Email has been around now for a few decades, but some people still don’t seem to know how to use it effectively. It’s a crucial skill if you want to use your time efficiently, get projects done on time, and — quite frankly — if you want people to like communicating with you.
In this current time of crisis, it seems even more important. No one is meeting face-to-face, and with most everyone working remotely (often at home with their kids), there is less time to waste on ineffective communication.
Email is different than talking on the phone or in person. It’s not texting. It’s not a letter on paper, delivered by post. It’s incredibly convenient for many people, however, and because of the framework of our inboxes, email is helpful in organizing details, data, and to-dos (if done correctly). Because of its unique characteristics, there are specific ways it should be used in order to be effective and useful.
Here are 10 tips to make your email communication insanely effective.
1. Be concise and brief.
Email is not the place for long paragraphs of text. Especially in the business world, people simply don’t have time to read hundreds of words to get a single piece of information. They will be more likely to scan it and probably miss important points.
Instead of long paragraphs, try using bullet points or numbered lists with the pertinent information. When bullet points don’t make sense, try not to exceed 2 or 3 sentences per paragraph. Before you compose the email, do a quick check-in and ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this email?” or “What exactly do I need to communicate?” Then be as clear and concise as possible in order to get the information across, in as few words as possible.
2. Minimize back-and-forth by being thorough.
Have you ever had an email exchange with someone in which it took 10 emails back-and-forth just to establish you were going to have a call at 10 a.m. EST on the following Tuesday? I have. It’s painful, frustrating, and unnecessary. And I learned a few things from it.
When you are communicating dates and times, always include a.m. or p.m. and always clearly include the time zone. If you know they are in a different time zone, you may even want to write out the time in both zones, for emphasis. Additionally, make sure to include the day of the week along with the month and day. (i.e. I’ll call you on Wednesday, April 1 at 3 p.m. EST – which will be 12 p.m. your time.)
And since we’re talking about scheduling phone calls or meetings, make it clear how the call will be facilitated. Is it a video call, where a link will be sent? Will you be calling by phone? Are they supposed to call you?
Even if you are scheduling a call, it’s helpful to anticipate the questions they might have about the information, and go ahead and answer it, if relevant.
If you are responding to someone else’s email, did you answer all their questions? And is it clear which answers apply to which questions? Nothing is more frustrating than sending an email with 3 questions and getting the response, “Yes.”
It should go without saying, but give your email a read-through before sending. This will also help you in executing the #2 tip. Double-check your dates and times, as well as making sure any other information you are intending to communicate is correct.
Check for readability and grammar errors. (You can use an add-on tool like Grammarly to help you check for mistakes if needed.)
If you are sending a really important email, send it to yourself first. Then, if it’s not urgent, come back to it later and read it with fresh eyes. You are more likely to catch mistakes or notice something missing if you write it in one sitting and then go back to edit and proofread it later.
4. Don’t use email for emotional messages.
Never ever write an email when you’re mad. And don’t try to communicate an emotional message through email. Remember that emotions are often misinterpreted in text-only messages. You don’t see body language, hand gestures, or facial expressions. You don’t hear the tone of voice, the volume, the pacing, or dynamics. And it’s simply not fair to communicate anger in a one-sided fashion where the recipient isn’t able to interject.
Use email to send details, information, and facts. Anything else should be done in person or by phone.
5. Don’t use email for complex communication or sensitive data.
If the message can’t be communicated in a few sentences, or you are finding it hard to explain or express clearly, then you need to get on the phone. There is no need to risk misinterpretation or end up going back-and-forth endlessly to try and clarify.
Additionally, don’t use email for sensitive data. You don’t have control over it once you send it. It can stay in the recipient’s inbox or even in their trash folder. And once deleted, it can live on in their server. So use an alternate or encrypted method.
6. Mirror the recipient’s style.
If you want to build rapport or increase the likelihood that your message will be well-received, consider mirroring the recipient’s tone. Are they always no-nonsense and brief in their messages? Do they tend to use a lot of exclamation points or smiley faces? Do they always ask about your family or tell you about the weather? Use a similar style to stay in communication “harmony.”
7. Make sure your subject line aligns with the content and include the action needed.
Have you ever been in those email threads where the topic changes, but the subject line stays the same? Everyone keeps replying to the same thread, and when you go back to search your inbox for some information later, you can’t find it. Not only does using the same thread for different topics make it hard to find information, but when a “Re: Old Subject Line” arrives in your inbox, you might decide it’s not as important because it’s an old subject line.
So make use of email subject lines to clearly state what the content is and to let your recipient know if there is an action needed. Like: “Signature needed today” or “Meeting scheduling request” or “Details for tomorrow’s call.” If you are replying to an email and there is a new action or new topic, then always start a new thread. It’s helpful for everyone involved — in the present moment and later down the line when they need to find it in their inbox.
8. Check that the recipients are correct.
Always double-check the recipients, especially when you are replying to an email that has others cc’d. Do you need to “reply all” or simply “reply” to a single person? And if you are sending a new message, make proper use of the “cc” and “bcc” fields. If you don’t need or want the recipient to see everyone else who is receiving the email, then put the email addresses in the bcc field. If you are sending the email to 30 addresses, then at the very least, use the cc field.
9. Don’t use abbreviations in professional emails.
It’s a good rule of thumb to avoid abbreviations in your professional emails. ASAP is somewhat standard, but things like LOL, SMH, or LMK should be avoided. For starters, there are some people that don’t use them and don’t know what they mean. (And remember, you want to go for clarity in your communication — not confusion.) And secondly, some people might interpret it in the same way they would if you wore your pajamas to the office. It’s just not entirely professional. It’s easy to avoid: just write out the words.
10. Use a custom email signature.
If you want to up the level of personalization a bit, try creating a custom email signature for your outgoing messages. Use a program like Wise Stamp to add in your social media handles, website, and maybe a headshot photo. Some programs even allow you to include a video thumbnail and link (if relevant) or an inspirational quote. Putting a face to a name can be comforting, and having the other connection information can be beneficial in many cases.
“Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.” -Dale Carnegie