Email remains a key professional communication tool. Many of us have multiple email accounts for different reasons which adds to the confusion. Use these email hacks, resources and tools to become more effective with email.
Email First Principles
Let’s start with guiding principles before diving into the technical hacks and tips. These principles apply to all email platforms and put email into a communication context.
1. It is one tool in a toolbox
Email is a powerful tool. It is fast, widely used and relatively reliable. Yet, it is important to recognize that the limitations of email. When you have a message to share, give thought to whether email is the right way
2. It has low emotional content.
Words on a screen have limited ability to convey nuance. A classic example is the one word response (e.g. “Approved” or “no”) from an executive. At first glance, these responses may appear rude from a certain viewpoint. From the sender’s perspective, it is a concise response that keeps business moving. The varying interpretations remind us that email can be read different ways.
Tip: Have an intuition about your message’s sensitivity? Consider picking up the phone instead.
3. Brevity matters.
Short emails work. Long emails require more effort from the reader who may have to flip back and forth to understand the whole message.
See what I did there?
If you need to make a case for what you are thinking, scheduling a meeting (hint: use these meeting tips) and making a presentation is a better approach.
Tip: BLUF – “bottom line up front” – is a writing technique pioneered in the military. This method means stating a request at the beginning rather than building to it.
Writing Effective Email
Writing effective email is a vital business skill. In this section, I highlight a few tips that will make your email better.
4. Begin Well
Starting an email well is a win-win courtesy. With a clear subject line and greeting, the reader is more likely to read and act on the message. Omit these best practices and you will frustrate the reader and possibly not receive a response.
Tip: Six to ten words in a subject line is effective according to research reported in INC Magazine.
5. Make clear requests
Too many emails are written in an unclear or a vague manner. The importance of clear requests is especially important when you are communicating to executives and managers. Remember – they may read and respond to your communication on a mobile device while on the go.
6. Include the “minimum viable reference” material
Wasting time with multiple back and forth messages is a frustrating way to use email. Instead, plan to include minimal documentation. If the document is complex (e.g. a multi-tab spreadsheet), provide some notes to the reader so they know where to look.
Tip: Do you use Sharepoint or another content management system at your organization? If so, you can include links to online documents.
Email Management Tools and Technology
There are many tools and technologies on the market to make email more effective. If you use email for sales and marketing activities, consider looking into CRMs (e.g. Contactually or Salesforce) and email marketing services such as Aweber. For the rest of us, there is great power in using “off the shelf” email applications.
This application remains a key tool in the corporate world. I like that Outlook has an integrated calendar function which makes it easier to manage meetings. I am sometimes frustrated by the slow search function in Outlook. Outlook delivers the greatest value to users in large organizations.
Tip: Lifehacker has published a helpful article 12+ Tips and Tricks to Work Faster in Microsoft Outlook. My favorite tip – use keyboard shortcuts (e.g. Control + R to trigger a reply).
This app offers a lot of enhancements to make email better. While I don’t use the service myself, I see great value in the tool. You can track emails (e.g. track a given email for response within 5 days). The company’s website states that they have saved 900 years of time for their users. As more and more business activity goes through email, it only makes sense to bring in automation tools.
Far and away, I consider Gmail to be the best email service on the market. The search and storage features make the service into an informal database. Even better, Google offers a suite of experimental services through Labs. PC World points out a few key features to experiment with: Undo Send and Canned Response.
In the Getting Things Done system, there is a “waiting for” list. In this list, you make a note of tasks, messages and other situations where you are waiting for another person to take an action. Keeping track of those activities can be difficult. This service makes it easier to manage emails that require a follow up.
Tip: For email within your organization, I suggest a waiting period of 3-5 business days for a response. After that period, it is reasonable to seek a follow up response.
Email Further Reading and Resource
Email management is a microcosm of wider issues we face in becoming more productive. There are whole courses, consultants and companies that provide additional assistance on managing email. Here are some resoruces to aid you in becoming more effective.
Got Email by Manager Tools. Published over 10 years ago, this podcast provides great tips and an overview to managing email in the professional context. It is rare that technology advice stays current for so long – kudos to the Manager Tools team for their great work. The organization has also published podcasts on how to leverage DISC to write better email.
The Two Minute Rule. This productivity tool comes from the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Simply put, if a task – such as writing an email response – can be completed in two minutes, then do it immediately. Caution: it is easy to do a long string of such tasks and use an hour so use this principle carefully.
Managing Email When Your Inbox is Overloaded by Stever Robbins (Get It Done Guy). I like the tip – also advocated by Manager Tools – to manage email at specific times. Otherwise, it is easy to use up the whole day in reading and responding to email.