As I was writing yesterday’s post, I realized that much of the writing and written communication that we do are in the form of email, whether we like it or not, and that all of the ‘etiquette’ and best practices around emailing warranted a completely separate post. Some of these tips will be the same or overlap with the ones I gave in my last post, and while that may be repetitive, my goal is to give you an additional perspective on them through the lens of email writing specifically.
I should also disclaim that while these tips apply to professional settings (among others), your workplace culture may carry a different set of expectations. Use your judgment to apply the tips that are appropriate.
Break your content into separate paragraphs. Even if you only have 2 or 3 sentences, splitting them up with a few line breaks maximizes readability. Of course, do this logically and intentionally.
Keep it concise. This is self-explanatory. When possible, I like to write a first draft and go back and re-read it with fresh eyes. I often identify places where I can remove and rephrase to be more concise.
Know your audience. Are you explaining something technical to a colleague? A thorough email is appropriate. (This might also be a great opportunity to document this information in a more permanent and shareable way than email.) Emailing your boss’ boss? You’ll definitely want to keep it brief, and keep the extra information in your back pocket in case of followup questions or conversation. Messaging a customer? Maintain a friendly tone. Tailor your message and structure to the recipient.
Re-read and revise. I mentioned this in yesterday’s post – and in a previous tip in this one – but if you take one thing away, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of re-reading any piece of written communication before you send it. Once you’ve finished a draft of an email, go back and re-read it, ideally putting yourself in the shoes of the recipient. This extra step before clicking Send enables you to make your email more concise, tailor your message, and ensure you’re expressing what you want to convey.
Don’t Reply-All. I’m not thrilled that I need to include this in 2020, but sadly, here we are.
Reply in a timely manner … To avoid the risk of receiving an infamous, “Just following up …”, respond to emails on time. Just as you need others’ input to complete your work, others need that same support from you. Keep common courtesy in mind. While the definition of ‘timely’ varies widely by company, and even by department, if you have your own small business or Etsy shop, I recommend responding same-day whenever possible. (Sidenote – The people who send an email and send a followup or message you an hour later with, “Did you get my email?????” – don’t entertain them. They can wait.)
… without replying immediately. On the flip side, I caution against making a habit of responding to emails immediately. Of course, use your judgment on this one, but those immediate responses teach others that you will always respond right away, and they will come to expect that and nothing less. On top of that, getting into a realtime back-and-forth email chain quickly gets cumbersome. Show others that you respect your time, and they will follow suit.
Set expectations and follow through on commitments. I love employing this technique, especially if I know my reply will require extra time or research. Shortly after receiving an email, I will respond with a brief note that goes something like this: “Quickly letting you know that I received your email and need some time to review your questions and respond thoroughly. I’ll get back to you no later than Wednesday.” This technique acknowledges that I’m not ignoring the sender and buys me time to craft a response (amid the other tasks I likely have on deck) – the key is that I follow through on the commitment that I set. Setting the expectation (“I’ll get back to you by Wednesday.”) allows you to control your time, and following through on it builds trust with your counterparts.
Pick up the phone. At the end of the day, a 5-minute phone conversation can have an exponentially greater impact than the most perfectly-crafted email. If email is needed for documentation or traceability, you can always send a followup recapping the conversation. In addition to typically being quicker, over-the-phone and face-to-face discussions build relationships and rapport.
Email is a fantastic communication tool (and it’s hard to imagine life before it!) but can easily become overused and a point of frustration or dread. Use these tips to maintain your sanity as you navigate customer inquiries and coworker back-and-forth, and hopefully reclaim control over your time.