When your e-mail sucks, it gets skimmed and deleted or ignored. Here’s how to do e-mail right. If this checklist is too long for you, hit the first three and you’ll already be way above average.
1. Use the subject line! Put 2 to 7 words in it that summarize your reason for writing. If I’m searching for your e-mail, the keywords you put in the subject line will help me find it and will set it apart from other e-mails from you if we e-mail each other frequently. Preface your subject with FYI if appropriate which tells the recipient no response is necessary.
2. Write three sentences only, most of the time. If one of those sentences is a question, make it the last sentence. Don’t ask more than one question. Three sentences is most important when you are starting a conversation. It shows you value your time and won’t squander it writing long passages about something I don’t care about, am not interested in or have not asked for. It shows you value my time also. It shows you understand that teamwork and communication is a conversation where the ball bounces back and forth between us with rhythm – like a game of ping-pong. Know that the longer your e-mail is — the more likely I am to postpone reading and replying. Your long e-mail is like a basketball pitched across the ping-pong table. It sucks.
3. Use a signature with your contact information! If you make me hunt for that information, I dislike you already. It takes 5 min. to set up and shows you have a little concern for me and the ability to have your computer do what you want it to.
4. Spellcheck! And, if you are writing a critical e-mail, print it before sending it and read it out loud. You will catch any and every mistake that way.
5. Reply to important e-mails quickly. If you can’t provide a substantive answer immediately, acknowledge you received the e-mail and say you will write again as soon as you can.
6. Give a heads up using IM or VM, when you send an important e-mail. If you send me an e-mail you consider urgent or unusually important, give me a heads up in some other medium to make sure I’m on the lookout for your e-mail. I prefer instant message, but you need to know your boss’s preference (cell phone, text message, etc).
7. Write again, if you don’t receive a reply. Checking to see if I’ve received your e-mail is not a nuisance – it shows you take responsibility for driving results and make no excuses. It shows you understand that I may receive a high volume of e-mail or have my attention splintered in many directions and need your assistance.
8. Use the phone if e-mail isn’t working. Please don’t tell me you haven’t received a reply to the e-mail you sent to so-and-so. Just pick up the phone. It shows you know that e-mail is just a tool and not everyone’s favorite, that you get the job done using whatever tool works best under the circumstances.
9. Take control of your e-mail client by learning keyboard shortcuts and filtering. This shows you understand efficiency with e-mail matters (it’s at the center of most jobs today).
10. Understand your boss’s preferences for what goes on e-mail versus IM and Intranet/wiki/project management system. Ask your boss about preferences for who should be cc’ed about what. You don’t want to be that guy that insists on wasting everyone’s time copying others unnecessarily.
Bonus points – never use an attachment when there is no compelling reason to do so. Attachments suck! Instead of copying and pasting information into an Excel spreadsheet or Word document, just paste right into an e-mail whenever possible.
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery
For comprehensive advice on the entire job search process, read our complete guide to landing a job at a great company or visit our career advice hub.
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Thanks to Beef Wellington for music clips (Fran C) and to Mark O’Sullivan for inspiration!