March 26, 2009

Writing an Effective Email

Email communications are a big part of most peoples day to day lives. I use email to keep in touch with friends and family, to get email_icon2 updates on things I am interested in, and of course, as my primary form of communications.

On any given day, I will receive between 100-150 legitimate emails; and by legitimate, I mean I need to at least look at them to see what is going on, of those, I actually read about 40-50 in full because I really don't have the time (or need) to read through every single one in its entirety. I am able to go through a lot of the emails because they are well written and formatted. If an email is properly written, I am able to easily determine if the email is meant for me, if I need to reply to the email, and am able to get the info I need quickly. So lets talk about how an email should be composed, we will start from top to bottom.

Determine who is going to receive the email:

To: - The 'To' field should only be used for people who the email is directed at, and who you may want a response of some type from. If you want others to get the email as an 'FYI' don't put them in the 'To' section.

CC: - CC stands for Carbon Copy, and that is exactly what this field is for. You add people to the CC section because while the email is not directed at them, you do want them to have a copy. Many times I will CC my boss or others who need to be kept in the loop on an issue, but don't actually need to reply to an email. They will get the email and have the information they need if asked about it, but really don't need to read it typically.

BCC: - BCC should be used for 1 thing, and 1 thing only. To hide who you are sending a message to. This is a helpful feature when sending out company or department wide emails because it prevents people from replying to everyone by accident (or on purpose), or can be used to send a copy of emails to superiors, or departments like HR or Legal if they need to be aware of an issue, but you don't want to let the recipient know.

The Subject Line:

Every single email you send should have a subject line, no excuses no exceptions. Subject lines give the person who receives the email an idea of what the message contains,it makes it easier to follow conversations via email that include multiple people, and makes it easier to find the email later when searching for it.

You Subject should be brief, and contain the primary topic of the email. I personally hate subjects like "a question" or "hey..." when I get them at work. Those are fine for emails between friends etc, but if you are emailing a client, or a business, don't use those. I also dislike subjects that are the start of a sentence then continue in the email, like "I was thinking about that car...." and then the body starts "...and it looks like a good deal". The subject is fine, but the body needs to be able to stand on its own.

Email body:

While everything above is very important, it is mostly just used for organizational purposes. The body of the email is where the meat is.

Your email should be well written, clean, and concise. If it is in a work environment, it should be treated as semi-formal (formal if to clients, or is a serious topic) writing. This means punctuation and grammar should be correct, thoughts should be complete, and the tone should be professional. Anything less than this makes it harder to read and hard to understand. An important thing to remember when writing an email is that meaning of things can be misinterpreted if not made clear. When talking to someone, you have things like tone and body language to help get your point across, you don't have that in email. Sarcasm is harder to detect, as are small jokes about things, so be careful, as a few poorly chosen words can turn something funny into something offensive.


Name attachments appropriately. Like any file, there should be a descriptive name to indicate what it is. Scanned documents typically have a generic letter/number combination as their name. Do the recipient a favor and rename it for them so they know what it is. Also, don't attach things that don't need to be attached. I have gotten emails from people that are word documents as attachments, with the only thing in the body saying "See Attachment". While this is ok sometimes, it usually isn't. Attachments should be in addition to the info you are providing.

Also, use common formats for attachments. If a document doesn't need to be edited by the recipient, send it as a PDF so they can open it on any computer they want instead of only opening it on one with your word editor installed. Images should be JPEG of GIF files when possible as they are highly compressed and can be opened in just about all software (this can always be done since sometimes the higher quality of TIFF or RAW images are needed).

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