Email Etiquette for the Super-Busy

In a recent blog post, venture capitalist Fred Wilson talked about his ongoing struggle with email management and the various solutions he’s tried, concluding: “Every time I make a productivity gain, the volume eventually overwhelms me.” It’s a familiar problem. We’re all extremely busy, and we all get too much email. So what to do?

It’s time for a more mindful approach, one that fully embraces a “less is more” strategy. To help you get started, we’ve assembled a cheat sheet of our email best practices. And, trust us, it’s not just about being more polite, it’s about being more efficient and getting the responses you need.

1. Be concise.

Do you like getting long emails? No? No one does. A good rule of thumb is to strive to keep emails to one line or less. If they can’t be that short, challenge yourself to keep them as concise as humanly possible. Your contact is just as likely to be checking the message on a smartphone as on a desktop computer, and shorter is easier to digest – which means you’re more likely to get a response.

2. Communicate “action steps” first, not last.

It’s standard practice to begin an email by summarizing what happened at a meeting or during a phone conversation, then following on with any “action steps” that emerged. But this makes it easy for the most important information to get lost in the shuffle. By reversing this order – and listing actions steps first and foremost – you keep the attention on the items you want to draw attention to.

3. Number your questions.

This is Email 101. If you’re not doing it already, it should be standard protocol to break out multiple points or questions as numbered items in all email correspondence. If you don’t, you risk having that customer or client only respond to the first question that happens to catch their eye. (And now you have to write another email to ask them about it again.)

A good rule of thumb is to strive to keep emails to one line or less.

4. Make the way forward clear.

Emails that offer nothing but a “What do you think about X…?” are generally ineffectual. Always be proactive and take the lead in your communications so that the way forward is completely clear. If you’re proposing a deal, do a bullet-pointed outline of the parameters from the get-go. If you want to “run something by” a superior, share your approach and ask them if they agree. They may not, but giving them a starting point, something to react to, is MUCH more likely to get a response than waiting for someone else to make the first move.

5. Include deadlines.

Some people think that handing out deadlines can seem dictatorial. On the contrary, I’ve noticed that successful busy people welcome a deadline. It helps them integrate the tasks into their schedule. If a response from them is imperative, politely include a deadline: “For the project to stay on track, I need a response from you by 1/18.” If a response is optional, communicate that as well: “If I don’t hear back from you by 1/18, I’ll proceed with the solution I’ve proposed.”

6. Use “FYI” for emails that have no actionable information.

Some emails need to be shared to keep everyone in the loop. But non-actionable correspondence should be labeled as such – so that it can be prioritized accordingly. At the Behance office, we use a simple “FYI” tag at the top of all emails that contain information that you are not required to act on. It allows for easy filtering of non-actionable emails, whether by scanning visually or setting up a rule in your email client.

7. Tell them that you’ll get to it later.

If someone sends you an urgent email that you can’t get to today (or this week, or this month), write them a quick note to let them know, specifically, when you will get to it. You’ll quell their anxiety, and save yourself a future nagging email from them. It also preserves goodwill: Explaining now why you won’t get to something until later is much more effective than apologizing later.

Non-actionable correspondence should be labeled as such – so that it can be prioritized accordingly.

8. Use expressive and compelling subject lines.

We all skim our inboxes, deciding what to read now, and what to read later. The subject line is a key place to indicate importance and time sensitivity, using leaders like “FOR APPROVAL:” or “SCHEDULING REQUEST:” or “FYI:” to indicate what action is or is not needed. It’s useful to think of subject lines like newspaper (or blog) headlines – they should be expressive and compelling. It’s your prime chance to hook the reader in.

9. Never send an angry or contentious email.

Email is a severely limited medium when it comes to conveying tone, which is why angry emails are never a good idea. More often than not, they just create more anxiety – and more email. Occasionally, writing an angry email can be therapeutic. If this is the case, get it off your chest, and then delete the email. When a confrontation is brewing, a conversation in person or on the phone is almost always best. Emails leave too much room for misunderstanding.

10. Never “reply all” (unless you absolutely must).

If you’ve received an email sent to a large group of people, do your best to avoid replying to all when you respond. If that person was qualified to send the email, typically they can be relied on to be the point person who collates the responses. Keep in mind: If using the “reply all” feature really seems necessary, you are probably having a conversation that would be better (and more efficiently) had face-to-face.

What’s Your Approach?

How do you keep email manageable?What are your strategies for ensuring a prompt reply?

More insights on: Email Strategy

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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