Thursday, August 2, 2012

How to Address Misunderstandings in E-mail

E-mail is one of the oldest Internet technologies, but it still causes a lot of stress, frustration and annoyance among users. Part of this is undoubtedly because of the volume of e-mail we all deal with, but a large part is also because it’s so easy to write e-mail that’s confusing, easily misunderstood or even (unintentionally) upsetting.
With a few simple techniques, you can help your clients and colleagues to be more productive when processing your e-mail. This is not just about being thoughtful and considerate of other people – although that alone is reason enough. It also helps your own productivity, because your e-mails will be clearer and easier to understand, so other people won’t have to keep writing back asking for more information.

Agree on the protocol

Agree how frequently you (and everybody else) will be checking e-mail, so you have the appropriate expectations and don’t fall into the trap of checking e-mail too often “just in case something urgent turns up”. Do your best to convince other people that e-mail should be used for important, not urgent, messages. Explain how they can contact you by other means if it’s urgent.
If you’re working in a team, establish some conventions for sending e-mail – for example:
  • Start the subject line with: “FYI” (for your information) if it’s purely for information, “Thanks” if you need to acknowledge you received it but don’t have anything to add, and “HIGH” for high-priority items.
  • Use the Priority indicator in your e-mail software to alert people to important messages – something like Low, Normal or High. But keep in mind that e-mail is for non-urgent communication, so use this only to indicate your message’s importance, not its urgency.
  • Put a person in the Cc (courtesy copy or carbon copy) list (rather than the To list) if they don’t need to take action.

Put it in context

You send a message and some time and somewhere later, your recipient reads it. You don’t know where they are, when they are reading it and what else is happening in their day. Don’t assume they remember any earlier discussion on the topic. Be on the safe side, and give them enough information so they understand your message fully.
Here are some specific techniques to use:
  • Use a descriptive subject line for every message, so it’s easy for others to recognise, file and find later. A good rule is to use a complete sentence or a question as the subject line.
  • If changing the topic when replying, change the subject line.
  • When replying to a message, quote as much of the original message as needed to provide context.

Send separate messages

When asking unrelated questions, use multiple e-mail messages. This makes it easier for others to reply to each question separately. This is an important point, but one many people get wrong – because it’s so easy to be lazy and put everything in the same message.

Write better e-mail

Use the spell-checker in your e-mail program to catch and correct simple spelling mistakes. Poor spelling and bad grammar not only harm your credibility, it also affects the recipient’s productivity.
Even after the spell-checker approves your message, review it before sending it, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and reading it from their viewpoint.
End every message with a clear statement of what you would like from the recipient, and by when you need it. That makes it easy for them to manage it among their other priorities.
Finally, include other contact information – including your phone number, address and Web address – in your e-mail signature, so the recipient can choose to reply in other ways. Including all of this information helps – for example, your address allows them to find your time zone so they can choose a good time to call you.

Send less e-mail

Consider whether you really do need to send an e-mail message. If you’re asking a question that could be answered by Google or by searching your internal documentation, don’t waste somebody else’s time.
If it’s a complex or sensitive topic, consider whether you should be using e-mail at all. It might be better to pick up the phone, or wait until you see them face to face.
If you do decide to send e-mail, send it to as few people as possible, so you don’t disrupt others unnecessarily. If somebody really doesn’t need to see it, don’t send it to them.
Similarly, when replying to a message that was sent to more than one person, think carefully before hitting the ‘Reply All’ button. If the message was intended to spark a group discussion, then you should reply to all, so everybody is included in the conversation. However, if it’s clear the original message was sent to individuals rather than to a group, then don’t reply to all.

Want more e-mail effectiveness tips?

We address e-mail in more detail in our book “Out Of Office: Using the Internet for Greater Freedom in Your Work Life”. Visit for your free chapter about how to use technology to be more productive at work

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