Five handy tips for better email exchanges

Over three decades of using email I have picked up a few useful habits that are worth sharing.

Five handy tips for better email exchanges

Structured subject line 

I typically use the following format to interact with clients and partners outside of my own organisation or immediate project group: THEM/YOU – CONTEXT – ASK. So if I want to email Foo Corp about an overdue invoice I would write a subject line of:

Foo/Geddes – Payment on Bar project – Overdue so can you chase up?

The benefit of this is that it locates the action in its relational and process context. It avoids any kind of “thread clash” if you simply use subjects like “Overdue invoice” multiple times.

Put THEM before YOU both out of respect and for your own benefit: the subject lines that are more easily differentiated. (If I am sending a calendar invite, however, the respectful thing to do is to put YOU before THEM so that it’s obvious in their calendar when truncated.)

BCC intro responses

It is common to introduce two people via email. When someone introduces me, I respond in the message body as follows:

Bob – thanks for the intro [moved to BCC].
Jane – great to be in touch. Let’s talk. I am free on Tuesday afternoon. Just send me an invite or suggest some alternatives that work for you.

This means that Bob knows I have followed up, but by moving Bob to BCC he doesn’t need to get spammed by the whole conversation. Jane knows that Bob doesn’t need to be copied back into the thread, even if he is not in the To or CC.

Single line messages  

Sometimes you don’t need a message body. When it is a simple action or piece of information, I just precede it with ‘***’ in the subject line, as in:

Subject: *** Remember to phone Alex this morning for a quote

This signals that the empty message body is deliberate.

Single-action typed messages  

We all hate rambling emails which don’t have a clear purpose, or that create a series of actions that are hard to manage. What’s especially maddening is when someone forwards a document or thread to you with absolutely no context or explicit request.

I find it much better to have a single purpose for each email, and a single major action or ask. Then that person can manage their inbox more easily, and you are more likely to get a response and progress by breaking the tasks down in advance.

You can also choose to explicitly categorise each one, for example with subject lines like this:

FYI – Minutes from April monthly product pipeline review
QUESTION – Need help with expenses policy
ACTION – Follow up with Peter on revised project deadline
ASK – Would you be able to review this proposal for me?

This makes it clear what the nature of the message is, and avoids mixing together different kinds of request and activity.

No email at all! If it’s contentious, talk it over  

The perfect email sometimes is the shortest one possible. If the subject matter is remotely emotive, then you should generally avoid using email. Instead use email ask for a meeting or a call. Then use email again afterwards to summarise any (dis)agreement and to confirm shared understanding or intent.

It is far too easy to be misunderstood when conveying strong feelings in text form, as many of us have found to our cost!

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