Are you overwhelmed with the number of emails in your inbox? Most of my executive coaching clients are struggling: juggling personal and professional responsibilities, meetings, sales pitches, projects, and the never-ending slew of emails hitting their inboxes.
This may come as a shock, but some of you may be the very culprits, inundating your peers and coworkers with needless email messages when less can be more.
Are you part of the problem? Are you cluttering someone else’s inbox by doing things like hitting “reply all” when you really should have just replied to the sender? Or do you send multiple emails when it really could have been one, thoughtful email?
In business, effective email etiquette is rarely addressed yet so crucial to everyone’s efficiency and sanity! So much of our daily business communication comes in the form of an email. With all the traffic coming at us hourly, how do we get any actual work done?
Let’s explore some ways to avoid email inefficiencies and, in the process, also improve your written communication. These tips will also allow you to set an example for others, thereby reducing the amount of email traffic in everyone’s lives. We like to call this a win-win ;)
Your subject line should succinctly (ideally fewer than 30 characters) paint a clear picture of your email's main point. Long subject lines often get sent to spam or missed at first glance. It should also clearly state if you require a response from the recipients. Is it time-sensitive?
Here are a few examples:
“Action Required - Meeting Poll”
“Time-Sensitive - Marketing Survey”
“ABC Project Update”
“Jill Smith Speaker Information”
The tendency can be to quickly scan all the subject lines in a long list of emails and focus first on the ones that allow us to quickly identify and understand what is being addressed or what is needed, like a quick question. Most people want to get rid of the “low-hanging fruit.” These are the emails that will just require a short response or no response at all. Delete what you don’t need. Yes! One less email on the list. Feeling less stressed already! If you want your email to catch someone’s attention, make the subject line short and specific.
Additionally, a new email should not piggyback off a past chain with a subject line that no longer applies. I once worked with a team member who constantly did this. He would send an email about a time-sensitive matter or require specific information, but since he was replying to an old email chain with a subject line that was irrelevant at that point, recipients would get confused, and some wouldn’t read it at all because they assumed it had been addressed a long time ago.
This happens because it’s the “easy” route. You find an old email from that person, hit reply, and begin a conversation intending to deliver a point that has nothing to do with that subject line. Take a few more steps. Find the contact. Create a NEW email with a new subject line that actually pertains to what you are currently addressing.
Your reader should be able to deduce by the subject line alone what an email pertains to, as in the case of a specific client, project, or committee. It should also be easy to sift through and quickly assess how much time an email will require and how urgent it is. This will help in prioritizing and “batching.”
“Batching” is a system I have introduced to many of my executive clients with great success. It is a way to organize your inbox to improve focus and efficiency. It is based on the concept that the brain can only truly focus on one thing or one subject matter at a time. Suppose you can focus solely on the communication related to one project, committee business, department, or email chain. In that case, you can then go on to the next without that dreaded sense of unfinished business.
The “Batching” method is simple:
Create folders for each type of business you handle. For example, have one folder per project, client, or committee.
Scan the email subject lines.
Delete any that no longer require your attention or that are junk.
Handle anything extremely urgent (put out the fires first!).
From the remaining emails, select like emails (do not open and read them yet - you want them to stay marked as unread) and drag them into their respective folders
Then decide which folder to work on first and focus on working in that folder, addressing one folder at a time, and then moving to the next until you have handled all business. Of course, more emails will come through. That is fine. You can batch them as they come, depending on the urgency
Many of my clients who use this system feel more focused, more organized, and more accomplished at the end of the day.
Like any system, you have to try it out to see how it works for you.
Be respectful of others' inboxes. If you find yourself sending multiple emails about the same subject or promising follow-up details, STOP. Get clear on what you are trying to communicate or what you are trying to accomplish. Is it to get an answer to a question? Is it to prompt a specific action? Get to the point quickly.
Multiple emails mean multiple times a person has to have their attention captured when one time would suffice. Include ALL the details, surveys, links, or calendar invitations in that ONE email. If you don’t have it all right there and then, wait until you do. People will appreciate having to open only one email to handle whatever business you are conducting. Furthermore, you just might get the answers or action you require a lot faster.
I am a big fan of bullet points because:
People’s attention spans are short these days, and long emails with long paragraphs are hard to digest
Many of your essential details could get lost if they don't visually stand out
The use of bullet points makes your thoughts more compact and more accessible to readers
Especially if you are asking important questions or laying out essential action items, bullet points will help those stand out easily.
As with bullet points, it is easier for most to read a series of short paragraphs than one long block of writing.
Break up your thoughts or main ideas into smaller paragraphs.
Set questions apart so they stand out. This will offer a better guarantee that your questions are seen and hopefully responded to. Sometimes it helps to use a bold font, italics, or highlight on a vital section or main point you want to ensure is not missed or glossed over.
Unless your response is genuinely intended for the whole email group, and you are certain it is vital information for all involved, do NOT hit “Reply All” when responding to an email with multiple recipients.
So many people still violate this.
Like piggybacking a new email off of an old subject line, sometimes people do this in what they think is an effort to save time. Some do it mindlessly, not intending to reply to the group. Sometimes people erroneously believe what they have to say is pertinent to the whole group. Be very sure of this last one. People’s inboxes are already stuffed without adding a slew of replies that are not vital to anyone but the sender of the original email. Again, be respectful of others’ inboxes.
The flip side is that you need to be sure you DO “Reply All” when you share information or vital details that all recipients need to know and act upon. I witnessed an incident where someone erroneously assumed they replied to everyone involved in coordinating an upcoming client event. In reality, they only responded to one person, leaving everyone else out of the loop. This resulted in missed steps and a negative customer experience.
Email volley is a lot like volleyball except with written communication. You send one email. It comes back with a question. You reply. The reply prompts another follow-up email with another question or request for clarification. By the third or fourth round of volleying this subject back and forth over the “net,” it is time to pick up the phone! Or better yet, switch to face-to-face communication.
If it takes several emails back and forth to resolve something, it will be much more efficient to make a quick phone call. Handle it right away, ensuring there are no lingering questions or unfinished business regarding the subject at hand.
As a writer, I can share that a vital part of written communication skills or getting a clear point across lies in editing, even for emails.
Proofreading is pivotal for effectively ensuring your written message is well received. It’s also how you prevent those dreaded typos. In our fast-paced world, it is easy to miss errors that can later be a little embarrassing to downright offensive. In a work setting, you want your written communication, as your verbal, to be as professional as possible. Your written words, attention to detail, spelling, and grammar heavily reflect your personal brand.
Have you ever received an email with either ALL CAPS, no capitalization at all where there should be, or a broken line of text? What impression about the author did it make?
Proofreading, spell-checking, and grammar-checking are vital to your brand, the impression your words make on others. It is so easy to correct mistakes. We have so many tools that check spelling and grammar, many free. If you do not possess the most incredible attention to detail, avail yourself of one of these tools. Your brand depends on it.
Another important aspect of editing is taking what you have written, distilling it, and saying it with less. Authors will tell you the bulk of the work in producing a book is not in the origination of the content but in the editing. You may edit a manuscript multiple times before it is ready. Why? Written communication is impactful when descriptive and illustrative but not overly wordy. Too many words, too many run-on sentences, or many examples can overload a reader and cause them to lose interest. Lose their attention, and you have lost the ability to get your point across.
When proofreading, ask yourself, “How can I say this with less?” It goes back to the point about being succinct. You may have to read it over a few times. Again, some apps and programs can help with editing suggestions. Take full advantage of all the editing technology at your fingertips today.
There are many ways to close an email. Your signature may be pre-determined by your company. However, if your company does not prescribe specific templates or preset signatures, what then? How do you show a little of your personality and warmth without coming across as unprofessional in your sign-off?
First, make sure actually to use a sign-off. It can be as simple as a dash followed by your name.
-Mitch Savoie Hill
Even in replies to a thread, not closing with your name leaves a vacuum. They might wonder if that was intended to be the end? Maybe, part of the email got cut off?
We recommend a simple closing such as “best regards” or “thanks.” You may also include your LinkedIn profile as a hyperlink so they can learn more about you.
In a long thread, your response with no closure can create confusion about where your reply ends and the former begins. Think of your signature, however simple, as the tie that wraps up your communication into a neat package.
How you communicate is as important as what you are communicating.
Being mindful about writing better emails will help you build a better understanding and better relationships