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A little bit of context...
I used to be an international business events planner. This meant communicating worldwide with high-ranking officers, embassies, secretaries, hotel front desks, someone’s grandma who couldn’t find a taxi at the airport... You name it.
Most of the communication prior to the events was via email, and my recipient’s English was not always tip-top. Discussing complex subjects was often a challenge, especially when I required urgent information or documents, and misunderstandings arose.
I gradually learned how to avoid all the blurriness and make my emails efficient, useful and appreciated.
Now as a UX Designer, I realize many of the good practices I acquired at that previous role were rooted in empathy and understanding of user behavior. If you think about it, all that emailing back and forth was pretty much like constant testing.
So, sure, there are endless blog posts on how to improve your emails and how to sound professional in writing, but I feel like they all just repeat the same concepts time and time again. I wanted to add something to the table.
That being said, while some may sound familiar..
I'm positive these tips will streamline your email communication, make you get better and faster replies, and help you be perceived as an efficient and respectful person to work with.
Here we go!
1. Make Your Subject Line Assertive
Especially avoid uninformative ones that only reflect your own priorities. A good subject line should allow the recipient to make an informed decision on when to deal with your email.
2. Address Your Email Appropriately
Not all clients are the same. You’ll have the Dear Mr. Deckert’s and the Hey David’s. Just keep in mind that, when in doubt, it’s better to be a bit more formal than necessary to not seem disrespectful and to be on the same page as your recipient; especially when cultural differences might be at play.
Bottomline, a human touch is nice. Seeming out of touch, not so much.
3. Mindfully Choose Between Carbon Copy (CC) & Blind Carbon Copy (BCC)
We’re clear we should use the CC and Reply All options only when it makes sense (e.g. keeping a manager informed).
Here’s my additional advice: Use Blind Carbon Copy (BCC) for people that haven’t consented to the distribution of their email address. It’s easy and it can avoid serious inconvenience.
4. Provide An Option When Asking An Open Question
In the famous words of Steve Krug, "Don't make me think"
Here’s the deal... It’s less work to say yes or no than it is to think of new options. So, make your emails easier to respond to by already offering an option that could save everyone a whole thread of emails. More often you will find that your proposal will be directly accepted.
It’s a win-win-win. You’ll be choosing a date that works well for yourself, saving your recipients some effort and getting faster replies.
🚩 Pro-tip: for setting up meetings, you may also just use Calendly 💜
5. Make It Findable
Have you ever tried to retrieve a document or some information from an old email chain using the search box? Not always a piece of cake.
This is one of those things I'm trying to manifest into the world...
Let’s make our emails findable! It’s not hard and can be a lifesaver down the line.
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:
- When attaching documents, name them appropriately and include a descriptive name for the documents in the body of the email. E.g. “You will find attached to this email the list of guests for the 2020 Geneva Convention with their contact information.”
- When answering a question, give it some context. E.g. “Regarding the contact information of the members of the executive committee, here is the list...”
I even recommend doing this for yourself. If your recipient didn’t provide any context and you feel this is something you’ll want to look for down the line, include keywords in your reply to at least make the chain findable.
Include keywords in your emails to make them findable.
🚩 Pro-tip: Include said keywords in the subject line of your reply email instead of the body text.
What is the main goal of your email? It might be getting an OK on something, obtaining a document, or maybe setting a meeting.
Keep in mind that the more goals you set for a single email, the more difficult it will be to get them all fulfilled. Choose one and act accordingly.
On that same note…
7. Avoid Giving Too Much Homework
Design your emails to not contain Roadblocks.
When one asks for too many things in a single email, there are two common outcomes:
- The response will be delayed until all your requests can be fulfilled.
- You will get an incomplete reply – often containing an apology – and probably will have to insist on what was missing down the line.
With this in mind, design your emails to not contain roadblocks. First, get everything that’s quick and easy secured, and then ask for what may be more time consuming or difficult.
It’s a nice touch to let the recipient know that you will be asking for that big thing next, allowing them to start getting it ready, but make sure it doesn’t condition the swift reply to the first easy requests.
8. Provide Visual Cues
When content, questions, and requests start piling up, words might not suffice.
Visual cues work like a charm to make everything clearer. By visual cues, I mean anything that will structure the content at first glance, like bold text, highlights, bulleted lists, etc.
The magic of correctly structuring an email is that the recipient will often mimic your structure in their reply. That makes it super easy for you to check you got everything you needed.
Of course, not everything is as straightforward as staples and paper clips. For longer emails where context is needed and many things are asked along the way, a great visual cue is a “checkpoint” in the form of a bulleted list at the end.
When I do that, I like to let the recipient know from the beginning that I’ll be providing this checklist, allowing them to read the whole email without worrying about recalling everything.
9. Program emails and be mindful of people’s schedules
Programming emails – or chat messages, for that matter – has several advantages:
- Putting your email at the top of the tray on Monday morning is a great way to ensure it’s seen. This is an old email marketer trick, so you’ll still have some competition with newsletters and spam. If you can think of a better time for a particular person, go with that.
- You can avoid giving the impression that you’re available outside of your established schedule, which could lead to people expecting you to respond at those times as well.
- You won’t disrupt people’s rest by having them receive something outside of their schedule. Even if they just get that notification and don’t reply, mental work is also work.
Program emails to have good timing, avoid seeming available outside of your working hours, and prevent disrupting people’s rest.
🚩 Pro-tip: when dealing with cultural and time differences, and with remote and flexible working hours becoming increasingly common, it’s not always obvious what the best time to send an email will be.
A message clarifying that an immediate response is not expected can be a nice touch of empathy. Some people even include it in their signature.
10. “This meeting could have been an email”
We see this phrase all the time as a meme on social media, but I’d like to take it a step further…
It's time to get a few more tools on our belts.
While distanced asynchronous work becomes more and more common, maybe it’s time to get a few more tools on our belt than just video calls or emails. Both seem to be getting increasingly despised.
Let’s do ourselves a favor and stop solely relying on infinite email chains and their limitations – or video calls with twenty people where only one speaks, since we’re at it –.
While not all meetings could have been emails, many could have been a Loom video, a Notion document where people can leave comments, a Figma prototype, a Calendly link, or others. I'm sure you'll have some more ideas, so share them in the comments!
Emails are not going away anytime soon, but we can superpower them.
Here’s a checklist to make sure you do. You can save it as an image and keep it handy for easy checking 🤓