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Effective E-mails: Break Your E-mails on Through

Are you burdened by hundreds of e-mails a day?  Do you send out e-mails but don't get responses because your co-workers are also buried under an inbox groaning under the weight of a mountain of e-mails?  

Streamline your e-mails.  An effective e-mail is more likely to get a response.  It not only helps the recipient gauge the e-mail's impact to them, it may also provide an easier path to a faster answer.  And it may reduce the number of e-mails that flood your inbox.   

Here are the top 10 tips to improving your e-mails. Feel free to spread it around... but perhaps not by e-mail.

10.  Address appropriately, and use your signature.

Using the "To" and "CC" fields strategically can help recipients judge their level of response. Prioritize your addressees.

People in the "To" field are being directly addressed.  The e-mail may contain a question, request for decision or another call-to-action that needs a response.  

People in the "CC" field are being included so they're in the loop on what's going on, but may not need to weigh in. With many e-mail applications auto-populating address fields based on the first few typed letters, make sure you intend to send your message to the people that the application chooses.

Additionally, not everyone receiving your message may not know who you are.  Include your e-mail signature at the bottom of your message, which will indicate who you are, your functional area, title and company name.  

9.  Write a meaningful subject line.

Make your subject line relevant.  It should give strong clues about the content of your e-mail and the context under which you're sending it, setting expectations before recipients even open the e-mail.

8.  Use attachments sparingly.

Many times, attachments can contain useful information that supports the e-mail content.  However, instead of making your recipients go through a potentially large file, it may be more helpful to summarize top points and include highlights in your e-mail body.

Also, keep an eye on file sizes.  While bandwidth is becoming less of a problem, mail-bombing someone's inbox with a huge file attachment is considered poor e-mail etiquette. An e-mail server might actually deny delivery to an overly large file, preventing your message from getting through at all.

7.  Follow the laws of spelling, punctuation and grammar.  

Communicating by e-mail can sometimes cause confusion or misinterpretation, especially when tone is taken out of the equation. There's no opportunity to read body language, facial expressions or vocal modulation that can be used in person to color words with meaning or emotion.  As such, it's important to convey your information in the most effective way – and that includes using correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. Doing so can also lend authority to your words and keep readers engaged.  If you were reading a book that was full of mistakes, would you find it credible or keep reading it?

Be aware of how different fonts, emphasis or punctuation can be perceived.  While you may try to convey urgency through bolding, all-caps or multiple exclamation points, those are typically seen as "Internet yelling."  

6.  Take into account how your e-mail appears to the audience.

With the widespread use of e-mail and constant connectivity, how e-mail is rendered on one device may look different from how it's rendered on another.  What can look clear and be easily read on a desktop or laptop computer might not be so on a mobile phone or tablet.  This includes huge blocks of text, so try to keep paragraphs short with line breaks in between them.  Also, use bulletpoints if appropriate.

Certain kinds of formatting, fancy fonts and stationery may not be able to be read by other e-mail applications – and they may be perceived as being unprofessional.  What looks nice on your screen may look awful or unreadable on someone else's.  Stick to widely used and readable fonts, and lose the stationery.

If you're forwarding an e-mail that had a huge original distribution list, you may want to remove it.  That way, you save your recipient from scrolling down through tons of names in the original header.  

5.  E-mail is forever.

Whether you intend it to stick around or spread, your e-mail can go far beyond its original recipients.  Just because you or someone else deletes it, it's not gone from the servers.  And just because you send it to one person, that doesn't mean they didn't forward it to others.  Be sure you don't put anything into print that you wouldn't want everyone to know about (or someone to hold against you) – either now or in the future.

4.  Be professional, and use your best judgment before hitting send.

Given what was just said about e-mail's potential reach and longevity (and wide-ranging impact!), is what you're sending appropriate for your intended audience?  If your e-mail was forwarded beyond your original distribution list, would it cause problems for you or someone else?  You may not want to forward that inappropriate joke or chain e-mail.

3.  Be concise.

There's a reason why the expression "short and sweet" is so popular:  No one wants to read a novel when they open an e-mail.  Choose your words carefully, say only what needs to be said, and don't use 100 words when 10 would suffice.

If formatting your e-mail in a different way can help reduce word count while still conveying impact, you may want to consider that.  For examples, use bulletpoints to emphasize key points, or make short lists.

2.  Read and proofread.

In some cases, Outlook can recall messages, but with people checking e-mail so often, the chances of you successfully being able to do so are pretty slim.  Take your time, and don't rush to hit "send."  While e-mail applications like Outlook are getting smarter and can help you catch mistakes, they're not bulletproof.

Did you do a spelling and grammar check?Did you reread through your content to make sure it made sense and wasn't ambiguous?  Sometimes, it helps to step away from the screen for a moment to reset slightly for a fresh look.If you intended to attach a file, did you do so?  Is it the right file?Did you properly address the e-mail?  Are all the listed recipients the ones you intended?

Sometimes, it can help to write a response without your recipients in the address fields; that way, if the e-mail is accidentally sent prematurely, it won't actually go out as an incomplete or incorrect message.

1.  Avoid the Reply Allpocalypse.

If you're on a large e-mail chain, it can cause a major annoyance if you respond to everyone with a simple acknowledgement – you're filling up everyone's inbox with a response like "OK" or "Thanks."  Multiply that by the number of people on the recipient list, and that makes for a lot of useless e-mails if everyone does the same thing.  So pay attention and use the "reply all" function sparingly. Does everyone really need to get your response?

Following these guidelines may not save everyone from e-mail hell, but it certainly may help improve your response rate – and the inboxes of yourself and everyone around you!

Co-written with my peer Sean Stewart.

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