When I first picked up Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, I thought it would be a pretty light book telling me lots of obvious stuff I already knew. After all, I send emails all day every day, and have been for a long time. However, I was easily proven wrong. While SEND is a quick and relatively light read, it contains lots of helpful information which I have already put in to practice. Here are five of the main ideas that Ill be sure to keep in mind for my emails from now on:
1. Seniority and to: Order
This may not be an issue for you or the people you work with. In fact, before reading this in SEND, I never even considered it. However, my feeling is that when it comes to email etiquette, youre better off being safe than sorry. Essentially, Shipley and Schwalbes point is that when assembling your To list of multiple recipients, put the names in order of seniority, if that applies. This is one of those tiny details that you may overlook, but someone else may not.
2. Good Subject Lines
This is a pretty simple point to get, especially if you do much with email on hand-held devices (like your Blackberry). Keep your subject simple and on point. If the content of your email has nothing to do with the original subject line of the email string youre still in, go ahead and change it. However, if you use Gmail, keep in mind that the subject line is what Google uses to string emails together in a conversation, so you may have other reasons to maintain a particular subject.
Because we send so many emails, both internally and to our clients, I like to use an internal tag when sending emails to Newfangled people that are not related to particular projects. This way, a busy Project Manager can quickly identify my email and prioritize it among the many others from our clients. One of these subject lines might look like this, Internal: Project Manager Meeting Rescheduled. Likewise, I might tag an email related to a particular project like this, client.com: Go Live Schedule.
3. To Cc or Not to Cc
The Cc field can be a shield, or it can be a sword, so use it with care. Because Cc stands for carbon copy, the intent was to use this field to include a recipient who may not need to follow up directly on the emails questions or requests, but needs to be kept informed of the information.
Using the Cc field can send strong messages, too. If an email conversation with a client gets tense, but you know that you are following the proper protocol, you might Cc your superior on your response. This shield approach will communicate to your recipient that youre done playing games and are confident that your superior will back you up if needed. If you do this, be sure youre in the right. On the other hand, if your email is accusatory or corrective toward your recipient and you Cc someone else, you clearly have your sword drawn. Be sure youre ready for battle.
Lastly, I think its polite to inform your recipient that you are Ccing someone else, and why. If the Cced address is foreign to your recipient, they could immediately be on the defensive even if the dont need to be. In my example below, notice that if I didnt let Ralph know why I was Ccing Mark, he might get defensive and assume it was a passive aggressive way of complaining about the schedule being off.
Re: site.com: Go Live Schedule
It looks like were finally ready to go live. Im glad we took the time to do a more detailed QA rather than rushing to meet the original deadline. Thanks for your flexibility during these last steps. Once Ive reviewed with our developer, Ill be in touch with you with specific dates for going live.
Im Ccing Mark on this just to keep him in the loop. Hell be excited to know that the project is wrapping up.
4. There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we dont know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we dont know we dont know.
Donald Rumsfeld was given a hard time for this quote, but hes actually right. In fact, one of Erics favorite quotes (The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. ) points out that we often assume we know things that we dont, or that others know things that they dont. Its good to know that there are things you dont know- thanks, Rummy!
This problem runs rampant in email, so never assume that the recipient of your message will know what youre talking about. Unfortunately, writing a huge email with lots of back-story wont necessarily do the trick either. Because people tend to get so much email now, thorough reading of long emails is not a guarantee. This means that your job is even tougher. Youll need to make sure that your email as comprehensive as needed but also as succinct as possible. Simple tricks like making sure that major points, instructions, or questions have their own line will make it easier for your recipients to pay attention and follow up. Also, if you are sending the email to multiple recipients, try highlighting particular information for them. Below is an example. Notice how I didnt just launch in to my questions without providing some context (the new employees).
To: Eric, Mark, Mitch, Katie, Jason
Re: Internal: New Project Manager Assistants
Our two new Project Manager Assistants, Bettina and Steve, will begin training soon. Ive added lots of new info to the wiki in anticipation of their training, so feel free to browse through it and make any changes you think are needed.
Mark: Are both Bettina and Steve starting on Monday?
Mitch: If its ok with you, I think the empty space next to you would work best for Steve. Just dont push him around too much ;-)
5. Oh no you didnt! Not in My Inbox!
Do you ever get emails forwarded to you that include days, weeks or even months of communication that the sender expects you to sort out in order to respond appropriately? Shipley and Schwalbe correctly point out that when this happens, the sender is essentially taking work from their desk and putting it on yours. Dont let senders make you do a ton of work they should have done before emailing you! An appropriate response to an email like this might be as follows in the example below. Notice how I politely bounced that work right back.
Re: Fwd: Months of Discussion About That Thing We Want You To Do
Thanks for forwarding along the conversation between you, Bill, and Sam. Could you summarize the action items for us in a separate email so that I can get you quotes and schedule them accordingly?