How good are you at email? These five guidelines should help you:
- Deal with overload
- Write gripping subject lines
- Invert your email structure
- Avoid emotion communication minefields
- Write greener email signatures.
1. Dealing with email overload
What is the best way to deal with too many emails? It depends on your workload.
First, decide how frequently to check your email.
- If you get under 100 emails a day, check 4 times a day.
- If you get over 100 emails a day, check 6-8 times a day. It’s overwhelming to deal with over 40 emails at once.
Always turn off message notifications so new emails don’t break your concentration (steps for Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010). If you really need to be alerted for emails from certain people, then add a conditional rule for them.
Second, recognize that filing email in folders or using “flags” comes with a cost. The more complex your organization system, the longer it takes to decide how to file or find an email. Almost 20% of your “email time” is spent organizing or searching.
The following table gives 4 general patterns you can use depending on the volume of email you receive.
|Plan on keeping less than 100 messages||Leave your messages in the inbox.Use the “sort by sender” feature to find messages.|
|Want to use your inbox as a “to do” list OR have complex on-going projects to manage||File messages in 4-20 folders. Using more than 30 generally takes you too long to decide how to file messages.Read about GTD philosophy. Decide if an email requires an immediate response, should be done today, or will be deferred to a future date. Use folders to avoid emails you won’t deal with today.|
|Do not want to spend much time filing messages.||Have a simple archive folder where you store all of your messages.Use the “sort by sender” or “threading” option to track ongoing conversations or projects.
Make sure that your software has a good search feature to find messages.
|Receive a large amount of task-related emails from internal senders||Have senders use code words in the subject and use automatic rules to sort messages into “to do” folders.Try to keep your inbox limited to “to do” items only. Use folders to group projects or similar tasks.|
Recognize that you probably will keep half of your email in the inbox, and respond to about a third of them.
Use your inboxes as either “to dos” or reminders. More people use their inbox as a to-do list than those using calendars or an actual “to do” list combined.
2. Writing a good subject line
The most important element of your message is the subject line. Readers prioritize; a clear message makes it more likely that that they will answer your email first!
The subject should completely and concisely describe the email. Don’t be vague – let the reader see exactly what your message is about. Use less than 12 words so the subject doesn’t get cut off on phones and computers.
Bad Message Line
Good Message Line
|Follow-up on meeting||Need to contact copier vendor for project 12|
|Important question||How can I get the copier to print double-sided?|
|Help!||How can I get the copier to stop spewing toner?|
|Costs?||How much would a new copier cost?|
When you write the subject line, you need to remember that the receiver will use it both for (a) deciding if they should read it now, and (b) finding it at a later time. The better the subject, the easier it’ll be to find.
Some people use the subject line for the entire message. A good policy for these senders is to add “EOM” to the end of the subject; this tells the receiver to not to open the email.
It is especially important to have good subjects for newsletters. A vague or generic message line will make it look like spam. If your message “feels like an advertisement from the Sunday paper” it won’t get opened. The following table from MailChimp provides good examples.
Best open rates (60%-87%)
Worse Open Rates (1-14%)
10.ATTENTION [Company] West Staff!!
10.Technology Company Works with [Company] on Bananas Efforts
The best newsletter messages are straightforward and almost boring. Message lines that aren’t clear, sound like spam or marking, or don’t meet the reader’s expectations will be deleted. Even personalizing messages does not have a major impact on open rates.
People tend to delete messages more if they are sent to large groups or do not have a history dealing with the sender.
3. How do I structure the message?
Put the goal of the message in the first sentence. Assume that people aren’t going to read the entire message – they scan and skim. If you want them to perform some action, say so as quickly as possible. This is called an inverted pyramid structure, and is similar to how newspaper articles are written.
Have only one thought per paragraph. Because people read so quickly, they tend to not read sentences near the end of a paragraph. Avoid paragraphs over 7 lines.
Use bullet instead of paragraphs for lists. Make each bullet list about one thing only; don’t confuse “types” of items. For example, a bulleted list of requirements for a new copier should not contain a question about delivery date.
For example, which of the following two emails is easier to understand?
|How are you doing? I need to get some work done on finding a new copier since the old one broke. The old one had a paper feed that was too small. We need it to be at least 200 pages. Also, we need one that is smaller, since we are losing the supply closet during the remodel. We had trouble with fitting it in the supply space. We also need to get it soon by Friday for the XYZ job, does that work?||We need to get a new copier by Friday to meet the XYZ job.Our new copier needs:
Is this possible?
An exception to these rules is when conveying bad news to a motivated recipient. In this case, it is better to write the reason first and the result second. Giving reasons before the decision causes readers to view the message as more persuasive, and gives them a better image of the company and sender.
Be especially careful of tone in “bad news” messages. Phrasing things in a positive manner, such as “we want to help you, but…,” makes the receiver more likely to view you in a positive way.
4. How do users interpret emotions?
People are bad at reading emotion over email.
You can only detect sarcasm 60% of the time, and humor loses 50% of its “funniness.” This is a result of the sender being unable to put themselves in your shoes (called egocentrism). If you are determined to be funny or sarcastic, read your message out loud with the opposite emotion to hear it from the receiver’s point of view.
Emoticons can be a useful way to enhance the emotion of an email. Most guidebooks say to not use them for formal messages, but they can be a good way to enhance the emotion in informal or internal emails.
🙂 Smile 🙁 Frown 😉 Wink :-p Tongue sticking out
The best way to convey emotions in an email is to explicitly state it. For example, “I am unhappy that you have failed to buy a new copier.” When written like this, almost all receivers interpret emotion properly.
The shortness of the email, length of time for the writer to respond, and symbols (+, ?, !) are poor emotional indicators. People interpret these in different ways.
Never use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS because people interpret it as shouting. If you have to use capitals to highlight a critical point, it’s a sign that the email IS POORLY ORGANIZED.
5. What is the best type of message signature?
Outlook can easily add a signature to your emails, but what should be included?
- Don’t include your company logo. Many email programs will not show images by default, replacing it with a “broken image” icon. Even if the receiver does choose to view your image, a logo takes up extra inbox megabytes and takes longer to download on phones. It is also harder for receivers to find an attached document (as all of your emails will have an attachment).
- Don’t have a “be green and don’t print this email” message. First, the green colored text will cause them to print in color instead of black and white (10-20 times more expensive). Second, can you remember a time when you were going to print an email, but stopped because they had this footer?
- Do include your company phone and address information. When possible, make the signature wide instead of long. This makes it easier to follow a back and forth conversation.
Hopefully, this set of principles is helpful in providing a set of common-sense guidelines. While the best email style depends on your organizations culture, these suggestions should be useful for everyone.
References and Further Reading
Baltar, Olle. Keystroke Level Analysis of Email Message Organization. CHI (2000)
Bellotti, Victoria, Nicolas Ducheneaut, Mark Howard, Ian Smith, and Rebecca E. Grinter. “Quality Versus Quantity: E-Mail-Centric Task Management and Its Relation With Overload.” Human-Computer Interaction, Volume 20 (2005)
Dabbish, Laura, Robert E. Kraut, Susan Fussell, and Sara Kiesler. “Understanding Email Use: Predicting Action on a Message” CHI (2005)
Ducheneaut, Nicholas and Leon Watts. “In Search of Coherence: A Review of E-Mail Research.” Human-Computer Interaction (2005)
Fisher, Danyel, A.J. Brush, Eric Gleave, and Marc A. Smith. “Revisiting Whittaker & Sidner’s “Email Overload” Ten Years Later” CSCW (2006)
Kruger, Jason, Nicholas Epley, Jason Parker, and Zhi-Wen Ng. “Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89:6 (2005)
Mackiewicz, Jo. “Which Rules for Online Writing Are Worth Following?: A Study of Eight Rules in Eleven Handbooks.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. 46:2 (2003)
Jansen, Frank, and Daniël Janssen. “Explanations First: A Case for Presenting Explanations Before the Decision in Dutch Bad-News Messages.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 25: 36 (2011)