Don’t suck at e-mail

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These days, your first contact with your boss and coworkers is likely to be via e-mail. So make your first impressions count – don’t suck! Most people do and never realize why they don’t get a reply.

When your e-mail sucks, it gets skimmed and deleted or ignored. Here’s how to do e-mail right. If this checklist is too long for you, hit the first three and you’ll already be way above average.

1. Use the subject line! Put 2 to 7 words in it that summarize your reason for writing. If I’m searching for your e-mail, the key words you put in the subject line will help me find it and will set it apart from other e-mails from you if we e-mail each other frequently. Preface your subject with FYI if appropriate which tells the recipient no response is necessary.

2. Write three sentences only, most of the time. If one of those sentences is a question, make it the last sentence. Don’t ask more than one question. Three sentences is most important when you are starting a conversation. It shows you value your time and won’t squander it writing long passages about something I don’t care about, am not interested in or have not asked for. It shows you value my time also. It shows you understand that teamwork and communication is a conversation where the ball bounces back and forth between us with rhythm – like a game of ping-pong. Know that the longer your e-mail is — the more likely I am to postpone reading and replying. Your long e-mail is like a basketball pitched across the ping-pong table. It sucks.

email cartoon3. Use a signature with your contact information! If you make me hunt for that information, I dislike you already. It takes 5 min. to set up and shows you have a little concern for me and the ability to have your computer do what you want it to.

4. Spellcheck! And, if you are writing a critical e-mail, print it before sending it and read it out loud. You will catch any and every mistake that way.

5. Reply to important e-mails quickly. If you can’t provide a substantive answer immediately, acknowledge you received the e-mail and say you will write again as soon as you can.

6. Give a heads up using IM or VM, when you send an important e-mail. If you send me an e-mail you consider urgent or unusually important, give me a heads up in some other medium to make sure I’m on the lookout for your e-mail. I prefer instant message, but you need to know your boss’s preference (cell phone, text message, etc).

What good is technology7. Write again, if you don’t receive a reply. Checking to see if I’ve received your e-mail is not a nuisance – it shows you take responsibility for driving results and make no excuses. It shows you understand that I may receive a high volume of e-mail or have my attention splintered in many directions and need your assistance.

8. Use the phone if e-mail isn’t working. Please don’t tell me you haven’t received a reply to the e-mail you sent to so-and-so. Just pick up the phone. It shows you know that e-mail is just a tool and not everyone’s favorite, that you get the job done using whatever tool works best under the circumstances.

9. Take control of your e-mail client by learning keyboard shortcuts and filtering. This shows you understand efficiency with e-mail matters (it’s at the center of most jobs today).

10. Understand your boss’s preferences for what goes on e-mail versus IM and Intranet/wiki/project management system. Ask your boss about preferences for who should be cc’ed about what. You don’t want to be that guy that insists on wasting everyone’s time copying others unnecessarily.

Bonus points – never use an attachment when there is no compelling reason to do so. Attachments suck! Instead of copying and pasting information into an Excel spreadsheet or Word document, just paste right into an e-mail whenever possible.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Thanks to Beef Wellington for music clips (Fran C) and to Mark O’Sullivan for the title and much of the meat of this lesson!

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100 comments…

  • avatar

    John Brammeier January 14, 2014, 8:49 pm

    One of the first things we talked about when I got to college is how not to suck at email. If you expect to be taken seriously, this is seriously what you want to be reading.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Monique Dawodu January 9, 2014, 10:08 pm

    This is one lesson that I had to learn the hard way, but will take with me for the rest of my life. My entire job revolves around e-mail communication. Before I started I had no previous training of proper email etiquette. I remember sitting next to my trainer on my first day on the job, I was not only nervous, but I was also a bit intimidated with the additional responsibilities I was given. My trainer told me to type an email to our local helpdesk and that is actually what I did. No subject line, no detailed information regarding what I needed or what I had already researched to assist in resolving the problem I was having. Once the email was sent she looked at me with the look like “did you just send that like that” she even asked “how will the helpdesk know what you are talking about, you did not include detailed information”? I was so embarrassed and knew I needed correct myself, and fast.

    All of the techniques listed in this article; subject lines, write three sentences only (or as straight to the point as possible), use a signature, spell check, reply quickly, send follow-up emails, use the phone, take control of your email (with shortcuts and filtering), and understand the needs of others are all things I have learned in the past years and incorporate in my daily life.

    Learning how to appropriately structure an email saved me from getting fired. I am still with the company after five years and I have even been promoted three times. As stated in the previous blogs, I’ve learned how to work smarter not harder.

    Monique Dawodu

    Reply
  • avatar

    Rachel Pick December 29, 2013, 2:42 am

    I would highly recommend college students and those searching for jobs to take this advice and apply it. When someone sends me an email that follows these rules, I take note and it stands out to me. I can definitely tell when someone has poor email etiquette and it can be very distracting and unhelpful. Another helpful hint, do not change the font or color of the text in the email.
    The advice I found especially relevant was the rule regarding use of subject lines. I have wasted large amounts of time searching for an email I know I received, but can’t find because the subject line did not relate to the content of the email.
    Also, in regards to attaching a signature to the end of an email, be sure to only sign your name once. If you have an automatic signature, do not write your name before the signature.
    Spellcheck and quick response to emails show professionalism as well as attentiveness and high quality of work. It is important to send a prompt response to avoid the other person having to send a follow up email. However, since many people do not send follow up emails, it is sometimes necessary to email twice. It is easier for both parties to respond quickly instead of wasting more time sending follow up emails.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Kristen P. December 10, 2013, 5:29 am

    Over all, I never really thought about everything that needs to go along with an email. It is important for me to make sure that my grammar is correct and that their aren’t any major issues. It makes since to use less words for easy finding, I know for me that is one of my biggest issues with email. I can never find anything, and now I know why.
    After reading this I’m going to add a signature to my emails. I want whoever I’m communicating with to know that I value their time, and I want them to value mine.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Jennifer Scott June 22, 2013, 5:49 pm

    I have to say that I liked the information about not being afraid to send a second email if one doesn’t receive a reply. Nor to use the phone an appropriate time after to check if they still haven’t replied.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Zachary Goff June 20, 2013, 8:42 pm

    I understand that in today’s society ‘everyone’ is impatient and time is of an essence; therefore, with that being said, I think Number 10 (Understand your boss’ preferences – or anyone) should be ranked higher. I say this because a haste message asking if your boss received an e-mail via another e-mail and then calling your boss seems to be a little over-the-top and quite possibly burdensome. In an emergency or urgent message, it is understandable, but outside that, I would tread with caution.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Shelby Williams April 16, 2013, 1:41 pm

    As a person who dreads new social media related interactions, this is a godsend.

    

Every time I read to contact someone who had potential influence over my life via his
    or her email I would panic. My thoughts raced from the reasonable worries of
    whether or not it would send to the completely irrational idea that my message
    would be posted somewhere on the internet as what not to do when composing
    emails. However, this article has soothed the savage beast that was my anxiety.

    

My favorite aspect of the aptly named “Don’t suck at emails” was the
    list. It really helped me be able to format an email properly without typing
    out a mess in order to get my point across. Keep it clean and simple, but most
    importantly to the point without wasting time. Another plus to the list is the
    ability to check off each step to make sure my emails don’t sound too
    unprofessional for someone who is, well, new to the whole work game.



    So, thank you for appeasing my anxiety over emails. Perhaps there will be one on
    comment etiquette for me to read up on next time.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Genesis April 2, 2013, 8:48 pm

    This article is great! It’s truly enlightening, and I’m already able to see where I stand in terms of technology messaging in the professional world. I usually check my grammar for any flaws, but I’ve never considered sending the the message again if I don’t receive a reply.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Jade Stickle March 24, 2013, 6:37 am

    This article was pretty helpful for emailing in a professional environment. After reading this, I’ve been able to check off a number of things that I am already doing correctly. I have also been able to note things that I haven’t been making sure to do – like adding contact information and a signature at the bottom – that I can now make changes to. It’s also good to know that checking up on an email by sending a text heads up or emailing again when there is no response is a safe thing to do. I am always worried if I am pestering somebody.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Brian Filipek March 9, 2013, 9:49 pm

    With technology becoming the main source of communication, it is important to learn how to write a proper email. This article was great advice and i will refer to it when writing emails to my professors in the future

    Reply
  • avatar

    Shida Huggins March 3, 2013, 12:24 am

    In this day and age it only makes sense to be good at righting emails

    Reply
  • avatar

    Alyssa Sarti February 27, 2013, 11:10 pm

    This a great article! I remember a time when I didn’t efficiently use my email and I ended up biting myself in the butt because of it. I sent a contact an email with little time to write it and I forgot to proofread. I had to reply, apologizes for the amount of mistakes I had in that email.

    Now after reading this article, I’ll be able to efficiently use email to my advantage and establish a good reputation among my colleagues.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Destinee Andrews February 7, 2013, 3:42 pm

    This is a very important life lesson to learn. Though some in the older generations do not accept technology as readily as the younger generations internet and email are playing significant roles not only in our daily personal lives but now more than ever in our daily professional lives. In the past couple decades alone computers have gone from the size of an entire room, to pocket sized as most people have the capability to receive emails on their smart phones.

    Learning how to write a correct email can save your career. Today in the younger generation many young adults resort to slang when writing a message; i.e. lol, rofl, haha, etc. This is disrespectful not only does it show your boss that you cannot speak to him/her correctly it shows your lack of education and communication skills. Stand out from the crowd and woo your boss with your talents.

    Be short sweet and to the point. As i have ventured into my college career, I have had to communicate with a professor via email multiple times. The points made on this blog is so true. Think about it your boss doesn’t want lengthy emails. Chances are he/she receives more emails in a day than you do in a week. Keep it short a sweet, and to the point so your boss doesn’t end up wasting time trying to find the important details in your email.

    Finally, I think that taking credit is everything. So write your name! It does not matter if your email has your name in it. At the end of your email you should leave your first name, last name, and title. It shows that you are proud of who you are and the work you’ve been doing and your not afraid to let your boss know it. It’s common courtesy and a very good way to make your self pop in the eyes of your boss.

    This blog, “Don’t suck at email,,” is very true. Listen to what they have to say and apply it in your life at your career. These tips will only help you succeed so do the right thing and learn to excel at writing emails!

    Reply
  • avatar

    nlora January 20, 2013, 6:08 pm

    This is a great article and oh so important in today’s work setting. Every morning I open my email
    and there are (no joke) about 50 emails that were sent out to the entire team of 50 people, with the individual who actually needs the email being cc’d… I am not sure how that makes sense to those
    sending these emails, but it does make for a very frustrating situation. Likewise, there was a recent bout of confusion on my team, as an individual included people from various departments
    on an email that should not have involved them. This led to a waste of a lot of time,
    energy, frustration, and made our customer question our competence. I think I will share this article with my coworkers. :)

    Reply
  • avatar

    Rebecca Nagurney December 29, 2012, 7:39 pm

    This checklist is very important to follow, not only with your boss, but also when emailing college professors. One of my first college professors gave my class advice about emailing and most of that advice was summarized here. Spelling errors can be a big pet peeve with some people and you never want to misspell your boss’s or professor’s name!

    College has taught me that it is very important to check my email frequently and to keep my emails short, sweet, and to the point. When I need to email my professors about a lesson, asking a bunch of questions and creating a very long email confuses them. They do not have the time to figure out what I am trying to ask them. By making sure I know what I need to ask them, I can easily type a short email and get a prompt response from them.

    Reply
  • avatar

    lockjonathon December 27, 2012, 9:42 am

    I find it very inconvenient when I receive emails that are long and complicated with no white space between paragraphs or no paragraphs to separate the main ideas.

    When there is too much information and too many questions or answers in the email it takes more time to process the information and highlight what is important. By only communicating what is important the email recipient will not miss the main message and will be more likely to remember.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Michael Mowrey October 26, 2012, 4:14 pm

    Out of all of these points, my boss is very particular about using spellcheck. There isn’t anything that frustrates him more than any kind of documentation to be spelled incorrectly. For him, it is extremely unprofessional to author anything with typos, bad grammar, or misspelled words. He would agree with the article. Just press F7 and take a minute to make sure everything is spelled correctly!

    Reply
  • avatar

    daniloam10 September 1, 2012, 7:01 am

    This article was very informative on how to write e-mails. I have been writing e-mails for a long time but I could use these tips to improve my e-mails. I have been writing all my e-mails in a nice way and to the point. I have also written only about 3 sentences per e-mail. I have also not received responses from e-mails I have sent which in this article it is explained why.

    Reply
  • avatar

    arabell August 31, 2012, 2:14 am

    This is a really nice advice of how to write e-mails. I
    think before become addictive to the emails, it’s very important to consider
    your boss preferences. I used to have a job in an office where my boss like me
    to write a very detailed email and as a main tool. Then, when I change job, my
    current boss was totally inverse to her. He wants me to be specific, exactly
    like you mentioned at the top, and he preferred me to use the phone instead of
    the email. So, it is really hard sometimes too adapted when you start a new job,
    but if you clear your boss expectations since the beginning, this could save
    you time and energy that at the end would help you keep your boss happy.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Alycia S. August 30, 2012, 8:50 pm

    I worked at an animal shelter this summer and I had to send a lot of emails asing for donations. These tips are great for how to send emails and not frustrate people. Great article.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Adam N. August 30, 2012, 7:29 pm

    This article was pretty good and very informative. I haven’t done a job like this before but I’ll definitely keep these tips in mind. This can actually be applied to some teachers from what I can tell as well.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Danielle August 29, 2012, 4:01 pm

    Now I know I’m doing the right thing when emailing future employers. I just type a quick statement then send. They respond so quickly I was worried for a moment, I’m proud of myself for accomplishing an employers wants. A short effective email.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Bobbye August 28, 2012, 9:07 pm

    This lesson is extremely vital in our workplaces today. I am constantly dealing with e-mails and there is so much that you can tell about someone through their e-mail etiquette. Learning proper strategies for communicating in this realm will help you no matter where you work.

    I had just started a new job working for a doctor’s office and we had a messaging system within our database. I had made a mistake that was brought up in a message sent out to the office. I was writing a reply message, stating how I had messed up and how sorry I was for the error, when a co-worker looked over and scolded me for the message’s content. She pointed out that, in my effort to be apologetic, I had repeated myself three times in very similar sentences and had written a message that was way too long. She helped me edit it down to necessary information and it taught me a valuable lesson regarding messaging etiquette. If I had sent my original message, I would have looked very silly to my entire office and I am glad I learned from my mistake.

    Messages and e-mail will never disappear and are extremely vital to our careers. We must pay attention to lessons like this article in order to keep ourselves in high demand and up to date with our job communication avenues.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Victoria Baetzel August 28, 2012, 6:52 pm

    I enjoyed reading the article because most college professors say in their syllabus “use proper email etiquette, but never say what that is. Now I know how to write proper emails to my professors and how to email potential jobs. I am glad that now I won’t be one of those students that teachers complain about during class because they wrote them a ridiculous email last night. Thank you for offering this information to students and to people looking for jobs.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Evan Nagridge August 28, 2012, 5:00 pm

    I believe this article shows great value to humanity. In today’s society; e-mail is becoming more relavent in schools, business, etc. The proper etiquette needs to be established. E-mail can be misinterpreted so easily because you cannot pick up the emotion factor a one on one conversation can have. It is important to keep e-mail short and relative to topic. As I become more involved in the world, my time needs to be considered, as well as the person I am emailing.

    Reply

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In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at LatPro.com. Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of JustJobs.com. He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.

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