Seven ways to improve your e-mail messages

Will these suggestions solve all your e-mail problems? No, because we can't make all the senders of the e-mails clogging your inbox work a bit smarter to make their e-mail communications better as well

You are judged by the writing style, tone, language, and mistakes in your e-mails every single day. We're all so optimistic we believe people will overlook our e-mail typos and mistakes, while at the same time we privately label those who send us sloppy e-mails as careless, confused, or ineffective. A free e-mail service, GMX, did a survey and found the majority of Americans (58 percent) think less of people based on their e-mail content. Let's look at seven ways to help your e-mails label you as smart rather than stoopid.

First, and my pet peeve, is using e-mail for the wrong job. In a webinar I did for HyperOffice and in my contributions to their accompanying white paper, I listed four common business uses that get shoved onto e-mail that shouldn't. Coordinating schedules can better be done with a group calendar rather than arguing back and forth with others via e-mail about a meeting. Document collaboration works better with shared storage available to everyone rather than e-mailing edited copies of documents here and yon with no control or management. Managing tasks works better in project manager or task manager applications rather than demanding progress updates and work schedules via e-mail. And making group decisions or building group consensus fractures and falls apart via e-mail while it works much better on shared discussion boards.

In fact, I coined The Law of Meeting Coordination: Mail Volume = Participants Squared, or MV=P(2). The more people on an e-list for a meeting, the more replies full of "can't do it Thursday" and "do we need this boring meeting" and the like clog your inbox. And if the Radicati Group is right about world wide e-mail messages per day to average 247 billion (yes, Billion) this year, the fewer e-mails the better. That was the reasoning behind my column "Get More Work Done With Less E-mail"  last fall.

Second, use the subject line to your advantage to inform the recipient and help make your e-mail float to the top of their overflowing inbox. Think keywords in your subject and put them first. "What about a meeting for Acme Widgets" doesn't grab the eye like "New Customer Acme Widgets Meeting on Thursday." Adding exclamation points won't help, I promise!!!!! Nor will yelling IN ALL CAPS.

A clear subject line flows from a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish with your e-mail. If you can't write a clear subject line, rethink your e-mail.

Third, when sending to a defined group, such as your salespeople, acknowledge them in the greeting. A first line of "For the sales team" will help your recipients know immediately if the message applies to them or not. If you're sending a note to someone you know well, start with their first name, because people's eyes zero in on their name and that will help convince them to read the rest of your message. E-mails often get forwarded beyond your control, so letting others know whether they need to read your message by stating upfront your recipients helps them save their e-mail time.

Treat any e-mail to people you don't know as a formal business letter. You remember those, right? When we sent messages to people on paper via the Post Office? With a proper "Dear Mr. Jenkins" at the top, clear business writing in the middle, and a "Sincerely" or other proper closing at the end. Just like a letter, your e-mail will likely be passed around, so only write things you don't mind everyone in Mr. Jenkins' office reading. Practice restraint rather than ribaldry.

Fourth, put the important information at the top of the message body text. Don't "warm up" your reading audience, just say it. They're just as busy as you, and don't want to hear the history behind the e-mail, they just want to know what's in there that affects them. No matter how important your e-mail is to you, it's just another annoyance for many of your recipients. Put the meat at the top and skip the dessert for brevity.

Fifth, following our food analogy, don't confuse the issue with multiple entrees in one e-mail. You might think you're saving time by listing three different requests in one message, but most of the time your reader will answer the first question and hit send. Too few people read all the way through e-mails. Putting two requests in one e-mail just means you'll have to send a follow up e-mail to get the answer you want. Better to send two e-mails with two different subjects so the reply threads follow the original subjects.

Sixth, edit and proofread any e-mail that isn't to a close friend. Typos, mistakes, extra words, accidentally dropped words, and rambling sentences should all be hunted down and killed. Edit for proper word usage and to make sure the one goal you're expecting to achieve with that e-mail is clear. Proofread a second time for typos, punctuation, and inappropriate words. Fix these. In a business e-mail, don't try to be cute or funny for two reasons. First, it's hard to do well using just text. Second, even if you do it well, it's liable to be misinterpreted on the receiving end by someone, especially when forwarded by the recipient. Treat serious business e-mails as carefully as you would a resume. Check it over carefully, than recheck.

Seventh, keep it short. If you find yourself starting a third paragraph in the e-mail, and it's not a formal proposal of some type or sent as a report, pick up the phone. Time is tight and attention spans are short, so keep your e-mail short. Phone tag is another problem outside our purview today, but a four paragraph e-mail may not get the response you need, so calling will likely be quicker for both you and the recipient. Besides, if you have four paragraphs, you may be introducing a second topic or question, which is against Suggestion Five.

Will these seven suggestions solve all your e-mail problems? No, because we can't make all the senders of the e-mails clogging your inbox work a bit smarter to make their e-mail communications better as well. But the time you save your recipients with clearer e-mails, and the time you avoid not explaining mistakes and confusion in your e-mails, is time well spent.

FYI: I had the pleasure of doing one of five interviews for HP as part of their Insight From the Experts series. When you have a few minutes, check out my episode called Back Up Your Business, then check out the others. All are fun, all are helpful, and all are free.

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James E. Gaskin

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