What do you think: Are we all underestimating the importance of email? Maybe because it gets lost in spam, or because of alternative channels in twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook? A smart person reminded me recently that email is the backbone of social media.
And in a recent post on business etiquette in the American Express OPEN Forum, small business expert Steve Strauss wrote:
“Email is now the dominant form of business communication and should be treated as such. Some uniform policies help everyone stay on track.”
I say that even with the “e” in front of it, it’s still mail. It is your business communication. It’s not just sales. And our being immersed in quick-and-careless text communications doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to our own emails. And if you’re going to do it – and face it, you are – do it right. I think my list here is nothing we don’t all already know, but we may need the reminders. I hope this helps:
1. Keep it short. We’re all busy. Most of us are skimming our emails, looking for the key points, and trying to get in and out of them quickly. I’ve never written anything that wasn’t more useful when cut to half its length.
2. Make the subject line a summary. This one seems obvious, but scan your own emails and you’ll find most of the subject lines are haphazard at best. We have threads that grow like snowballs attached to the subject of the first message, a subject that has long since been changed. We have come-on subjects like headlines, trying to trick us into reading further. Don’t sound like a spammer. Describe your message in your subject line.
3. Start and end with “you.” This is one of the fundamentals of business letter writing: Address your reader’s self interest. Start your first paragraph with the word “You” and include something like “you asked me…” or “you wanted… ” or “you mentioned” or “you need.” Start your last paragraph with “you” again and stress what your reader will get out of doing whatever it is that you’re asking.
4. Only one topic per message. You’ll find your actual results of emails go way up when you break your emails into a single message for each topic. Those additional messages you’d like to include are much more likely to get lost. Break the messages up.
5. Use appropriate tone. Be careful and be correct with tone. Sarcasm, parody, and irony are hard to put into cold hard black and white text. Tones are very easily misunderstood. Don’t ever write an email that could be misinterpreted and forwarded on to somebody out of context. Never write an email that would be embarrassing if quoted.
6. Don’t send extra copies. It’s a message, not an archive or a vault. We all hate those cover-your-backside extra copies going all over email to anybody who might vaguely someday accuse you of not having sent something, or handled something, or followed up. Send your email to the people it’s intended for, and nobody else.
7. Respect spelling and grammar. Use a spellchecker at least, but recognize as you do that spellcheckers don’t catch a lot of glaringly bad errors. Using “there” for “their,” for example, or the very common confusion of apostrophes and plural, as if every plural word needed an apostrophe. Try this google search or my personal favorite, 10 common misspellings at oatmeal.com. These errors do to your communications what a big piece of spinach caught in your teeth does to your smile.
8. Remember it’s not private. Your company email belongs to the company, and your personal email can get called up in court. People who want to and know how can snoop in email. Never write in email anything that is embarrassing to you or your recipient, inappropriate, bigoted, illegal, or stupid.
9. Email isn’t for arguments. Angry words are not biodegradable. Never argue in email. Walk down the hall or get on the phone. I’ve learned this myself the hard way, thinking my brilliant use of the English language could somehow make a point better than I could with old-fashioned talk. It never does. Email almost never wins a point or stops an argument. It almost always makes things worse, not better.
10. Mind those threads. Most of our email software builds long emails like kids build snowballs rolling downhill. Each new email is gathered up below in the thread. Is there anybody out there who hasn’t at least once realized in dismay, too late, that you’ve accidentally emailed a long thread that included too much information or some embarrassing comment about somebody along the way. Don’t you hate it when that happens? And then, aside from that problem, there is just the plain glut of useless information as every new email in the thread includes all of the previous emails. Think of how much sludge we’re sending through the pipeline. Does everybody need to be reminded in every email about everything that was said in all the related emails?