Effective Communication: Email Basics Part 1: Anatomy of an Email

This is the first in a two-part series about effective email. I'm writing this primarily for communication around an office that is increasingly and reluctantly technology-reliant, but feel free to re-purpose it for your needs. You can read part 2 here.

All email messages have six basic fields you should be aware of. Some email clients (that's email programs in lay terms) hide some of the fields, but it should be pretty easy to get them to show in case you'd like to use them. These fields are From, To, CC, BCC, Subject, and Message.

Let's take a look at what each field does and why it's important.

1. The "From" field. This is the email address the message you are writing is coming from. In most cases, this is your primary email address. For those people who have multiple email addresses on the same client, it's important to choose the email address you wish it to come from (for example, personal or work).

In some cases, an incorrect "from" field will put replies in the wrong place for you, creating an inefficient work flow, and in other cases, you're giving people access to an email address you may not want them to have (for example, giving work clients your personal address).

2. The "To" field. This should be your primary recipient list. Even if you're replying to an email, you should ALWAYS check this field to make sure the person you want to read the email is the ONLY person (or people, you get what I'm saying) in the field. Not double-checking this field could mean you send an email to the wrong person, or it could mean that the person you meant to complain about to a friend is actually on the email.

Making a mistake there might be "cute" once at work, or it could get you fired with cause.

3. The "CC" field. For those of us old enough to remember putting carbon paper in our typewriters, CC means "carbon copy." The person or people listed in this field are meant as secondary recipients. For example, if you send a message to someone in another department and CC your boss, your boss is likely to file that as a piece of information you want them to have, though s/he isn't likely to give it a priority.

The person in the "To" field can see the name and email address of the person in the "CC" field, and vice-versa.

4. The "BCC" field. "BCC" means "blind carbon copy." This means you're sending a copy of the message to someone, and NOT disclosing that you're sending it along to the person in the "To" field. The best and most common use of this is to hide people's email addresses from each other on a mailing list.

Another common use is the "I need to tell you something and the person I'm corresponding with doesn't need to know about it." For example, if I, as someone in middle management, have a team member under me whose angry emails I need to respond to, I might add my boss as a BCC on my return emails so he knows what's going on, in case the problem escalates.

5. The "Subject" field. Simply put, this is what the message is about. It's a way for the recipient to file the email, to prioritize it among the other emails s/he receives, and to be able to follow the conversation thread through several messages over time. If your subject field is "Time off request," your boss is more likely to look at it and figure out when you need time off than if your subject field is "My cat is sick," even if that's your reason for requesting time off. Be effective, and be accurate.

6. The "Message" field. This is your email message. We'll get into this more in Part 2, but keep your email message about a single topic (the topic in the subject field), and make sure you mention any action items that are required, whether you desire a response, and what deadline you need the response or action on.

Part 2: Tips for Success (and Failure) »

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