Sending good emails

Sending good emails can be the most effective way to communicate across an organization. But it can also be one of the most value-destructive & efficiency-killing activities when wrong. Modern methods of communicating - e.g. quick one-liner iPhone responses with autocorrecting - only make organizations more susceptible to bad emails. 

Sending good emails at its core is all about empathy, and will make your organization run more smoothly by not wasting time trying to interpret email meanings, not being unnecessarily overly looped in, and not spending time actioning the wrong thing due to poor word choice. 

Here are some email best practices to ensure we’re sending good rather than bad emails.

Email basics: use of to, cc, bcc, subject fields

  • to: who the email is being specifically sent to and you are expecting a reply from. This should then be reenforced in the body of the email - e.g. ‘Hi John, (Jane, Jim on cc)’
  • cc: people who need to be aware of the content of the email, but do not need to respond
  • bcc: people who need to be aware of the email, but for various reasons the sender doesn’t want to expose this to the group
  • subject: keep the subject a concise description of the topic at hand. If the topic morphs or changes over time, take the lead in changing the subject, too
  • Both the to and cc fields should be kept as short as possible. If you aren’t sure who to include, do some research beforehand to see who should be accountable
  • When adding people to an email string, include a (+ John); when subtracting, a (- John)

Body format and reply convention

Internal email communication is not prose - its technical communication designed to resolve an issue, inform others more efficiently than an in-person discussion, or recap what’s been agreed following a discussion or meeting. Spend as little time as possible trying to make your email ’sound good’, and reinvest that time in careful word choices to remove an ambiguity from the message. Organizations should set the expectation that terse or direct internal communication is acceptable, encouraged and free of judgment, as the goal for internal email is extreme clarity and intent. And less time composing internal emails frees up time for higher value activities.

The recipient of the email (e.g. who was in the ‘to’ field of the email) should formally acknowledge receipt and confirm actions - e.g.

‘Got it - I will call Joe’

And once the task is completed, a further email should be sent to recap, and put the issue to bed - e.g. 

‘Spoke to Joe. This issue is now resolved - thank you.’

If you as the sender haven’t received this confirmation, its still your problem - stay on top of it until its confirmed that this has been firmly picked up by someone else.

If in doubt on whether or not you should reply (if you are cc’ed / not directly referred to), ask yourself:

‘Do I have something to say that is going to add value to this discussion?’

If not, best to sit on the sidelines.

After a decision on a specific issue has been made, have the self-discipline send around a recap email with what’s been decided. It always surprises me how much time is spent going back and forth over email or in-person about an issue, but the final step of solidifying a decision with a recap isn’t taken. Establishing a clear, final paper trail is important.

Some other tips that I use for effective emailing & communication

  • Try and keep one email per topic, with a clearly corresponding subject. Multiple topics embedded in the same email often leads to too many recipients on the email and unclear actions. I will often send successive emails to the same recipients with different topics and subjects to keep issues separate.  
  • Reread your email before hitting send and ask yourself: am I being as clear as I can be? If sending an email on the go, make sure your phone hasn’t autocorrected any words that the recipient is going to be confused by.
  • Email is an effective way of communicating - until it isn’t. If the email is escalating to an emotionally-charged place, or the issue at hand is becoming too intricate, take the communication offline (person or phone). And then send a email recap.