Email. Did you shudder? A tool once revolutionary and cutting edge has inverted itself as the bane of many people’s existence; a kind of Sisyphean hell in which the list of messages is never reduced, but multiplies. Hence why so many entrepreneurial blogs, and articles in the tech sections of newspapers regularly feature advice on how to reach the holy grail of email; the zero inbox. In many of these pieces I notice a tone of contempt, as if getting rid of email would make the world a happier place. Unfortunately, for many of us working in other sectors of the world including non-profits, governments, universities and even some businesses and corporations, this emailess utopia is not something even to be fathomed. Many institutions in the government, university and non-profit world still operate with older information technology for various reasons; the cannot afford the most cutting edge tools, they deal with a wide range of technological skill sets in staff and clients, they face strict policies regarding technology use or they are often working across sectors with different organizations. And although I am witnessing more use of Facebook messaging replacing emails and groups for task management, as well as texting, it is still email that prevails as the main professional communication tool as it is a universal system despite its faults. But I believe it does not have to be the pariah of online communication and can still be a really great tool for communication. What follows are ten slogans I try to follow when emailing. This is just what has worked for me, so I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment on any advice or suggestions you have gleaned over your years working with email!
1. Don’t cram too much information in one email.
While it is okay to answer specific questions, especially if they are related to one project, avoid the urge (which I have been guilty of) of writing lengthy paragraphs about multiple complex ideas or projects. Most people will not be able to give their full attention and may miss important elements. If you are answering multiple questions or concerns, try to format them in an easy way to read. Numbers and bullet points can be helpful for this or at least spacing out the ideas in to separate paragraph blocks.
2. It is better to overcommunicate than undercommunicate.
While this may seem to contradict slogan #1, it has to do more with ensuring you are understood on whatever point you are choosing to focus on. At least in the beginning stages of an email dialogue there should be significant detail and clarity. This can be a delicate balance, since you do not want to write ten repetitive paragraphs or appear as if you are speaking down to anyone, so I find politeness and gratitude can go a long way. Thank yous and appreciative phrases are always good as well as asking if everything is clear. On the opposite end don’t be afraid to rephrase or repeat just to make sure you understand everything , especially if the message is a bit complicated.Once an email conversation is established answers can be shorter.
3. Email is a craft. Respect it.
It is helpful to think of email as correspondence in the elegant and formal sense of that word. Email can move mountains, but also crash empires. It can make or ruin someone’s day. It is ephemeral and permanent at the same time. So it needs to be approached with respect. Email is so much a part of our world that it is easy to become careless. Take extra time to reread before sending to make sure you do understand everything. Write with good structure, description and clarity. Spell and grammar check. (Something I need to constantly remind myself to do!) Bounce ideas off of others if you are having trouble with crafting an answer. Do not talk about others or complain through email, as you don’t know who else might see it. If you are upset never send an email immediately. If possible call or talk to the person. If you must respond through email. Wait. Do something else. Than draft something being objective and specific avoid emotional outbursts. Never write in all caps.
4. Don’t personalize responses.
Email is part of our personalities, work habits and moods. So we also need to learn to be forgiving if someone practices less than perfect email etiquette sometimes. Someone answering curtly may just be in a hurry or a person who appreciates more direct answers. Also, sometimes when we read an email at a certain time of day (For me it is 3:00 p.m. when I hit my afternoon slump) we can sometimes take something as sounding worse than it is. If someone does send an email that is clearly inappropriate or unprofessional, it is best not fire off a heated response but to call them or ask to meet to discuss. They may not be aware how they came across or they may have just had a bad moment. And if you find yourself one day sending a less than gracious email, you can remedy the situation with a follow-up email with clarification or apology or phone call or visit to the person possibly with a candy bar in hand.
5. Reply all is not evil.
The reply all button often gets a bad rap, which is understandable given the temptation for careless use. But it can be a very effective tool in cross-sector collaboration when email is the only way to have online group discussions without scheduling meetings which can be cumbersome. That being said it is important to make wise decisions when using this tool. If something really isn’t relevant to the group discussion do not send. If only the sender or a couple of people needs a response do not use reply all. Always double check that you are hitting a single reply or reply all before you hit send. This can work both ways. Sometimes people only reply to me when I wanted another person (s) to see the answer. On the other hand, sometimes you just want the sender to see. And while it is never a good idea to write anything disparaging about people in email, this rule is absolutely crucial here as it is too easy to accidentally hit reply-all when you meant to only reply to the sender. Angry rants are never a good idea in a reply-all situation, as they foster negativity among the group and you never know where that email will end up.
6. Copy people with care.
Before you copy someone reflect on if they really need to be copied. If this person has requested to be copied on everything that is fine, and if it is someone that also needs to know the information you are sending that is acceptable. For example, if you want them to follow up on something in the email or want them to be included in on a dialogue. As a courtesy to all parties, I always say I am copying the person in the email, and if they do not know each other I try to virtually introduce people. I am not a fan of overuse of the “Cover your Ass” copying where one another person is clearly just being copied so the writer of the email can demonstrate have done something or as a nudge to get a person to respond. While certainly documentation is a good thing, I find this strategy can disrupt relationships, as it sends a message of lack of trust. There may be times when this is necessary, but if so, try to accomplish it in the most diplomatic way and acknowledge who you are copying and why. (Ex.-“I am copying so and so to keep them in the loop”) If you have an issue with someone, it is best to call or meet with them first and not copy their superior or other colleagues or partners.
7. Embrace the exclamation point!
Just like reply all, the exclamation point is often seen as a bad choice. Certainly you don’t want to address your very first email to someone using their first name followed by three exclamation points, but I find exclamation points can bring personality, friendliness and enthusiasm to emails. That being said, exclamation points should only be used positively. No one wants to be yelled at through email which an exclamation point when used with negative words conveys, as well as all CAPS, which you should never use. If you have an issue with someone write a professional email to set up an in person meeting or call them.
8. Commit to maintenance.
Communication today is miraculous. We can send emails around the globe at any time of day. But with this gift comes the added responsibility of “communication maintenance.” I have for years been notoriously bad at this but recently have been trying to change my habits and prune more regularly. Ideally it would be great to block off time everyday to delete unnecessary emails, but for now I am trying to commit to once a month. I also started “Needs Answer” folder with an 01 in front so it goes to the top of my folders. I can put emails in there that I may not have time to answer right away, but will be easier to find when I have time. You can also use this tactic for emails that have information you need for projects to store in one place. (In gmail you can use the tag system to the same to the same effect) And while many sent emails should be saved for documentation, most are not necessary to save. Some email systems have a do not save option which I use because sent messages we tend to forget about and they add up and most are not necessary to save.
9. Periodically revisit your emails.
This is related to #8 but slightly different in that even if you don’t have time to go through and delete you can periodically scan to see if you have not addressed something. Some pieces I have seen, especially by more celebrity tech writer types, advocate for just accepting that there is no way you can answer every email and some are just not that important. There is some truth to that, but because I work in the community development field, I do try to get back to everyone if they reach out. I try to follow the rule of it takes less than two minutes answer it immediately. But revisiting my emails means if I dropped the ball no matter how late I get to it I can address it. The most difficult are the emails that are not directly related to projects I am working on but are requests for information or to meet to discuss people’s ideas. A quick “got your message and will get back to you as soon as I can” helps to acknowledge the person and I try to let them know that I do not mind being nudged if they don’t hear from me in a reasonable time. But we also have to forgive ourselves when things slip through the cracks. We are human after all.
10. Zero is temporary. Live with a little mess.
A zero inbox is a good ideal. But email is part of this big, messy yet ultimately beautiful world and so it is never going to function perfectly.The key is to try to do the best you can and just accept that there is always going to be some mess: emails that are not answered timely, outdated ones lingering in the inbox and yes sometimes miscommunication. Even if you hover for a moment at zero, life quickly swoops in to fill the vacuum. That doesn’t mean we should give up. We should strive for excellence but also not let email anxiety crush us and be grateful we have this wonderful tool that allows us to communicate swiftly across time and space make many magnificent things happen.