(October 21, 2013) Part III of a three-part series offers 15 tips for sending emails that focus on email creation and delivery. Part I provides 11 basic suggestions to control email, including setting a strong foundation, managing the flow of messages, and clearing your inbox. Part II provides another 11 tips for managing email throughout the day so people don’t feel like they’re drowning and can focus on more important activities. Additional recommendations are welcome.
Do you ever wonder when your job became responding to emails all day? Why every time you send one email it means the universe sends you at least two new emails (there has to be a Murphy’s law about that)? Whether you will ever stop feeling at the mercy of your email? Written for anyone who feels overwhelmed by email, this series of posts outlines strategies to help you tame the email hydra. Part I offers suggestions to control email, Part II outlines ways to manage email throughout the day, and Part III offers suggestions for better email creation and delivery. You don’t need to implement all of the ideas but try a few and see if they don’t make your relationship with email a little less conflicted…or at least make you less likely to scream or cry at the thought of opening your inbox.
In the first two posts (Part I: 11 Ways to Control Email, and Part II: 11 Ways to Better Manage Incoming Emails) I described ways to get your email inbox back to a more manageable state and how to keep it that way. Even though it’s not written in most of our job descriptions, reading and responding to emails is an important way to communicate with colleagues and clients. Therefore, in addition to enhancing our ability to manage incoming messages effectively, we also need to ensure we’re good at sending emails. In this post I describe strategies you can use to make sure your messages aren’t part of someone else’s email challenges.
General Tips for Sending Emails
- Decide whether sending an email is really necessary. Sometimes it’s easier, more efficient, and more effective to pick up the phone or walk down the hall to talk with someone, rather than sending yet another email. Sending emails begets more emails.
- Use email threads. Many email programs have a threading feature that allows you to see the original and all subsequent emails with the same subject line. If you have this feature, turn it on. Being able to look back on the whole conversation, rather than searching for individual emails, can save you a lot of time. If the topic in a thread changes over time, change the subject line to start a new thread.
- Proofread. Email is a reflection of you as a person and a professional. It also creates a paper trail. Take a few minutes to proofread your emails to make sure they don’t contain errors or misinformation.
- Never send emails when you’re upset, particularly if it’s keeping you awake at night. This may seem self-explanatory but people will write all kinds of things they may then regret in the light of day. If you’re angry or tired when you craft an email, or if it’s about something really important that needs a thoughtful response, either write the email in Microsoft Word (or some other word processing program) so you can edit it, or write it in an email and send it to yourself. When writing a difficult email, it also helps to keep the “to” line blank until you’re ready to send the email. That will keep you from sending it accidentally.
- Decide whether to add a “sent from” message. Most mobile devices and tablets allow people to add an automatic notice to the bottom of their emails. Some people use them, tailoring the language to something like “sent from my phone so please excuse brevity and/or typos.” I use one on my iPhone so people know I may have responded quickly, but you have to decide what works for you.
Tips for Sending Emails You Originate
- Keep emails brief and specific. If you need to address three topics with the same person, for example, it’s better to send three different emails with clear subject lines. That way the reader is clear on what you need and will be less likely to miss something important in your email. They may also be able to respond to one or two emails more quickly, rather than waiting until they can respond to everything in a long email with several topics. If you need to keep everything in one email, add bullets and headings to make it clear what you need from the recipient.
- Treat the subject line as part of the message. Use a clear and explanatory subject line, and add a deadline for a response in the subject line if necessary. This will help people know what you need, and may make them more likely to respond quickly. If you reply to an email with no subject, add one. And if the email is for information only, add that to the subject line.
- Use the subject line as the email. If you have a quick update for someone, put the message in the subject line and add EOM (end of message) or NM (no message). You’ll get your point across and readers will know they don’t need to open the email.
- Be polite. Start emails with a greeting and end with a close, including your name or initials. Depending on your work environment it can be formal or informal (but don’t be too informal) so find a greeting and sign-off that works for you. I sometimes start emails off with “Hey,” which is an appropriate greeting in the South in the U.S., but I think about my audience since it could be misinterpreted as being too cheeky.
- Be selective about recipients. Think about who really needs to read and/or respond to your message. And be cautious when using BCC since emails can be made public (intentionally or unintentionally) and can be forwarded to anyone, regardless of organizational policies about confidentiality.
Tips for Sending Emails in Response to Others
- Respond to emails in a timely manner. If you know you’ll need time to find the information the person needs, send a brief email saying you’re looking into their request and when they can expect to hear back from you. You would do this if you were talking with the person, so it only makes sense to do it with email too.
- Respond within emails. I sometimes receive very long emails that include a lot of different topics. Rather than writing a long email back, or trying to break it into several emails, I respond within the person’s email. I let the person know that at the top of my email (so they know what to look for) and then insert my responses within the person’s email, using line breaks so my comments stand out and sometimes using a different color font. I don’t use all caps because it looks like I’m yelling at the person, and I find underlining or using italics looks visually chaotic.
- Don’t automatically hit Reply All. Check to see who’s in the email loop and decide if they all need to see your response. Write your response as if they’ll all see it, but you don’t need to include everyone in your response. You’ll also want to be thoughtful about adding new recipients to a thread, either as CCs or BCCs.
- Create auto-responses for frequent questions and requests. This will help you from having to re-create responses you send on a daily or weekly basis, and you can tweak a response to make it more personal. In my case, I have an auto-response for my office hours and for when students ask for a letter of recommendation (referring them to my blog where I outline the info needed to write a recommendation letter).
- Use an Out of the Office message. During times you know you won’t be able to respond to emails quickly, set an automatic message that lets people know you may be slow in responding—or won’t be responding at all—during a particular period of time. This not only lets people know you’re not ignoring their email but it also means they may be able to find the information elsewhere, saving you from more emails.
The recommended strategies in this post are predicated on your own awareness of company policies, procedures, and expectations. Some companies encourage people to use an Out of Office message if they’re working on an important project while other companies may have a policy that employees must respond to emails within 3 hours. The amount of email people receive is exponentially larger than the amount of paper memos or phone calls people received before email existed so it’s important that companies provide parameters about how employees should manage their email.
Spending a lot of time on email is the new reality, and for me it helps to remember that reading, managing, and responding to email is now a significant part of my job (even if it’s not written in my job description or explicitly stated in my annual review). Having strategies about how I use email to communicate with others helps me stay focused, rather than treating it as a distraction or an afterthought. My hope is that the strategies in these three posts will help you regain control of your email and make it work for you, and others.
What other recommendations do you have for taming the emailstrom?
Brandon is a Professor at The Pennsylvania State University and a counselor education faculty member committed to helping students learn ways to be effective practitioners and lifelong learners. She incorporates digital technology into her teaching, including student assignments that use a variety of technologies like creating blogs, websites, and videos (her own blog can be found here). She also serves as a digital coach for faculty who want to use technology more effectively in their teaching.
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