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Being effective when using email requires practice

Photo of person writing in a notebook. Image Credit: Roco Julie, via Flickr/CC.
Take the time to write thoughtfully. Image Credit: Roco Julie, via Flickr/CC.

Electronic communications (voice mail, email, social networks, etc.) are flexible and powerful because they enable us to inform, notify, and discuss asynchronously.

I suspect that the greatest risk to being highly effective when communicating electronically is assuming that our face-to-face communication habits work as well in electronic form.

There are five habits I’ve found valuable when communicating electronically.

Habit 1: Write the subject of your email so that what you are saying is clear even if the recipient doesn’t read the body of your message.

For example, an email subject titled “website updates” may not be as clear as one titled “Updates complete: posted founders day blog to”.

Use an action phrase as the first part of your subject, then something short and descriptive for the second part. For example, “Review requested: Draft of new network patching workflow”.

Habit 2: Keep your message brief.

Keep in mind that your email is one out of 100+ messages your recipient is processing each day. Get to the point and cover the essential “who, what, where, when, why, and how.”

Don’t write messages with lengths that rival a novella. Long emails often make quick replies impossible. Instead, keep your message short and on topic using a few sentences or less. This habit will enable the recipient of your message to be responsive to you.

Habit 3: Be clear about what you are asking for.

The first or last sentence of your email should contain a specific question that clarifies what action you are asking the recipient of the message to take and by when.

For example, “Could you help me out with this?” is not nearly as precise or effective as “Could you please review and provide me with feedback on the attached production schedule for the new Technology in Michigan website by noon on Tuesday?”

Habit 4: Update the subject of your email for new topics or tangents.

Introducing multiple or unrelated topics under a single email subject creates confusion and increases the risks for errors or omissions to be made.

For example, consider what happens if you are using email to communicate about a server upgrade and you or a colleague, by replying to the message, asks for a status update on team member leave requests or confirmation that a trouble ticket from a colleague in another office has been resolved. As we continue to communicate via email, are we following up on the upgrade, leave requests, or support tickets?

Using one subject per email topic makes tracking and resolution easier for everyone involved, enables us to search email archives to track and report on status of actions, and make sure that we don’t accidently drop something that requires attention.

Habit 5: Summarize and synthesize prior emails to make next steps clearer.

Imagine receiving an email message containing one sentence, “Can you resolve this?” followed by the forwarded text of 10+ earlier messages?

Now, imaging receiving the same email with a short summary:

“Could you please follow-up with John to resolve why the home page was offline on Tuesday?

So far, we looked at potential problems with DNS. Jane gave us a heads up that there was maintenance work being done in the server room that morning. We need to let the director of the unit know, so they can brief their stakeholders.”

Providing a summary or roll-up of what has happened so far, and a clear requirement/needs overview, enables the recipient of your message to take action.

Not summarizing creates circumstances where work may be done a second or third time, resolution/completion is delayed, or new problems are introduced.