Email: Top 10 Tips

  1. Is your email necessary? What about phone, Skype, web page update or simply nothing?
  2. Target appropriately - single person, team, distribution list? Who is copied, blind copied?
  3. Make the subject relevant to the message. Avoid Re: Re: Re:
  4. One subject per email - use separate emails for different topics or actions.
  5. Make your intent clear - what action is needed or is it just for information.
  6. Have a clear structure, e.g. 1. What this email is about 2. The content 3. What next.
  7. Check clarity, tone, speeling and grammar!
  8. Avoid large attachments - use links.
  9. Use standard templates - and customize as needed.
  10. Above all keep it concise - less than a screen full.

Best Practices: Email

Email is one of the most used and most abused tools in professional life. Email is so pervasive that you would hardly think it warrants any guidance. However poor communications is often the root of many business problems, and poor use of email can compound these problems as well as being the cause of inefficient working. Organizations cite costs in millions as the result of poor email handling.

We issued our first effective email guide in 1999. Today the volume of email is much higher and the stresses and strains it puts on organizations (IT capacity and bandwidth) and individuals (overload and stress) more pronounced. We shall shortly be providing a more comprehensive guide and review the use of email alongside more recent communications tools such as text messaging and social media. In the meantime here is an update to the original guide based around six critical success factors:

  1. Stop! Think! Is email the best medium for your communication?
  2. Selecting your audience correctly - common pitfalls to avoid.
  3. Composing a good email - how to get your message and intent across.
  4. Managing your inbox efficiently - developing coping strategies.
  5. Organizing your information base - finding past messages easily.
  6. Fully exploit your email software - ways to maximize your email capabilities.

Is Email the best medium?

Too often we resort to email when other methods are more effective. One study found that ineffective media were used in one third of all business communications. Email is good for:

  • Communicating information person-to-person when otherwise you might play 'telephone tag' since you are both unavailable at different times - in meetings, different time zones etc.
  • Conveying a message to a large number of recipients
  • Information updating in an informal way, but offering more scope than tools like Twitter
  • Summarizing outcomes of telephone conversations and meetings.

However, there are generally better methods for:

  • Updating your colleagues on your movements - use your shared calendar or tweet short updates
  • Sharing views on a topic, such as a newprodcut launch - use discussion groups or wikis
  • Providing information that has some permanence - put it on your website / intranet, or add it to a formal document
  • Getting real understanding of an issue - have a meeting, telephone conversation or video-conference call

The ideal method in different situations depends on the type of information, its transience or permanence, the action you want recipient to take and the recipents - how many, their preferred methods of contact, their movements etc. Often the ideal is not achievable, so you may have to use second best or more than one method. But too often, email is third best or lower.

Selecting Your Audience Correctly

This may sound a trivial question but think how many unwanted messages you receive due to some oversight by the sender? It is so easy to Reply to messages, or send to a list, without realizing who your audience are. Before you send your email pause for a moment and think:

  • Who should be the main addressee (TO: ) and who should be copied?
  • Do I have a distribution list for my addressees to save typing their names individually? (If one is close, it is sometimes quicker to use this and then quickly delete or add people in the To: CC: fields)
  • If you are replying to a message check that the reply goes the to right address (mail headers have Reply To: which may be different to From: especially if the message came through a gateway or distribution list)?
  • Should my reply go just to the sender, or all or just some of the original recipients?
  • Who else would benefit from being copied on my reply? - use sparingly to avoid overloading other people's in boxes; it is not something to do to "cover your back".
  • Should I make use of the blind copy (BCC) facility?

Composing Your Messages

Again, it might seem trivial to provide "guidelines" for writing something as simple and straightforward as an email message, but look at the email you receive - are they always clear and concise? The average email is read by 7 people so a little effort on your part can multiply the overall saving of effort on their part.

  • Make the subject meaningful and relevant to what's in the body of text (avoid the Re: Re: Re: which may have drifted away from the original subject)
  • It is often useful to have short prefix codes or words such as U: (urgent) P: (priority) I: (information) etc. This makes it easier for the recipient to pick out emails according to the action required of them.
  • Keep each message short and clear. If it goes over a screen full, it is probably too long (attach a more formal document if necessary)
  • Stick to one subject per email rather than combine two or more subjects in one message - this makes it easier for the recipient to process each differently.
  • When you reply to a message, use the same heading if you are sticking to the same subject, but change the heading if you pick one item from the incoming message and start a new chain of thought.
  • Start each message by stating its purpose/context, unless this is entirely clear from the heading.
  • If you want the other person to do something, say so clearly. If you are simply passing information, say so, then the other person will know he need not reply. You can do this simply, by putting the letters "FYI" ("For Your Information") right at the start, i.e "you don't need to do anything about this email, just read it").
  • When you receive a message, think before you answer:
    • Is any answer really necessary?
    • If so, will a straight "OK, I agree" be enough? - If you just say "OK, I agree", the discussion is ended and everyone is happy!
    • If you need to comment, make it clear whether you expect a further response or you are happy to let matters stand.

Managing Your Inbox

With many people receiving 100 or more emails a day, it takes time to sort out the urgent, important, the trivia, and the junk. Fortunately there are some useful strategies to adopt:

  • Try to reduce the number of emails you receive:
    • Remove yourself from distribution lists or alerts that are not high priority - you can always access the content on web pages at your own convenience
    • Don't publicize your email on web pages, newsgroups, or register with web sites that do not have a policy of not selling on your email address. However, you have to strike a balance between being too visible or uncontactable!
    • If there are certain individuals who email you too much - have a word with them to work out a more effective way of communicating
    • Tag unwanted emails as 'spam' so that your spam filters stops them reaching your inbox (you can add white lists and black lists; many filters 'learn' from how you tagged earlier emails
  • Actively use filters on incoming email to divert email to relevant folders, based on sender's name, title and so on. Then only look at those folders when you are working on that specific topic. This can be very effective when you know your regular senders and topics.
  • Remove pop-up alerts "You have 10 new email messages". These can be distracting and stop the flow of your current work. You could go all the way and only update your email inbox when you want to (rather than regular updates on every incoming email or time basis).
  • Before processing your inbox folders, sort by something other than time as the primary sort, e.g. by sender, by priority, by subject (this will pick up the A:, FYI, U: etc.). There may be contiguous clusters of emails that you can process together, e.g. bulk filing elsewhere (such as the trash bin!).
  • Be ruthless in your processing. Within 2 seconds, hit Trash, Reply, File, Tag (e.g. for action later) or Forward (I don't think there are any other options, are there?).
  • Develop standard replies, so that you can still give a personalized reply, but minimize your typing.
  • If you are receiving replies from your Website or intranet pages, pre-set the Subject line (mailto:abc?Subject="xyz">. That way you (or your filter) will quickly recognize the nature of the request.

Perhaps the hardest psychological thing to overcome is that you do not have to reply or even read every email. If it is really important, the sender is likely to contact you again (such as telephoning "did you get my email..."!

Organizing Your Information Base

OK, we're not all natural organizers who can maintain a filing system such that you can instantly retrieve any message you have received in the last five years. However, there are some things you can do to help improve your hit rate:

  • Clarify your information priorities. What are the main categories of information that you will use again and again?
  • Try and be consistent between your PC folders, email folders and personal organizer.
  • Don't be afraid to file a single email in several folders. Many people like to retain one copy of the non-trash mail in the IN folder since they can often remember roughly when an email was received.
  • If your email is linked to a wider office system, perhaps you can add some relevant keyword before you file.
  • Set criteria for what you want to file and save. Why keep email when you can use your intranet or the internet to retrieve key information or documents.
  • Do some occasional cleansing. You may have a system that prompts you when messages are three months old, which ones you want to keep.

If all the above fails (and it often does!), why not invest in an appropriate document management system or personal search facility. Windows now comes with its built in search, but there are other more functional products such as COpernic, Googel Desktop Search, Locate 32 and X1 that index all your local files - documents, email, presentations, spreadsheets etc. on your PC and allow you to do a combined search.

Fully Exploit Your Email Software

Email software is now generally mature, but continues to improved incrementally. Like much software many people use only a fraction of the features available. Using the following features well can make you more productive and professional:

  • Address books - create address lists and also give short hand aliases or nicknames to people and groups with whom you communicate. You can also allow an address book to collect addresses of sent emails.
  • Use keyboard short cuts instead of moving your mouse around - e.g. Ctrl R to reply, Ctrl F to forward etc.
  • Link to existing content - don't retype or cut and paste, either use attachments or insert hyperlinks
  • Use rules-based filters - these can be applied to any field (e.g. "if subject contains meeting" or sender contains and you can process accordingly (e.g. file, tag, delete, copy etc.).
  • Alter the preiview window - as well as changing the balance of your desktop realestate between headers and preview, AutoPreview in Outlook will show the first three lines of each message.
  • Standard messages or stationery - these are real timesavers if you are dealing with similar requests on a regular basis. You can always tweak each one for a specific email.
  • Make full use of all search options e.g. search only the title or search, or use Boolean search (you may need a plug-in or a compreheneive desktop search engine).
  • Multiple signatures, so you can customize the information that goes at the end of each message according to its purpose or addressee (easier to do on Thunderbird than Outlook - you simply click on a drop down menu rather than log into your other account. A related feature is smart folder where you can combine inboxes from several accounts.
  • Use aliases based on roles - for example Thus, when you are away you can redirect incoming mail to appropriate people rather than building up a huge backlog awaiting your return.
  • Set preferences to create a distinctive style e.g. default fonts, send and receive options, forwarding inline or as attachments.
  • Get some plug-ins - there is a huge variety of email plug-ins: popular one include LinkedIn for Outlook, Change Header, Duplicate Detector, Attachment Extractor, Google Desktop Search, Follow Up Reminder etc. Take time to analyze where you are spending your time, then search for a plug-in that would make your life easier.

Further Reading

On this website and our archive

Other general sources of email best practice (links open in new tab/window):

  • Monica Seeley, Mesmo - Monica has been publishing best practice tips since 2003. Her KnowledgeExchange and Blog are some of the most useful sources on the web (Monica helped one of my clients through her email training workshops).
  • Tips for mastering email overload - Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge for Business Leaders (2004 Archive).
  • 15 Tips for Writing Effective Email - before the tips this article introdcues you to email psychology and the four reasons to write an email.
  • Email Etiquette - altogether 32 tips starting with "Be precise and to the point".

Last updated: 30th April 2012


Should you use STORIES?

This presentation Communicating Knowledge (PDF) describes the role of communications professionals in a KM programme, expressed in the acronym STORIES.


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