Email has simultaneously revolutionized our professional lives and made them a full-on headache.
On the revolutionary side, the ability to send people timely messages—and get them right in front of their faces at all hours—is quite wonderful. We can reach out to others without interrupting their dinners, waking them in the night, or making them stop in the middle of a meeting, conversation, or other event to acknowledge us. Yet, at the same time, we realize that our messages will likely be seen within minutes or hours of our sending them.
On the full-on headache side, however, email’s eroded our quality of life, ability to get work done and—for many—any sense of well-being. Studies in recent years show that the average professional spends up to one-third of his or her work week head-first in an inbox. For busy professionals who can’t afford to give up one-third of their daytime hours, this also frequently translates into many late night hours spent going through messages, only to wake and find dozens of new ones right there waiting.
And after months or years of this cycle, you can imagine how the person on the receiving end of your oh-so-important email might feel just a tiny bit resentful before even opening it.
So, how can you use this tool to your advantage—whether that’s through an active job search or in your day-to-day professional life—without creating rubble in the other party’s inbox or making him or her feel buried alive?
Step 1: Ask Yourself, “Is This Message Important Enough to Merit an Email?”
Let’s be honest. A reasonable percentage of the notes you send (especially the dreaded “I think I’ll go on ahead and CC everyone” charmers) probably did not need to be sent. You could have popped over your co-worker’s desk, sent a quick text, or figured whatever it is out all by your lonesome.
So before pepper-spraying the land with communication, ask yourself “Does this need to be sent?” And right after that (assuming your first answer is “yes”), ask yourself, “Is this the best medium for the message I need to convey?”
If yes, proceed.
Step 2: Make Good Use of the Subject Line
If you want your message to be favorably received, read quickly, and, if merited, responded to, do this: Strategize right from the subject line.
Rather than dumping in some cryptic, overused or full-on boring subject line (e.g., “Following up” or “Question” or “Need Help”), grab the person at hello. Consider something like, “Referred by Bill Smith–Marketing Manager Role” or “Timely Request–Need Signature by Noon Thursday” Heck, if your message is short enough, make the entire email the subject line (“May I Borrow Your Office @ 2 PM Today?”)
The point here is this: Assume your email is going to be sitting in a clump with a bunch of others in the recipient’s inbox. A compelling subject line will help assure it’s read (and responded to) in a timely fashion.
Oh, and a side note, reserve the “mark this urgent” option for truly urgent situations. The quickest way to annoy someone is to “red flag” something that’s urgent to no one but you.
Step 3: Make Things Easy on the Other Party
As one who receives 100+ emails every day, I work very hard to make the lives of the people to whom I send emails easy. And I love it like crazy when they do the same for me. How, specifically, can you do this?
First, if your note is more a point of information than something that you’re expecting a response on, consider starting with something like, “No reply needed—I just wanted to let you know that…”
That will also ease the burden on your inbox because the other party won’t feel compelled to send a note back saying, “Thanks for this” or “Message received.”
Next, keep the thing as brief as possible. Go through and proofread before hitting send. Is it concise? Can you crop out anything that’s not vital? Did you get going on a rambling stream of thought and end up with a 14-paragraph essay? Don’t send something cumbersome if you can get that same message across with half the copy.
Also, if you’ve got one or two “can’t miss” points you’re trying to make, consider bolding them so that the reviewer sees them right away. (Just use care—you don’t want it to look like you’re yelling at the person.)
And finally, work like mad to put everything you need to communicate in one email, not five. An occasional, “Oops! I forgot the attachment!” or “Oh shoot, one more thing…” hiccup is called being human. Routinely sending three or four rapid-fire messages to one person—because you’ve failed to collect your thoughts before sitting down at your computer—will not be viewed as endearing.
Certainly, you shouldn’t avoid emailing someone altogether for fear that they’ll be resentful that you dared to fill up their inbox. It’s one of the best business communication tools we’ve got, especially for those of us who work with people across multiple time zones.
But applying strategy in your approach—and being considerate of the recipient—will most definitely help you maximize the power of the message, and the odds that you’ll get a favorable response.