General Information

Effective email - at last!

exclimationEmail can bring out the best and the worst communicator in all of us. Line managers often complain most about email overload, and yet they are often the worst culprits for filling other people's inboxes! Like it or loathe it, we can't ignore email. So it pays to make it work for you rather than against you.



Before you send an email, take a minute to consider whether it is the right medium. Email is good if you are trying to communicate a reasonably simple message or piece of information or if you have a piece of information that needs to reach a large number of people in a short time. It also enables you to have a written record of what was communicated. But it's not appropriate if the message is of personal and paramount importance to the intended recipients or if it contains new information about jobs, salaries and so on. Don't use email if the message is likely to provoke a strong response or if it contains complex information. Unlike in presentations, staff receiving emails will have multiple distractions and demands on their time, and may find it difficult to digest lengthy messages.


Ensure you know exactly who the message will go to before you start writing it so that you can pitch it appropriately. In addition, make sure that all the necessary people are included on the distribution of the email. Inadvertently missing people off can create difficulties on both an operational and personal level.


Consider the importance of the email and the peripheral tools you can employ to inform people at a glance what it's about and how significant it is. On some email systems, you can mark messages as important or urgent.


Try to be clear, relevant and concise with your subject title. This helps people manage their inbox and enables speedier retrieval at a later date. If the email is urgent, mark it as such. If action is required, consider starting the subject field with “Action required:”.


Remember emails are not secure and can quickly be forwarded to people who you never intended to see them. Beware of including any content that could be seen as inflammatory or derogatory.


Remember email is a one-dimensional medium and people cannot see or hear you as you express your opinions, suggestions or requests. Think about the nature of the message you need to send and make sure the overall style of your email reflects this – is it serious, light-hearted, formal or informal? Are the recipients your peers, subordinates or managers? Think about how you would perceive the message if you received it from a colleague, and think about how you want people to perceive it.


Always remember to include some sort of salutation. If you're emailing a single recipient, and it's someone you don't know well, it is polite to use his or her name. Unless you know the person well, it is important to address them with civility, as you would face to face. Otherwise, they may take offence. This is an especially important consideration when working in a multicultural and international organisation. What is acceptable in one environment may be considered impolite in another. Finish with a polite closing line, such as “Regards”, “Thanks” or a variation on these.


Consider how well you know each of the recipients. Can you afford to be humourous, sarcastic, or pretend to be annoyed? Will each recipient understand your sense of humour and realise your true intent? Generally, the larger the distribution list, the more important it is to err on the side of caution – it’s unlikely each recipient will share the same perspective or sense of humour.


Make sure your choice of language reflects your desired outcome. If you require action, say so politely, but without leaving any doubt about your wishes. Above all, make sure your message does not come across as being brusque or terse. This is often the case with one word or one-line responses that have neither salutation nor closing line – to some it's a speedy way of answering; to others it's rude, especially if it's in response to a polite and well-written query.


It may sound obvious, but avoid firing off an email when you're angry or upset. Is your first reaction the one you want to communicate? You may say things you will later regret, and once the message has been sent, it's likely that it will be read and you may not be able to recall it. Emails have a habit of lurking in people's inboxes for a long time, and constitute a permanent record in a way that spoken communications do not.


Avoid jargon and buzzwords. Not only can they create confusion, and thus require more time and email traffic in clarifying the real meaning behind the phrase, but they can also damage your credibility if you are seen to be relying on them too heavily. Use plain, simple language.


Try and keep your layout as simple as possible. If you have several points to make, use bullets rather than long-winded paragraphs – they are easier for readers to take in. Keep your statements as brief and concise as possible.


Don't use upper case letters. It's the electronic equivalent of shouting and can be construed as aggressive.


It can be useful to use links/attachments for further information, but make sure these are kept to a minimum and that they are a manageable size. Large attachments can slow down IT systems and not everyone will have the facility to print them out. Recipients may look at one or two links but if the information they're being given is coming from too many different sources, it will be difficult for them to absorb it effectively. Also links require further action/time to read them.


The professionalism of your communications can be compromised if your spelling and grammar are sloppy. You might not notice bad spelling, but you can be sure others will. Take a minute or two to check what you’ve written (the automatic spelling checker won't pick up all mistakes). For particularly important messages, ask someone who's an attentive proofreader and a good speller to cast an eye over your message.


Check the relevance of a distribution list. Don't send messages to people who don't need to see them; they won't appreciate you clogging up their inbox and may be more inclined to ignore important messages from you in the future.


Use the cc facility sparingly. Some people have a habit of cc'-ing dozens of people to every email, and then cc-'ing the whole original distribution list when replying to an email. We all have busy enough inboxes already without having to cope with dozens of unnecessary emails. Only cc the people who really need to be included.


Practise regular housekeeping to ensure you don't reach your storage limit. Organise your email into different folders. Save important attachments to your PC so you can delete the email they arrived with. Regularly check your emails and sent items so you can delete items you no longer need.