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

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) »