Considering how long email has been around, you would think that most people would have this down by now. The length, content, and style can be a source of frustration for many recipients. Unfortunately, email has become the primary means of communicating for many companies. Ironically, I constantly see something like “written communications” in performance appraisals or job descriptions, yet few organizations I’ve worked with offer any sort of training or guidelines to help employees in this regard. Here are a few quick guidelines to think about before you hit the Send button:
- Use alternate means of communication. Before you draft your email, think about how else you could get your message across or query answered. If it is a simple, straightforward question that needs an immediate answer, use instant messaging or send a text. Better yet, pick up the phone and try calling the person to talk live. In many cases, email should be the last, not the first choice.
- Be careful with the “Reply All” button. People I work with have a fascination with the Reply All button, especially when responding to a large email distribution list. You may be clogging up someone’s inbox by replying to everyone. Ask yourself if everyone really needs to be included before responding. If you are asking a large audience a question, read point 1 above. Do you have an internal discussion board, blog, or other social media to get others involved? If so, use that instead.
- Keep it brief. Since many people have an inbox with hundreds of emails stacked up, it’s likely they’re only going to spend approximately 1 minute reading yours. If recipients have to scroll down to read your message, they may just put it off to later, or worse, never read it entirely. Remember the acronym BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front. Make your point or ask your question in the first line of the email.
- Keep it concise. Do you enjoy talking with someone that is longwinded? Likewise, most people don’t enjoy longwinded writing styles. This is a little different than the point above. In this case I’m referring to sentence structure. Short, clear sentences speed up reading. Long run-on sentences slow down reading. Use as few words as possible to convey your message. Use bullet points instead of writing entire paragraphs. Simple, common words are usually better than using words that will force someone to Google the definition.
- Spelling and grammar still count. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we let an email go without spell checking or proofreading it. However, keep in mind that your communication is a reflection of you. If you are working virtually, and the only way people identify you is through your electronic communications, then this is especially important. If you are constantly sending out emails with spelling errors or making common errors, such as confusing “their” with “they’re,” then recipients may eventually form a negative perception of you.