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Five Rules for Effective E-mail Communication

I’m not sure how I could survive without e-mail, but, some days, I’m not sure how I’ll survive with it. E-mail is a weird form of communication that falls somewhere between a business letter and a casual conversation. I can’t count the number of “bad” e-mails I get on a weekly basis—and I’m not talking about spam. I’m talking about poorly-written, ineffective messages that leave me wondering what the sender meant.

I’ve sent my share of those messages as well, and I still do from time to time.  Over the years though I’ve learned to follow a few rules to keep myself out of trouble:

Rule #1: Use the subject line

When your recipient is looking at the dozens of unread messages, trying to decide which one to open first, the power of your name alone may not be enough to get them to open your message. A subject is a short title that gives your recipient an easy way to determine what your message is about. It’s a courtesy, and practicing courtesy is always good business.

If your message is important enough to save, a subject helps the recipient to find it later. The subject should describe the contents of the message. Scrolling through a hundred e-mails from a vendor, all with the same subject line of “Widget World, Inc.” is maddening.

In the same vein, recycled subjects can lead to all sorts of confusion. When sending a message about a new topic, don’t just find an old message from that contact and reply to it without changing the subject. Two months from now, when I’m looking for the copy of the contract you sent to me, I’m not going to remember it was in a message titled, “Re: Getting Together for Lunch”.

Rule #2: No more than five sentences

People don’t read long e-mail messages. They read the first few sentences and then respond to what they think you wrote in the rest of the message. Not only that, but anything that requires more than a paragraph to explain is likely complex enough that there will be follow-up questions. Q&A sessions via e-mail are one of the biggest time-wasters of the modern business world. If you can’t say what you need to say in five sentences or less, call.

This rule is important enough that I’m going to say it again (for my own benefit as well). If your e-mail is longer than five sentences, stop typing, pick up the phone and call the person. You’ll thank me. Really.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes, you just need to get information to someone in writing. If your message consists of information that is really not up for debate (minutes of a meeting, or a report detailing the next steps of a project) send it in an e-mail. It’s still a good idea though to follow it up with a phone call. If the recipient e-mails you back, asking for further clarification or explanation, go back to the five-sentence rule. If you can’t answer their follow-up question(s) in five sentences or less, call them.

Rule #3: No more than one question

Never ask more than a single question in an e-mail message. People see that first question and they get hung up on trying to answer it—sometimes they start their reply before they finish reading your message and they never see the second question. Sometimes they just forget you asked it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had exchanges like this:

Me: What do I need to bring to the meeting? It’s at 3:00 right?

Recipeint: Just bring the sales material. I’ll bring everything else.

Did you notice they only answered the first question?

If you really do need to ask a series of questions (because they’re all related, and it would be silly to send separate messages) make a bulleted list. That will cue your reader to know there are more than one. Usually though, you’re safer to cut out everything but your most important question.

Rule #4: Articulate your desired response

If you don’t ask a specific question, at least let people know what you expect them to do with the message when they receive it. Don’t assume they know. “My meeting with the customer got moved from Friday to tomorrow,” might be an interesting piece of information, but, “My meeting with the customer got moved from Friday to tomorrow. Please finish the report by the end of the day today so I can take it with me,” is an actionable statement. When you’re typing an e-mail, write as though you’re writing to a hyperactive twelve-year-old on a caffeine rush. You never know what state of mind your recipient will be in when they read your message or how distracted they will be, so be direct.

Of special consideration, when copying multiple recipients, specify the person or people you expect to respond. Name them by name. “Charlie, can you get this information together? Maria, can you make sure Ed gets the message that the meeting time has changed?” That’s going to get better results than the vague, “We need to get this information together and make sure Ed gets the message that the meeting time has changed.” It’s funny how quickly “we” becomes “I” when you don’t name names.

Rule #5: Write well

People complain that e-mail is a poor means of communication because one cannot convey subtleties in writing. That’s simply not true. Prior to the 1880’s, the only way to communicate over long distances was in written form. Our ancestors did alright bringing about the Industrial Revolution while sending letters back and forth to each other.

The truth is, if you take the time and effort to write well, it’s more likely you’ll be understood. And I’m not talking Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” well; I mean seventh grade English well. People will notice (even subconsciously) and your message will garner more respect, since you respected your recipients by taking the time to write clearly. (You’ll also look smarter.)

Part of writing well is proofreading. Firing off an e-mail without giving it a once-over is the best way to ensure your message is as unclear as possible. Especially, you should check to see if your words could be interpreted in a way you didn’t intend.

If you’re the type of person who forgets to proofread, check out our companion blog, Maximize!, for a tip on delaying outbound messages in Outlook.

Wrapping it up

Those are my rules for effective e-mail communication. Dave Johnson at BNET has five more. How about you? Leave a comment and let us know your best advice for communicating via e-mail.

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