored flags to senders.
If, on the other hand, you’re having trouble keeping up with all the messages from an email list you’ve subscribed to, you can set up an Outlook filter that automatically moves messages from that list into a separate folder, keeping them from cluttering your inbox.
(Find out how to use flags and message colors in Outlook 2003, automatically move items to other folders in Outlook 2003, set up filters in Outlook Express, or set up filters in Mozilla Thunderbird.)
5. Remember: You don’t have to respond to every message right away.
Unless you are being paid solely to send and receive emails, it’s a pretty good bet that you have other, more pressing tasks to devote your attention to. As a final piece of advice, don’t forget to give yourself permission to periodically turn away from your inbox so you can take some time to finish other activities.