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13 August 2009 | Paul Gostick Blog
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How to Communicate More Effectively Using Email
This week Paul looks at a few simple things to improve email communications...

  Paul Gostick

In my last blog, I commented on whether email was a blessing or a curse and that like it or not, many of us could not do our jobs without email. This week I’d like to conclude with some observations about etiquette and my thoughts for achieving effective email communication.

Have you ever spent ages looking for a snippet of information that was in an email sent to you a few weeks ago and discovered that it is not always easy to find it again, even if you are diligent with your filing?

Well, the good news is you are not alone. But why does this happen? I’d like to offer a few observations. If the sender included the particular information you need in a long message covering numerous points, the chances are that the subject/title of the email will not reflect the information you are looking for. Worse still, if the sender just pressed reply to a previous unrelated message about a different matter (you never do that do you?), rather than compose a new mail and use the address book, the heading of the mail you need won't actually be related to the information you looking for. This is another of my pet peeves after misuse of email for sending large attachments.

There are a few simple rules to improve the chances that your emails are read in the first place, can be found at a later date, remain useful to the recipient and ensure you benefit from clearer communication.

Poor subject lines: Subject lines are headlines. The headline in a newspaper has two main functions; it grabs your attention and informs you what the article is about. Armed with this basic information you then decide whether you want to read further, file it or bin it. Email subject lines need to perform the same job. One wouldn’t publish a newspaper without headlines, so you should never leave the subject line blank or simply putting ‘Re:’ as this fails the first rule of communication - getting your attention. Use the subject line to inform the receiver of exactly what the email is about using a few well-chosen words. Unfortunately, as we all suffer from emails they do not want (spam), appropriate use of the subject line increases the chances that your email will be read and not deleted without so much as a glance (auto-pilot mode!). Typically, when someone receives email, particularly in the morning when a number have arrived over night, they quickly scan the subject heading of each email to see which emails need to be dealt with first.

Make one point per email: The beauty of email, compared with letters, is that it doesn't really cost any more to send several mails than it does to send one. So, if you need to communicate with someone about several matters, it may be better to write a separate shorter email on each subject. As with all business communication, the email should be clear and concise, with the purpose of the email detailed in the very first paragraph. Sentences should be kept short and to the point.

State the response you want: An obvious point but frequently overlooked. Make sure you include any call to action that you require, such as a phone call or follow-up appointment and make sure you include your contact information.

Excessive capitalization: IT’S CONSIDERED RUDE TO TYPE IN CAPITALS. Typing in capitals is the digital equivalent of shouting at someone. At the other end of the spectrum, use the rules of grammar and don’t type all your text in lower case.

Poor use of attachments: Any email attachment over a couple of megabytes (MB) is too large. Email is the wrong mechanism to transfer large files. Not everyone has broadband or cable, and folks do not want to spend five minutes downloading an unnecessary file. For large attachments, you should use file upload services such as Yousendit or an ftp server. You should also consider the format of your attachment as not everyone will be able to read a file that has a XXX extension. If it is a text document, put the text in the body of the email don’t attach a word file – it is quicker and easier to read.

Spelling and grammar: What ever happened to these two basic requirements for good communication? Grammar clearly affects the meaning of the message while the spelling of a word can change the whole meaning of a sentence, for example, complimentary vs complementary. There is far too much use of abbreviations, jargon and ‘text speak’ which frequently impairs communication. However, my number one issue has to be the ‘abuse’ of the humble apostrophe. Don’t ignore the importance of good grammar and spelling.

Reply to all and forwarding to all: Don’t. It is frustrating to receive emails from group members who simply say “Yes, I can come.” or “No.” when you do not need to receive them. Stop being lazy and take a little time to address your email to the specific people your email is intended for.

Unnecessary information: Aka waffle. Most people waste too much time browsing their inbox as it is without having to read long messages. Keep your emails short and succinct. Provide the necessary facts.

HTML: When you copy and paste emails from websites, you may also unknowingly copy the underlying HTML code across. The HTML in the email you send does not always look like the email someone receives because not all email programs are HTML compatible. So, when they receive HTML content, HTML code might be displayed and other formatting issues may occur. Simply provide a website link if you’re going to copy an entire web page. If you want to copy snippets of information from a website copying the text to a text file program, such as notepad or word, removes HTML and prevents the formatting issues.

Making people’s email addresses known: It is considered rude to send out an email to several recipients in which their email address is visible in the ‘To’ box, unless all the people know each other and are comfortable in sharing their email addresses. You can use the bcc function of emails to hide recipients’ email addresses or use list functions.

Emotional emails: Don’t send an email when you are angry. The absence of non-verbal communication in email makes it a poor medium for non factual communications (see last week’s blog).

Removed message thread: Not having the replied message in the sent message is like having a conversation in a vacuum. Change your email settings so that messages you reply to get included in your reply automatically.

Acknowledge important documents: If you are sent some important documents or files, it goes without saying that you should you acknowledge their safe receipt to the sender. It’s amazing how many people do not do this.

Be a good correspondent: Manage your inbox and read and return your emails in a timely manner. If a lengthy response is required to an email, but you don't have to hand all the necessary facts and information, send a holding reply stating that you have received the message and indicate when you will be in a position to reply properly.

Requesting delivery and read receipts: This is an unreliable and annoying way of checking to see if someone has received your email. If you need to check whether your email was received or not, ask the person in your email to reply to you message confirming receipt. If your message is really that urgent, use the phone. Don’t try to blame the recipient of your email for a problem that you can control. Stop playing politics.

Recall message: It doesn’t work very well – think before you send the message (see last week’s blog).

Out of office auto responder: Always set this when you are going to be away from your email for a significant period of time (ie more than one day) advising when you will be able to respond and who the person sending you the email should contact, in your absence, for more urgent matters.

Engage brain: Write, Send, Edit. It’s like Ready, Fire, Aim. It’s in the wrong order. 

How can we begin to solve the email communication problem?  Easy, be clear, be brief and write short, succinct emails with an informative subject line and a crystal clear message.  To quote Winston Churchill - “Use simple words everybody knows…then everybody will understand…”

Just sending an email is not communicating. For communication to take place, the recipient must receive and understand the message. While email can be a convenient communication channel, certain discussions need to be handled over the phone or, if possible, in person.  If you notice that a situation is starting to deteriorate, don’t send another email, it’s time to pick up the phone or arrange a face to face meeting to make sure the message is really understood.

Any feedback and comments are always welcome!! 

Paul Gostick Email to a colleague | Add to MY ITP

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