Email at Work

by Barbara Buffton

Before you hit ‘send’

The consequences of ill-considered emails can be confusion, or worse, so it pays to take the following points on board and make them an automatic part of your email technique.

Is it necessary?


80 per cent of emails go no further than 50m!

Sometimes we send emails when in fact a phone call or face-to-face communication might be better. Are you being lazy or simply taking the easy option?

What’s it about?

The subject line is the most important line of an email and often the most overlooked. It helps the recipient decide whether to open it at all and, if so, whether to open it now or leave till later (or never).

Use it wisely to alert your reader as to the content of the email. It can be a good idea to leave the subject line until after you have written the body of the email. Then ask yourself: what is my email about? Can you summarise it in one line? Make the subject descriptive: just stating ‘Credit report’ does not give the reader many clues, whereas ‘Company X – good credit risk’ does.

If relevant, put critical dates in the subject line, such as deadlines or the day/time for a meeting, for example:

  • Meeting Friday 10th August
  • Health & Safety Course: sign up by 3 Dec
  • Upcoming Webinar June

This means that you should never reply to an email and start a new conversation with an old subject line. If it is a new subject, create a new email with a relevant subject line.

Keep it short or break it up

Email was designed for short messages. However, because emails are so accessible, many companies now send lengthy communications via email. Most people think emails are too long. This is because there is a tendency to scan emails without taking the time to read them properly.

Therefore, if your email is long, make it easier for your recipient and number the paragraphs, use bullet points or subheadings to help, or send more than one email (one topic per email). Add attachments, if necessary, with extra information.

The best practice is to keep emails as short as possible. If you do this, there’s more chance that someone can read it on their mobile email and smartphone devices. There’s even more chance they may read your email if it fits in the AutoPreview of their email client (such as Outlook) which shows the first couple of lines and means they could read it without actually opening the email.

No response? Change tactics! 

It took Sara a long time to realise that Ken only ever responded to the first question in an email and ignored the rest. She would get cross that he hadn’t responded to all her questions and would re-send the email. Eventually she tried a different tack and sent him three emails with one question in each. He replied to each one, no problem.

Say what you want soon!

Ensure that you’ve made your main point in the first sentence or two. If you want your reader to respond, you must tell them very early on, or you risk them not reading on and therefore not finding out that a response is expected or required.

In order to do this, you need to decide what you want your recipient to do as a result of reading your email, for example:

  • Take action
  • Understand something
  • Assess what you’ve written (such as a report they requested)
  • Agree with you
  • Take note of your response (such as, are you ‘covering your back’?).

This will help you refine your subject line with some functional prefixes, such as

  • For Your Information (FYI)

A useful subject line suffix is ‘End of Message’, which can be abbreviated to ‘EOM’ once people are used to it. This is used when one line is all that is required, such as ‘Meeting room 2 booked for 10am this morning (EOM)’.

NEVER hit ‘send’ when you’re angry

Writing an email when angry is never a smart move, because emotion is more powerful than reason and gets in reason’s way. If you are so angry that you feel you need to write something, here are some options other than sending that email which could lead to regrets:

  • Write it first in a word processing program that doesn’t have a ‘send’ button
  • Write it in longhand, then put the page through the shredder
  • Wait ten minutes or so, cool off, then call the person and have a conversation
  • Write the email, put it into draft and then read it again later – do you still want to send it? What might be the effect? Who will gain from this?
  • Ask someone else to read it and get their take on it.

In order to ensure you don’t hit that ‘send’ button prematurely, fill in the addressee’s name last. This gives you a little more time to consider whether you really want or need to send it. Once more, ‘second position’ the recipient – put yourself in their shoes. Is this an email you’d like to receive? Do you still want to send the email?

Don’t respond too quickly

Even though you’ve written an email, leaving it a while before you send it might be a good idea. Nothing is so urgent that it can’t wait 15 minutes or so. Give yourself time to double-check the basics, such as the recipient’s name, any figures you’ve quoted, the tone of the email and so on. Is this email likely to get you the result you want? Or do you need to change the tone and words?