Principles for Email Etiquette & Efficiency

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The rabbit hole of email goes deep, with long threads descending in a spiral of confusion and other emails being ignored totally. A widespread resentment of the format is pending, unless some parameters are set. While all relationships are different and company requirements vary greatly, there are some quick wins to aim for and mistakes to avoid. The prize? Reducing the need for virtually synchronous communication (Slack, Messenger, WhatsApp) – who wouldn’t be happy with this?

If you are handling personal email, Inbox Zero is a good principle – clear all emails from your inbox before the end of the day, or else Snooze them and attend to items at a date in the future. Most email clients allow for Snoozing - use it. Snoozing an email to the next day is totally fine in most cases, while anything you Snooze for a week more might not need responses immediately anyway. The key thing is to use the feature and create an order of priorities that distinguished between Important and Urgent as separate categories. If you find yourself repeatedly Snoozing an email, ask yourself why and either reply to the sender indicating that it is received and just isn’t relevant right now, or ask for further clarification so you can make a decision or provide valuable input.

Batching is another technique to winning on email – allocate set times each day to read and reply to emails. Those trying to co-ordinate email as a collective group have it tougher (When should everyone be in their inboxes?). The key is to find consensus within your organisation, so that email becomes a channel for constructive conversation, driven by a common method that’s sensitive to different types of expected work and, crucially, optimal working times.

A final organisation principle is to truncate your emails when composing a fresh thread. This is particularly used when emailing colleagues who swear by Inbox Zero, or for those who at least attempt to clear their inbox on a cyclical basis. Instead of sending emails in large, monolithic chunks with multiple topics, try to break items down. If context requires one umbrella email, issue this with some foresight by designing your Subject Lines in advance and write something like:

Here is an email covering a number of topics outlined in the a series of individual emails that I will send shortly: subject_line_x refers to items from the meeting. subject_line_y refers to background reading which is worth browsing.. subject_line_z refers to things we can work on before the end of February.

Aiming for perfection is unrealistic, but here are some pointers for making incremental improvements when composing new threads (major responsibility).

Using the Subject Line

The Subject Line is a valuable piece of interface, unique to email and mostly underused. Include vital verbs at the front of the Subject Line based on your demand - an imperative verb to front works well, and feel free to capitalise. Brackets can be useful for indicating the dependencies (format of content, length of content). The main idea is to give the recipient a quick sense of what is needed to be done.

  • FEEDBACK: Presentation [client_name] - indicates importance

  • READ: McKinsey Report (PDF, 10k words)

  • REMEMBER: Office Move Friday [Date] - indicates timeframe

Content

  • Use the opening sentence of the email to outline the framework of the communication. In military speak, this is your BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front.

  • Number items to create a pathway toward progress and an easy way to remember the number of topics in the email.

  • Always sign off the email, even if just an initial. This completes the communication by having a fixed end point.

Attachments

  • State in the email the number of files attached.

  • Create indicative titles for your attachments.

  • State size of attachments if 1MB or larger (mobile v. web download).

Links

  • If you’re including links to a piece of written content or a video, state its medium and timeframe – “800 words” or “4-minutes” respectively.

  • Provide a link to documentation at the end of the email.

Action Points

  • Provide timeframe for the next step in the project.

  • Indicate who can wait / do nothing, as well allocate tasks using @recipient_name.

Formatting

  • Use bold titles can be very helpful if your email can naturally be broken into a structure, especially where context is conveyed to set the scene for future changes or updates.

  • Use italics to refer to actual file names

Get in touch with Will Ross (will@tendo.com) if you have any comments or think anything can be added to the list.