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Email-inbox-menu"How do you handle email?"

My student's question was sincere enough, if not overly broad. We were in a class on office politics and the student had taken me aside to ask how I manage email. They confessed they had been burned more than once due to this medium, and they asked how they might be more successful.

My first response was to quit trying to make themselves more successful and start trying to make the recipients of their email more successful.

Again came the question: "HOW?!?!?"

So I gave them my top 10 rules of emailing:

  1. START with WHY: I rarely send an email unless I can answer why an email is warranted. Will it result in a recipient's being informed, in their ability to make a decision, or prompt them to take action. In other words, if my sending an email interrupts them and results in their reading it, I want them to get value out of the experience.
  2. SUBJECT LINE: I start EVERY project-related email subject line with the project number and the project name, followed by a brief description of what the email is about. Example: "1234 Claims Renewal: Due data approaching for requirements." This allows my email recipients to sort by subject line and find the emails they need faster.
  3. TO vs CC: I train my teams early on that I will read emails differently depending on whether I am on the TO line or the CC line, and I train my recipients to expect the same from me. If a recipient is on the TO line, there is generally more at stake, whereas CC recipients are generally there for FYI purposes.
  4. Avoid BCC: Yes, I know it exists and people use it; however, I find it just as effective to forward the same message from my Sent box. The last thing you need is your BCC recipient hitting "reply all" and having the identifiable recipients know that you BCC-ed somebody... which leads us to...
  5. Reply All: Use sparingly, especially if the conversation is going on for a long time, adding bits of information with each new email. If a meeting is necessary, schedule one.
  6. Cast member changes: If using "reply all" frequently, I will tell people if I have added or subtracted anybody from the list and why I chose to do so.
  7. High Priority: Same "use sparingly" admonition here. If people think everything is high priority, then soon nothing is high priority (borrowing a line from The Incredibles). I only use this function when there is a dire consequence if not read and acted upon.
  8. Action Items: If an email has an action item, I will highlight it on a separate line and use bold and italics (Example: Action Item: Fred Flintstone to contact vendor with issues by 5 PM CDT on Friday, 16-June-17). This leads to an important point...
  9. Ambiguity vs Clarity: avoid terms like "as soon as possible" or "by end of day" and be as specific as possible about the who, the what, and the when. This also includes who is ultimately accountable for something to happen. (Example: The IT Team will provide ideas for system features. Barney Rubble will consolidate the list.
  10. Forward: Always assume your email will be forwarded to the person who hates you the most, because sometimes they are.

My student looked grateful for the words of advice, and they admitted that more than one of these was the cause of their angst. Rather than keep the conversation between the two of us, I hope these help you out as well.

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