Many years ago, I held a talk at one of my companies about email etiquette. We certainly had a problem.
But by putting in place some simple rules, it really made a difference in our internal culture.
More importantly, realize that your email is a broadcast of who you are. A well-written email really is noticed by the people who matter — those who will promote you, work with you, help you. Sloppy, crappy emails are very annoying.
Email is the prime communication medium for an organization. So I thought I’d share some lessons I’ve learned over the years. Probably none of this is new to you, but you might find a reinforcement of your own viewpoint in this list.
1. Never vent or show anger in an email. It’s so tempting to write a blistering email that gives you the last word. But it’s incredibly toxic and unproductive (and I know, because I’ve done it!). Instead, cool off and talk to the person directly.
If you’re a manager and you are cc’d on an email with this kind of behavior, kill the thread immediately. Direct communication is the only way to resolve upsets.
2. Don’t ever say anything in an email that you wouldn’t like to see on the front cover of the New York Times. Privacy is an illusion and nothing is private anymore. I don’t even need to use examples of recent embarrassments. They are a dime a dozen.
(Peter Chung’s incredibly embarrassing leak that lost him his job.)
3. Always reply to an email within 24 hours. Ideally, sooner.
There is nothing more frustrating that sending an email, only to get zero response. When it spreads as a habit by many employees, it hurts corporate culture, something I’ve seen first hand.
If you can’t reply immediately with an answer, write something to the effect that “I’ve read this, and I’ll get back to you a bit later on this.”
Organizations rely on rapid communication, and those who ignore emails are actually hurting their own company.
It’s common to think that someone who doesn’t answer your email is ignoring you, lazy, not doing their job, or a whole host of other “reasons” for not replying, when all that might be happening is that the recipient is traveling and hasn’t gotten to their inbox. But you still have to try to reply in 24 hours. It is important.
4. Don’t use fancy formatting. Stay away from colors. Stay away from different types of fonts. No pictures of unicorns, rainbows, puppies or any other such happiness. Keep it very, very clean.
Keep your signature simple. No pictures of your kids, flowers, huge and unnecessary graphics and other clutter.
Also remember that graphics often just become attachments (and too many attachments can make a spam filter suspicious), so use them carefully – if at all. (Of course, your LinkedIn information and typical business contact info is totally fine and expected.)
And don’t use patterned or colored backgrounds.
5. Grammar: Write normal, full sentences. Don’t use “ain’t”, “gonna”, and other non-standard English words.
Be careful with emoticons — use them sparingly, if at all (and only if you have familiarity with the person). I saw an email once that had something like 10 emoticons in one paragraph. It looked, well, ridiculous.
6. Don’t write all lower case or all upper case. Write normally. Writing all in lower case means you have aspirations to be the next e.e.cummings or that you’re old or uneducated or can’t use a keyboard. And, of course, UPPER CASE MEANS YOU’RE YELLING (or old, or uneducated, or just can’t use a keyboard).
7. Punctuation: Don’t overuse exclamation marks (!!!!) or question marks (???). Separate your paragraphs. Don’t place a space between the end of your sentence and the period (surprisingly common).
Don’t overuse ellipses (ellipses show that some text has been removed). And if you do use them, remember that ellipses are always three periods…
8. Don’t overuse CCs and don’t abuse Reply All.
I had to really drill this into my employees at one company. “You don’t have to worry about covering your ass and including me on a million emails. Think of who you’re including — it should only be the people who vitally need to know about what you’re sending.”
And the Reply All — don’t get me started. However, one thing that is important is to Reply to those who need to be on the thread. You can reply to the recipient and another person(s) who need to be on the mail, noting that you’ve removed the others. If it’s important, you can also Reply All to the group, saying you’re taking the issue off-line with a few people, so that they know the situation is under control. Just don’t abuse Reply Alls.
Also, be very careful of Blind CCs. I’ve seen this bite people in the (you know what). They Blind CC me, I reply and then everyone knows there’s a Blind cc. Use it carefully, if at all.
9. Be considerate of the recipient’s device. Not everyone reads on a desktop. Realize that your beautiful HTML email, with your italics and boldface text, may just become plaintext. Or that the big attachment you’re sending might not be viewable on someone’s mobile device.
10. Write to be understood. Don’t use a lot of scientific jargon or big words that the recipient(s) won’t absolutely understand. Write at the level of a 15–year old.
In general, good writing (whether in email or in life) is:
Pure means that the writing is in just correct English, without anything else added. Pure writing doesn’t include:
- foreign language words
- unnecessary technical words
- old, unused words
Clear means writing that uses normal, simple words, and does everything possible to avoid confusion. Words are not used that might be misunderstood to mean something else. Clear writing also does not show off, or use complicated terms that no one understands.
Precise means writing that intends to have the reader completely understand what is being communicated with as few words as possible. Precise writing has the goal of getting something immediately understood by the reader. It is writing that doesn’t use long, boring sentences. It doesn’t overuse words. However, it is not too short to be baffling.
The folks over at EmailTray have some more pointers.
What do you think? Are there any other items that should be on this list?