Posted by Troy Best: Sun, February 26, 2012 - 1:00pm
Electronic Mail, or email, has come a long way from AOL’s "you've got mail." Back when I worked for "the man” at a previous company and my vendors and associates were adopting email, I didn’t even have a company email address. I had to use my personal email for business until finally the "company" caught on and we had electronic mail, email, black gold, Texas tea, bubbling crude. Well, it was just email, but it was really cool.
It was a Wild West era, a digital free for all, rife with forwards and unblocked spam by the thousands. You would wait and watch your inbox on the off chance that an email might pop up and even though it was an offer to get paid by Microsoft just for forwarding an email, it still was cool. Back then an email was seen as a speedier communication method than USPS. Still is, of course, but it has changed in people’s eyes from a "faster than mail" alternative to an "I emailed you a minute ago, so why haven't you responded back and made all my dreams come true" proposition. Some people treat it like an Instant Messenger—which is crazy. I mean really, pick up the phone for goodness sake. The "Millionaire" television game show a few years back didn't have "email lifelines," they had "phone a friend" calls for a reason.
Fast forward to 2012, when we fight the losing battle in our inbox. Daily floods of good, bad, relevant and spam hit us with varying degrees of professionalism and coherent messaging. It's the efficacy of your email composition and the underlying etiquette that I want to focus on today. Oh, and while we are on it, AOL is dead. And if you’re still waiting for your Microsoft check, you might want to take a reality check instead.
Email relies on you to be effective, efficient and informative. Quality of the communication (spelling, grammar, punctuation), proper context for your recipient, and good, old-fashioned manners are all key. Let's put email in its place, and you will spend less time sending and receiving and more time communicating. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of "do's" and "don'ts" for your email communications.
1. Tag emails with appropriate subject lines. Subject lines provide context for the entire email. Without them, brevity becomes code. Coded messages are hard to interpret and you don’t want to confuse people. Subject lines are the lifeblood of speedy communications; use them appropriately.
2. Try to use the "TO, CC, BCC" addressing feature properly. The "TO" email addressees are for people relevant to the information and have a part in either acting upon or providing information on something in particular. If the party included is being referenced for documentation purposes, use the "CC" field. Further, this means you don't require a response from that person, but they need to be in the loop. You probably know that when you enter an addressee in the BCC field, that person gets your message without recipients in the TO and CC fields being notified. Hence, the "blind" in BCC. This can be unethical when some use the BCC field as a way to mask recipients so they can see messages that they should not. Blind copying is a limited-use function and can bite you in the tush if used improperly. BCC is not a super-secret, spy mode; rather it’s a courtesy to protect innocent addresses and the spread of unwanted email. Keep in mind, different email apps and online apps can handle how BCC is delivered differently and your "blind" list could be exposed.
3. Attempt a quality communication with proper spelling and punctuation, in addition to a specified purpose. Email doesn't provide the visual and auditory clues that an oral conversation includes, so provide as much information as possible without getting long-winded. You can't get what you wanted out of a response if your question didn't make sense, was hidden in superfluous garbage, and/or was so riddled with grammar and spelling errors that your recipient interprets it incorrectly. Your goal when sending an email is not to require four follow-up questions. Test your emails with a simple tactic used in news writing. Ask yourself the following questions (the 5 Ws) when composing your email: who, what, why, where, when and how. If you answer these questions (that are relevant) in the email, then you’re helping both yourself and your intended recipients reach a logical communications conclusion.
4. Let your email sit for a few minutes before you send it. Sometimes you have a simple question that requires a simple answer, so a quick send is entirely fine. There are times, though, when you need to communicate detailed information, answer a complex question, or wrangle with an appropriately measured response. In this case, letting that email sit for 5-10 minutes, and then reviewing it again could make all the difference. Those few minutes allow for a grammar edit and tone check that also can help you achieve contextual clarity as well.
5. Spell check, always. Spelling was mentioned above but it bears repeating. Typos are unprofessional and make you look sloppy and impulsive. Don't rely on automated spell checking.
6. Read your emails and respond appropriately. I have been going on about sending messages, but quality communication needs a recipient who reads your email and responds. Have you ever asked a series of questions in an email that you knew would take time for a quality response? You even summarized the needs again at the end of your thoughtful prose in hopes of getting back a set of useful and succinct responses from the recipient. But then after all that effort you only receive a quick, one syllabic response that may or may not have answered any of your questions. It’s an answer that actually makes you ask more questions than you were hoping to have answered in the first place. Don't be that person. A thoughtful query should be responded back to in kind every time.
7. Start a new email if you want to change the subject. If the last eight emails in a string have all been about widgets, don't work in a conversation about the tea in China on the ninth. Start a new email with a new subject line. It's easier for organizing your thoughts, for managing mailboxes and essential for not confusing subjects.
8. Include a signature with your important contact information in your emails. You may have both a short and a formal version of your signature, and ideally, you would use these properly based on your relationship with the recipients. It is good to include contact information with every email. Even your closest associates might benefit from the convenience of having it in your correspondence.
1. Don't hide details from your message. The forwarded responses from other emails in the string may not be readily apparent to your recipient. And it isn't his responsibility to mine through your forwarded gold mine in order to sift out a coherent message. If forwarded emails are referenced in your message—and are needed for further action—don't send that string with a short message assuming the new recipient has the same context as you. Test your communication with the five W's I talked about earlier. If the answers to these questions are in the string of forwards, then either reference them as “located below” or copy them up in your message.
2. Don't use irony and sarcasm in emails. The sarcastic remark or ironic afterthought might be readily apparent to your "best bud," but it might come off as arrogant, rude or just plain ignorant given the relationship you have with the recipient. Again, it comes down to context. If your recipient doesn't know you very well, communicate with you regularly or have the time or potential for seeing through your clever prose, then just leave it out of the email.
3. Don't mark emails as urgent, unless they truly are. Of course all of your emails are extremely important, but keep in mind if everybody marked every email “urgent“ every time, then none of them would be treated any differently.
4. Don't trust the "auto-complete" when addressing. One letter could be the difference on many an email address. Pick the right name. And don't ever try to "find" an email address using auto-complete while you are in an email that you wouldn’t want that person to read. You run the risk of accidentally sending that email with that wrong address. Needless to say, this could be embarrassing at very least, and worst case, damaging. You may be thinking, "I would never be that careless… it couldn't happen to me!" Well, yes it could, and if you aren't careful, it will. Open a blank email instead or use your address book.
5. Don't send an emotional email before counting to 100. You get upset or annoyed by an email, and you start typing a kerosene-laden response to fuel or light the fire. Or perhaps not so damaging, you reply to an email with a sarcastic or condescending tone. It happens. I won't say don't send it, but just like letting a quality communication sit, an emotional response should sit before you send it. You can't retrieve your email once it has been sent. Just let it sit for a half an hour and ask yourself what you hope to achieve and will it have the desired impact? Waiting a half hour and re-reading the message might make you realize there's no reason to send it. Delete it and be the better person. Don’t ever send anything mean and don’t forget there is nothing “off the record” in an email.
6. Don't use smug signature blurbs. Signatures that say things like "sent from my iPhone", a request to donate this holiday season or "I'm the DJ and you’re the Rapper" might seem clever or unimportant to you, but they can have unintended consequences. And try to limit your attached signature graphics to just one. Last week I received a string of forwards from a company that had no less than four icon GIF images in the signature line. By the time we ended the string, I was searching for one relevant attachment in a sea of over 20 GIF images to find the one I needed.
7. Don't send confidential information in an email. This might seem like a given to some, but don't send credit card numbers or financial account information.
8. Don't type in all caps. ALL CAPS IS INTERPRETED AS YELLING. You don't have to yell.
Last Friday I sent 142 business related emails to clients and associates. Can you imagine making 142 phone calls! Or worse yet, writing, addressing and sending 142 letters in the mail... ugh! Email is an indispensable tool for business and personal communication. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that we may be in our email for 3-4 hours a day. I have no doubt of that, and it is probably more on some days. Use it wisely and it will serve you well; use it poorly and it will slow you down and aggravate you and others. Email is about communication with others—If your words are important enough to write, they're important enough to write properly. Send quality communications that are relevant and use the same good sense your kindergarten teachers and parents taught you: Manners, context and quality communication will get you far in life and make a world of difference in your email inbox productivity.