I get some seriously terrible emails. These come from people inside and outside of my organization, and they get me thinking. Do people really think about what they’re saying in emails or do they just rush toward the send button? A lot of what follows will seem rudimentary, but these days, a lot of people are glossing over the basics.
A recent survey by McKinsey Global Institute revealed that workers spend one quarter of their time reading, writing, and responding to emails. There’s nothing wrong with this per say because information needs to be shared and email is a great way to do it. But, there are some things you might consider as you read, send, and respond to emails that will ultimately save you time. Let’s break this into pieces for easy digestion.
Is it necessary?
First, ask yourself if this particular piece of info should be shared at all. Do you really need these questions answered? Does someone else need this information? Is it useful to you or someone else, or is it a cat video? Next, decide if it might easier to ask this question or share this info in person or on the phone. Talking to someone can save you a lot of back and forth email, so think about making a call first. An example might be email communications about setting up a time for a meeting, I’ve seen these go back and forth for days before something solidifies. Either suggest an exact time in the first email and let them accept or decline (they’ll mostly accept), or call and iron it out in thirty seconds—quit wasting time and get it done.
My preference is to start with the body of the email first, and then summarize those ideas in the subject line. After that, I input the recipients, double check my attachments, read it all once more, and finally send. Let’s begin with the body of the email.
Start with a greeting, especially when contacting someone outside your organization, and introduce yourself if you’re emailing someone new. Next, establish the context of your inquiry or statement, and be clear and concise. Don’t waste anyone’s time with fluff, and try to avoid jargon, and fancy words. Get to the point, aim for clarity, and try to make sure every recipient is going to understand the points you’re trying to get across in your email—don’t introduce questions by being vague.
At the end, you’ll want to be sure to mention that you’re happy to answer any questions, but your goal should be an email that explains everything so clearly that no explanations about your text are needed. This saves you time because it keeps you from sending clarification emails if your first one doesn’t make sense. This isn’t always possible, of course, because people are naturally inquisitive. You’ll receive questions, but clarity keeps them to a minimum. Ultimately, you want responses to your emails, not questions about what you actually meant to say.
The next issue is who you’re sending to. Try to only include recipients that are necessary, and don’t leave anybody out that might need to see what you’re saying. Also, make sure all of your contacts input properly so that intended recipients actually receive what you’re sending. Remember also that these people should all be able to understand what you’re saying in your email or be able to follow the thread you’re including them on. Make sure to explain what’s going on in an email thread if you include a person in a later part of a conversation.
Next is the subject line. Don’t write anything too long, and avoid anything that looks like the spam you all likely receive. State what the email is about quickly in the subject line, and try to be compelling without being obnoxious.
Now for attachments. It’s easy to forget these, and forgetting them on an email send to multiple people will result in several “hey, you forgot to attach the document,” emails. You don’t want these, so attach your documents, and double check that they’re the right documents and the latest versions.
You’ve got it all put together now, but before you hit send, re-read everything to make sure you’re presenting all of the necessary details, and that it would make sense if anybody read it. If this communication is sent to many partners e.g. a newsletter or product update, have another person read it—you’re not infallible and you don’t want mistakes to confuse your intended audience.
Once that’s done, hit send.
First, read the email, establish who it’s from and what they’re saying. If you receive a message that requires no response, don’t respond. If it’s something the sender will want to make sure you received, send them an email to let them know you got what they sent so they don’t have to follow up with you to find out. If it’s an email that requires your thoughts or action, ask yourself if it’s easier to call or talk to the sender in person to save a lengthy back-and-forth.
Next, if you’re confused about what the person is actually saying or asking (not everybody can write clearly), don’t be shy about getting clarification. You want to be as thorough and accurate in responses as you can.
Also, while all emails require some thought and care, not all emails require you to think critically. For those with questions or a call to action or something you can give advice on, you’ll want to think about it carefully and share all of your thoughts—people want your collaboration if it helps them improve things in some way. Remember also that you don’t need to respond instantly to every email, if it takes thought, give it the time it needs.
Lastly, if you receive questions from clients or colleagues, be sure to fully answer every question in the email. This keeps them from sending another email asking you the same thing again. If you don’t know an answer, tell them you don’t and make sure they know who (if anyone) has the answers they need, or find the answer for them—you want to make sure everyone gets the info they need.