How to make email work better

Always think about “Future You”

At some point in the future, someone may search for this message. It might be you; it might be someone else; it might be people or persons yet imagined, but it will probably be you. Whoever it is, you can help them by being thoughtful today, and as a bonus your message will also be more quickly understood by its intended recipient, improving your chances of effective communication and a speedy reply.

Write effective subject lines

The subject line should be a simple but descriptive summary of the email message. Brevity and concision are super important here, but don’t be too brief. The phrase “Contact Info” is specific, maybe too specific. Whose contact info? Perhaps, “Contact Info - BSC Webmaster” is better. Consider that many email clients will only show the first portion of a long subject line, and put identifying words first: “BSC Webmaster’s Contact Info.”

Each message is its own challenge, but you are up to the task! If your subject line feels a little redundant to your message, you’re probably doing it right. Most people are trying to clean out their inboxes as quickly as possible, and if they can figure out what you want before they even open the message, there’s a good chance they may choose to respond right away.

One subject per email

If you have multiple things you want to discuss with someone, put each thing into its own message. Writing a concise and descriptive subject line for a multi-subject message is basically impossible. It’s also typical for someone to just read the first question, bang out a reply, and move on, completely missing the remaining question or questions. Do everyone a favor and break each question into its own message.

Always reply to messages

Rather than creating a new one, if there’s an existing message for the subject, reply to it, even to one's own message, particularly if it didn't get a reply. In this way the entire conversation will be contained in an email chain (or thread), and all involved parties will be able to find and review the information more easily in the future. Particularly if it’s an old message, you will spend less time looking for and replying to an existing thread than will Future You spend trying to figure out which of those old messages is the correct one.

The magic of brevity

No one cares how big your vocabulary is. Few will appreciate a conversational tone. Be nice, be social (if you must), but be brief. We’re all busy. Get to the point. If you want someone to do something for you, put your request as close to the beginning as possible and be clear. A good subject line for an email request might be, “Request: please do this thing for me”

The power of concision

Always stick to the subject of your message. Don’t bring up unrelated subjects. If the words are not necessary, don’t write them.

In conclusion

Email is among the oldest messaging protocols from the earliest days of the Internet. It was designed to mimic an actual letter written on paper (Ha! Remember those!), and it’s super clunky as a result. If we had any sense we would have stopped using it a long time ago, but it also was born from a sort of free-love mindset and as such can’t be patented and walled off like almost every other messaging protocol so far. So it ain’t going anywhere soon. Its strengths are ubiquity and ease of use, but those are kind of its drawbacks, too. If we focus, at least in a business setting, we can offset those drawbacks, and I’m genuinely hopeful we will.