HomePostsDec 04, 2009

6 key ways to improve your email communication

I love email, I really love it. Email is a simple communication medium that creates a historical record and is dead-simple to manage (if you’re a Gmail user). I use email as much as possible and prefer it over pretty much any communication method besides meeting face-to-face.

Having said that, it’s terribly easy to use email poorly. Email is a disconnected way of communicating which makes it tough to get just right. It’s also subject to abuse in so many ways.

Because email has been my primary method of communication over the last several years, I want to share with you a few things I’ve learned about communicating via email. I’ve learned these tips by making mistakes, hearing from other people, and just practicing over time. Hopefully I can help you like others have helped me before!

Note: though several of these apply to personal emails, I’m speaking generally about business email. I write long, pointless, unfocused emails to my mom and have no shame in admitting that.

Answer everything that is being asked

I’ll be honest: this one comes from a pressing desire to eliminate this vile habit in other people. There is nothing more frustrating than asking 4 questions and getting 2 answers back. Is the person mad? Are they avoiding the question? Did they forget? What the heck?

When I respond to a long email I type my reply first, then I read the original email I’m replying to a second time, then I re-read my own. I make sure each question asked has an answer and that I’m providing all the information needed for my recipient to make their next step. Emails are like meetings: unless you know what to do afterward, you’ve just wasted a bunch of time.

Use numbered bullet points to organize your questions/answers

Bullet points are the weapon of choice for web content writers the world over. There’s no better way to present several distinct, discrete pieces of information than a list of bullet points. They let you deal with each piece separately and make the document you’re producing much easier to scan.

Here are a few great ways to use bullet points:

Also, don’t be scared of multi-sentence bullet points as long as each one is a distinct point. Bullet points can suffice for paragraphs if the separation between each idea is great enough.

Strike a balance between complete and succinct

When you’re a long email writer like I am, you regularly reach a point during composition where your instinct kicks in and you hear “hey, buddy, too long… seriously.” I probably hear this little voice more than most and try to be very cognizant of its warning. A too-long email is both inconsiderate (you’re asking someone to take their valuable time to digest your myriad words) and can lead to unnecessarily delayed replies (long message = long reply).

On the other hand, a too-short email can seem terse and incomplete. Striking a balance is tough but it’s just a matter of saying what needs to be said and hitting send. Answer all that is asked, include all pertinent information, add enough niceties to indicate a good tone, and fire away.

Think about your subject line as a headline

I think I’m more cognizant of this than other people because of the number of emails that I write and because I use online forums a lot. Posting on a forum is like creating a tiny wiki entry: it’s easily findable by Google and it could be a very important piece of information for someone. As such, I try to be as descriptive as possible in my titles.

Email is the same for many people. Gmail’s organization is a combo of user-created labels and a strong search function. If the word I need is in the subject line, it’s much easier to find what I need. It also helps me know if I need to open the email right away (“SH*T! THE SITE IS DOWN!”) or I can wait (“Do you have some extra time on your hands?”).

Reply quickly

There’s one slight caveat here: don’t follow this rule if you hate communicating over email. As I mentioned before, I like emails, particularly for work requests. Because I want people to use email as much as possible, I try to reply as quickly as possible. This creates a great reason for people to send me an email next time they need something.

Besides that, it’s just a polite thing to do. When you wait 4 days to reply to an email you’re sending a distinct message: I don’t want to communicate with you (whether you mean it or not). If you’re too busy to reply completely to someone’s email, send a note setting expectations (“got your email and I’ll send you a complete reply soon”). This is better than leaving what amounts to a pregnant pause.

Mind your tone (or complete lack thereof)

I learned a very important lesson about email tone when I was about 23 years old. At the time, I was working as a corporate trainer for a large wireless company and was very green the whole management gig. A group of the new employees I was training had scheduled time off during the six-week long session and I was left making exceptions and changing the very strict schedule. Admittedly, I was pretty angry about the whole situation but I composed what I thought was a rational explanation and sent it to all the managers I worked with. As it turned out, it WASN’T a rational email and there was a subsequent price on my head for a few weeks thereafter.

It’s much easier to read an email in the tone which you intended rather than in the one that it could be taken. I use a very simple rule now: if there is even a chance in hell that I could be misinterpreted, I re-write it. Sarcasm is hard to detect, humor is tough to convey, and a misplaced sentence could easily change a neutral–sounding email into a thinly-veiled attack. When in doubt, delete and try again.

I hope these tips help you communicate a little better over this wonderful medium we know and love!

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