Nine Rules On Managing E-mail Etiquette

“E-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones give us fabulous communication ability, but because we live and work in our own little worlds, that communication is totally disorganized.”
Marilyn vos Savant

There are many days that I get a big kick out of the e-mails I receive. Some of them educate and motivate me … as indeed I hope the “Tuesday Tip” does for you. And some of the e-mail gives me a laugh, such as this one I received recently, entitled:


* I planted some bird seed. A bird came up. I don’t know what to feed it.
* I had amnesia once … or twice.
* All I ask is a chance to prove money can’t make me happy.
* If the world was logical, men would be the ones to ride side saddle.
* Someone told me I was gullible, and I believed them.
* Teach a child to be polite and courteous and, when he grows up, he’ll never be able to merge his car onto the Interstate.
* Experience is the thing you have left when everything else is gone.
* One nice thing about egotists: they don’t talk about other people.
* I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not sure.
* The high cost of living hasn’t affected its popularity.
* Show me a man that has both feet firmly planted on the ground, and I’ll show you a man who can’t get his pants off.

But there are other times when my e-mail is just plain frustrating. I’ll never forget, years ago, in the movie “Cool Hand Luke”, the prison guard who uttered the classic line, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Well in today’s electronic world, it might be more accurate to say, “What we have here is a failure to communicate correctly.” We often send and receive too much business e-mail, some of which is unnecessary, inappropriate, or too time consuming.

In fact, the Basex Corporation says more than $650 billion a year is lost in U.S. productivity because of unnecessary interruptions. And one of the most frequent interruptions is e-mail.

So, being in the communication and productivity business myself, I’ve devised nine rules on how to write (and manage) business e-mails … or nine rules for e-mail etiquette. You will benefit from applying one or more of these e-mail rules.

1. Do not check your e-mail the first hour of the day.

Don’t even turn it on. Audrey Thomas, an expert in time management, says, “Instead, work on another project that requires your energy, focus and attention. Let this be your Power Hour. By avoiding ‘e-mail engagement’ the first hour of your day, you’ll be able to focus on important tasks without your mind wandering towards the e-mail in box.”

It works! One sales person, for example, discovered he could reach more prospects via phone between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. than any other time … because his prospects had not left for other meetings.

2. Write specific, descriptive subject lines.

Subject lines matter. “Hi, how are you?” or “Check this out!” don’t cut it as subject lines when people are receiving hundreds of messages per day. Neither does something like “Message from Alan;” the receiver already knows that when he reads the “From” field.

Your subject line should address a specific topic. Use five to eight well chosen words so your reader knows immediately what you’re writing about … which allows her to respond more quickly. A subject line such as “Wednesday Meeting” is not nearly as helpful as “Agenda for Wednesday Customer Service Meeting.”

And please, don’t bury your lead. If your message is about something important, state it up front, in the subject line. Better yet, if you inject a bit of urgency or a deadline such as “Reply by midnight about Engineering Department downsizing,” your message stands a much better chance of being read sooner.

If you don’t write a descriptive subject line, you run the risk of not having your e-mail read. And if you leave the subject line blank, you don’t even deserve a reply.

3. Talk about one subject per e-mail.

With today’s heavy workloads, it seems like almost everyone is just a step or two away from organizational A.D.D. That makes it very difficult to track and respond to several different messages in one e-mail.

To make it easier for everyone to catch on and catch up, stick to one message in each e-mail you send. If you stick to a single subject in your e-mail, it makes it much easier for your reader to search and refer to past messages when necessary. And if you have another message for the same reader, start a new e-mail.

4. Keep your e-mails short and to the point.

People not only get intimidated when they see a long e-mail, they often do not read e-mails that are longer than three paragraphs. So do yourself and your reader a favor; keep your business e-mails brief.

Thomas says, “Get to the point. Within the first two lines, say what the purpose of the e-mail is. Use bullets or numbers to itemize points or requests. People skim a lot these days and using numbered or bulleted formats allows them to grasp right away what the e-mail requires of them.”

In other words, don’t get caught up in small talk and chit-chat unless it is a personal e-mail. And if you want a good rule of thumb, if it takes longer to write the e-mail than it would to call the other person, pick up the phone and CALL him/her instead. You can always summarize the important points from your conversation in a follow-up e-mail, if necessary.

There is one exception in e-mail etiquette: You can write longer e-mails if the purpose is to motivate, educate, or entertain someone. Just make sure your recipient knows that is your intention.

5. Do not e-mail sensitive information.

Nothing is private on the Internet. When you commit something to text … or worse, to pictures or videos …and send it out, you’ve created something that lasts forever and can easily be sent on again.

Years ago, humorous author Mark Twain wrote, “The principal difference between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.” In other words, the lie continues to live on. And so does your e-mail. It continues to live on in someone’s memory, someone’s computer, or a million other people’s computers.

So be very careful what you say to someone or about someone in your business e-mails. In fact, I would recommend a rule suggested by William ‘Biddy’ Allen, who was a bus driver and the loving father of seven children, until he passed away in 2001. He always taught them, “When you speak of someone or about someone, you should speak as though they were in the room with you. The ears that you speak to today are attached to the mouth that could relay the message tomorrow.”

Be especially careful about e-mailing anything when you’re angry. You see … there are lots and lots of things you shouldn’t do when you’re angry … such as drinking, driving, calling your significant other, or calling your significant other’s parents. The bottom line is DON’T send any form of text message when you are upset, especially if it’s a business e-mail you are writing.

There’s always a chance that an e-mail from your boss or coworkers can rub you the wrong way. Remember, not everyone is a skilled writer, and some people have nothing but a terse, in-your-face style of communication. When they wrote their e-mail, chances are they never even thought about your feelings, and it’s quite possible they weren’t trying to be malicious. So consider the source. Take a few hours or even a day to reply. If time is of the essence, call or visit them in person instead. Often times, a face-to-face meeting can quickly defuse what could have been an ugly confrontation.

In terms of e-mail etiquette, take a moment to re-read and think about your e-mail before you send it out. Don’t ever send out anything that you might later regret.

6. Avoid ALL CAPS and use proper punctuation when you write business e-mails.

This may be the oldest bit of e-mail etiquette around, but it’s still important to point out to those folks who shun the “Shift” key in favor of “Caps Lock.” TYPING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS IS THE INTERNET EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING. And no one wants to be shouted at. (Besides that, all caps are much more difficult to read.)

However, if you truly can’t handle a mixture of upper and lower case letters, then go all lowercase. That’s a “style choice.”

And for the sake of clear communication, remember punctuation matters. Commas, colons, hyphens, and semicolons make your sentences easier to understand. Use them. In this case, more is usually better than less.

On the other hand, use acronyms sparingly. Not everybody knows every acronym, and they don’t save that much time anyway.

7. Forward cleaned-up business e-mails to as few people as possible.

Too many people mistakenly think that if “Reply” is good, “Reply to All” is better. Wrong! That is the very opposite of helpful e-mail etiquette.

We’ve all seen those messages come in: someone who got the same company-wide e-mail you received hits “Reply All,” and now everyone in the organization has to spend a few more seconds reading through another e-mail that may be a total waste of time for just about everybody.

Choose your recipients wisely. Do not default to “Reply All.” Avoid copying lots of other people “just in case” they might be interested. We’re all too busy for that as we struggle to maintain some semblance of work-life balance.

And when you do forward a business e-mail, edit it first. Delete any unnecessary information. Your recipients will appreciate only receiving the pertinent information. It’s one of the “nicer” rules of e-mail etiquette.

8. Shut off ALL notification sounds and symbols for the arrival of new e-mails.

Audrey Thomas taught me that, and it’s made a huge difference in my life … even my sanity. You must resist the temptation to look at every e-mail as it comes in or your day will be filled with interruptions and your productivity will take a nose dive.

But you protest, “What if an e-mail is extremely urgent?” You think you can’t take the chance of missing it. Well let me tell you, if an extremely urgent e-mail is coming, you probably know it’s coming and you probably know about when it’s coming. In that case, it’s okay to glance at your e-mails at about that time. Otherwise, shut off all those notification sounds.

And if you do miss an urgent e-mail, 99 times out of a 100, the other person will call you. So the chances of missing anything important or urgent is very small.

9. Designate times to read and respond to your business e-mails.

Rule 1 told you to avoid the first hour of the day. That will be very tough for many of you.

But you must have FOCUS in your career or any career to be highly successful. If you allow every phone call, e-mail or knock on your door to set your priorities at work and in life, you relegate yourself to a life of frustration, a mediocre career, and a very low income.

As author Michael Podolinsky asks, “Do you want to lose your frustration with work, get promoted, and make more money? Simple: PRIORITIZE!” You have to realize that you can’t do it all, so you must do what is important. And you CANNOT do what is important if you are trying to do EVERYTHING … like taking a moment to glance at every e-mail as it comes in.

Designate two or three times per day… at most … to read and respond to your e-mails. You will feel less stressed, less distracted, more focused, and more productive.

In fact, one of my respected clients, Dennis Duffy, an attorney and financial advisor, recently sent this e-mail to all the people in his address book, taking it a step further. I think his strategy makes a great deal of sense and he worded it very well. Perhaps you need to do something similar.

Dennis wrote: “In an effort to increase my productivity and efficiency, I am beginning a new personal e-mail policy in 2012. I’ve recently realized I spend more time shuffling through my in box and less time focused on the task at hand. It has become an unnecessary distraction that ultimately creates longer lead times on my ever-growing ‘to do’ list.”

He continued, “Going forward, I will only be checking /responding to e-mail about once per day around 4-5 PM CST on Monday through Thursday. I will respond to e-mail in a timely manner without neglecting the needs of our clients. If you need an immediate time-sensitive response, please don’t hesitate to call me. Phones are more fun anyway. If for some reason I am not able to talk, be sure to ask one of my staff for help as they can often handle many items. Hopefully this new approach to e-mail management will result in shorter lead times for all the work I am doing for you, not to mention work that is more focused and creative. Thank you … and here’s to a balanced life outside of my in box!”

Business e-mail is here to stay. But take time to manage it … to do it right … to follow some e-mail etiquette … so it serves you … rather than you becoming a slave to it.

Action:  Pick out two of the nine rules of e-mail etiquette and start applying them to your e-mail today.