Email netiquette; 4 S’s subject, simplicity, short and sweet

The problem with email is there are too many and they take too long to read and process. There is a cost to the volume and length of emails and not just in the time taken to read and reply, there is also the cost of storage and infrastructure. Even paperless/digital has a cost to both the environment and the organisation.

It is easy to calculate the cost of reading documents and emails based on average word speed of 200-250 words per minute and the average salary of a person working in the UK. Whilst we could tweak to represent our own organisation’s salaries more accurately; let’s assume that staff in the UK earn an average of £26,000, work a 40 hour week, for 48 weeks a year, that’s £13.54 an hour. At an average of 250 words per minute, the cost of reading 5000 words is £5.42 or  9p  for every 100 words. It does not take long to rack up a time cost bill  just for our email reading and that does not take account of needing to reply. If you can read something once, pull out the salient points and respond that’s great. That is not always the case, how often do you have to read something several times to grasp what the writer is trying to say? As before, the  touch once wherever possible principle applies; this might be delete, reply or, after assessing urgency with a quick read, flag for later.

So, how amongst the overflowing inboxes of our colleagues, do we successfully compete for our message to be read, to be acted on and lastly to be properly understood? As ever there is a wealth of opinions, here is mine.  However, those who know me, know that whilst I may aim for these worthy goals, I do not always achieve them.

Write a meaningful subject line, this helps in several ways. It indicates the main topic, which provides direction to the reader as to importance and relevance to them. It also has the advantage of making the email searchable at a later date and, ensures that for email clients that have it the ‘conversations’ feature works. That is emails with the same subject line can be viewed as a group in sequential order. This makes it easy for the recipient to see how the conversation has developed across multiple emails from one or more contributors  over a period of time.

When a conversation moves on, start a new subject line altogether or you can mark it as the previous subject preceded by was and appending now to the former subject line which for  our example is; discussion regarding the putting mugs away.  When modified as described becomes;  Was: discussion regarding the putting mugs away. Now: stacking the dishwasher.

Keep it simple and  include only one topic per email message.  Restricting a message to one topic (as per the subject line) helps the recipient to understand quickly what is required and to respond appropriately. Multiple topics or multiple actions within a single email make it less likely that the reader will undertake all of the actions or indeed read the whole email if it is too long.
Simple formatting, not everyone will use the same email client or settings as you. Colouring the font, adding emoticons, exclamation marks or including large attachments is likely to fall flat for many. Attachments are a particular problem for those using mobile devices as storage is limited. Attachments also cause mailbox bloat which decreases performance. A better way of sharing documents is to provide a link (perhaps in our case using SharePoint) this has the additional benefit in many cases of providing restricted access and thus, better security (see note about circulation below).

Emails have evolved to become the defacto means for many communications; they are not directly comparable with letters. Email is for (relatively) short and distinct messages. If we take our costs for an average reading rate, then shaving off a few words from each email could save a fair amount of time and money over time. As could restricting the number of people added to the distribution list.

There is much guidance about length of email, Guy Kawasaki [2] advocates a five sentence rule and should answer the following questions [1].

1. Who are you?
2. What do you want?
3. Why are you asking me?
4. Why should I do what you’re asking?
5. What is the next step?
Ideally each sentence should answer one of these questions, but it doesn’t need to be that formulaic. As Guy says, “Proper email is a balance between politeness and succinctness.”

Introducing yourself (if you do not know the recipient), can be simply achieved by using an email signature, which provides your reader sufficient information to know your role and how reply to or contact you.

In addition to getting to the point, good examples of email also predict possible responses and use the if then format to limit the number of to-ing and fro-ing between recipients.For example, if you want to know if a person has received a response to an inquiry, instead of asking if they’ve received a response, and then waiting for a reply, and then sending another email based on that reply, try doing it all in one email:
“Have you received a response from Mr. X yet? If so, please finish the report by Tuesday and email it to me. If not, can you follow up today and let me know the response?”
You will notice that a time frame is also indicated which saves the reader asking when it is needed by, or worse not acting at all.

Be courteous, only write whatever you’d say face to face with the person and that you would be willing to see published. Remember whatever you write can be forwarded by anyone to anyone so, professionalism and caution is the order of the day.

Opinions about forms of address and sign off differ [2], perhaps keeping it short and simple here is also best, especially if you already know your reader. However use of a first name could be softened, compare the difference between the following examples;
Can you go to the meeting this afternoon in my place?

John, can you go to the meeting this afternoon in my place?

Sign off, I am probably at risk of being considered curt as I usually sign off with just my preferred name. Common business convention is  to use regards or best regards. An abbreviated  form such as BR  is likely to be understood, but in unlikely to convey regard.

Lastly ask yourself: who really needs to know?
Rather than spamming the entire department or worse, the whole company. Prefer “Reply” to “Reply All.” An increasingly common convention is to put in the “To” field the recipients from whom action is required, and the “FYI” names in the “CC” field.

[1][2] see discussion on forms of address and sign-off

Posted in Concepts, Email, Focus, Information Processing, Sensory Overload, Time Management, Writing | Leave a comment

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