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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  • Naomi Boldt

    This lesson is so, so important. It took me years to develop the habit of checking my email everyday, much less how to write an email properly. I worked as a finance intern in a congressional campaign office. Because so much of what we did at work was public outreach and done over email, perfecting my email etiquette was crucial. In addition to the points made above, you also have to be careful with not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it. Impersonal interactions like emails and text messages can be tricky. Its so easy for the tone of your email to be misinterpreted. This was especially important when writing requests for donations to the campaign. You can’t come off as too demanding or pleading. Keep it clear, friendly, and professional.

  • Jessica Furrer

    Email is so important in the University setting and the job setting to keep people communicating on important projects. I have never been specifically taught how to write an email and I love the recommendations on this page because this is something we use daily and can really make a tremendous difference for employees in entry-level positions. It is important that we seem like we know what we are doing and we are able to be professional.

  • eleni

    As the article mentions, email really is one of the first and primary modes of communication these days, so following these guidelines are really helpful. For me the most helpful advice is to write 3 sentences or less. I work with children, so writing long emails is tricky to begin with. That said, the longer the email, the easier it is for something can be misconstrued, missed altogether, or ignored. The 3 sentence rule helps me remember that anything that needs more than 3 sentences to explain should be a phone call. In addition, I have evolved this rule to determine that anything more than a paragraph is too long for a phone conversation and should be discussed in person. Implementing these rules has helped me maintain quality standards for communication.

  • Michelle

    I never realized how important e-mailing is until I graduated high school and started University. Suddenly teachers had office hours. Office hours were scary to me – talking one on one with professors in their office about my grades – so e-mailing became my best option.

    Except I see now that I sucked at writing them. Frequently they’d be paragraphs long, since I looked to impress my professors, I would include multiple questions so that they could answer them all in one go and I’d be done communicating with them for a while, and never did I ever include any signature with other ways to contact me.

    I’m glad that this lesson gives so many insightful ways to deal with e-mailing, because it’s going to be a critical skill for the rest of my life.

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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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