In Simplifying Your Information Intake, we looked at strategies to reduce the amount of email you need to deal with, and how to deal with what’s left much faster. Anyone who undertakes the task of clearing out their inbox for good and getting a handle on their email habits inevitably discovers that the biggest reason email is plaguing so much of their time is the amount of unnecessary or badly written email being sent their way by others.
Here at Lifehack we like to help you become more productive, but there’s something to be said for helping others become more productive – after all, if you can make the life of your coworkers, friends and family a bit easier, isn’t it more likely they’ll return the favor?
So, in this article we’ll look at the email etiquette that you can follow to inspire world peace and harmony and end famine. Email can make life so much easier compared to the inconvenient snail mail or the inefficient phone call, but it can also be the source of all sorts of stress. Perhaps if everyone followed these guidelines, the world really would be a happier place!
Use Descriptive Subject Lines
Well-crafted, descriptive subject lines are essential to being able to process email quickly. If you have to open each email just to figure out what it’s about, you can’t prioritize their responses as efficiently. While you might think the email you’re sending is the most important for the recipient to reply to, it may be way down the list for them – they know what they need to get done with the most urgency, so let them be the judge and state plainly what the message is about.
Ask yourself if you’d understand the purpose of the email based on the subject heading alone before settling on one, and make sure it is concise, clear and scannable. Don’t use awkward phrasing or unusual words, because they take more time to re-read and understand, hence increasing the amount of time it takes your recipient to process the message.
Brevity is Your Friend
Have you ever received one of those emails that never seems to end? The one that goes on for pages and pages, yet by the time you finish you feel like you’ve learned nothing?
Have you ever sent one?
I bet the answer is yes on both counts. We’ve all received them, and we’ve all been guilty of sending them at least once or twice before. But there’s also the serial ramblers who do this every time they hit the Compose button.
In 90% of cases, email that is more than a page long is too long. Unless you’re explaining complicated concepts or providing detailed instructions (because they’ve been asked for or need to be communicated for a reason), then get back to the core of your message and communicate it quickly.
In my experience the kind of person who sends an opus for each email is the kind of person who assumes everyone is less intelligent than themselves or feels the need to explain completely irrelevant things. For instance, if you’re a graphic artist, you don’t need to explain the techniques used to create an image for a client when you hand over the work. They don’t care; that’s why they hired you instead of figuring it out for themselves.
But Don’t Be Too Brief
Context is important; when you deal with email all the time, it’s easy to forget what you’ve sent out in the last few days. When people remove your message from their reply completely, or fail to include key details in a message, confusion ensues and more back-and-forth is required to sort it out.
When replying to messages, clip off as much of the previous email as you can while keeping key sentences quoted in your reply. Ensure you provide contextual details that may seem self-evident to you, but not to the recipient – this is especially true when you’re emailing lecturers. Your course is not the only one they teach, most of the time!
Don’t CC if You Don’t Have a Reason
Ah, the terminal case of misplaced carbon copies. Before you inflict this painfully irritating malady on someone, you’ve got to go back and have a good look and ask yourself if it’s necessary. From experience, I’d say about 90% of messages I’ve received where I’m not in the To: field but the CC: field were completely and totally useless to me.
“Just keeping you in the loop” is a frequent reason given for doing this, and while there are sometimes cases where this is a good idea, for the most part you shouldn’t send someone an email unless you want them to take action on it
Reply-All Isn’t Always Necessary
Someone asks their whole mailing list for advice. The whole mailing list uses reply-all to give said advice. You get the pleasant surprise of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of totally unwanted emails. Reply-all is there for a reason and can be useful, but it’s yet another feature of email that’s rarely used for any good reason at all.
Whether the boss sends you and three other guys an email asking what time the serial bus arrives (I’ve read too much Dilbert) or your 13 year old niece/daughter/cousin/sister has sent out yet another chain mail and you want to tell her off, don’t use reply-all. Don’t punish anyone more than they already have been!
Use BCC for Bulk Mail
Speaking of little girls who make liberal use of the forward button, if you absolutely must send a bulk mail to your address book, always, always use the BCC field. It’s a basic privacy measure and not only prevents your recipients from receiving endless spam as a result of your carelessness (who doesn’t already?), but shows your recipient you have respect for their privacy and some intellect.
I always feel somewhat more amicable to a mass-mailer who has bothered to use a BCC, even on an internal email.
And, of course…
Don’t Use The Forward Button
The good old forward button. Whenever you receive a once-in-a-lifetime offer to have your love interest call and ask you on a hot date, it’s the forward button that lets you send it on to fifteen people and have it come true. Sounds like something you do often? In that case, I really hate you.
If it’s not chain mail, it usually boils down to another case of “just keeping you in the loop” that’s not usually necessary; don’t bother unless someone requires the specific information in the forwarded message to complete their job.
Email can be a massive waste of time. Help others cut their email time down and you’ll inevitably spend less time on it yourself.