10 Rules That Explain Everything You Need to Know About Writing–and Reading–Email

I’ve been critical of email in the past, partly because I’m inundated with so many messages. I’m hoping someone invents a hybrid that replaces email and yet isn’t just a closed messaging system like Convo. Until then, we’re stuck with a stuffed inbox.

Sadly, as email becomes more and more of a chore to process each day, it’s also much easier for this outdated and archaic messaging system to come off the rails. We slip into poor communication habits so easily when we’re so overloaded. When you receive a few thousand emails per week, it’s also easy to act abrupt or rude. Most of us swear we will never act like that, that we practice good decorum, but then we get totally inundated with new queries and we explode.

It doesn’t have to work like that. With any messaging system, there’s a way to maintain healthy habits of communication. Here are a few to keep in mind.

1. Thank people

One of the biggest shifts I’ve seen with email is the return of the thank you. For so many years, we avoided this–it took up extra bandwidth. It has made a comeback because we’ve become so entitled and expect people to help us. Thanking someone by email and listing out the specific things that were helpful can firm up a relationship. It lets the other person know that you value their assistance and know that email is not just a text string between robots.

2. Remember there’s a human being on the receiving end

Speaking of robots. Before you send that hate mail (or that hate tweet), remember there is a real person who will read it. Because there’s such a mountain of messaging, it’s easy to send off quick one-word answers or say something sarcastic. Guess what? That one sarcastic email probably ruined the day of the recipient and you barely even noticed because it took four seconds to compose.

3. Be specific

Is it possible that being vague is a sign you don’t care that much? Sure. It means you don’t care whether the other person understands. Being specific takes time, and that’s not something most of us have in large quantities. All good writing is specific. Share the necessary details and you will help curb the influx of email for everyone.

4. Scan then read

One tip for reading email is to scan first and then read. Why is that? Most communication slowdowns can be avoided using this method because your scan tells you whether you even need to read the email, and a closer read helps you respond accordingly. It’s all about the time involved. If you scan, you might find out you just need to answer quickly. Tell the recipient you are too busy or the message is not for you. Be courteous and respond when needed. 

5. Use active verbs

Please do this! I will pay you in hard cash (not really). When you use active verbs and avoid passive voice, everyone benefits. “Tom is running late. Betsy ordered coffee.” Those sentences are easy to read and get right to the point. “Is the coffee being ordered?” slows everything down in an email and takes longer to read, which destroys productivity one email at a time.

6. Ditch the sarcasm

I’m guilty of adding some sarcasm to emails, but lately I’ve realized it has a damaging effect. It’s partly a problem with communication–people might not get your joke. More importantly, because we send and receive too many messages, it slows down the process. I’ll use sarcasm in a phone conversation when someone can ask me what that even means, and I’ll text sarcastic jokes to friends, but lately I’ve viewed email as primarily a conduit for direct and uncluttered communication.

7. Cover only what needs to be covered

I have a friend who only responds to short emails. Not sure how that is working out for him, and it’s a weird practice, but it’s also a good reminder. People don’t have time. If you need to pick up the phone, do so. At the same, make sure you cover the basics and fill in the details. People don’t read emails as much as they scan them, save them, and search for them later. Short emails won’t show up as often in a search for “new product announcement” if you go too light.

8. Compose but don’t send when needed

It’s an age-old trick. If you feel insulted by an email, it’s OK to hammer out an angry response to deal with the stress, but don’t click send. Delete all of the text and send a gentler email. Or, come back to the message later when you are thinking clearly.

9. Don’t confront

One simple rule for email is to avoid confronting people by messaging them. There are too many ways to interpret your true meaning. You miss seeing body language and the chance to respond immediately. Confront in person when needed or by phone. Save email for communication and sharing plans only.

10. Listen

Can you “listen” by email? Sure. For every message, take the time to read and understand what the person is really saying before you type a response. Study the tone and meaning, look for trigger words, pay attention to the details. For every message, be sure you read enough of the message and don’t just scan and respond. Be diligent and dig deep enough to understand.

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