Before his death over the weekend, Ray Tomlinson wasn’t a name I’d heard of before.
However, as the inventor of email, Ray’s legacy impacts many of our lives every day.
Usually, this impact is positive. Without email, many of us wouldn’t be able to do our jobs or communicate online (after all, you still need an email address to sign up for social media and some messaging services).
That said, if you’re constantly battling an overflowing inbox, you might not think that email is so great.
I’m quite lucky in that I “only” get around 50-100 emails a day at work.
However, I know some people who receive hundreds of messages every day. They then miss important communications and never clear down their inboxes so reading their email feels like a never-ending slog.
People are the problem
So, should we be cursing rather than thanking Ray Tomlinson for his invention?
No. It’s not the concept of email that’s the problem – it’s how people use it.
For instance, how many times have you been cc’d into an email that you didn’t even need to know about?
Or, do people regularly send you multiple emails to ask questions that you could quickly answer in one quick phone conversation?
These are just two of many examples of bad email practice that lead to many of us loathing – rather than loving – email.
22 ways you can make email less annoying
Unfortunately, the people who misuse email are stuck in a rut. They’re not going to change any time soon.
This doesn’t mean we can’t lead the way in improving the way we use email. By following a few simple rules, we can help make sure that Ray Tomlinson is remembered fondly for his invention.
Here are some strategies that you can use to make sure you’re an email role model in your organisation.
1. Use “cc” sparingly
There are two major issues with the “cc” (carbon copy) function:
- The more emails people are cc’d into, the more likely they are to ignore important messages.
- When you send an email to a lot of people, you’re less likely to get the responses you need.
So, make sure that you understand the difference between to the “To” and “cc” fields:
- Use “To” for people who must read or respond to the email.
- Use “cc” for people who only need to have a copy of the message.
It’s best to use “bcc” (blind carbon copy) even more sparingly. I generally only use this to send a copy of the email to myself, or to send a group email where I don’t want to share people’s email addresses with the rest of the recipients.
2. Keep emails short and to the point
Long, unwieldy messages aren’t easy to read in most types of email software.
So, keep messages as short as possible, with lots of short paragraphs, subheadings, and bullet points so readers can scan through them easily.
Also, only talk about one subject or project per message – this helps recipients file or tag messages easily.
Email is such a speedy form of communication that I’m often guilty of writing a quick message, and then pressing send without checking it first. (I’m working on this habit!)
Don’t make this mistake as well – you’ll get a reputation as unprofessional if your emails are littered with typos and errors.
4. Avoid marking emails as urgent or high priority
Email probably isn’t the best form of communication if something needs dealing with right away – pick up the phone or get hold of people via chat or instant messaging instead.
5. Be careful with “reply to all”
A few years ago, everyone in my department received an email asking for their meal choice for our Christmas party.
Predictably, many people used “reply to all” to copy in the entire recipient list with their suggestions. Cue lots of pointless emails clogging up everyone’s already busy inboxes.
The lesson is clear – only use “reply to all” if you genuinely need everyone to see your reply.
6. Stay professional
It’s tempting to be less formal when you’re writing an email.
But it’s still important to be professional, and to consider who your audience is, before you start using abbreviations such as “LOL” and “BTW.” At best, people will be confused. At worse, you’ll look unprofessional.
Also, continue to use salutations such as “Mr” and “Mrs” as you would if you were writing a letter (where this is appropriate).
Sign your email off properly too – “cheers” won’t make a good impression with a potential client.
7. Don’t request read receipts
The problem with using read receipts is that you’re essentially telling the recipient that you don’t trust them to read the email.
What’s more, in most email software, recipients can choose not to send a read receipt anyway. And, it only means that the email was opened, not necessarily “read.” So, what’s the point?
If you want to make sure that someone has read an email, ask them to confirm that they’ve read it.
8. Treat subject lines as headlines
Like a good article headline, an email’s subject line must grab the reader’s attention, and tell them what the message is about. This is especially true when you’re communicating with people that get loads of emails a day.
And, if you send an email as part of a series (as you may do for project updates and the like), make sure that the subject line is distinguishable from the other emails you’ve sent. This makes it stand out, and helps the recipient find it later, once they’ve filed it.
9. Don’t forward sensitive information
The bottom line is that email isn’t completely secure. And, as soon as you send a message, what’s stopping the recipient forwarding it on?
Therefore, it’s best to avoid sending sensitive information via email – use a password-protected file sharing service, or hand deliver it, instead.
Also be wary of who might see your email – would you be happy for anyone to read what you’ve written? It’s all too easy for your message to spread if people forward it, or if they cc other people in their reply.
10. Use EOM subject lines
If your email consists of just one small piece of information, consider putting all of the content in the subject line with “EOM” (end of message) at the end. For instance:
I’m not going to be available between 2-3pm today EOM.
This saves you time, and means that the recipient doesn’t need to actually open the message.
Of course, it’s best that you explain to people what EOM means, beforehand! (No one told me – cue one confused emailer.)
11. Highlight the response you want
I’ve lost count of the amount of times that people have chased me several days after sending an email asking if I’ve read a particular email, despite not requesting anything in the original message.
Avoid this problem when you send emails by making it clear what response you need, and when you need it by. You can specify this in the body of the email, as well as in the subject line.
12. Don’t forward email that contains libellous or offensive information
In the eyes of the law in many regions, forwarding an email is the same as publishing or writing it.
Therefore, never be tempted to forward offensive or potentially libellous material, even if you have good intentions.
13. Email when you are in control of your emotions
Sending an email is instantaneous – one click and it’s gone. Therefore, it’s all too easy to write and then send an email when we’re angry or when our emotions are “running high.”
By all means, write or reply to emails when you’re feeling emotional (some of my best writing happens when I’m angry). But, give yourself time to calm down and review it before you hit the send button.
Otherwise, you might send something that you’ll regret later.
14. Be aware of your tone
Like any form of written communication, the recipient of an email can’t use visual and audible cues, like the tone of your voice or your body language, to understand the full meaning of your message.
Therefore, you need to make sure that you use an appropriate tone in your email so that people won’t misinterpret its meaning.
If you have any doubts that recipients might misunderstand your message, use a verbal form of communication instead. That way, you can make sure that your message comes across as intended.
15. Summarise attachments
Would you click on a link in Twitter or Facebook if there wasn’t any description of the page it linked to? Probably not.
The same rules apply with email attachments – make sure that you describe what your attachments are about, in your messages.
16. Reply in a timely manner
Email isn’t an instantaneous form of communication. But it’s important that you reply to emails in good time.
How long this is will depend on your role and the situation, but if you can’t provide a reply within an acceptable time frame, send a holding message to say instead.
17. Give people options
It’s so frustrating when emails bounce back and forward while people try to agree on a date or time for a meeting.
A good way to avoid this is to give people several options for the timing of a meeting. You’re then more likely to agree on a time without emails bouncing to and fro.
Also ask them to suggest several times if the ones you suggested are inconvenient. For instance:
Do any of these times work for you?
- Monday 9am.
- Tuesday 2pm.
- Tuesday 4pm.
- Wednesday 10am.
If not, can you provide several times that are convenient for you?
18. Put all contact information in your signature
When all of your contact information is in your email signature, people don’t need to email you to ask for it.
Likewise, if you need someone’s contact details, check their email signature before you ask.
19. Don’t tell people that you’re sending them an email
Do people ever call or message you to tell you that they’re just about to send you an email? Frustrating isn’t it?
If you do need to speak to someone to provide some further context to an email or attachment, just say so in the email. Then you can arrange a convenient time to chat, instead of interrupting them.
20. Ask people’s preferences
Everyone deals with emails differently.
If you’re going to be corresponding with someone a lot via email, ask them what their preferences are for reading and responding to it. Then try to tailor your approach for each person.
21. Avoid multiple “Thanks” emails
Most people don’t expect a “Thank you” for doing routine parts of their job. But many of us have a habit of sending a one-line “Thanks” email every time someone takes an action. This puts more strain on their inbox.
Instead of this, keep a note of the things that people do for you, then send a more general “Thank you” email every so often. This will come across as more heartfelt, and, importantly, it won’t clog people’s inboxes.
You can also stop people sending one-line “Thanks” emails to you by using the acronym “NTN” in the subject line. This means “No thanks needed.” (You may need to explain what this means the first few times you use it!)
22. Summarise “FYI” emails
If you forward a long “FYI” email, summarise what the person needs to know, or highlight the important information for them.
Over to you
What other email tips do you have?
Leave a comment below or tweet me to share your tips.