E-mail Best Practices

20th April, 2015 No Comments Blog , Cornell Tech , CoVenture , Fundraising

E-mail is an oft-pilloried form of communication.  It’s sometimes tone-deaf.  There’s too much of it.  It’s not as immediate as texting or calling.

I am reminded of a line attributed to Winston Churchill; “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”  Similarly, e-mail is flawed, but it’s often the best mode of business communication and is the default for the majority of the most time-starved business people I know.  Its advantages are many:

  • Most importantly, it’s asynchronous; people can communicate without having to be available at the same time.  A meeting that takes three days to happen could have been avoided altogether with an e-mail thread over the same three days.
  • E-mail affords the opportunity for clear, nuanced communication.  Tone-deaf or hard-to-understand e-mails cannot be blamed on “e-mail” any more than an arrow that misses a target can be blamed on the bow.  A call or meeting has its place, but e-mail allows both parties to think about what they want to say and review their communications before sending.
  • Finally, e-mails are searchable and referenceable.  I have trouble remembering the details of conversations I had yesterday, but e-mail provides perfect, indefinite recall.  Except for select circumstances, such as messages with particular legal sensitivity or negative personal comments (which are usually best avoided regardless of communication medium), this perfect record is a huge advantage over other modes.

Writing good e-mails is not easy.  Here are some guidelines for making the most of your e-mail communications:

  • One topic per e-mail.  This aids greatly in search and helps to ensure your message is read.
  • Be specific in the subject.  “Question” and “Follow-up” are bad e-mail subjects because they will be threaded with many other e-mails and may never be read at all.  “Question about the topic of Thursday’s meeting with Bob” is better.
  • Say it all in the first paragraph.  In the first paragraph of an e-mail, you should state your request or purpose simply.  Provide only required context – introduce yourself if necessary and get to the point.  In general, this paragraph should be no more than three sentences long.  Many busy people will not read more so get to the point.
  • Give more background in the e-mail body.  If the reader needs more information, they should find what they need in the body of your note.  Still, in most circumstances, a busy reader will only skim the body.
  • Request one-word answers.  If you ask a question or make a request, try to make it one that the recipient can answer with one word.  You’ll get a quick answer that way; otherwise, the recipient has to find time to write a reply, which could easily take days.
  • Respect the “cc”.  If the recipient replies and copies a third person, keep that person copied in your e-mails.
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation.  
  • Respond within 24 hours to all remotely important e-mails, even if you just write that it will be a few days before you can craft a full response.
  • Don’t ask for a call or a meeting unless you have to (see upcoming posts on phone and meeting guidelines).  The recipient is reading your e-mail.  Write what you want to communicate; don’t ask for another communication touch point to say it.
  • Attach thoughtfully.  Attachments should only be PDF documents – everyone can open them.  The filename should be specific to its contents and friendly to the recipient’s file tree.  Never send someone at Acme a presentation titled “Presentation for Acme.”  They have hundreds of “Presentation for Acme” documents in their file tree.  Call it “XYZ Corp Sales Presentation YY-MM-DD” (end with two-digit year, month , date).

If you are requesting an introduction:

  • Send one e-mail to the intermediary asking for the introduction and clearly listing the people with whom you’d like to connect.
  • For each introduction you are requesting, send a separate e-mail containing the request that the intermediary can forward simply by clicking “forward” and adding a comment above your note.
  • Write the request e-mails as if you were writing to the ultimate recipient, not to the intermediary.
  • If you receive an introduction request, don’t forget to get permission from the target of the request before making the connection.

If you are writing to someone with whom you have never communicated and have no one to introduce you (a “cold” e-mail):

  • Make sure you’ve looked carefully for a warm introduction – any connection – before writing a cold e-mail.
  • Get to the point and be specific about the reason for your message.
  • Make a human connection; refer to a blog post the recipient wrote, anything you have in common such as a hometown or sports affiliation, etc.

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