Love it or hate it, email is here to stay. But email is actually a great tool, as long as it’s done right.
Considering how much people complain about email, you’d think some startup whiz would have come up with a better solution. Too many emails come in, and answering them just creates new ones which need to be answered again; Inbox Zero is the dream we all dream. But despite the regular reports of people claiming they’ve managed to “quit email”, it’s yet to become a trend. There’s a simple reason for this: email is actually pretty great. No, really! Think about it: email lets you communicate privately, in more than 140 characters, and you can add attachments. We just have to become a little better at dealing with it so it doesn’t take up so much time.
Here are some tips for writing a good email:
- Be brief and clear
By all means, ask how people are or it will sound rude. But long emails should be reserved for long-distance friends, not for work. The backstory may seem relevant to you, but the recipient probably doesn’t need to hear as much detail about how the problem came to be – they’ll ask for more information if they do. If there are lots of issues to cover, a list with bullet points is a good way to break things down.
- Be (a little) friendly
There’s a fine line between too wordy and too short. If in doubt, always include a few niceties as it’s very difficult to discern tone in a short email; a very short message can easily come across as angry if there’s nothing there to soften it. As is the case in offline life, “please” and “thank you” go a long way in email. Exclamation points may seem corny, but they’re surprisingly handy for conveying friendliness (“Yes I’ll do that now!”), whereas a full stop can seem a bit curt after the same sentence. Speaking of aggressive punctuation, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has a habit of forwarding customer complaints from his personal email to the relevant department, just adding a single question mark. This strikes fear into the heart of the recipient, and is a questionable way for an organisation to keep customer service at its heart. For most people, doing this would just be very, very rude.
- Be concise
Why are you sending this email? If you want the recipient to act, make sure you ask the question – this is surprisingly easy to forget. If emailing your boss, suggesting a course of action may be a good idea, as a busy person will be grateful if there’s a good option which they can just say “yes” to.
- Go easy on the CC button
CC’ing has its uses, but the whole office doesn’t have to see the ten emails involved in a simple scheduling exchange. Consider whether CC’ing is really necessary – as often it’s better to wait – and forward the relevant information once the back-and-forth is over.
- Avoid one-word emails
You know the ones – emails that just say “Thanks!”. If someone has gone out of their way to do something for you and you feel the need to thank them, then go ahead, write a personal message. But there’s no need to write back “thanks” to every person you interact with. One option is adding “thanks in advance” to emails with basic requests.
- Consider your sign-off
In the earliest days of email, people didn’t include proper greetings and sign-offs, but this has changed as email became a genuine replacement for posted letters. But what to write? “Sincerely” is a bit, well, insincere. “Cheers” works if you’re British, but maybe not every time. “Best” is pretty neutral, but doesn’t mean much. Interestingly, the trend may well be turning towards no sign-off at all, at least not past the initial email. This is because emailing is becoming more like texting or chatting: a back and forth exchange where no one signs their name every time. Email is no longer a replica of a letter that goes in the post box – it’s a flowing conversation.