10 Old New Rules for Business Emails

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.”

10 Old New Rules for Business Emails

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?

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Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

24 Reactions
  1. Tim,
    This is awesome. I couldn’t agree more. Email is the backbone. I enjoy the social nets and leverage them, too, but for conversation that I can’t have on phone or in person, well, email is it.

  2. Here, here Tim! Very well said as usual. Email has become such an integral part of all our lives that people have forgotten how important and valuable a communication medium it is. Your post is a great reminder. I hope everyone takes time to read each and every word and then put it into action.

  3. Thank you so much, Tim!

    (I owe you an email.)

    In my own special and gentle way, I’ve probably upset a lot of people with some of my emails.

    Scratch probably. I have.

    But, I’m getting better.

    The Franchise King

  4. Hey Tim,

    I agree with your point that emails are dominant form of communication We are doing customer services for our clients and we have to be careful while sending an email to the customer because he/she should get a feeling that we are there to help them not to just answer the emails and dont take any action after that.

    We will surely keep in mind all the point given by you and improve our customer service.

    Thank you

  5. Hi Tim,

    I really enjoyed reading all the tips you mentioned especially # 3, it’s so true that when people read the word ‘you’ in the email they know its about them and want to pay more attention to what you have to offer. Thanks for sharing!

    Riya Sam
    Training for Entrepreneurs.com

  6. Great Read, Thanks Tim. All the points you mentioned are relevant and need to be considered all together. It’s no good adhering to one best practice and ignoring another. I particularly enjoyed points # 8 & 9. People are too quick to mouth-off in an email and don’t realize how quickly it can be tracked and used against them.

  7. Hi Tim,

    Great post…

    I would add that many of these tips should be applied to other forms of electronic business-related communication as well, including instant messages, text messages, and tweets.

    Also, I’ve found that another benefit to making the subject line a summary of the email and keeping each message to one topic is that it makes it much easier to find that email again if I need it later on.

  8. Great post, Tim.

    Sounds like there’s a good bit of overlap here with your tips and Made to Stick. Keeping people on point and using the second person are great tips for more effective email communication. I’d love to make many people read this post on a monthly basis!


  9. I agree Tim, “email is the backbone of social media.”

    But CCing emails (#6) seems relevant sometimes (other times, it just seems like politics). I like to use it when one person asks me to send something to another. I cc (or blind copy – bcc) the one that made the original request.

    I use it as a way of letting my team leaders know where we are in the process. And I asked them to do the same, so that when I was out of the office, I could know that we were moving forward. #6 is making me think. The others are friendly reminders.

    Thank you Tim

  10. Writing short emails is an art form where most could use a little practice. Coming from a PPC background I am naturally inclined to short messages (when you only have 25 characters for a title and 70 characters of ad copy) but anyone can do it. Like you said, once you’re done, try to convey the same message in half the space. Your readers will thank you for it.

  11. This is one of the best articles I have read on email etiquette. Tim hits on the key points about this 21st century communication phenomenon.

  12. Tynnisha Hamilton

    Thank Tim,

    I agree with you that e-mail is a very important aspect of business. You have to take many things into consideration when its comes to business e-mails, as you have explained.

  13. I don’t even think of email as social media anymore. Thanks for the great tips!

  14. Thanks all for a nice set of comments here. I’m really glad to see I’m not the only one thinking about this. I need to remind myself, too, of most of these, all the time.

  15. We talk all the time about tone, context and intent, and to get “off the email” when not sure of any of these. Thanks for putting it all together so concisely.

  16. So many good points. #2 is one I’ve started using lately and it’s been incredibly helpful. Now when I go back to e-mails, I can find them based on the subject line. Remember it’s not private is an important tip, especially if you send an e-mail to the wrong person by mistake!

  17. Tim-

    Nice! I particularly like #4, only one topic per message. I find that I get a better response when making the message “doable” for the reader. I too deal better when receiving messages in this way.

    Make the subject unique for the response desired.

    Thanks again!


  18. Pots and kettles: thanks again for comments, and special thanks to Dennis Kelly, who was kind enough to email me about a typo (fixed now) that had created a grammatical error in (oh the irony) #7, the one that suggests you avoid spelling and grammatical errors. What’s the emoticon for embarrassment? Tim

  19. Just found this website, very helpful to small businesses like ours! Enjoyed your article, Tim, on email etiquette. Lots of useful information to help us on the way to success (hopefully!) We’re a new holiday cottage company formed in July 2010 and working extremely hard to get there!

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