“Didn’t you get my email?”
Ever heard that before? Usually it’s right about the time everyone is figuring out that someone dropped the ball: the cake didn’t get ordered, the drivers didn’t show up on time, or the meeting moved up an hour. Leaders at every level are more and more dependent on email as a primary way to communicate. But in the hands of a careless leader, this tool can get you in trouble quickly. Here are 20 email best practices to make it work for you.
When to Use Email
Good leaders communicate well. The best ones use a variety of channels to get their message out. With the advent of the computing age, email has become one of the go-to communication tools. But there are times when email is a good choice, and others when it is not.
There are some great advantages to email. It provides a written record, the recipients can read it at their convenience, you can attach documents and links for clarity, and you can include others in the conversation. The best times to use email include:
When you are not in a hurry
When you want to coordinate the actions of several people
To follow-up and reinforce a conversation
When Not to use Email
Email is not a great communication tool when the message is complex, when something is urgent, when you are dealing with something that is personal or sensitive. Text on a screen lacks the non-verbal and social signals that you need to be sure the message is getting across. Email is not a good tool for:
Giving out time-sensitive tasks
Arguing and blaming
When you need social or non-verbal cues
To avoid a face to face conversation
We all know that good communication includes both sending and receiving, so here are some tips for both for leaders using email as a communication tool.
Email Best Practices: Sending
1. One subject per email. Set up your message so that people can respond to it and be done. Putting multiple topics in the same email makes it harder for people to get it out of their inbox, and soon it gets buried. It will also make finding it later a lot harder.
2. Have a clear subject line. Instead of “Meeting Notes” try “Notes from Aug 15th Sales meeting.” You get the idea; make it obvious. And if you are changing the subject in an email string, be sure to change the subject line. It’s tough to find an email about the fund raiser if it’s buried in a long string with the subject line “Quarterly Report.”
3. If it’s urgent or requires action, put that in the subject line. If it is truly critical, you should probably be calling them on the phone or tracking them down in person. Using all capital letters to get attention can help. “HOT: Sales Reports now due this Friday by 3:00.” Be careful not to overdo it on the urgent messages, or pretty soon the truly important ones won’t get the attention they deserve. When it’s appropriate, you can use words like these: NEW DUE DATE, IMMEDIATE ACTION, DUE TODAY…
4. The To: Line. Only for people you actually want to actually do something.
5. The Carbon Copy: Line. Use it for those that can benefit from knowing what is going on.
6. The Blind Carbon Copy: Line. Try not to use this at all. Communication needs to be open and clear. If you are playing games with who gets to know what, it’s a sign there may be bigger issues to resolve than improving email efficiency.
7. Don’t “Reply to All” unless you really need to. Nobody needs extra email. ‘nuff said.
8. Keep it Brief. If it takes more than about 10 minutes or three short paragraphs, you are trying too hard. Pick up the phone, or go talk to the person. Especially when you are communicating up the chain; the boss is busy. For best results, keep it to less than one screen without scrolling.
9. If it has to be long, start with a “need to know” section. Some might call this an executive summary. Put a couple of the key takeaways in bullets at the beginning of your note so your readers know what’s buried in all the text.
10. Put the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). In English class they taught you to put the Bottom Line at the Bottom (BLAB) for dramatic effect. But you are trying to get stuff done; you don’t have time for that. If you bury your main point at the bottom, it is going to get missed. Orient your reader with a clear subject, say hello, hit them with your BLUF, then provide the necessary background.
11. Highlight names, tasks, and due dates. If your email coordinates the actions of several people, make sure the names stand out so they are easy to find; put names on a separate line, use underlining, highlighting, bold, something. If they don’t see their name, they may not get the task done.
12. Use Short Paragraphs and Bullets. Mrs. Murray from 11th grade English will not be checking your work. Go for short, clear phrases. A wall of text in 7 pitch font that covers your screen is hard to read and harder to digest. Break it into bite-sized paragraphs, short simple sentences, and bullets when you can.
13. Do Use Spell Check. It’s there to help you. You may be the next MacArthur, but if you have misspellings and bad grammar, you’ll be the only one who thinks so. Take a minute and get it right.
14. Don’t blame and don’t get into arguments. It’s unprofessional, and when tempers cool down, that nasty email you wrote is still out there floating around, and it might resurface at an inconvenient time. If there’s a problem with someone, take a couple deep breaths, think for a bit, then go talk to them.
15. Don’t Ramble. Everybody is busy. Stay on topic, get to your point, then get on with your day.
16. Careful what you are forwarding. If you are passing along an email from someone else, make sure there is nothing personal or embarrassing in it before sending it on. Use the stink test; will it cause awkwardness? If yes, maybe cut that part out.
17. Request acknowledgement. If action is required, you need to be sure the recipient knows they are on the hook to do something. Ask for them to acknowledge your email so you know they got the word. If you don’t hear back, follow up.
Email Best Practices: Receiving
18. Reply. Communication is a two-way street. Just as you want a response when you send something out, it’s good to respond when someone sends you something.
19. Be timely. A note back within 24 hours is good courtesy; if you can’t complete the task or answer the mail by that time, acknowledge that you got it and are working on it.
20. Follow through. As with any leadership task, you build credibility and trust if you keep your word. Be sure to keep it visible and follow through with what you said you would do.
Email Best Practices – The Takeaway
Remember that email is just one of many communication tools. It has its strengths as well as many shortcomings. Sometimes there is no better way to get a message across than to eyeball to eyeball.
But if you decide email is the way to go for your message, use it wisely, be concise and professional, and make it easy for the reader to quickly get what you are trying to say.