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.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

February 3, 2016

5 Min Read
Email app icon on phone display.
imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

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. 

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.

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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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

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.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

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 resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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