Re: 4 Tips to Manage Endless Email Threads

Last Updated May 12, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

Email is by far the most used business tool, both internally and with customers. So you'd think we'd know how to use it properly, wouldn't you? Instead it's also the most griped about topic. There's too much of it and yet so little of it adds any real value to our work.

One pet peeve of mine is the endless email thread. You know; the 37 emails marked "Re: Your Last Email" and you have to scroll down through a bunch of past email to find out what topic they're even talking about, let alone what you're supposed to do with it.

Here are some tips for getting a hold of the email monster and beating it into submission.

  • Change the subject line to reflect new content. How much time do you spend reading emails that just say say, "thanks". Then you send one back that says "no problem", then they... well you get the idea. How can you tell important new information from the usual back-and-forth? Try changing the subject line in your email to reflect the new information. Not only will I be more likely to read something that says "New data on ______ please read" but I will be able to find that email again in my folders, saving time and frustration down the road.
  • Cut and paste relevant information into one document. Many times the writer wants us to have background information in order to get our input, but we have to read through a string of past emails to find anything relevant. If you want me to respond to a customer question, just cut and paste that question into the newest email. It's not like you're doing this with a quill and ink... how long can it really take to craft a note that tells me what you want and what you'd like me to do?
  • Put the action item in the first sentence or paragraph. Like most people, I scan my email before reading it in any depth. If I can look in the preview pane and see what the email is about and what my action item is, I'm more likely to address it right away, or at least respond responsibly. The harder you make it for me to know how to respond, the less likely I am to do so.
  • Just write a new email, already. If the topic has changed, and the information has changed, just start a new email. It really galls me when people take an old email and hit "reply" rather than just start a new email. The time difference between starting a whole new note and replying to an old one is less than 1.5 seconds (I've timed it) and if you can't invest that much time in your communication how important can it be?
So many people think they're saving time by replying to existing emails. But when you consider the time your reader spends deciphering your information, then the time you invest correcting their assumptions and getting more details, shouldn't you just invest the time to make your communication clear the first time?

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