As a project manager for large websites and software development, I’ve sent a lot of emails over the course of my career. Like, A LOT. I estimate that in the last fifteen years of doing project management, I may have sent over 200,000 emails, and received just as many. And not all emails are created equal – from vague emails to the odd accidental CC (as opposed to BCC), I’ve learned that an email can either serve as an excellent communication tool or resource, or it can cause profound confusion for a project team.
Here are some tips to help your emails land on the “excellent” end of the email continuum:
1. DO: Realize the subject line is a communication tool in its own right.
Whether you’re checking your email on the go, or searching your inbox for a message as a reference, the subject line can light the way. It seems like a given that a subject line should be specific to the topic of discussion, but sometimes in the heat of the moment, vague, short, or nonexistent subject lines get thrown into the mix.
How many times have you received an email with just the subject line of “Hi”? Or “Following up”? Or, even worse, the topic of discussion has changed and the once relevant “Test Plan” email is now talking about design reviews or some other unrelated topic.
Don’t be afraid to change a subject line if the topic of discussion has changed. And while you don’t want to mark all emails as “URGENT”, judiciously labeling subject lines to bring attention to important emails can go a long way to getting the responses you need in a timely fashion.
2. Which brings me to my next “do”…DO: Respect the authority of priority.
With great power comes great responsibility… (I think some superhero said that!)
That little red exclamation point that marks emails as “high priority” can be a double edged sword. Use it too often, and you’re essentially “crying wolf” – not every email can be urgent, and you run the risk of having team members become desensitized to that type of escalation in the future.
When you need it, hit that priority button and let that email fly. But always consider… is my email really that urgent?
3. DO: Keep an eye on your autocorrect!
You’re traveling for work. Emailing on the go. Maybe you’re typing too fast on your tiny mobile device and your giant fingertips have slipped a bit.
Your phone decides to “help” you…
AUTOCORRECT TO THE RESCUE!
Nothing can turn a well-crafted email into garbled nonsense quicker than an un-checked autocorrect feature. Maybe you wanted a developer to check out a bug report, but now you’re emailing about a HUG report instead. Your phone has now made you look ridiculous. BAD PHONE!
Customize your dictionary on your mobile device to remember words specific to your line of business, names, etc. and always proof your emails. You never know when Siri (or your Droid) will go rogue and convert your logical thoughts into the ravings of a mad (wo)man!
4. DO: Summarize long emails before going into detail.
We often have to send long emails, outlining different areas of a project status, reviewing feedback to deliverables, or other topics that require quite a bit of detail. In these cases, a very effective approach is to create a bulleted summary at the top of your email. This allows your recipient to get a sense of what’s included in the email (especially helpful when previewing emails on your phone or other mobile device!) without having to sift through all of the details.
In these cases it’s also a good idea to pinpoint calls to action for specific recipients. If I’m sending an email to a group of 10 people, and I have urgent tasks or questions for just a few of them, I make sure to use that introductory portion to call those out. This way I ensure that the critical recipients read through the email quickly, without confusing the other members of the team who may have just been copied to be kept in the loop.
5. DON’T: Neglect to harness the true power of the internetz in your emails.
Cat memes, cat memes, cat memes. That’s all I’m saying.