I hate email. It’s just not a good medium for communication. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out.
People have become too comfortable with the immediacy of email. Gone are the days of thoughtful, deliberate writing.
Today people use email as an afterthought.
Instead of crafting a well-worded, meaningful message, children, teens and adults alike simply write stream of consciousness and hit the send button with no worry as to how the content makes the recipient perceive the sender. Worst of all, this is as true for business communications as it is for personal ones.
Consider the disclaimers that many mobile devices have in their built-in email apps. Every iOS device has a setting that allows you to place a tag at the bottom of every email that says something like “sent from my iPhone”. This gives the writer license to write without thinking because after all, “Hey, I wrote it on my phone. You can’t expect me to write grammatically correct content that is spell checked.”
You’ve been handed a get out of email jail free card.
The grander danger is that email has the potential to be confusing and worse, a time waster for both sides. I’m going to give you a few examples of how email is used poorly and present thoughts on how to use email more efficiently.
We’ll start by exploring the different types of “email guys.”
The “CC Everyone” Guy
This is the guy who sends an email to one person, but adds everyone else to the message as a CC unnecessarily. Unfortunately, many people don’t look to see who the message is for and who is CCed. This results in a mass series of reply-to-all messages where everyone is throwing in their two cents creating an unnecessarily long and complicated communication chain.
How To Not Be That Guy
The TO field is for the recipient of the message. The CC is for the people who are being kept in the loop. Sometimes it’s best not to CC anybody. Instead, consider emailing one key person directly. You’ll get one answer and won’t clog up other people’s email.
If the need arises to engage with more than one person, consider sending each a separate email instead of trying to create a confusing message that is sent to multiple people. When you have all of the information you need, you can send a synopsis to everyone involved to pre-empt a firestorm of replies.
If you do need to CC people, take the initiative by addressing the TO recipient explicitly and then punctuating the message with something like this; “I’ve CCed Bob and Ted so they are in the loop, but they do not need to respond to this message.” Now you’ve taken those CCed off the hook and they won’t arbitrarily start firing off responses that would take them away from other activities.
The bare minimum rule of CCing is “CC the least amount of people necessary.”
The “Cover Your Ass” Guy
This guy is kind of an extension of the “CC everyone guy”, but his behavior is far more reprehensible. He is not CCing people because they need to be kept in the loop. He is CCing people so that he can be noticed. This takes time away from everyone and it creates confusion as to who is responsible for the contents of the message and its subsequent reply.
How To Not Be That Guy
Every manager is responsible for making sure that communications in an organization are as streamlined as possible and that the “cover your ass guy” isn’t becoming a time suck for everyone else. In the absence of having a good manager, be aware that you don’t need to CC everyone to cover your ass. Should the poop hit the fan and you’ve done what you are supposed to, you can always reference or forward a past email should the need arise.
The “Email First, Think Later” Guy
This is the guy who has run into what he perceives to be a problem and instead of spending a few moments problem solving, he fires off an email. I get emails like this from my students all the time. One moment I’ll receive an email with a question or problem only to receive another a few moments later with the message, “Sorry, I figured it out.” Great. You’ve just wasted my time.
How To Not Be That Guy
Try to control the knee jerk reaction to fire off an email at the slightest hint of a problem. Sometimes a problem isn’t a problem at all if you give it a moment of thought. When there is a problem, sometimes the solution is a simple one that you can figure out on your own. Recognize that by making your problem into someone else’s problem you are now impeding two people instead of one.
If you do have a problem and need help, illustrate the fact that you have attempted to solve the problem on your own in your message. It will make the recipient satisfied that despite having a problem, you showed the initiative to try and resolve it on your own and aren’t simply wasting their time.
The “More Words Means Clarity” Guy
The technology behind most email is SMTP. The “S” stands for “simple”. People are inundated with data nowadays. They are constantly looking for ways to cut down on the inputs they are being challenged with. So when you come along and write a 500 word email because you need a pen, you’re not doing anyone any favors. More complex messages means more time to read, more time to comprehend and potentially increases the lag time between the receipt of that message and the follow up action.
How To Not Be That Guy
I tell my students that whenever they write an email, they should reread it and rewrite it at half the length. I tell them to think like a tweeter who has a 140 character limitation. This isn’t license to write short, incomprehensible messages, but sometimes less can be more.
The “No Words Means Clarity” Guy
Long emails are time wasters, but you need to communicate at least one concept in an email message.
Some time ago, I received the following email from a client:
That’s it. A question mark. No context. Not even a subject line.
That would be called highly non-actionable as far as I am concerned.
How To Not Be That Guy
Be clear, but be pithy. Try to imagine that the recipient has no idea what you are talking about. Give them as much detail as they need, but not more.
Here Are Some Additional Thoughts On Using Email Better
Don’t Use Email.
Email isn’t suitable for everything. For example, in a scenario where you need to keep track of the history of a task, project or issue, email is entirely unsuitable. Email is for “Hi Bob” type messages, not for tracking the current project or recording the problems with a particular IT issue. Using a ticketing system or a project management system is far more suited for tracking that type of information. Emails will inevitably lead to difficulty storing, tracking and reporting on information of that type.
Also, and I can’t stress this enough, sometimes you should write your email, throw it out and then pick up the phone. A 5 minute phone call may lend clarity to a situation instead of the unintended ambiguity of the written word. Plus, whatever line of business you are in, people like to do business with people, not email.
Write An Email And Put It In Your Drafts Before You Send It.
There is rarely a scenario where you can’t wait a few minutes before sending an email. Whenever I write an email, I always save it to my drafts and let it sit there. Sometimes for a day. Sometimes just long enough for a sip of coffee. There are plenty of times that I think of additional things I need to say or perhaps that the email isn’t necessary in the first place. I don’t want to waste my time and I don’t want to waste the recipient’s time.
Think Really Hard About BCCing.
I never BCC. Never. Ever.
Once I was part of an email where the sender BCCed someone that he wanted to make aware of a problem, but he didn’t want anyone who was CCed to know. As it turns out, the BCCed person didn’t realize that they were BCCed and hit reply-to-all. Hellfire erupted.
Whenever I want someone in the know, I first send out the email that needs to go out and then I forward that already-sent email message to the new recipient. If they reply, even accidentally, only I will know about it.
Be Clear On What You Are Saying And What You Want.
It should go without saying, but when you email someone you should have something to say. Be sure your message is clear. Conversely, if you need something, make sure your needs are clear as well. Typically, when I am in need of something, I will write a message that includes my needs, but also add a checklist at the end. I know that sounds repetitive and seems to violate my “keep it short” rule, but people tend to work better with lists than with prose.
Get Rid Of Your Signature.
Whoa. I know. Sounds trippy, right?
The email signature has just gotten out of hand. I know people who have a dozen lines of content plus several images as part of their signature. By any measurable standard, the email signature is almost universally ignored, but forces people to download all of that additional content for no valuable reason.
Want to know what is on my email signature? Nothing. Why? Because if you need me, you can simply hit the reply button.
Make Your Subject Line Count.
People are inundated with email. As a result, they are selective about reading and responding to email. If you need a reply, you will put yourself ahead of the game by having a clear and meaningful subject line. A subject line such as “Meeting” is far inferior to “Schedule for next week’s sales meeting in the conference room at 11am”.
As the recipient is scanning their subject lines to determine what to read, you want yours to be catchy.
Your Subject Should Be Clear, But Not Be The Only Message.
Have you ever put your message in the subject line and then not put anything in the body?
Don’t do that. That’s not how email is expected to work and it could create confusion if the recipient is expecting a message and gets none.
Have Someone Else Review Your Email Before You Send It.
About 50% of the business email I send out is read first by my business partner. That might sound like a waste of time, but when my business partner says, “I don’t understand what you’re asking for,” then chances are neither will the recipient.
Adding a layer of review before sending out an important email is worth its weight in gold.
That’s All Folks
There are my thoughts. Do you use email well or poorly based on my standard? Do you have better ways of using email? Let me know in the comments. And if you feel like emailing me, keep it pithy and send it to [email protected].
Join the discussion 15 Comments
Words of wisdom as usual. My only point of possible contention is the email sig — I have one and mainly it’s because I know other people are lazy like me and will use that as a way to find my phone number or other info. I don’t like having a signature for EVERY reply tho. That really bugs me. And yeah, most of us could stand to pare down our sigs a bit. But they are helpful (when not abused).
I know too many people whose signatures are longer than most of their messages.
The signature is necessary simply because it can provide extra contact info like a phone number. Otherwise you’re requiring someone to add you to their full address book, when that might not be necessary. Having said this, the disclaimers and 47 lines of social media profiles, upcoming events, blog links, and what-not need to go. Name. Company. Phone. Web link. Done.
Wouldn’t one link to a LinkedIn (or similar) profile suffice?
I would propose that if people maintained one central source for their contact info, things would be simpler. One of our recent clients has different hours of operation on their email signature and various online profiles. It’s too much maintenance for some people.
why should you make someone click to find something as simple as a phone number? People do still use the phone.
Good point, but stop using logic and reason when I’m trying to start a revolution!
Ah, the pitfalls of Bcc. Bcc is definitely not OK in a business context.
I also agree with your POV on bloated email signatures. To someone who doesn’t use any, they come across as a bit overdone, overbearing, even kind of arrogant.
And yeah, definitely loathe the little tags, “sent from my iPhone”, “sent from my iPad”. Seriously, who cares? When someone does that, they’re simply showing off. Giving the recipient more text to read. But is it relevant text? No. Annoying? Quite possibly.
Plus, the signatures with multiple images make me download those images over and over.
the vCard attachments are worse though. I see an email with an attachment and it gets my attention. Oh, wait, a vCard. Nevermind.
We use Basecmap for project management and every time a client replies to the system with email, all their images get brought in as file attachments, it’s very annoying.
Love this article! You did a great job highlighting some of the pitfalls and providing sound advice.
I would like to add one to the mix: Stop being rude. Learn the etiquette. Say “hello”, use my name, ask me how I am doing if we haven’t talked in a while… In a nutshell, make me feel that you care.
I have a full “how to use email” session with my students every semester that includes your thoughts.
Yes, but can we all agree to drop the “I hope this email finds you well” bit? No you don’t, you emailed me because you have something you want. Get to the point. And if you can avoid starting your sentences with “I” you get bonus points (I wanted to, I am following up, etc.). Flipping that sentence (whatever it’s going to be) into a question is shorter and will definitely elicit a response.
Last one…it’s never convenient, so don’t give me the leeway to respond at my convenience. You’re doing me a bigger favor by giving me a deadline so I can get the email out of my inbox.
It becomes a fine line to sound professional and not rude with these techniques but they’re way more effective.
I do agree with you on the “Hello” part, though…I forget to do that a lot and have tried to change my habits.
I hit my boiling point with “again” as in…
I’d like to ask you to [whatever].
Again, it’ important that you [whatever]
As if the repetition is there as a preventative measure in case the first instance doesn’t make it.
I hope this message finds you well.