Five golden commandments for email use

It has got to be a moment all office workers dread: sitting down at the computer in the early part of the day and turning on their email software and discovering dozens of desperate messages wanting to be reviewed.

And even after you’ve done an initial trashing of the junk and other nonsense that tends to accumulate in the Inbox, there’s still a dozen or so must-reads staring you in the face. Your first meeting is 10 minutes away and that bagel you picked up at Timmies before you came in is getting cold. And as you open that first email and peer out over a wall of text that seems to scroll relentlessly to the floor, you wish with all your heart that someone knew a little email etiquette.

Fret no more: find attached the five commandments of interoffice email. Post them on your office door, leave a stray copy on the copier. Find a space for the list on the coffee-room bulletin board.

Or, if you’re working from home like so many of us are doing these days, email them to all your co-workers (as an attachment, of course).

  1. Keep it short and to the point: A reader should know within 10 seconds what your email is about and why they should read it. And it should take them no more than 30 more seconds to read the entire email. If additional information is required, put it in a report or letter and either attach it to your email, send it through inter-office mail or (if you’re still in the office) walk it down the hall for a personal conversation.
  2. Maintain your writing standards: No doubt the organizational letters and reports you write are spell-checked and contain proper grammar. They don’t include emoticons, social-based abbreviations like LMFAO or ramble on capitalization-free. So what does an email that doesn’t maintain this standard of writing say about the message contained? If you’re going to take the time to write an email, take the time to do it right.
  3. Don’t write anything you don’t want the world to know: You might think an email you’ve sent to a friend is between you and him or her. But even if you delete a message you’ve delivered, an email is forever. As well as sitting in your friend’s hard drive, it’s probably stored on a server and captured by your internet service provider for long-term storage. Those messages have a way of coming back when you least expect them.
  4. Take your time answering a complicated or testy email: After receiving a difficult email, count to 10 and determine to immediately do nothing beyond providing a response confirming you’ve received the email and will reply further within a short period of time. Then, make sure you stick to your commitment. In the meantime, give the email some thought and, if necessary, consider a more personal response, either through face-to-face meeting or phone call. Don’t elevate a potentially volatile situation by ramping up the rhetoric in an email reply of your own.
  5. Give your email a quick review before you send it: Take the time to read your email before you hit the send button. Check it for grammar and spelling and make sure your thoughts are properly organized and make sense. Read your email as your recipient will read it. This will ensure a more effective message and avoid misunderstandings and inappropriate comments. Some people I know will write the email first and only add a recipient after the email is ready to go.

One last thought: check your signature. Including relevant information, even when an email is sent from your smartphone or tablet, is an invaluable aid for someone who wants to reach you in a hurry — like someone who doesn’t quite understand your email.

Email is a big part of organizational communication. It’s a great way to get a quick relevant message to a co-worker or friend. However, it is just one of the many tools in your communication toolbox. Just like you wouldn’t use a saw to bang in a nail, using email might not be the best way to communicate a thought.