Tool or Torment? Making Email Work for You

Emailing on Laptop

Does your subject line pop?

Ah, email etiquette. We read articles and hear talk show segments about it all the time, but how many of us truly put such thoughtful advice into practice? This special function has revolutionized the way we communicate in business, but to our disservice, many of us had learned to use email in a much less formal setting. In fact, for a tool that will be instrumental throughout our entire careers and personal lives, there is surprisingly little official training in the college classroom for maximizing its use.

In a global economy, and a society that is connected with an efficiency only dreamed of a generation ago, there is born the assumption that everyone is available 24/7, and with it, the urge to abuse that assumption. Email thereby becomes a self-imposed trap, serving as a distraction instead of the technological convenience it was designed to be. Furthermore, even if you are willing to tolerate the intrusion, there are all those bad habits that render ineffective communications to be aware of, not to mention the various usage hazards that can land you in a jam.

I’ve done many workshops about email, and have written about it in the past. For eliminating the frustrating aspects of this modern reality, I’ve typically stressed the importance of understanding the basics (i.e.: the subject line is the most vital component of the entire message; emotion doesn’t translate well through email; the reader always assumes a negative tone, etc). But now, I’d like to take the lesson a few steps further, and offer you some guidelines for best practices with email. Stick to these 8 rules, and email will once again become your friend.

Think of the Message from the Recipient’s Perspective

Long messages often get put off, and then never returned to. Keep your messages brief and to-the-point. Remember to boldface the key point so it’s not overlooked in light of any small talk about the holidays.

Set Your Own Standards for Returning Email

If the received message will bring potential business, or if it’s from an existing client, a good rule of thumb is to respond within 24 hours (1 hour is even better). If the message is something fun or non-essential, your response can wait until the weekend. For everything else in between, you be the judge, but judge wisely.

Assess the Importance of the Type of Response

Sometimes a single question can spawn a complicated answer with tons of variables. This can lead to an email chain with too many tentacles, letting important details can get lost in the mix. Perhaps a phone call would more appropriate than email in these scenarios.

Verbalize Your Boundaries

When there’s a lot on our plate, we tend to pile on more when it comes to acting on important messages from clients. Instead, hold them at bay by responding with a breakdown of how you plan to proceed at a later date. Then, there are the co-workers who assume you never power down. Troubleshoot this by communicating to them that each evening you have dinner with the family between 5 and 8pm and are unavailable; another approach is to tell them that every Sunday you completely unplug or play sports with the kids. You will empower yourself to carve out your own boundaries and not be a victim of circumstance. Sit back and watch how people learn to play by your rules– even those under 25, who themselves are always plugged in.

Know When to be Formal, and When to be More Casual

Having a friendly rapport with someone at the office doesn’t necessarily translate into being friends. The point: if you’re emailing a colleague or supervisor, the writing should still remain in formal tone. Informal is reserved for when you’re out with colleagues for drinks. When composing your message, and considering the level of formality, think “is this something that might be forwarded and viewed by someone else in the company?”

Be Mindful of the Intrusion of the Carbon Copy

Plain and simple: Be protective of your contacts’ privacy by not inadvertently placing them on that huge CC list.

The Need to Have the Last Word

The average inbox receives 200 messages per day. Much of this consists of short, unnecessary follow-up messages from people (maybe you) who can’t seem to “close the loop”. Embrace the options for ending the e-conversation, and eliminate others’ compulsion to clog your inbox with a note that only says “Great!” or “Thank You”. One way is to mention in your initial response that you plan to complete your task by the end of the week (consider even mentioning a specific time). Also, acknowledgement that you’ve received the proposal is a good end to the conversation….it eases the mind.

Proactive Solution: The Calendar Invite

When sending your calendar invites, include the cell phone numbers of all parties. When someone is running late, these are good to have (FYI: It pays not to be late). And remember to take note of the time zone.

Stay Tuned for Tips about Email Introductions.