Monday, June 3, 2013

If you really want them to read your brilliant email

It occurs to me that each of us is caught up in his own little melodrama of information overload. Yet we continue to assume that other people read any old thing we send them. Really?

I am guilty of slinging emails out there without stopping to think about the poor sucker on the other end. I think it's time to decrease the number and length of the messages I send, while increasing the amount of time I spend on them. Why not treat email as I treat other forms of writing -- with a little respect?

Dave Johnson, a prolific author and editor of eHow Tech, offers some sensible rules:
Make the subject line descriptive and clear. Don't just click reply to a previous thread or a meeting request and enter something unrelated in the body. And if you're in the midst of a long email thread and find that the subject has changed substantially from where you started, re-title the email. It can be easy to lose track of the actual "ask" if the subject line is misleading. 
Keep the recipients to the bare minimum. Don't cry wolf by including lots of irrelevant people on your email threads. Eventually, folks will start to tune out email from you if you get the reputation for sending everything to everyone, all the time. 
Put the bottom line up front. This is probably the most important rule of them all: Don't waste recipients' time with a long preamble they'll have to wade through to get to the "ask." Start with the important bits at the top of the message, and save the context for later. That way they can read on for the details, but at least they know what you want within moments of opening the email. 
Don't bury or co-mingle your asks. In addition to putting the ask right up front, make it clear what you want by putting each request in its own paragraph, ideally at the start of the paragraph. I often see emails in which someone asks for three or four things, and they bury these requests deep in a long paragraph. Break them out into their own 'graphs, and even consider putting the key ideas in bold. If you don't do this, don't be surprised if someone only responds to your first questions or request because they didn't see the others, and you'll need to send a follow-up to get the rest. 
Proofread it. Take the time to re-read your email before you pull the trigger -- you'd be surprised how often what makes sense in your head is borderline gibberish when it lands on the screen. A little proofing will make your prose easier to parse and, consequently, easier to respond to. I can attest to the fact that if I have to guess what someone meant, I'll generally move on and deal with other email that is easier to understand.
This is good stuff. Someone should print this out and hang it on the refrigerator, the one nobody cleans out.

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