How to Communicate More Effectively in E-mail

Last Updated Feb 3, 2011 8:55 AM EST

To paraphrase Homer Simpson, e-mail is the cause of -- and solution to -- all of life's problems. That's why we spend so much time talking about e-mail efficiency, inbox management, and better messaging strategies.

Indeed, just the other day Rick recapped The 99 Percent blog's recommendations for e-mail etiquette for the super-busy.

Having reviewed the blog's advice, though, it seems to me that it's not really about etiquette so much as just advice for communicating more effectively and efficiently. If you apply these tips, your e-mail will be more lucid, which will result in fewer traded messages, faster responses, and less time in your inbox. It might look like etiquette, but it's really quite self-serving.

1. Get to the verb. I have previously described this as Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). List the action items or requests first, and follow it with context. Don't make people dig through a long message to reach the action items.

2. Number your issues or questions. This makes it easier for recipients to visually chunk your message, and it makes it more likely people will respond to everything, not just your first question. If you include several questions in the same paragraph, you run the risk that recipients will ignore everything after the first issue or -- more nefariously -- skip over all the hard stuff or questions they don't want to answer. By giving each question its own line and number, you make it virtually impossible for people to ignore your multiple requests.

3. Include deadlines. This isn't rude; in fact, it's quite the opposite. It tells recipients how soon you need a response and in what order to deal with their tasks. You can even set Outlook to remind your recipients on the day of the deadline. To do that, before you send the message, click Follow Up, Add Reminder, and then set the reminder in the Flag for Recipients section of the dialog.

4. Label informational e-mails accordingly. If you are sending an e-mail that has no action required, put FYI in the subject line. Likewise, if there is an action item, preface your subjects with ACTION:. Your recipients will see the intent of each of your messages at a glance. Likewise, as e-mail threads continue, don't be afraid to re-title them so it's clear what's going on.

5. Be as concise as possible. You can't make every e-mail a haiku, but long e-mails are inconsiderate of your recipient's time and more likely to result in you not getting the prompt attention you want. If you really want to take this suggestion to heart, check out strategies like two.sentences.

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