View Full Version : Email Best Practices Discussion at Staff Meeting
01-03-2005, 10:39 AM
Hello - I'd like to get ideas on office email "best practices" that perhaps the people you work with have agreed on and have found helpful. Or maybe things you WISH you could agree on. :) I've been asked to lead a 10-15 minute discussion on this topic at our staff meeting next week. I'm actually very excited about the opportunity! Everyone is agreed that our email is getting a bit out of hand - everyone is cc-ed on everything, actual requests for action are buried in 3 paragraphs of text, etc.
Any suggestions? In addition to best practices, I'm looking for ways to to motivate people to be more disciplined about email. Implementing a new habit will actually mean slowing down for awhile to be more mindful, but it will be faster in the long run.
Some quick ideas I jotted down for best practices to discuss are:
* the two minute rule
* anyone with a NA - be it ever so small - should be in the "to" field rather than the "cc" field
* in long emails, bold people's names - give them keystrokes to do this.
* put the NA right up top and then fill in with background info
* if the email were a meeting, don't cc people on the whole exchange if they wouldn't be invited to the meeting - send them a follow up once the exchange is done as an FYI.
01-03-2005, 11:38 AM
One tip I would add is to compose the subject line in such a way that it actually conveys useful information about the contents of the email. It;s amazing how much information can actually be compressed into a few words on the subject line if the sender just takes a few seconds to THINK. I've developed the practice of composing the body first, then entering the subject line just before sending the email.
Emails which have a subject line that says "Urgent, Read This", "Get Back to Me ASAP" or other such garbage are time wasters and counter-productive.
01-03-2005, 12:40 PM
SpectecGTD has a great point... it is also important they do this because GTD uses the "Subject" field for the headers of Tasks e.g., as when delegating and outbound email. So if the subject heading is vague, you have to physically open the item.
01-03-2005, 12:43 PM
Very good point! I'd love to see an example of what you'd consider to be an effective subject line.
01-03-2005, 02:41 PM
1) Email to my accounting clients each month:
"REMINDER-> SEND ACCTG INFO FOR DEC, 2004"
(The body of the email contains boiler plate regarding due dates, info needed, etc.)
2) Email to manufacturer requesting shipping status of orders:
"REQUEST SHIP STATUS/UPDATE -> ORDER # 342233"
(The body of this email would repeat the order number, plus include original date order received, name of customer, specifics about order, etc.)
3) Email to church finance committee members to set up meeting:
"PROPOSED FINCOM MEETING: 1/11/04 -> 6:30 pm"
(The body of this email would contain agenda, attachments, and a request to respond if attending/not attending)
4) Email to a family member or associate asking if they want to get together at a familiar restaurant this evening:
"DINNER-EL VALLARTA-6:00 pm TONITE? LET ME KNOW"
(This email probably wouldn't even have anything in the body)
5) Our church financial secretary found that she was spending an inordinate amount of time fielding questions from staff and finance committee members each Monday checking on the amount of the weekend offering - mostly curiosity calls. She now sends out an email each Monday with the following subject line to everyone who has even a a remote interest in knowing the information:
"WKLY OFFERING->INITIAL COUNT-> $(Amount)"
The email is saved in a special folder and she just sends it to herself with a "reply all" after editing in the new amount for the current week. Not only did this stop the nuisance calls, but now everyone can save the email in a special folder and can review the past several weeks results simply by looking at the subject lines, displayed chronologically. This can be used in all sorts of business settings to report attendance, sales receipts, service calls, or any other sort of recurring "snapshot" information.
Besides giving examples of detailed subject lines, it might be interesting to show two different print-outs from an inbox listing, one with detailed subject lines, and one with generic ones. Just to get the point across.
Another idea - are there regular communications that get sent on a routine basis? I'm thinking of something along the lines of the weekly offering report spectecGTD mentioned. If so, coming up with a regular subject line might allow people to take advantage of automatic processing rules, depending on the email software you use. There are several emails I receive on a regular basis that are just kept for reference without even being read - these are automatically placed in appropriate reference folders. I also highlight certain messages when they come in.
Finally, a tip when composing email messages - I make sure at the end of message to summarize it's contents. Particularly, I ask myself two questions: Why am I sending this email, and has that purpose been clearly communicated? What do I want the recipient to do in response? This is can help clarify next actions and needed responses.
01-05-2005, 07:11 AM
SpectGTD - thanks for sharing those - great examples. I really appreciate it when I receive emails like those because I can drag them right into my tasks and the subject line becomes the task with little to no rewriting. I think you can just use the subject line as the whole message as long as everyone understands that this is what you are doing - like the church secretary did.
Perhaps I can just have a very short meeting by simply saying: "Write emails unto other as you would have emails written unto yourself." Like you said - if people just take a little time to THINK - it can be much better. It really comes down to showing respect for people's time.
Ko - I don't think we have any routine emails, but I like your idea of showing a list of good subject lines vs. poor ones. The worst offenders that are those who have nothing in the subject line. I also appreciate it when people give me the purpose and the NA right up front and then give me detail so I can see that in the preview window. I think asking yourself some key questions - purpose? NA? expectations like deadlines, etc? is an excellent discipline.
Thanks for your thoughtful responses.
01-06-2005, 12:09 AM
This is an article on mastering e-mail overload that I found helpful:
There are practical tips in there (some of them have been mentioned earlier in the discussion).
What I found scary was that the author challenges you to calculate the cost of e-mail: divide your salary by 120000 to get your per-minute wage and multiply by the number of minutes you spend on mail.
Or: if a short mail takes 3 minutes to read and react (file, process, delete) you can calculate the cost per person to read the mail; Sending the mail to two people doubles the cost; and you see what happens when you put the whole department in cc.
01-06-2005, 05:10 AM
That was a very good article - lots of useful tips & reminders. I'm going to send it to everyone in my address book :)
Seriously, a few ideas jumped out at me.
Forwarding emails. I do try to edit forwarded emails whenever possible - condense the forwarded info down to its essence.. It's frustrating to have a 5-10 screen email made up of all the forwarding information from the last half-dozen posters, along with all their email addresses embedded in the body.
Dealing with people who use email, but not regularly. If I know someone has email but doesn't use it very much, I'll often just call them. I think it might be better to send them an email and then call afterward. Hopefully I'll get their voice mail and I can just leave the message "I sent you an email concerning the project - we need to resolve this by 3pm. Can you get back to me?" Then they can decide whether to call me back or to read the email & respond (hopefully by email).
Make it one page or less It's interesting how much info can be compressed into a single page if one gives it a little thought. People's interest definitely wanes when they have to scroll down.
01-06-2005, 07:46 AM
It is very irritating to have a subject line blank or worse, nonsensical. I have a friend (xyz) whose subject line is the same. It goes "from xyz". I have hinted that his subject lines are the most informative to date. But, it seems, it had no effect on him.
Another very important use of subject message is when the message itself is short. For eg:- "Sub: Got the proposal by fedex. Will reply next week. EoM" EoM standing for end of message. With this there is no necessity to open the email because the subject line is the message.
01-06-2005, 09:21 AM
Thanks for the additional ideas! Beyerst, I love the Harvard article. I just took your suggestion on calculating the per minute cost of email - but I expanded it into the whole office and calculated:
* the cost of an email sent to to the office that takes 3 minutes to process (read, reply, file)
* total daily and annual cost of whole office based on 3 hours per person per day on email
Yowsa!!!!! Boy are my eyes opened.
I have a meeting with my boss later today and we'll be talking about what I'll be doing in staff meeting. I think these numbers will make a believer out of him.
01-06-2005, 03:08 PM
Hello - I'd like to get ideas on office email "best practices" that perhaps the people you work with have agreed on and have found helpful.
I still send people copies of "Rules of Email", written by Guy Kawasaki for the now defunct MacWeek. I've enclosed it below. The article is freely distributable with permission from the author.
The Rules of Email
[This article by Guy Kawasaki was originally published in MacWeek and is reprinted with permission.]
Much to the relief of my wife, I no longer deny that I'm obsessed with email. (She views this admission as the first step to a cure.) I receive fifty messages per day and send 100. When I check any of the five (down from seven) services that I use, and find that I don't have email, I get depressed.
My passion for email has gotten so bad that I started a company to create an email product--there is no greater inspiration for starting a company than wanting to use its product. And there is no greater inspiration for writing than to communicate information that directly impacts your life, so all you emailers out there, please observe these rules of email etiquette.
Files: Just Say No!
#1) Don't send a file unless the recipient wants it and expects it. I've gotten three-paragraph letters that were sent as files with a cover message that said, "Please read attached letter." Only bozos send files when they don't need to. They assume that files will be properly downloaded and that recipients have the applications to open them. Then there's the assumption that recipients want to see the GIF file of a bozo's face or a bozo's resume in QuarkXPress using Giovanni Book.
#2) Don't explain your life story--get to the bottom-line reason you're writing. Many messages start off with four long paragraphs explaining the sender's life history, starting with their Apgar score. For goodness sake, show some self confidence. You don't need to explain who you are or justify why you're writing to elicit a response. If the recipient is going to answer, he's going to answer. If not, life goes on.
#3) Describe the topic of your message in the subject area. This helps both you and your recipient. When your recipients have inboxes full of messages, they are going to make the decision about which messages to read and answer based on who sent the message and what the subject is. (In my case, for example, "Love your books!" will always work.) The subject area is indispensable for the recipient to find a message that was filed away.
ALL CAPS: Just Say No!
#5) Quote the text from the incoming message in a reply. Hours, days, or even weeks can pass between the time a message is sent and a reply received. In that time, people can easily forget what they asked. For example, incoming message: "How's the new vacuum cleaner?" Answer, a few weeks later: "It really sucks." The convention is to place a ">" symbol or two in front of the question or comment in order to signal that this is the issue that you're addressing.
#6) Use carbon copies and blind carbon copies sparingly. Hardly anyone who gets a carbon copy or blind carbon copy message wants it. The sender thinks he's keeping people "in the loop," covering his assets, or intimidating someone. I often get a carbon copy of messages sent to Mike Spindler. Senders must think that Mike is going to be intimidated by the fact that I got the message too, that I will contact Mike on their behalf, or that Mike cares what I think. Dream on.
Chain Letters: Just Say No!
#7) Never create or forward "chain-letter" email. There is nothing funny, cute, or redeeming about this practice. People who do this should lose their email accounts. However, it is okay to send copies of interesting messages and postings--for example, the hilarious press release about Microsoft buying the Roman Catholic Church--to people you know.
#8) Practice the 5 to 1 rule: for every five words in an incoming message, your reply should have one. Someone once told me that my emails are "curt but complete." He was trying to insult me, but I took it as praise. A lot of email is venting of emotions. It's not necessary or prudent to respond to each and every point, arguing and commenting tit for tat. A simple, "Thanks for your comments." is sufficient.
#9) Use signatures sparingly. Signatures are the text that people place at the end of messages. They contain information such as phone and fax numbers and company names. Some people, unfortunately, go overboard and create elaborate signatures with poetry, quotes, and ASCII art. Not that many people want to see the ASCII art rendition of your dog, so simplify your signature or don't use one at all.
The Golden Rule: Just Say So!
It's impossible to cover every situation in a column, so always remember the Golden Rule of Email: Message unto others as you would have them message unto you. If you want to be graded on your email etiquette, send me a message at MacWay@aol.com. I will tell you in advance, however, that messages in all caps, with file attachments, or with long signatures, will fail.
Copyright 1995, MacWeek. All rights reserved.
01-06-2005, 03:13 PM
Hello - I'd like to get ideas on office email "best practices" that perhaps the people you work with have agreed on and have found helpful.
You may also find this article, "The Tyranny of Email", helpful:
01-21-2005, 04:29 PM
Hello - I am the original poster and wanted to follow up. Thanks for those two pieces of info, kkirksey - good stuff!
The meetings turned out well and I would encourage any organization to take some time to have this sort of conversation. Considering how much time goes into email, it is a great thing to come to agreement on what your "rules of engagement" as an organization are....
I ended up with two discussions about email - one at a yearly retreat with my two bosses and one of my co-workers and another at our staff meeting. The discussion at the retreat was great - just buiilding awareness about what email costs us in terms of time, torture, :wink: getting pet peeves out on the table, figuring out how we can be more productive. It was one of the healthiest conversations we've had in awhile - we learned a lot. We ended up spending much more time on this than we thought we would and my boss commented that he was surprised that a talk about something as mundane as email could be so "intense".
We had a similar discussion in our staff meeting, but had much, much less time, and I felt like I was presenting more than generating a discussion (yuk), but it was still helpful to hear how we our gets driven crazy with email, how we can be more effective, and come up with some basic rules of engagement.
Thanks for your help.