Email Etiquette: 5 Ways To Write Better Corporate Email - InformationWeek
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2/3/2016
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Email Etiquette: 5 Ways To Write Better Corporate Email

It's easier than ever to send a corporate email -- and that's a huge problem. Misleading and meandering messages often clog corporate inboxes and lead to poor communication among colleagues. Here's a look at five common email mistakes and ways to fix them.

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So. Much. Email. If your company could collectively groan, that's probably the line you'd hear most often.

But here's an individual groan that we all hear all the time: "Why is nobody reading my email?"

You might hear it from human resources, or finance… maybe even from the IT help desk itself.

Sometimes, the reason why nobody's reading your email is that people are already overloaded and they've missed your ray of sunshine among the 200 other beams of enlightenment they received that day.

However, the sad fact is the tidal wave of email that we deal with at our companies isn't caused by evil outside forces. The problem is that too much email is an autoimmune disease, where the corporate body is harming itself.

(Image: andrewgenn/iStockphoto)

(Image: andrewgenn/iStockphoto)

Frankly, in many cases, employees have tuned out. When internal actors send out time-wasting, confusing, or unclear emails, it creates a learned behavior in employees: Ignore.

Resolving the Email Dilemma

Still, there is hope, if we have the discipline, and dare I say, courage, to change our behaviors, and -- gulp -- our bosses' behaviors. So, let's look at five common problems with company email, and find ways to fix those issues and communicate better with our colleagues.

Problem: Too much volume. Most people send too much email. We treat it like texting, when, of course, it isn't. We send "thanks!" and "no problem!" one-liners. We dash off incomplete or unclear requests before thinking them through.

Fix: Cut the amount of email you send. In a fascinating case study from the Harvard Business Review, executives who reduced the amount of their outbound email reduced the entire company's email dramatically and saved thousands of work hours every year. It makes sense: When bosses are not judicious in their use of email, we can expect that nobody else will be, either.

Problem: Wrong tool for the task. We all know people who send an email when a phone call is more appropriate. (Maybe you're one of them?)

Fix: Pick up the phone. As a rule of thumb, if you're dealing with a complex issue that may require clarification, discussion using a real-time chat tool like Slack or the telephone will greatly reduce the amount of low-quality, high-volume email. Another great rule of thumb: If you've gone back and forth more than twice in email, you know this was a topic that belonged in a real-time chat in the first place.

Problem: Your subject lines suck. Tools that help reduce email overload are super popular right now. Sanebox, for example, is the way that I quickly process the (literally) hundreds of email product pitches that I get every week. But, that means that, unless you're on a VIP list or trained to a non-junk inbox (as most of your employees will likely not be), the only thing that employees see will be your headline.

Fix: Write "What's in it for me?" subject lines. Email subject lines are now like headlines in a magazine. If the subject line is not compelling, it's highly unlikely that the email will get read. Good subject lines will be relevant to the reader, not the writer.

So, "Newsletter" will instantaneously be vaporized in the fires of delete Hell, while "Make sure your corporate healthcare coverage continues!" or "How to get a raise here at XYZ Corp." probably won't. One warning: If HR, or IT, or anyone else starts writing interesting, yet misleading subject lines -- my favorite is "our meeting today," when we don't actually have a meeting today -- that business unit will lose credibility. You can expect all of their messages to start meeting a fiery death-by-deletion.

Problem: Too many words, unclear call to action. Long-form essays may have made a comeback online, but let me assure you that this is not true when it comes to corporate email. Short and sweet gets read. A long, meandering introduction before you get to the point is an invitation for someone to think, "This isn't relevant to me." If you are not crystal clear about what someone needs to do, they won't do it.

Fix: Tighten up. Spend the time to remove extraneous text from your message. Don't "bury the lede." You need to think Hemingway, not Faulkner. If the message must be long because of substantive content, start with an executive summary on the top that quickly and clearly outlines the "call to action," that is, what you need employees to do.

Problem: Too wide a net. CYA. It's an ugly thing. But it happens every day with corporate email: "If I tell everyone and their mother about this, I spread responsibility for anything bad happening, right?" Wrong, actually. When you CC everybody and their brother, you annoy them, unless there is a clear call to action for everyone. That means that your perky little email isn't going to get read. Possibly it might be skimmed, at least the first couple of times you do this, but that's not what you were going for, was it?

[Read more about email security.]

Fix: Be mindful of audience. When you send an email to too broad an audience, you look bad in some kind of way. Maybe you just look lazy instead of "that guy" who's covering his assets. But you look bad. Keep your audience as tight as possible. If you want your boss to know about the transaction, fine. But don't CC her. Instead, forward the message with a succinct summary of why and what you expect your boss to do with this information, or say that it's FYI.

The bottom line is that bad email writing is simply bad writing. Employees have their pick of the litter when it comes to their online reading lives. The fact is that when you write a corporate email, you are competing with all of the other content on the Internet. What should you do? Avoid jargon, don't be boring, but above all, get to the point and be honest. Your "open rate" will rise, I promise.

Rising stars wanted. Are you an IT professional under age 30 who's making a major contribution to the field? Do you know someone who fits that description? Submit your entry now for InformationWeek's Pearl Award. Full details and a submission form can be found here.

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human ... View Full Bio
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batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2016 | 1:53:41 AM
Re: Some points are bad advice
@vnewman2 interesting point, thanks for sharing...
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
2/9/2016 | 2:01:37 PM
Re: Some points are bad advice
@moarsauce: "Anyone who is CCed gets that message as info only, there is no need for action and no expectation that they read it. The To line of addresses is the important one with the first name being the one to act. That is a well established convention in the business world."

Hmmmm...no one in my organization operates that way, sadly.  If someone is CCed you can be sure to expect that many replies and more - here it is a call to chime in with whatever stream of consciousness that is running through their head at the moment.

I agree with you on the phone and will add voicemail to that as well.  Both are annoying.  Phone calls should be emergencies only.  They are distracting and interrupting, as you said.  I have a rule with voicemails - if it's over 30 seconds, I stop listening.  If you need that much time, it ought to be a two-way conversation, not one-way.  Better to send an email saying - I'd like to set up a time for a phone coversation when you're free.  That's what I do.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
2/8/2016 | 12:46:22 PM
Re: Some points are bad advice
@moarsauce, I agree 100% with your points and use email in almost same way as you, although I don't send or receive nearly as many as it sounds like you do. Just out of curiousity, what is your primary job which requires such heavy use? Project Mgmt? Large staff of direct reports?

The two main points everyone should do from your list:

1) Use your Junk mail feature to route outside stuff we all get that is nothing but ads and cold call requests. Kill the clutter before it starts.

2) Keep your Inbox clean, only items you need to act on. All mail clients support Folders, things that are info only but you feel you need to keep, move it to a folder. In jobs where you face vendors and customers. that is crucial. I have people here with 10,000 emails in their primary inbox. That is unmanageable unless you plan on writing a sticky note for things you actually have to act on.

Great point about cc, a lot of people don't get the proper use of that, either sending or receiving.
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
2/7/2016 | 1:13:54 PM
Re: Helpful article
This is a good article. Two more cents from my side: 1. The company, especially high-tech ones, need to think hard and consider if the automatically generated email notificiations are all necessary; 2. When email cannot tell and there are more than 3 rounds of back and forth, think about setting up the conference call or talk face to face.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
2/6/2016 | 3:27:10 PM
subject line
Good subject lines will be relevant to the reader, not the writer.

So true! Especially in email marketing. Which is why very specific calls to action are so important. You want to cut through all the clutter. I have blown off work emails to answer a focused personal email that reminded me of something I needed to get done.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
2/6/2016 | 1:38:17 PM
Re: Some points are bad advice
Plus, email is a written record while a phone call usually has no record. 

Yes! This is a crucial reason why I use email much more than phone. If I'm talking to someone on the phone maybe I'll jot down notes and then where do I put the notes? If the call was important enough, I'll send a confirming email about the content...but then why did I call if I'm stating the facts in the follow up email?

Email trail, email trail, email trail.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
2/6/2016 | 7:59:08 AM
Re: The key problem with email
That is correct, but you cannot really determine the reaction in a phone call either.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
2/6/2016 | 7:55:05 AM
Some points are bad advice
I admit I love email. I send a lot of emails and I receive a lot of emails. So a few points mentioned have some significant drawbacks.
"We all know people who send an email when a phone call is more appropriate." - The problem here is that the other person has to be where the phone is and has to be able to take the call. Phone calls are disruptive because they demand immediate action unless you only get voice mail. Then you are no better off than with email. Plus, email is a written record while a phone call usually has no record. A week later neither you nor the person you called has any recollection of what was asked and decided. Email can also be searched quite efficiently, not so with voice recordings or personal conversations.

"Short and sweet gets read." - ...and misunderstood. While being concise has its merits it often lacks detail and information needed. The leads to long email threads or email/phone/in person conversations that others on the email thread do not know about. That then requires sending another email to everyone summarizing everything and finally adding all that info that should have been added in the first message instead of a handful of bullet points. Most people can read fast.

"When you CC everybody and their brother, you annoy them, unless there is a clear call to action for everyone." - You got that wrong. Anyone who is CCed gets that message as info only, there is no need for action and no expectation that they read it. The To line of addresses is the important one with the first name being the one to act. That is a well established convention in the business world.

The advice that is missing is this: "Email applications have filters. Use them!" It takes a bit of time to set up filters and tune them. I get hundreds of emails a day and depending on the origin several of them go straight to the trash folder. A few times per day I skim over the emails in the trash folder to pick out anything that might be of interest, but I usually delete all of it. Other folders are fed through filters and that makes it easier to decide what to read and respond to first.

Also missing: "Email applications can save drafts. Use that feature!" This will force you to revisit a message, tone it down, remove things that already got cleared up, or throw the entire draft away. I received that advice from a top level manager once after replying to one of his emails in a way I should not have. Luckily, he was a good sport and saw this as an excellent mentoring opportunity.

Further tips: Leave emails to respond to in the default inbox folder and keep that number as small as possible. The luxury of not having to answer right away does not mean you can wait a week to reply.
Send yourself emails for items to do that are not captured in other places. If you find that there are emails from yourself from a week ago then throw them away because it probably was not an important task.
Throw your phones away, you do not need them (OK, maybe a bit too extreme). Phone calls are annoying because they always come at the worst time. I find phone calls obnoxious because they always imply that I have to reply to an inquiry right now. Rather bold to assume by the caller that I have nothing better to do at the moment. Phone is also more expensive than email to operate and your email application typically has a way better address book function.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
2/4/2016 | 5:07:22 PM
Re: Helpful article
The first study/article I read on The Etiquette of Electronic Mail  (Rand Corporation) was published about 1983. It never ends -- telling people how to make email effective, what to do, what NOT to do, etc. I think it's good to remind them/tell them, but I wonder if we all missed how hard email is to deal with, since we need endless instruction on it.
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
2/4/2016 | 12:34:12 PM
Re: The key problem with email
@Charlie Babcock, Interesting point, as you right nature of communication is to get/see feedback/reply :)
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