In my consulting job, long, long time ago, I used to be very good at writing emails. My colleagues used to ask me to help them with sophisticated openings for their sales emails.
After I moved to the multinational and entered the realm of 50-100+ emails a day, I had to erase everything I knew. The first 2 months I had to learn how to write.
I can’t claim I know how to write emails even now, but I know I’m better than many people.
So, here are some of the tips I can give for using office – corporate – email.
Some may not work for you. With others you might not agree. Either way, take what’s worth and feel free to share.
1. Reading email in the morning
This is a biggie. Most time management courses and books will teach you NOT to start off your day by reading email. I do the exact opposite.
I start my day with coffee, Google Reader, and Outlook email.
I usually have 2-3 things on the agenda for the day as I start. Then, I add the ones that popped up in the meanwhile.
Reading email in the morning will help you not miss out on the big things. And it might happen that the first email that arrives in your inbox in the morning is the one you’ll need to work on by lunchtime. You don’t want to miss it.
2. Scan through subject line and first line of the email.
I usually take less than 10 minutes to skim through a day’s worth of emails. How do I do this?
3 filters: 1. Sender; 2. Subject line; 3. First line of the email.
The first one is obvious. I first read emails from my boss. Then the ones that look urgent. Then I check to see (from the first line) if there’s anything I need to do or they’re just informing me.
Yes, I admit, this is the “fire-fighting” mode of reading emails.
But to me, emails are a side, “need to be solved quick” kind of activity.
Deal with them fast and move on to your work.
3. Types of emails.
One thing I learned is that there’s 2 types of emails:
1. Those that inform you of something
2. Those that require your action.
Most people don’t know how to make each of them obvious, and you will need to read the whole email, then talk to the person who wrote it, to see what they actually need from you.
Figure out what it is that the sender wants from you. Is it a phonecall? Is it to ask someone to do something? Does it require talking to others? Do you need to set up a meeting to better understand?
Make others’ lives easier. Check the previous point and make it obvious from the first line of the email.
I know, I know, corporate language is horrid, but you might want to use the following 2 sentences:
1. “This is to inform you about…”
2. “This is to ask for your opinion/ask you to call/ ask you to write a report/ask you to deliver a presentation…” - you get the picture. Feel free to adapt, informalize and make friendlier, as long as you don’t add too many bells and whistles.
4. Sorting & Folders
There’s a very nice thing called “Rules” in Outlook, which greatly simplifies your life. You might want to use it to automatically move everyday newsletters, emails from your aunt and notifications from the bank to their automatic, designated folders.
Otherwise, make sure you’re able to quickly sort through emails that need attention NOW, emails which you can read later today and emails which you can directly delete.
5. Answer fast.
I will refer here only to the action emails.
Most emails require a quick reply. Figure out which it is – it may be a clarification question, a confirmation, or a forwarding to someone who needs to know about it – and do it immediately.
6. Answer short
Got the above follow-up figured out? Boil it down to a single line.
If you’re on familiar terms with the recipient, skip the addressing line and the signature. Who needs
This is to reply to your urgent email today asking for the late report.
I would like to ask you when exactly you need it, since I have 2 other meetings today and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to deliver blah blah blah…”
“Subject line: XYZ report
OK to deliver by tomorrow 10 am? I’m in meetings all day today.”
7. Drafts and rewrites
On the other hand, there’s a specific category of emails which are NOT to be sent immediately. I’ve done the mistake of disregarding this rule several times and – yikes! – suffered the consequences of my rash responses.
If your email is darn important, and decisions depend on it, write it the day before. If you don’t have this luxury, ask someone to proofread it for you right before sending it.
Make it crisp, but include the significant details.
Highlight the important sections (if it’s long, it’s not gonna be read full anyway. Why do you think bloggers use titles and sections in their posts?)
Make the needed action obvious at the beginning and ask for it again at the end.
Include the deadline: “This is to recommend XYZ…and I will need your reply by…”
8. Cancel notifications
Did I mention at the beginning I check my email in the morning? Oh yes, but I seldom check it more than 3-4 times during the day (and even this is too much!). I’ve disabled the notification icon in the lower right.
I’m still amazed how many people compulsively click on the notification icon “You’ve got new email”. Disable it. Do it. Now.
9. Use AutoArchives
If you receive as many messages, attachments and powerpoints as I do, you might want to automatically archive your documents every once in a while.
If you started a folder structure, make sure you keep it religiously.
I mostly use 3-4 folders (sorted by persons, not by categories. Persons are fixed. You can’t go wrong with “email from boss”. But you can with “should I put this in folder “projects” or in folder “Important tasks”?) And when I archive, I use the find button. I save my most important emails in the respective folders on my computer.
10. Translate your Signature
Corporate people have signatures which are a foreign language in themselves. I’ve seen signature titles that say “ESPFC for the FYZ” (or even worse “FYZ ESPFC”).
Translate your signature. And if you’re only writing insider emails, don’t imagine everyone else in the company knows about your famous FYZ project.
If your signature isn’t understandable for most people, just put the department name there.
In conclusion, email should not run your office day. Deal with it effectively, and move on.