There are hundreds of email etiquette tips and articles on the internet, and it’s impossible to follow all of them. Net Manners has a 101 Email Etiquette Tips article, but who in the world can follow 101 rules for writing an email!?!
We’ve compiled a few of our favorites for your consideration, with an aim toward clarity and efficiency.
- Tone. Remember that tone in email can be easily misconstrued. And sarcasm rarely works, at least in preserving any kind of relationship. So, if you’re not upset or angry and think there is a chance that your tone will be construed that way, say so. “I realize tone in emails is often difficult to decipher, so I want to make clear that I am in no way upset. This email is intended to…” inform, clarify, explain the background of a decision, or whatever the true intent is. This can de-escalate the recipient’s reaction before it even starts.
- Pick up the phone. Wait! This is about email. You are correct. But know when to pick up the phone or walk over to someone’s desk or their office. If an email chain goes to the 3rd round without resolution, consider that it is not working. I’ve seen people sitting as close as 40 feet from each other emailing back and forth for 6 or 7 rounds. There is always a “reason”, i.e. “she was with a client/on a call/at lunch, and I didn’t want to disturb her”. So, wait until she isn’t otherwise engaged. And if everyone is really so very busy that they cannot connect, schedule a 5 minute meeting or phone call as soon as you can. 5 minutes can usually wrap up and clarify an otherwise downward spiraling email exchange.
- Get to the point. Both in the topic and in the beginning. I have thousands, literally thousands, of unread emails that I will never, ever get to. We’re all in the same boat these days. If you want to be noticed, make it obvious! In the topic state the ACTION NEEDED, if any. Use Signature Required, REQUEST, Please Respond, INFO, or whatever to let the recipient know what they are expected to do. One word of ALL CAPS may help to get noticed without being construed as rude. And in the first line of the email, sum up the who, what, when, where, and why. Kabir Sehgal in the HBR article How to Write Email with Military Precision uses a “Bottom Line:” (first line) to cut to the chase, and “Background:” to give the steps previously taken and rationale for the request, decision or update. We’re reading more on our phones and tablets than ever before and this trend will continue. Making the topic and first line visible, succinct and actionable will get you better results.
These are just a few ideas, and don’t apply in all situations. Social emails may deviate from this somewhat, but may also still benefit from some of these ideas. You’ll have to use your judgement about what works best for you and your audience. Just don’t forget number 2 and know when to pick up the phone.