I recently received an email from a client with the subject line:
Naturally, my heart leapt into my throat. Surely the email was announcing a forest fire, or an imminent Russian invasion of America. I opened the email to find it was an introduction to one of their partners, whose name was Bob Dangler.
The medium of email is still so new that we haven’t developed rules for effective communication yet. As content marketers, it’s especially important, as communication is our business. To that end, I’ve been slowly collecting “email hacks,” or simple ways to streamline your email communication, making your work more clear and efficient.
Here are a few of mine; I’d love to hear some of yours.
Simplify Subject Headings
Please keep the subject line short, sweet, and relevant to your message. Here are some examples of good subject lines:
Subject: Media Shower follow up
Subject: Team Meeting Thursday 4/3 at 2:00 pm
Subject: Will you go on a date with me?
Here are some bad subject lines:
Subject: Fwd: Invoice #000-589b on Part EGOS987
Subject: so I was thinking….
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Your message
Before sending any email, it’s a good habit to check the subject line to be sure it’s still relevant. Most people thoughtlessly hit “Forward,” even when they get a bad subject line (most email clients encourage this bad habit). Take back the subject line, and you’ll make your email easier to understand at a glance.
List URLs on a separate line
Whenever you need to include a URL in an email, please put the URL on its own line, without punctuation.
Tom: Here’s the company we’re thinking of acquiring:
If the URL wraps beyond one line, please use a URL shortener like http://bit.ly, since some email clients will break the URL and it won’t work correctly, causing untold confusion with your non-tech-savvy clients and friends.
Resend emails with attachment, without explanation
If you forget to include an attachment to an email, just resend the original email, exactly as before, but with the attachment. This way, people will be able to easily reference your original note with the attachment.
Original subject line: February marketing reports
Resent subject line: February marketing reports (with attachment)
You do not need to explain why you are sending it again. Just update the subject line, resend the email, and move on. This way, your recipient can delete the original email, and keep the corrected one. Above all, please do not send a follow up with the phrase, “It might help if I included the attachment.”
Take email introductions off the list
When someone makes an email introduction between you and another person, it is polite to acknowledge your thanks for the introduction, but it is impolite to copy the introducer on every followup conversation between the two of you.
The solution is to send two emails. This one goes to the introducer:
Jane: Thanks for the introduction! Looks like a great party clown. I’ll follow up with him personally. Hope to see you next time at knitting circle.
This one goes to your new friend:
Mr. Peepers: Good to meet you by email. Let’s set up a demo this Thursday, see what you can do. We’ll have a couple of balloons and pies on hand, and I may be able to rustle up a seltzer bottle.
Some people respond to both parties, and “move the introducer to BCC,” meaning they put Jane in the BCC: field so she doesn’t get followup replies. That works, but somehow it feels like you’re erasing Jane’s memory from Planet Earth. Send two emails: it’s clear, and no one’s feelings get hurt.
Give clear ownership to group emails
If your email is being sent to multiple people, and you need clear ownership from one person, direct the email to that person, with the other people as a cc:. This signals your expectation for who should follow up.
cc: Randall’s team
Wanted to let everyone know about the upcoming bake sale at my daughter’s school. I expect everyone to attend, and to purchase at least $50.00 worth of baked goods.
Randall: Please put together a list of nut and gluten allergies from the team.
Assign responsibilities on separate lines
If you have action items for multiple people, please clearly boldface each person’s name, with their to-dos, so they can’t miss it. For example:
To: Jenkins, Edwards, Smythington
Gentlemen: We must better prepare for the Governor’s Ball. We can’t have a repeat of last year.
Jenkins: Please look for high-quality squirrel cages.
Edwards: Please compare the 5 top-rated tranquilizer guns, and make a recommendation.
Smythington: Please purchase several gallons of fox urine.
Number multiple topics
If you have multiple items to be addressed in an email, make each one clear by numbering.
Subject: Welcome to our A-1 Tack Factory!
Lesley: We’re looking forward to working with you. Following up from our training this morning, here are a few items you’ll want to complete this week:
- Sales Manual: Please read through this to familiarize yourself with our full line of tacks and tacking products.
- Benefits Package: Please read through this material, especially what kind of medical coverage is offered for tack-related injuries.
- Personal intro: Please fill out the intro sheet and staple it to the board in the break room. (Note: no tacks allowed near food preparation.)
Now, let’s get down to brass tacks! Ha ha!
No, really. Please get down to the brass tack level of the plant ASAP.
This kind of discipline forces clarity on the part of the person composing the email, but everyone’s expectations on next steps are clear.
Cultivate a positive tone
Email is an imperfect medium; it has none of the body language, gestures, or facial expressions of face-to-face communication (emoji don’t count). Go out of your way to cultivate a positive tone, thinking of how a recipient might interpret your words, especially if they’re having a bad day.
Never, ever handle difficult topics via email. This goes especially if you’re irritated or annoyed with someone. Better not to respond at all than to respond in a passive/aggressive tone that just adds to the friction. Man up (even if you’re a woman) and discuss it face-to-face.
Common manners, when you’re asking someone to do something (even someone you manage).
Don’t say thank you
You must refrain from thanking people via email for every kind gesture. Every email you send takes up a tiny slice of someone’s day. You are literally demanding a fraction of their time. Many people also have the unfortunate habit of immediately opening every email that comes in, like a trained monkey, and therefore each email interrupts their work cycle and concentration.
When you send an innocent email reading, “Thanks!” you are not helping them, because you are giving them three more small items to do: open your email, read it, and file it.
On the whole, we should thank people more often. Rule of thumb: do it in person. It’ll mean more.
Sir John Hargrave is the CEO of Media Shower and author of Mind Hacking, available in 2016 from Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books. This post is free to distribute under Creative Commons 4.0: if you like it, share it.