6 Tips to Help You Stop Committing Email Sins

Lee Polevoi by Lee Polevoi on November 16, 2011
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How many of these “email sins” are you guilty of?

  • Writing subject lines that have nothing to do with the issue at hand
  • Attaching huge files and sending them without advance warning
  • Composing wordy essays in place of clear, concise notes
  • Going rogue on punctuation and capitalization
  • Trying to be funny, sarcastic, or whimsical when it’s inappropriate

Chances are, we’ve all helped clutter our colleagues’ email boxes with confusing, over-complicated messages. In addition to avoiding email overload, it’s important to follow the Golden Rule of business email: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Here are some guidelines for email etiquette that will reinforce your professional reputation and demonstrate compassion for your co-workers and clients.

  1. Adopt a business-like tone. Your emails reflect on both on you and your business. This isn’t the place for jokes, chain letters, gossip, or rumors, as tantalizing as they may be. Write messages as if they’re going to appear on your company letterhead, remembering that there’s no such thing as a “private” email. Your words may get forwarded at any time, and (because they’re company property) they can be retrieved, reviewed, and used in a court of law, if need be.
  2. Keep it short. Email is a wonderful tool for instant communication in clear, simple language. There’s no need for flowery introductions or poetic conclusions. Think before you type: What essential message do you want to convey? Recipients should be able to quickly understand why you’re sending email and what you’re asking them to do. Bullet points are your friends.
  3. Make the subject line do the heavy lifting. If a specific action is requested and you can summarize it in a few words (in most cases, you probably can), put it in the subject line and be done with it. If not, keep the subject line as brief and clear as possible. For internal emails, it’s OK for the staff to agree on a handful of acronyms (ASAP, AR for “Action Required,” etc.), but this shorthand should never appear in client correspondence.
  4. Avoid emails that look like ransom notes. It’s conventional wisdom among the email-savvy that you should AVOID USING ALL CAPS AT ALL TIMES (and avoid all lowercase, too). The same goes for shortcuts, such as “4u,” or the dreaded emoticon. When composing business emails, use proper sentence structure and punctuation as much as possible. Exclamation points? No more than one per message! Don’t attempt sarcasm or subtle humor; there’s too much potential for misinterpretation. If you’re angry about something, take a deep breath and do something else before attempting to address it in an email. Better yet, talk to the person on the phone or face-to-face.
  5. “Reply to all” sparingly. It’s easy to over-communicate and include additional, unnecessary recipients. Think about how you react when you’re cc:ed on an email you have no stake in (and couldn’t care less about). Internally, this may be appropriate when compiling results or seeking collective input. In general, reply only to the person who’s seeking a response.
  6. Choose attachments carefully. Proper email etiquette generally calls for no more than two attachments per email, and always with a relevant title and your name, so people can recall who sent it later on, when they have time to look at the files. Lengthy documents or PowerPoint presentations should only be attached upon request — and never sent without warning.

When used properly, email is a boon for business communication. However, if what you have to say is confidential, sensitive, or personal, email probably isn’t the place for it. As noted above, some situations clearly call for using the phone or meeting in person.

Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.

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