Our Daily Emails: Guidelines for Improving Quality and Relevance

In previous blogs, I’ve provided recommendations for improving the quality and relevance of communications with customers and prospects.

Today I would like to address improvements to the emails we send each other in the course of daily business. We have all endured countless emails which waste our time because they are not relevant. Emails that "CC" people as "CYA", or recount inane workplace behavior, or circulate urban legends, etc.

I ran across some valuable email guidelines.

In his recent blog, David Pogue, the New York Times technology writer, wrote about Chris Anderson, who runs the influential TED conference. Chris put together his advice on the biggest dos and don'ts to consider before hitting "send."

This "Email Charter" makes perfect sense as a set of easy-to-follow ground rules for all of us who use email. Anderson's ten points for respectful email behavior are a long-overdue online Magna Carta, setting out the fundamental rights, responsibilities, and boundaries of grownup communication via email. For your convenience, it appears below, at the end of this blog. Or, find it at: http://emailcharter.org/.

I have signed the Email Charter, and hope you will, too.

In his blog, David Pogue shares a desire, as do I, to offer a slight amendment to Anderson's ninth principle. Like Pogue, I believe that people should extend the courtesy of sending a brief confirming message (such as “Got it") upon receipt of an email, to let the sender know their email has been received.

In the spirit of contributing to the value of this important thread, I propose adding two more commandments:

11. Drop the exclamation points. Messages in which many sentences end in exclamation points, (or, even worse, in multiple exclamation points), do not call out the importance of each sentence. The reverse occurs: they emphasize that the author did not think their words could stand on their own without the crutches of the exclamation points.

12. Rampant Ongoing CC’s as CYA. Do not keep CC’ing folks just to have a paper trail that you “kept everyone in the loop" about some insight or action item. Having established that proof with the first message, which included the appropriate people, there is generally no need to keep CC’ing every single one of the original recipients on the subsequent (often mind-numbing and always mailbox-clogging) two- or three-party discussions that usually follow. Be kind and delete those who don’t have to be included in the on-going threads.

Those are my additions to Anderson's fine list of e-mail communication guidelines.

What would you add? Please share your ideas below.

10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral

by Chris Anderson

1. Respect Recipients' Time

This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.

2. Short or Slow is not Rude

Let's mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Given the email load we're all facing, it's OK if replies take a while coming and if they don't give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, so please don't take it personally. We just want our lives back!

3. Celebrate Clarity

Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. If the email has to be longer than five sentences, make sure the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts and colors.

4. Quash Open-Ended Questions

It is asking a lot to send someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by "Thoughts?". Even well-intended-but-open questions like "How can I help?" may not be that helpful. Email generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. "Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!"

5. Slash Surplus cc's

cc's are like mating bunnies. For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. Not to be done lightly! When there are multiple recipients, please don't default to 'Reply All'. Maybe you only need to cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.

6. Tighten the Thread

Some emails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it's usually right to include the thread being responded to. But it's rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails. Before sending, cut what's not relevant. Or consider making a phone call instead.

7. Attack Attachments
Don't use graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if there's something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment when it could have been included in the body of the email.

8. Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR

If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message). This saves the recipient having to actually open the message. Ending a note with "No need to respond" or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity. Many acronyms confuse as much as help, but these two are golden and deserve wide adoption.

9. Cut Contentless Responses

You don't need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying "Thanks for your note. I'm in." does not need you to reply "Great." That just cost someone another 30 seconds.

10. Disconnect!

If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we'd all get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can't go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an 'auto-response' that references this charter. And don't forget to smell the roses.