Ten practices for good e-mail use

I spent a long day today studying some fairly wacky e-mails on a file and, coincidentally, also had someone ask me to pull together a list of good e-mail practices with a focus on risk management benefits. This got me onto a creative project, and I have produced the following list.

  1. Pick up the phone. For many subjects, a telephone discussion can quickly generate a level of understanding that might take numerous e-mails to achieve. Even simple subjects can generate significant back-and-forth.
  2. Have a meeting. Don’t use e-mail to think aloud. Deliberations can be very sensitive because they often lead to decisions that do not reflect initial thoughts. E-mail is an extremely poor medium through which to deliberate. Deliberation is best suited to meetings.
  3. Write meaningful subject lines. Your recipient should be able to understand what your e-mail is about by reading the subject line. For example, “Project Alpha report attached for your review.” If action is required, indicate so in the subject line. Don’t leave the subject line blank. Don’t use “important,” or “Hi” or the like.
  4. Keep to one subject per e-mail. By sending business e-mail you are creating a record of correspondence that likely has some value to the business. That record is difficult to manage when it has more than one subject. It may seem strange, but send two e-mails in sequence rather than one. Similarly, don’t (lazily) reply to an old e-mail to start a new subject.
  5. Ask, “Does this person really need to be copied?” Routine use of the CC field can annoy and burden recipients. Use it for a purpose and be critical about your purpose. Ask yourself if copying someone is really a necessary courtesy. In other words, if they won’t complain, don’t copy them.
  6. Be concise. Start with your point or request. Provide a brief rationale or explanation. End with an invitation to action (either yours or the recipient’s). If your e-mail requires much more than this, e-mail might not be the appropriate means of communication.
  7. Pause. Pause again. Send. Never e-mail when you are upset or angry. If it is appropriate to respond in writing at all, wait until you have calmed down. Remember that your response will be permanently recorded. Even in less intense circumstances, you’ll benefit by reflecting on your e-mails rather than responding immediately.
  8. Don’t forward an e-mail that will provoke a harmful response. If you receive an e-mail that is alarming or obnoxious, resist the urge to forward it to your colleagues. Yes, you’ll need to talk it through, but if you forward the provocative e-mail to four others, you’ll cause at least one to react without thought, in writing.
  9. Check your spelling and grammar. It may seem unimportant, but if the substance of your e-mail is later scrutinized, poor spelling and grammar might cause people to perceive you as sloppy or uncaring and discount your substantive position.
  10. Check the clarity of your message. Have I been too loose in conveying a complicated idea? Have I used humor that is too risky? Ask these questions and, remember, your e-mail will create a permanent record.

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