During the last year or so, I listened to several speakers at content management and social media conferences suggest that business email will soon be a technology of the past. Judging by my inbox, and recognizing that people are still sending faxes, I think it’s safe to say that I will be getting email throughout what remains of my career. If that’s the case, I would appreciate it if the people who send me business email would take it upon themselves to improve the quality of the email that they send. If I thought everyone would give this topic the thought it deserves, and change their behavior accordingly, I’d stop writing after making the following statement:
Consider that regular business email, the stuff that I will read simply because you sent it, comes with an implied contract based on mutual respect. Then remember that once my respect for you has been earned, that you have to prevent me from losing it.
Since I get so much email, from so many sources, let me offer a few general guidelines to make those emails better:
Size matters – I had a chemistry professor who required written lab reports but thought they should be factual. In warning against long explanations in lieu of facts – he used to say “remember, the longer the wronger!” It’s the same with email. A single paragraph business communication will be appreciated. A couple of paragraphs will be tolerated and a multi-page monologue will probably be ignored.
Don’t be a jerk – This sounds like so much common sense, but it’s easy to look like a jerk in email. Unless you want to look like a jerk, reread your message before you click send. Think about whether what you wrote will be understood in the absence of facial expressions, tone of voice and that precious act of reaching out to touch my shoulder. By the way, if you don’t want to reread it because it’s so long, refer to the previous paragraph.
I have an inbox – After you send your email, continue not being a jerk by not calling me, texting me or visiting me to ask me: “Did you get the email I just sent?”
Some subjects are better left out of the inbox – If you are dancing around a sensitive issue, delete the email, walk down to hall, or pick up the phone and make personal contact.
Stop crying wolf – Remember that I can sort my email by sender, so I can see if there are patterns in the email that you send. If 2/3’s of your subject lines include “Important” or “Must read” maybe you need to think about the way you organize, schedule and prioritize your work/day/life.
If you find yourself saying “this is good advice for most people, but it doesn’t work in my situation,” maybe you need to think a little harder about your situation and about the nature of email.
One subject – one thought – I know it’s not a text message, but email shouldn’t be a sermon and it absolutely shouldn’t be a lecture. If you have three complex points to make about a subject, schedule a meeting to discuss your thoughts. This works better because I can communicate my boredom with my facial expression and I can point out when your first assumption is wrong and therefore you should stop blathering.
Email is not a presentation – Forget the “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them” mantra that is supposed to set you up to make a great speech. Just tell me what you want me to know in short, grammatically correct sentences – preferably less than 5. If you are thinking about including graphics, drop the “s” – limit yourself to one graphic.
Note: I added this next rule in response to Microsoft’s addition of the Screen Clipping tool into Outlook.
Remain in media – If you are reading my document, reviewing my presentation or testing my spreadsheet, use the features built into Office on the Review Ribbon instead of artfully crafting a treasure map of arrows and text boxes for me to follow. This should also help you comply with the ‘one graphic’ rule.
Oh, one last thought, particularly if you are still clinging to the notion that you or your emails are somehow special and should be exempt from these rules: If I wouldn’t need to be in the room when you told somebody this critical information in person, please leave me off the CC line.