Improving E-Mail   Leave a comment

My frustration with e-mail is well documented. It’s a great way to quickly convey information, but people just aren’t great about how they use it. The challenge many have is that, at work, they get literally hundreds of e-mails a day, only a fraction of which are actionable. I’ve gone on a improve-my-email binge the last few months. A few things I’ve done:

Only Include People Who Have Actionable Tasks I try to limit the size of a distribution where possible. If a recipient does not have an actionable task in an e-mail, I don’t put them in. There are cases where I know someone needs to have something for informational purposes. I use the CC line for this–sparingly.

The SmartPhone Screen Rule E-Mail is increasingly consumed on devices other than computers. This, in turn, has driven people’s behaviors. One suggestion that was made to me in this vein is the “SmartPhone Screen Rule.” When mailing someone at the top of the org chart, assume they may only read one or two SmartPhone screens worth of information. So, in the first five or six sentences, I try to explain what I need and why. I may put further detail after this, but the first paragraph should capture the key action required. I think of it like an executive summary on steroids. This has had the beneficial effect of forcing me to focus my writing.

Avoid Attachments Where Possible This is another case where the use of SmartPhones drives behavior. While sometimes, due to the size of the document or the nature of the file, it’s not possible, I try to not put an attachment. Instead, I’ll paste in the relevant excerpt. This makes it simpler to read. Even if I’m on my laptop, I’d prefer not to have to pick through a document.

Avoid Forwarding Threads Often, someone will forward me a thread, with a request at the top of it. I’ll reply back, asking for key information to execute the task. The response is “it’s in the thread.” Rather than make someone pick through several iterations of back-and-forth, I’ll format the information in either a new e-mail, or, if I think the context may be useful, at the top of whatever I forward. In addition to not forcing the recipient to pick through all the details, I know my intent is captured.

Optimize the Subject Line As the day goes on and I get busier, the subject line is what I look to to tell me if it is worth opening an e-mail at that time (or at all). It is important that this one line captures the content of the e-mail.

Ensure the Subject Line is Distinctly Meaningful I manage a data center. An e-mail titled “Data Center Question” might be meaningful to a project (which has only one data center work stream), it does not stand out to me (who has many projects asking about data centers). Avoiding a subject that, to the recipient, is generic.

Use Action Words I was a bit put off the first time I saw an e-mails titled “RESPONSE REQUESTED: Blah blah blah.” However, I’ve come to like that technique. It helps with prioritization. So, I put in phrases such as “INFORMATION REQUESTED,” “ACTION REQUIRED,” and “FYI” at the front of the subject.

Evolve the Subject Line If the e-mail starts talking about Site One, and the subject says “Parts for Site One,” you’re doing good. But, over the course of the discussion, it may spin into a discussion of Site Two. In that case, update the subject line. This way, folks involved only in Site Two know to pay attention.

Separate Thread If multiple actions are spread among distinct audiences, create separate e-mail threads. This helps limit what a given individual may have to read to understand what is required.

Know When Not to Use E-Mail Sometimes, the discussion becomes too complicated for an e-mail. By providing instant feedback, quick conversation, in person or on the phone, can accomplish things more quickly.

Any other suggestions for using e-mail more effectively?

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