The Secrets to Great Emails (or how to avoid big problems)

My life revolves around email. I use it to communicate with colleagues and customers at work. I use it to organize volunteers for the neighborhood block parties.  I use it more than it should, for sure. It is a horrible medium in many ways.  It doesn’t have the advantages of body language of face-to-face conversations or even the phone of voice of a phone call.  The asynchronous nature of the medium is great for convenience, yet it is not great for building understanding.  And still, I rely on it more than I should.

As a result of this personality flaw, I have learned a thing or two about email communications that are worth sharing.  Before you hit “send” run through this quick check list that has served me well.

1.Watch Your Buts

In spoken conversation, the words “but,” “however,” or “that being said,” all have a way of deflating energy.  They have a way of negating whatever positive thing you might have said before the word but and over email the negative tone comes through even stronger.

You are beautiful, but you have spinach in your teeth.

You are doing a great job, however you could do better.

It’s going to be a sunny day, although it will likely be too sunny and hot

You get the idea.

Before you hit “send,” go through and edit out the buts.  Break the sentence into two.  Think about how you can start the sentence with “Yes, and” instead of “But.” 

2.Scan for I’s

Have you ever finished up a note and noticed that every sentence in the email begins with the word “I.”  That is a great way to communicate selfishness in your email communications as they come off a little more one-sided than they would in a face-to-face conversation.  Scan your emails for sentences beginning with pronoun word “I” (or variations “me,” “myself”, “my”) and if there are too many, edit them out.  Instead of saying “I appreciate the invitation” say “It was great to receive your invitation.”  Those little edits will go along way to communicating gratitude and your regard.

3.Watch Your Column Inches

I am famous (infamous) for the long email.  Just because I can type like a bandit on my iPhone (or Blackberry before that) doesn’t mean I should.  Journalists writing for the newspaper would get a certain number of “column inches” to fill.  You should think about email in the same way.  A lot of email is read on mobile devices (or in preview panes in email software) and if your recipient has to scroll too much they will miss things or refuse to read it at all.  It is good to remember that not everyone is as comfortable with lots of words (I confess and you know who you are).

4.Don’t Bury the Lead

Taking another page from newspaper journalists, they assumed that most people would read the headline, some people would read the first sentence and most would not finish the article.  This means they would organize the facts, explanations, and outcomes of their story and prioritize the important things to the top of the article.  You should do the same.  Don’t bury action items, questions, or the like at the bottom of an email.  Put them at the top or in the subject line so that people know why they are reading.  You can always repeat them at the bottom (with some highlights for the most important things) for emphasis.

5.Be Prepared to Walk

Some things are best not handled via email.  Even for those of us who love it, it is not the best way to confront bad behavior, deal with sensitive or controversial issues, or to build relationships with new people.  So, if you read your email and sense there is an emotional tinge to the conversation or things not being said, walk away from email and walk over to that person instead.  Call them, visit with them, call a meeting, take them to coffee (or happy hour), anything to take the issue away from email where it will only get more spun up and complicated.  You wouldn’t think something as innocent as email would be capable of such rabble rousing and drama.  Don’t let it take control of you.  Email is a great tool and it is there to serve you.