If what Alexander Graham Bell invented in 1876 was email – and if the technology invented 95 years later was the telephone – the immediacy of a telephone call would have been seen as an improvement over the delayed back-and-forth communication of email.
Most of us either misuse email ourselves, or we get buried in emails sent by others – often our boss! – who misuse email.
Here’s a collection of 22 tips others have taught. I contend that, if each of us followed all 22 tips, we’d have better communication – and we’d spend a lot less time on email each day.
Today, there are companies who claim the productivity tool they invented will allow you to eliminate email — Asana’s claim of, “Teamwork Without Email” comes to mind. Don’t believe it. Email’s here to stay. So....let’s all figure out how to just deal with it!
- Have Goals – not Email – Drive Your Day. Do not let email drive your day. Your personal goals as well as your organization’s goals should drive your day. Try this technique: Simply do NOT start your day by reading your email! Rather, start your day by….looking at your goals – your personal goals; your department’s goals; your company’s goals – and start the day by working on a task that helps you reach one of those goals. Only then open your email.
- Manage People Via Email: Wrong. Don’t manage people via email. That’s not why it was invented, and it doesn’t work well for that task. It’s mail; it’s not magic. Rather, manage people by using time-proven techniques (Mutually agreed “SMART” goals. “Expect and Inspect” techniques. Weekly, one-on-one, in-person meetings. Etc.)
- “Talk To Me”: Sometimes it’s just better to talk to someone live. Sometimes because what’s needed is a detailed, back-and-forth conversation; sometimes because the best response to an email is to walk across the office and talk to the person. Or use the phone. Or IM.
- An Urgent Email is an Oxi Moron: If you define “urgent” as “important plus imminent,” then sending an urgent message via email makes no sense. Email is not imminent because it’s asynchronous. Urgent communications should only be sent using a synchronous communication method – talking live, a voice phone call, IM (but only if the person responds right away, or text (again, only if there’s an immediate response.)
- Synchronous Communication is Often Better: Whether it’s in-person talking, a voice phone call, Skype, or IM, synchronous communication is very often better than asynchronous communication.
- IM: I’ve found plain old-fashioned IM to work very well, particularly in a distributed workforce environment. IM is also good for today’s “open plan” offices to reduce noise. I don’t understand why this tech is not used more.
- When NOT to use IM: IM works only if the person you are communication with is also on IM right now! It’s fleeting, even if it “remembers” conversations like, Slack does. IM should be used ONLY when you can engage in a live, synchronous conversation with the person. You should assume that all people who are not on your IM system right now will not see the conversation; so don’t put “permanent” communications in IM; put those in email. People will look at all of their emails eventually; people will not be expected to go back and look at an old IM / Slack conversation that happened when they were not at their device (in a meeting, etc.)
- The Secret Communication Tool – Text: I get over 170 emails a day; many of those folks need to wait before I can respond. I get less than a half dozen texts a day; those people get my immediate attention.
- Don’t Change Mediums. Unless requested to do otherwise, respond via the medium the conversation started in. If the conversation starts with, say, a text, then continue the conversation with a text, not email. Ditto if the conversation starts with a phone call (that’s gone to voice mail) — respond by calling the person back on the phone. If you change mediums what you are really saying is, “I don’t want to engage in this conversation with you – I just want to tell you what I think and end it there.”
- Sending URLs: If you send a URL to someone, type a short message (how about 140 characters or less?) stating WHY you are sending the URL. “This article about rebranding is, I think, exactly what we need to do.” Or “This article about rebranding doesn’t really apply to us in many ways, but I think the point in the fifth paragraph is spot on for us.” Or “Great article on rebranding. The key take away for me was that we missed our opportunity to rebrand.”
- Ditto When Forwarding Emails or Sending Attachments or Sharing Documents: If you decide to forward an email – or send an attachment, or a link to a document — do two things: 1. Summarize the forwarded email (or the attachment / document) and, 2. Tell the recipient WHY you are forwarding / sending. Do you want them to take an action? Or is it just an, “FYI” that can be ignored?
- “To” vs. “CC” on Action Items: If you have an action item for someone in the body of your email, then that person’s name should always be in the TO field; none of the people in the CC field should have an action item.
- Highlight Action Items: Particularly when an email contains multiple actions items for multiple people, format the action items so that the recipient clearly understands what is expected of them. Put the name of the person on each action item. Put a two to three word summary of the action item at the start of the sentence. And bold both of the name and the summary.
- TO: All Employees: Think carefully before using an “All Employees” alias. Stop and ask yourself, “Does this email really need to go to everyone (in the company or group or team), or can some people be dropped from the list?” Don’t be lazy; take the time to send the email to ONLY those who need to get it. Also, just because the original email was sent to everyone, usually the reply should not be sent to everyone.
- Reply-All: Think carefully before hitting “Reply All.” Stop and think about each and every name on the list and decide who can be dropped (or who you should add.) (Exception: If the original email asked, “Is the building on fire?” then the response should probably be a “Reply All.”)
- “To” vs. “CC” on any Reply-All: When you do do a “reply all,” (in addition to removing — and possibly adding — names) think about the “to” and ‘’cc” fields. Your software probably placed people into incorrect fields. This is often the case if you are responding not to the original email, but rather to the second or third version of the email; in those cases, the person who started the email chain has been relegated to a cc, which is not likely what you intended.
- Change the Subject: Many of us have software that combines emails that have the same subject. Given this, we want responders to not change the subject field. However, when the actual subject of the email trail has in fact changed, then in those cases change the subject field.
- Descriptive & Inclusive Subject – Plus “EOM”: Like it or not, many people will make their “Do I read this email now?” decision based on the subject field. Make sure it is descriptive. And make sure it includes all the subjects covered in the email; if your email covers two subjects but your subject line only covers one, that’s not smart. So break the habit that lots of execs have of adding a second, unrelated subject at the end of an email. (“Oh, by the way, tell everyone that this week’s payroll will be two days late.”) Also, if your entire message is in the subject field — “Due to the storm, we’re closing the office at 3 PM” – then put “EOM” (End of Message) in the subject field. No need to even open it!
- Let It Die / NRR: Some of us feel that we can never have an email trail end in our inbox; we insist on having the last word. Give it up. Often NRR applies. (No Response Required.) Don’t insist on one last response as it’s just creating an email for someone else.
- Tip For When Your In-Box Is Overloaded: If you’ve been away for a few hours or days and your inbox is overloaded, try this tip: Sort the unread emails in your inbox by sender name. For a number of reasons (I’ll not list here) you’ll find you can more-quickly plow through dozens of emails in a shorter time.
- Advice Just For The Boss: Don’t jump into discussions late. If time has passed and the issue is on the way to being resolved, don’t chime in with your opinion; you’re just going to divert people. If you are late to the party, behave differently than if the original email were only a few minutes old. Ask ONE person ONLY, “This email is five hours old. Has the problem been handled? Do I need to chime in?”
- More Advice Just For The Boss: Sitting down at night and “cleaning up your email” by sending a ton of emails to others on the team is not getting work done; rather it’s dumping work on others. You are just hindering those people from achieving their goals and objectives. It’s discouraging to your team members who work a long day, handle all their email before they head home, only to come in in the morning to a pile of late-night stuff from the boss.
Desmond Pieri is the COO of Bridj. You can find additional posts on his blog called Change Agent. You can also follow Des on Twitter (@DesmondPieri) by clicking here.