Effective Communication: Email Basics Part 2: Tips for Success (and Failure)

This is the second 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 the first part here.

This is where we get into the nitty gritty of how to be an effective emailer. We'll look specifically at 4 common scenarios that many people don't think about, but that don't require a lot of experience or pre-planning.

1. Reply vs. Reply All. Many times, someone will need to email a bunch of people (such as a whole department), and require a response from each individual.

A lot of times, the whole list doesn't need to read each response.

When you click "reply," you are replying only to the sender. When you click "reply all," you are replying to everybody on the list. You can double-check who you are replying to by looking at the "To" and "CC" fields.

Consider this common scenario.

It's Monday morning, and your boss is wondering how your team is going to be motivated to reach its goals this week. S/he emails everybody for one goal, and one way you're going to reach that goal.

Within 5 minutes, one of your co-workers, with whom you're friendly, replies to everybody with a great answer. You click "reply all" and call her a brown-noser and maybe make a snarky comment, which she would appreciate because she's your friend.

But because you clicked "reply all," everybody on your team, including your boss, thinks you're holding that person's answer against her.

Instead of sharing a joke with a friend, you've created the appearance of a rift on your team, and now everybody gets assigned to team building exercises that take up the next three Saturdays, and people really start to not like you because they were going to get in some time with their children.

Not so effective, right?

Action: Check the "To" and "CC" fields when sending an email, so you know who is going to receive the email.

2. Use an accurate and effective subject. Many people get a lot of email, like hundreds of messages a day. In an effort to manage that email, a lot of people have created systems that are effective for them. The two things that people base these systems on, for the most part, are the sender (that's you) and the subject field.

If you're sending an email message about a time off request, include that information in the subject line. If you're hoping to go on vacation in August, "August time off request" is a great subject line; "Sand castles and Frisbees" is a terrible one.

The next step, of course, is making your message match your subject line, so if you write terrifically effective subject lines but then write your messages about something else entirely (making your subject line inaccurate), all of your emails are going to become low priority, because the reader isn't going to trust that your high-priority subject line has anything to do with the message (see also: The Boy Who Cried Wolf).

Action: After you write your message, double-check to make sure your subject line is still accurate.

3. Stick to one subject. In addition to making sure your message and subject line are in agreement, make sure you (a) don't go off on a tangent and (b) you stick to just one subject in your email. If you have multiple subjects in an email message, one or more will get lost in a conversation thread.

4. Other tips for success. Here are some other tips for successful emails.

- Keep emails short. We don't read on the screen, we skim. Don't put too much extraneous information in your email message, or something will be missed.

- If you require an action, like signing up for an account or posting your results on an office Intranet, find a prominent place in your email for a phrase like "Action Item: Post your results to Intranet." Bold it if you like. Include a deadline. If it's "today," assume people will think you mean by close of business, so be specific.

- Some emails obviously require a response ("We're having an office luncheon, please email your order"). Some don't ("I hope you read this article and find it useful for your job"). If you need a response, include a note that you need a response. Include a phrase like "response requested," or "please respond." Include a deadline.

What did I miss? What else is required for effective email?

« Part 1: Anatomy of an email

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