Best Practices for Better Emails at Work
January 3, 2012- Email continues to be a primary tool of communication, and people email more than ever in business. How many emails were in your inbox today? In the past year, I’ve noticed a lot of bad or bizarre emails. An opposing lawyer mistakenly sent me documents (twice!) about strategies among the lawyers that regularly sue one of my clients. Someone who got mad at me sent a two-page rant. I read some very colorful emails in company documents. Another opposing lawyer actually put in an email that he had no intention of returning any of my calls.
Even if you haven’t had a bad email moment lately, there are always ways we can email better and avoid future problems. If we sent fewer emails and made sure that the ones we do send are clear and effective, we’d all have less email to wrangle. Here are some best practices for better business emails.
Imagine it going viral. Imagine that email you’re about to send going viral all over the internet. That can easily happen these days. How would that email reflect on you and you organization? Next, imagine having to sit down and explain that email to the head of your company or organization. Would you be able to defend it? Is it one you would be proud of?
Imagine it up on a courtroom screen. Visualize your email on a gigantic courtroom screen, read word for word in court at a trial. That’s how trial lawyers see email. Some emails are unwise enough or give such bad sound bites that they do make it into trials. As long as email has existed, people have written ill-advised emails. Some of them can get you fired. Some can sink your company. Courtesy of the terrific book Send by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (which I highly recommend) here are a few “stupid email phrases that wound up in court:
- DELETE THIS EMAIL!
- Do NOT tell Joe.
- Can we get away with it?
- They’ll never find out.
- I have serious concerns.
- I don’t care what the hell you do.
- This might not be legal.”
Don’t editorialize on problems. There are always going to be problems and challenges that arise in business. To the extent possible, there are good reasons to deal with them in person or by voice, not by email. When problems are being worked through, stick to the facts. Don’t comment about the pace of progress, other potential solutions that were or could have been considered, or your complaints about the problems. Don’t write in sound bites.
Remember that email lives forever. Even if you delete it, it doesn’t mean it’s really gone. If you’ve sent it or forwarded it, it’s gone out into the world. If anyone else was copied, it’s out of your control. Even if deleted, email can be recovered. We tend to think of email as an evanescent medium. It’s not. Think of it as written in stone.
Recheck the “auto-complete” of addresses. This is a good time-saving feature but it has to be watched very carefully. The auto-complete feature in Outlook suggests names as you begin to type an email address, based on addresses you have used before. The danger with this feature is that the more emails you send, the more opportunity to mistakenly auto-complete the wrong address. For example, a co-counsel I'm working with to defend a case and the opposing lawyer on the exact same case have very similar starts to their email addresses. You can imagine the mistakes that could cause, if an email meant for someone on my team went to the enemy instead. This feature is on by default but it can be turned off entirely, and you can also delete specific past email addresses. The ideal practice would be to turn it off, but if you don't (and even I don’t), you at least need to watch this like a hawk. A good rule of thumb is to take a last look at all the email addresses right before you hit send. This has saved me many a time.
Capture and update subject lines. The subject, or “re”, line is vastly undervalued, but it’s really important. It’s your email’s headline. Make it specific and meaningful, and you’ll increase the odds of capturing attention. It also makes it easier to search saved emails later to find what you’re looking for. Sometimes you can relay the whole message in this line, without the recipient even having to open it. And update the subject line if the topic has changed, as it often does with multiple exchanges.
Don't email when you're mad. We all get the occasional email that makes us angry, or even furious. Your first instinct, while still simmering, can be to dash off a snappy retort. Don't. Step away from the keyboard. Take a breath. Take a few breaths. Whatever you would send off while angry is not going to be something you want to see in print in the future. If it makes you feel better, write up a draft and then delete it. Or save it as a draft overnight. Things will always look different in the morning and your head will be cooler and clearer. This leads to the next best practice, which is:
Choose other methods for emotional topics. Email is not a good forum for emotion.
Email has no tone. It has no body language or vocal inflection to give it context. It’s thus at the mercy of what the recipient decides to infer. When you’re dealing with a sensitive subject, a better means of communication is in person or at least by phone.
Halt the back and forth. Email works well for short issues that are not very complicated and don’t require extensive discussion. If you’re continuing to email back and forth, the issue probably needs to be talked through instead. My general rule is that if I’ve traded emails on a topic three times, it’s time to pick up the phone.
When sending attachments, add the recipient last. How many times have you mistakenly hit send before you finished typing or attached the document you meant to send? When you include an attachment, add the file to the email before writing the text. Add the email’s recipient last. If you do this, you’ll never have to send the next inevitable email saying, “sorry, forgot the attachment.”
Hitting "reply all" unintentionally. Everybody knows about this one, but it still happens. The bigger your organization, the more embarrassing this error can be. Take extra care whenever you respond so you don't hit this fatal button by mistake.
Read and follow your company’s email policy. Most companies and organizations have one. Many companies have aggressive spam filters in place that monitor email language. Check your filtered folders regularly.
Keep it simple. Nobody likes a long, meandering email. This is especially true for decision-makers, who need the bottom line. It can help to end the message with the question about the input you need. Particularly if your recipient may be reading on a mobile device, get to the point.
Take an email break. And finally, whenever you have the opportunity, take a technology break. Especially on vacations, it’s rejuvenating to step away from all today’s technology. Set some personal boundaries. If you, like me, aren’t inclined to ignore your technology or shut it off temporarily, then go somewhere remote with no service. I experienced this in some national parks recently, and I highly recommend it.
Best wishes for better emails.