Whether you believe email is the enemy or you get a tingle with each chimey alert—or you consider it as over as the phone call—let me set the record straight. In professional life: email is still here, it’s important to do it well, but it shouldn’t rule your life or be your only communication channel. Here are some strategies I’ve developed over the years that I share in workshops with employees who are helplessly overwhelmed by this still critical information tool.
1. Tone = Professional + Dash of Personality
When I review emails my clients send, I find they are often on opposite ends of the spectrum—from casual enough to be a text to so formal they seem robotic. Where you land on the continuum does depend on the corporate culture of your organization—so it will vary. When in doubt, I lean toward a mostly professional voice while adding in the use of contractions to tone down the formality. Most importantly, if you want your emails to be memorable throw in a nugget from your personal brand or a note of connection you have with your email receiver. This reinforces the relationship you’re building with this person and will make him or her more likely to respond. You’re appealing to your audience as humans and not simply someone from whom you need something.
2. Clear Subject Lines Win Every Time
Remember those SAT Prep reading comprehension exercises where you had to find the main idea of a paragraph? It’s time to revisit that skill. You must be clear about what you need in the subject line, using it to highlight a tight deadline or action required. Also—if the conversation in a thread has evolved over the course of the back and forth—make sure that the subject line reflects the current email you’re sending instead of simply using the same subject line you’ve been using for weeks. Lastly, don’t send emails without a subject line. Just don’t .
3. When Angry: Save. As. Draft.
Sometimes an email comes through that grabs you by the throat. Whether you’ve been blamed for something you know you didn’t do or it’s simply another request from that person who expects you to do her job again—DO NOT rage email a response. Instead of writing the email immediately, go take a walk. Run up and down 8 flights of stairs. Find a YouTube video of baby goats at a yoga class (which you should do anyway). If you must write the response as soon as you get it, do yourself and your company a favor: save as draft and then walk away for at least 15 minutes. Nothing good is coming of that immediate angry response. I promise you. Take it from someone who was reprimanded by her CMO for sending that email. All roads post-rage email lead to a dark place.
4. Consider Your Audience
Even if you’re writing a similar email to many different recipients, do not simply cut and paste your email content and send. Think about your receiver. What level is she in the organization? How well do you know him? Do you have a hobby in common or a child the same age? Is this someone who requires data to prove out your assumption or is it someone who simply wants to be informed at a high level? An email to a senior leader should be short and concise, given the limited time he or she may have to spend on your email—where as an email with your day to day contact on a project can provide more detail.
5. Formatting Is Your Friend
Back in my digital marketing days I worked with one colleague who sent me emails that were 5-6 paragraphs of running prose with at least 10-12 questions set within long-winded sentences. These emails made me angry. I still get angry thinking about them. Marie Kondo your emails, friends. If those flowery sentences don’t bring you joy, don’t write them and PLEASE don’t make others read them. Bold category headers, bulleted lists of questions, clear objectives, underlined deadlines—when I receive emails with these things, I feel safe. Like all is right with the world and I can accomplish anything. Don’t you want to make people feel this way?
6. Deadlines Motivate People
Oh I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Deadlines keep people in line, so if you are asking them to do something—you’re missing a NECESSARY step if you don’t include a deadline. Put the deadline in your subject line. Put it in bold, underline—or even red font within your email. If it’s a tight deadline—acknowledge it as such and invoke the name of the important person who is committed to all of you making this deadline. Agree to offer more time in the future and when it’s within your control, stay true to this agreement.
7. Don’t CC The World
Get clear on roles and responsibilities for your projects and what the communication flow will be at the very beginning. When you cc a near nation-state, you raise the stakes on each email thread and throw off the productivity levels of people who did not need to be informed of every detail. What could have been a simple back and forth on logistics is now a keynote speech via megaphone. Why create this level of pressure where it’s not necessary to do so?
8. Two Words: Proof Read. Whoops, That’s One Word
This one bites me often, which is why I know myself well enough to hire a copyeditor (who was thrilled to get a shout-out in this post!) . Even though you’re working fast, you must read your email a couple of times (at least!), spellcheck, and make sure there’s only one space between each sentence (a pet peeve of mine). You don’t want to proof read for the first time after you’ve hit send and get the stomach pit! This is avoidable and while I don’t expect perfection—typos may be the thing that separate you and a competitor or a colleague who may be after the promotion you want. Proofreading takes one minute and it’s a minute very well spent.
9. Follow-up Separates The Leaders From The Rest Of The Pack
You may think you’re being a nudge, but many people actually rely on your follow-up. While I don’t recommend waiting for others to follow up with you as your queue to complete a task, I do acknowledge that the world in which we live often requires a second (or even third) email to convert a client, set up a meeting, or even prompt someone to meet their deadline. When you don’t follow-up, you leave opportunities on the table—and that’s not how we do things when I’m your coach.
10. Amidst Confusion, Pick Up The Phone
After the 4th, 5th or 25th email back and forth on one topic, you may get a gut feeling to have a conversation or set up a meeting. Trust this instinct! Tone, intentions, and humor can be lost in a marathon email thread and you could save yourself and colleagues A LOT of time by picking up the phone and hashing things out in a 5-minute conversation. If you’re not making a phone call or setting up the meeting because you want to make sure decisions are documented, work through your challenges on the phone and then send a confirmation email of what you discussed to assure everyone is on the same page and you have the written documentation you need.
For many of you with 5+ years of experience this will be a review and also a reminder of what to share with your teams who may not have the institutional knowledge of email etiquette and efficiency. If you’re at the beginning of your career, get some feedback on your emails from more senior members of the team. If you can get on the right track early in your career, think of the hours of time you can save for all involved.