Many of us send and receive a large number of e-mail every day. Like its more formal counterpart, the written business letter, e-mail is a reflection on you and your business. However, it is often seen as informal and familiar, resulting in more relaxed grammar and sometimes inappropriate tone. E-mail is an extremely efficient and indispensable business communication tool; nevertheless, it is important to communicate wisely and there are certain things to take into account when e-mailing.
Lesson 1: E-mail is public, not private.
Any e-mail you send must be considered a public conversation, regardless of disclaimers listed at the end of the message. E-mail sent from your company’s e-mail system is actually “owned” by your business. Also, once you hit send, you have no control over what the recipient will do. They could forward it along to others or print it out and leave it in a public area. Only discuss public matters in e-mail. Refrain from discussing confidential personnel or human resources related issues or the particulars of sensitive business deals and/or proprietary information. You could face additional legal repercussions in addition to reprimands from your employer and/or offended parties should you communicate confidential data via e-mail.
Lesson 2: Clear, relevant subject lines get your e-mail opened.
Inboxes are inundated with hundreds of messages every day. Your e-mail’s subject line is the best chance you have of ensuring that your message will be opened in a timely manner. This is especially important if your e-mail is the first contact you have with the recipient.
Always include a subject line. It should be concise, clear, and accurately relate the contents of your message. Never open an old e-mail from the recipient, hit Reply, and send a message that has nothing to do with the original message; this is misleading, annoying, and gives off a laziness vibe you probably weren’t intendending.
Cutesy, vague, or obscure subject lines run the risk of being immediately sent to the trash bin without being read. Elude spam filters by avoiding all caps, all lower case, urls and exclamation points in your subject line. Lastly, proofread your subject line as carefully as you review the rest of your message.
Lesson 3: Attachments ... how much is too much?
You’ve got that awesome PowerPoint presentation with a couple of funny embedded videos that you know you’re receiver is going to love! You quickly click on Insert File, attach it to your e-mail, and presto! It’s gone… right? Actually, it’s not so easy for your recipient. Large attachments can clog their inbox and cause other important messages to bounce.
Ask before sending an attachment over 500KB. Provide a brief description of what the attachment is and ask how they prefer to receive it. Limit the number of attachments in a single message, unless they have been requested or expected. Finally, make sure your attached files have a logical file name so the recipient understands the file at a glance.
Lesson 4: E-mail multiple recipients with caution.
Send or copy others only on a need-to-know basis and think twice before hitting “Reply All” or filling in the “Cc” or “Bcc” lines.
Only use “Reply All” when every member of the e-mail chain needs to know the information you are sending. Oftentimes, it is only the original sender you need to respond to.
When sending original e-mail, use the “Cc” field when the message requires that all contacts have the same information. The contacts should either already know each other’s e-mail address or be comfortable with it being known to the other parties.
Use the “Bcc” when you are e-mailing a group of people who do not personally know each other. Maintain their privacy by not publishing their address to people they do not know.
Lesson 5: Open well. Close strong.
When e-mailing someone for the first time, or after a long period of no contact, briefly introduce yourself. Do not assume the person knows who you are or immediately recognizes your e-mail address. Include a short, simple reminder of who you are in relation to the recipient.
Understand your recipient and take into account your familiarity with them when greeting and signing off on your message. If they are normally formal, write a more formal greeting and close. If the recipient is more casual, do the same. When in doubt, err on the side of formality.
Likewise, it is important to always greet your recipient, whether it is a formal “Dear Mr. Jones”, or a more relaxed “Hi Sam”. Include an e-mail signature with your sign-off. It’s helpful for the recipient to have easy access to your contact information should they need to call you, want to check out your Website, connect with you on social media, etc.
Lesson 6: Set a professional tone.
With the number of messages we receive on a daily basis increasing, it is important to keep e-mail short and clear. Get to the point quickly and use white space (e.g. via carriage returns or bullet points). State the purpose of the e-mail within the first two sentences.
Be professional. Avoid using emoticons or slang words. Employ a standard writing technique using proper capitalization and punctuation. Likewise, don’t overuse exclamation points; it can emit an immature impression.
Always proofread your messages before sending them. Check for spelling and grammatical errors, in addition to ensuring readability and comprehension.
E-mail is often seen as informal; people spontaneously fire off an e-mail they would never put in “writing”. Think twice. Do not “e-mail angry.” It is not good practice to ever express anger, criticize or belittle others, reprimand staff, send bad news, or fire someone over e-mail. E-mail messages last forever on servers or in other’s e-mail boxes.
Lesson 7: Go for a minimalist approach.
The more formatting you include in an e-mail, the more likely it could be inadvertently caught by a spam filter and blocked from the recipient’s Inbox. Even simple formatting, like using a unique font, relies on your recipient’s system to display the e-mail the way you intended.
Use very little, if any, formatting in everyday e-mail. Black text and standard fonts are safest. The ultimate goal is to communicate a message; don’t impede that with your own formatting.
Lesson 8: Don’t cry “Wolf!”…. unless it’s warranted.
Realistically evaluate the importance of your message. Don’t use the high priority option unless the message truly warrants it. If you regularly set high priority to your messages, it will likely have an adverse effect. It is better to use clear, descriptive subject lines and allow the recipient to place priority.
Similarly, use the “delivery receipt notification” sparingly. Your recipients don’t want to feel like you’re watching over their shoulder. And creating the need for a recipient to allow receipt notifications can simply be annoying.
Lesson 9: Respond appropriately.
In most cases, e-mail is not expected to warrant an immediate response. Still, it is important to reply in a timely manner, usually within 24–48 hours.
Also, weigh the need to send a response. Avoid sending one-line messages like “Thanks.” Our inboxes are big enough without inconsequential messages. As a sender, you might consider including the caveat “No Reply Necessary” in your messages when you don’t expect a response.
Invest a moment to clean up your reply if needed. For example, if your e-mail trail includes carets or pages of non-Bcc’d addresses, delete them.
Lesson 10: Be realistic.
Understand the nature of e-mail. It is not immediate or real-time and should not be used for last-minute, urgent, or sensitive news. It is also not a conversation. Complex subjects that require explanations or topics up for negotiation are not really suitable for e-mail. In these cases, a phone or personal conversation is best.
E-mail is fast and purpose-driven. It is more objective than personal conversation and an efficient way to communicate the same message to multiple people.
E-mail is a powerful communication tool we rely on every day. When used properly, it helps us to be more productive, efficient, responsive, and informed.