3 Steps to mastering the art of email

3 Steps to mastering the art of email

To get your driver’s license, you had to practice and prove you could parallel park, come to a full stop and use your turn signal. If you made too many mistakes, you didn’t get your license. With email, it was just handed to us and we were sent off into the world of our inboxes without any instruction whatsoever. None of us were taught how to use it properly.

Now, decades later, we wonder why our inboxes are such a mess. None of us were taught how to use email properly; especially for everything we use it for today. It’s not that email is bad, it’s just that we’re using it for more than it was intended.

We use it as a project management tool, a task list and the primary place to share and receive information about everything and anything related to our work. It should be no big surprise that on average we spend 28 percent of our day reading and answering emails. And, just like our cars are not responsible for the accidents we get into, email is not responsible for the disaster that’s in our inbox. We are!

It’s time we get better at email. When we master our email, we’re able to communicate our ideas effectively, manage projects smoothly and get more done. Here are three important principles to mastering the art of email and communicating more effectively.

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  1. Learn how to properly use “to” “CC” and “BCC.”

There are rules around how to include people on your emails. The “to,” “CC,” and “BCC” fields have their own distinct purposes. When you use them properly by including the right people in the right fields, it shows.

People you put in the “to” field should only be those who need to take action on your email. This is pretty straightforward, but do a quick check before you include someone in this field by asking yourself the question: Do they need to take action or respond in some way? If the answer is yes, proceed. If the answer is no, move them to the “CC” field.

When you put someone in the “CC” field, you are signaling to them that they are not required to respond. CC is an acronym for carbon copy and its purpose is to allow you to send a copy of a message to someone of secondary importance. Use it for FYI purposes only. Although the “CC” option is useful, use it with care. Modern corporate culture has adopted the bad habit of including as many people as possible in the “CC” field order to CYA. Don’t use CC to prove to the people you work with that you’re working. Prove to people you are working with your actual work.

Finally, when your email includes people in the TO: and CC: field, don’t put anyone in BCC. As a general rule, everyone should be able to see who has been included on the email. To test this, think: If you had to tell everyone that you included in the TO and CC fields that you included someone else in the BCC field, would it upset them? General takeaway here: Don’t use BCC to be devious.

  1. Think twice before you hit “Reply All.”

Oh boy, Reply All. This feature should be removed as an option altogether because we abuse it so much. Instead of thinking about who on an email thread would really benefit from our reply, we lazily hit Reply All and shoot off our message to everyone. This is a terrible habit, and a big part of the reason we spend 28 percent of our day in our inbox.

So, when should you not use Reply All? Let’s look at some scenarios.

Example #1: A Meeting organizer asks if everyone is available Wednesday at 10 a.m. You have a conflict, but can suggest some alternatives. Does everyone on the email thread need to see your availability, or can the organizer collect the responses and propose a new time that will work? Yes, she can. Don’t use Reply All.

Example #2: Someone shares good news with you and nine other people. Do all nine people need to get a follow-up email from you saying “great news!” No. Don’t Reply All. If you want to congratulate someone, send them a separate email, call them or take them out to coffee.

Think before you hit that Reply All button. We will all have less email if we do.

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  1. Be a journalist, not a novelist.

We should write emails like there’s a character limit. Unlike writing a novel, where you build up to the important stuff, most emails would be better if we put the main points up at the very top, the way newspaper stories are written. Start with the lead, and then flesh out the details only as needed. This way the recipient can get the main thing you’re telling them or asking them quickly. Here are a few ways to write emails like journalist.

  • Put your main points up front. Don’t drag it out, be clear and to the point. For example, “We’re going ahead with the deal. To close it, I’ll need you to gather three years of financials, and have them ready by Friday.”
  • Ask a specific question. Like, “Our press release announcing our joint venture with Google will be released tomorrow. Do you like the headline below?”
  • Be clear if you need a yes or no answer. For example, “I’ve got a Fortune 500 client who wants to discuss staff training. Can you fly to Phoenix for a Thursday meeting?”

And finally, edit your emails! Don’t send unnecessarily long emails. This takes some effort because instead of hitting compose and dumping your stream of consciousness on the screen, it requires you to refine your thoughts and the way you communicate them. To help you with this, utilize bullets to list ideas, options and important information. It makes your email easier to read and, in turn, easier to respond to.

Email is not hard, but we complain about it a lot. If we all followed simple practices like these, we’d make email a lot better for everyone. What would you add to this list? What tips do you have to sending great emails? Share them in the comments below!