Think before pressing send

Think before pressing send

Mastering email etiquette can help most of us avoid misusing this vital tool in our daily lives

Email still remains indispensable in the professional domain

Email is probably among the more prosaic communication tools we have today. Despite its stodginess, it still remains indispensable in the professional domain whether you are in IT, law, banking, writing or social work. Though email is ubiquitous in the world of work, many people haven’t quite mastered the craft of writing cogent, concise messages.

As a result, our inboxes are cluttered with imprecise, incoherent or incomplete messages.  Drafting more thoughtful and considered emails can boost efficiency and productivity, as it cuts down on needless misunderstandings, unnecessary exchanges and avoidable errors.

In their book, Send: The How, When and When Not of Email writers David Shipley and Will Schwalbe sagely remind us that effective emails reduce our emails. And, this can significantly boost our productivity, as people typically spend 25% of their working hours on clearing their inbox.

The authors argue that if we master email etiquette, we are less likely to misuse or overuse it, two crimes that most of us are currently guilty of.  

Tone of the message

First, we need to adopt an appropriate tone, depending on who we are writing to. As we depend on email for both professional and personal exchanges, we often blur the distinction between the two, much to our own detriment. We also respond impulsively and instinctively, without relying on our usual thought filters, thereby creating redundancy and unwarranted anguish.

So, even before drafting a reply, assess whether a response is warranted.

Though you may think twice before stopping by a colleague’s desk every few minutes, know that sending an email is also a form of intrusion.  Do you really need to send that message, and does it need to be copied to the whole team?

Get personal

Next, understand that email is not the ideal medium for every form of communication.

Though it may be easier to deliver unpleasant tidings by hiding behind a screen, sensitive revelations are better handled in person, or at least over the telephone.

Also, email, including deleted messages, leaves a permanent record which other people can access if the need arises. As emails can be forwarded in a jiffy, know that your messages can reach an unintended audience all too easily. If you just want to vent your emotions after an altercation with your boss or client, email may not be wisest medium to release your frustrations.  The authors also dissuade us from expressing anger or sarcasm on email.

'To' versus 'Cc'

Pay particular attention when copying messages to multiple people.

Do all of them need to be included?  Your chances of receiving a reply reduce substantially as the number of people being copied increases.

For example, if you want to congratulate one member of a team for doing his part particularly well and want others to know of it, then you should direct the message to the person being lauded while including the rest on the Cc line.

When someone is mentioned in the 'Cc' field, it implies that they need to be aware of the contents of the message but don’t have to act on it.

Subject line

Crafting an apt subject line can help your reader sort through the mass of messages that crowd inboxes. In fact, the subject line reminds you of what your message needs to be about.

Remember to start a new thread of messages when you are shifting to a different topic; this can be immensely helpful if you have to retrace the trail of communication.  

When you send emails for work, ensure that you frame grammatical sentences.  While you may be lackadaisical when writing informal messages, leave the laxity behind for formal exchanges.  Choose your words wisely and precisely, prompting yourself of your relationship to the person you’re writing to.  Emailing a colleague entails a different voice from communicating with your boss or a client.  

Avoid unnecessary exchanges 

Shipley and Schwalbe state that people overrate their ability to communicate.  We should remember that what we intend to say is not always what people hear, so we should make a concerted effort to avoid ambiguity and provide sufficient detail.

However, we should also try to be succinct and specific.

To avoid unnecessary back and forth exchanges, it might be a good idea to anticipate the expectations or questions your reader may have.  For example, if your boss asks if you can complete a certain task by a given date, instead of just saying you cannot, state why and by when you will be able to finish it.

By foreseeing your boss’ queries, you limit the number of exchanges, thereby promoting both your own and your firm’s productivity.