If you work in a business job or knowledge worker job, you most likely get a ton of email every day. When you glance through your inbox, how many bad emails do you spot? Can you pinpoint why they are bad? Problems with these messages typically range from "I have no idea what this person is asking for!" to "Did they get a monkey drunk and have him write this?"
Unfortunately people are not intentionally trying to send bad emails (that might be forgivable). Most of us have just never had any training on how to send "decent" emails.
The following are 20 rules I try to follow for writing "decent" business emails:
1. If you ask for action on something, use a bulleted or numbered lists. Sticking multiple action items into a paragraph guarantees that something will get missed.
2. Explicitly Indicate when something is actionable or just for people's information. E.g. instead of "we need to finish the quarterly figures this week" use "Everyone: Please make sure you send me your quarterly number by Friday 5pm"; For informational type emails I prefer to say something like: "FYI on the email below, the accountants are currently wrapping up the quarterly numbers"
3. If you ask a question in an email, make sure to call out who you want to answer it. E.g. Instead of "where is the ABC project estimate" use "Brett: where is the ABC project estimate"
4. Use priority flags correctly in your emails. 22 of the 37 emails I received from someone in a month were marked "High Importance", only about three were actually high Importance; I asked him to stop sending me emails and just come talk to me when he felt something was important.
5. If you send an email to multiple people asking for action, don't follow-up to all of them with one email, touch base with them them individually (starting with the highest priority owner)
6. Correctly use the TO: and CC: lines. Use "TO" for when the person you are emailing needs to review or take action on something. If it is just informational to the recipient, they should be on the "CC:" line.
7. Do not email everyone and their dad… feel free to limit your responses to specific people who care about and can do something about your questions/issues. The more people you add to the "TO:" line, the less likely it is that anyone will take action.
8. Use BCC sparingly; If you BCC someone it needs to be because they asked you to (e.g. an executive assistant to someone on the TO: line asked to be copied on )
9. Avoid using background images…. This looks very unprofessional and makes text hard to read.
10. Avoid Flame wars, if you have a problem with what someone says, talk with them over the phone or face to face. Using email to get in a pissing match is a sign of immaturity… be an adult and talk to the person if you disagree with them.
11. Use simple words, showing off your vocabulary is not cool. It is especially counterproductive when you are working with people from different countries (e.g. some language nuances don't translate well)
12. Avoid Read receipts.... seriously…. Who uses read receipts? Most people turn off read receipt responses, and they make it feel like you don't trust the person you are sending an email to. If you want someone busy to read something, call them and leave a voicemail asking if they can review your email and get back to you.
13. Include your contact information footer only when necessary (signature), you only need to include this in origin emails.
14. Don't write a 5 page novel, if it takes you 2 hours to write it and it takes people an hour to read it, you may be better picking up the phone to call people. Also be considerate that people will be reading/responding from their iPhone/Android/Blackberry… none of which are very good for long form reading.
15. If it is a long email chain, cut a paste the parts that are important to the person you are sending it to. Do not force people to scroll down to see your edits.
16. Always use spell checker if you are on your computer. If you have a grammar checker, turn that on as well.
17. Cut Cut Cut - Ask yourself what can be removed from your email when you review it. If it is not important, get rid of it.
18. Don't over use abbreviations, asap, imho, wrt.... if you type 40-70 words per minute you don’t need to pretend you are text messaging or paying per character.
19. Think about the tone of the email your are sending; will everyone read it the same way in which you wrote it?
20. Review your email before you send it out, if you vocalize your email you will likely pick up a lot of problems.
If you try to use just 2-3 of the above rules for every email, you will find yourself writing better business emails in a few days.